The Budget was a missed opportunity for agriculture. It did not recognise the challenges Indian agriculture is facing and was an accounting exercise, reports Vivian Fernandes.
The highlight of the Finance Minister’s budget on agriculture is a proposal to develop a five-km broad band along the Ganga for natural farming. She seems to be hung up on this. In her 2019 budget speech she said, “We will go back to basics on one count: Zero-budget farming.” After that statement, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) set up a committee to study the claims made for zero-budget farming. It did experiments and a review of the literature and has reportedly concluded that there is a yield reduction in this form of farming.
Observers of the agricultural scene say that ‘organic’ is at least a marketing niche. If food and natural fibres are certified as organic, they can fetch a premium price both domestically as well as internationally. But there is no marketing niche for ‘natural farming.’
Why would anyone want to do natural farming in tracts along the Ganga that have access to irrigation and where input-intensive high-yielding crop varieties can be grown?
In 2016, ICAR’s Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research (IIFSR) based in Modipuram near Delhi had recommended chemical -free agriculture for rain-fed dryland and hilly areas where chemical use for plant nutrition and crop protection is quite low. The transition to natural farming in these areas will not result in any yield loss, it said. For the food bowl areas, where intensive chemical-based agriculture is practised, it suggested a ‘towards organic’ strategy where farmyard manure and crop residues are blended with chemical fertilisers, and crop protection chemicals were used sparingly. This would improve soil texture and its water retention capacity as well as promote beneficial microbes in the soil.
One can’t see natural farming replacing chemical-based agriculture in a long time. According to the latest Economic Survey only 409,000 ha has been brought under natural farming through a central government scheme, which has a three-year subsidy component of Rs 12,200 per hectare. India’s total agricultural land is about 158 million hectares. Of course, we must use less of chemicals, and we must do ‘sustainable intensification.’ But that needs a different mindset and strategy.
The finance minister rightly emphasised the importance of millets for dryland farmers. They are nutri-cereals and are socially-useful crops as they need less water and are quite sturdy. The year 2023 is the International Year of Millets. But there is no separate marketing outlay in the budget for them. While they are suitable for drylands, millets cannot be alternatives to wheat and rice in irrigated areas, despite the water saving, because their yields are too low.
For oilseeds production the government has promised a ‘rationalised and comprehensive scheme.’ It has provided Rs 900 cr for the promotion of oil palm cultivation and Rs 600 cr for other oilseeds. Is Rs 900 cr allocation enough for the Rs 11,000 cr oil palm promotion mission that was announced last August? And how does the government propose to raise the productivity of oilseeds? India’s average mustard yield is about 1 tonne per hectare; Canada’s and China’s are around two tonnes because of the use of efficient genetically-modified hybrids. Our average soybean yield is also poor. The Economic Survey speaks approvingly of seed hubs that the government has set up at 36 locations to provide quality high-yielding oilseeds seed. But these seeds will not yield high output unless they are provided adequate nutrition which cannot come from farmyard manure alone.
To prevent paddy stubble burning, the government has proposed that thermal power plants use 5-7 percent of bio-mass pellets in their boilers. This it says can save about 38 million tonnes of Co2 (carbon dioxide) equivalent. A better option is to manage paddy stubble in the fields without burning it. But the allocation for machines to make this possible has been reduced to zero from Rs 700 cr this year.
Though the Economic Survey says there is a direct correlation between spending on agricultural research and agricultural growth, the outlay for the department of agricultural research and education is unchanged from this year. The total food and fertiliser subsidy bill at Rs 3 lakh cr is more than the agriculture ministry’s budget of Rs 1.24 lakh cr. This coming year’s fertiliser subsidy has been budgeted at Rs 1.05 lakh cr, which is Rs 35,000 cr less than the revised estimate for this year. When oil prices are high and rising, how does the government propose to reduce the fertiliser subsidy bill? About Rs 80,000 cr less has been provided for food subsidy at Rs 2 lakh cr. Perhaps the government expects less pandemic-induced distress this year.
(Photo of tribal maize farmer in Madhya Pradesh courtesy of Corteva Agriscience India)