India agriculture minister, close Modi aide, speaks on agrarian situation
A Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS, India’s “National Volunteer Organization”) worker from his youth, Indian Agriculture Minister Radha Mohan Singh proclaims himself to be an “English media-shy” person. Reported to be one of the few in the Indian Cabinet close to Prime Minister Narendra Modi, Singh is a workaholic. “Main zamin se juda hoon (I am always rooted to the ground),” is his favorite one-liner.
Question: It has been a tough year for both the Modi government and you as the agriculture minister. What is the Indian agrarian crisis all about? What is the agriculture scene in the country today?
Answer: The last two years, 2014 and 2015, have been challenging years for Indian agriculture. In 2014, there was shortfall of rain by about 12 percent. This year, too, we had untimely hailstorms and unseasonal rains. But ever since we came to power, we made it clear that the Modi government wants results. The bureaucracy has shown enough sincerity. The states also cooperated with us and as everyone acted in unison, the result is not as bad as apprehended. Contrary to the fear of akaal (famine) as hundreds of districts were affected, we had a scene where there is reduction in production by only 3 percent. We also avoided any politics with agriculture.
Q: So politics over agriculture is an issue. In the Lok Sabha, you criticized the UPA’s agricultural policy. What is this past burden, more so, because your predecessor for 10 years, Sharad Pawar, is known to be a pro-farmer leader?
A: (Smiles) I will answer your question a little differently. The importance of Soil Health Card was first realized both in India and at the U.N. level in 2007. But till 2014 hardly anything moved under a supposed-to-be farmers’ leader. I am not getting personal. This is what you asked. Until 2014, they ( UPA government) spent hardly 72 crore (720 million) rupees for Soil Health cards. It was only cosmetic. We took it up on a war footing. In 2014-15, we sanctioned 88 crore rupees and passed it on to states. We also sanctioned 69 mobile labs for soil health studies. This was an example.
Q: But what about a concrete cultivation program?
A: Yes, I am coming to that. We decided that tradition-based cultivation should be encouraged in a big way. Therefore, in 2015-16, we have earmarked 300 crore rupees for it and in addition 125 crore rupees for the northeastern states. The irrigation program remains another priority and we are working on the Pradhan Mantri Gram Sichai Yojana (national project to supply water irrigation to every field). In the last 10 years, there was no shortage of funds for states like Maharashtra, but look at the agriculture scene in that state.
Q: In your tenure, too, there are problems. In your first press conference as agriculture minister you announced launching of a nationwide Pradhan Mantri Gramin Sichai Yojana. The project went to Water Resources Ministry and now it’s back with you. In the process in one year not even paperwork has been done. How do you justify this episode of red tapism?
A: The project has not suffered at the implementation stage. Now the project is back with the Agriculture Ministry and we will soon issue guidelines. Actually four ministries — Agriculture, Rural Development, Drinking Water and Water Resources — have already disbursed 5,300 crore rupees. My ministry has distributed 1,800 crore rupees. So the project is on.
Q: The latest monsoon forecast says rainfall will be deficient this year too. The growth of agri and allied sectors also dropped from 3.7 percent in 2013-14 to 0.2 percent in 2014-15. Are all these not worrying you?
A: We will face the challenge as it comes. I will hold talks with India Meteorological Department (IMD) and other agencies. We have tackled a big challenge in 2014. I have directed my officers to give updated reports on the contingency plans. In fact, immediately after the April forecast, we held discussions with state officials and tried to understand the situation. We had already prepared a contingency plan for 580 districts. By June-end we will prepare plans for 25-30 more districts in the north-east. My ministry will also coordinate with officials from other ministries like Power, Food and Rural Development.
Q: What about other priorities for the Agriculture Ministry in your second year in office?
A: We will take up the Soil Health Card issue with all sincerity. But here again, along with other agricultural schemes, a lot depends on the states’ cooperation and performance. I have been getting states’ support and as I mentioned without states’ help our contingency plans, both in 2014 and 2015, would not have been successful.
Q: You mentioned politics being a problem in agriculture. But the country has had several stalwarts as agriculture minister from S.K. Patil to Jagjivan Ram and Devi Lal and Sharad Pawar.
A: All were great certainly. But I look at things differently. To start with, Dr. Rajendra Prasad from the beginning had kept the focus on farm growth, farmers’ welfare and villages. But after independence, once Jawaharlal Nehru gave emphasis on industrialization, the agri sector and villages were ignored. “Gaon peechey reh gaya.” In my understanding, after Rajendrababu, Lal Bahadur Shastri understood the importance of farmers and thus gave the slogan ‘Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan’; after him Atal Behari Vajpayee took it to new heights, adding Jai Vigyan to the slogan. Now it is up to the Narendra Modi government to change the scenario, and we will do it.
Q: What about the Land Bill? Why have you all made it a prestige issue?
A: We have not made it a prestige issue. But after the hyped campaign against the bill, the opposition is on the defensive. Even in Bihar, Congress leaders like Jairam Ramesh had to clarify that their party is not anti-development. The message slowly has gone down that the Land Bill will facilitate development. This bill is essentially being opposed by lobbyists for Gurgaon-Ghaziabad builders. See, nowhere, does the private sector figure. This bill is only to help acquire land to help farmers and for sustainable infrastructure projects like roads and defense-related works. Those who gave away farmers’ land at a throwaway price to private builders, ‘suit-boot’ wallahs and relatives are mostly against the Land Bill. Not an inch of land will be given to private players.
Q: What kind of steps has your ministry taken on a marketing policy for giving more powers to farmers?
This is an important area we have addressed. Through a notification we have allowed farmers to sell their farm produce directly in the open market. Some states have already acted on this.