May 03, 2008

Gujarat shows the way

By Balbir Punj
Daily Pioneer

During last winter's Assembly election in Gujarat, the 'secularists', while demonising Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi, sniggered at his claim that the State's development is the best in the country. Union Ministers like Mr Kapil Sibal were at pains to pick holes in his statistics. But the people stood like a rock behind Mr Modi and he was retuned to power with a solid majority.

Now, in these times of crushing inflation, skyrocketing food prices and global decline in agricultural production, comes the report that Gujarat has achieved 33 per cent increase in wheat production during the rabi season. The State's wheat acreage has gone up from 6.64 hectares in 2005 to 13.93 lakh hectares in December 2007. Production has gone up from 27 lakh tonnes to 37 lakh tones in just one year. This when the countrywide increase in wheat output is stated to be only marginally higher while global wheat production has declined substantially. At least Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram should congratulate Mr Modi for helping out at this critical juncture.

The report on Gujarat also adds that the higher output and acreage are due to "sustained campaign by the State Government to increase overall acreage under the crop over the past few years." The campaign included irrigation initiative like water harvesting and cleaning up of village ponds, making use of the Centrally funded national food security mission and ensuring the availability of proper seeds. Mr Modi has kept his word that every village would get specified hours of quality power. In water scarce Gujarat, has ensured micro-management of irrigation water, apart from extending the canal-based water supply from Narmada to the dry region of Saurashtra.

Gujarat's success story inevitably leads us to the larger question of farm crisis management and runaway inflation. On both issues the Congress-led UPA Government at the Centre seems to be clueless. There are clear signs of discord between the UPA and the Left, within the Left parties and among the UPA members. The Left is calling for stricter controls, ending futures trade, even banning private procurement and cracking down on trade. But how much of all this the Left Governments themselves practice is a matter of debate.

The irony of the Left posing as the champion of urban consumers who want food grains at low prices is clear from the fact that the only State where food riots have taken place is Left Front-ruled West Bengal. And the trigger for the riots was the skewed distribution of low-priced food grains through the public distribution system. The fair price shops are said to be controlled by Marxist cadre and when they claimed they had no stocks, enraged people ran riot, bringing a bad name to the Left Front Government.

The division within the CPI(M) on the question of corporate links to farming came to the fore during the last conference of the party in Coimbatore. The Kerala bosses of the party expressed their opposition to corporate houses procuring food grains and vegetables directly from farmers to feed their superstore chains. But their counterparts in West Bengal favoured such procurement. So guidelines were laid down at the Coimbatore congress.

But soon after the congress, the Kerala Chief Minister declared he would not let the superstore chains to buy directly from farmers. The Kerala Government runs stores that are supposed to supply vegetables and fruit at moderate prices. In effect, these stores have either gone dry or become a big drain on public resources. In any case, farmers in Kerala are organising themselves to demand their right to sell to the superstore chains.

What about the UPA itself? On the sugar price front -- a very sensitive issue as the politics of Maharashtra revolves around co-operative sugar factories -- the Congress is believed to favour de-controlling it so that the open market can depress prices while farmers will get a better price due to competition. There are excess sugar stocks with the factories but the co-operatives and the politicians who control them feel that total decontrol will depress prices at a time when the mills are unable to pay farmers for their sugarcane. The NCP is against immediate de-control while its ally, the Congress, wants full de-control. This has delayed action on the sugar front, a key component of rising prices.

The Prime Minister has chosen to ignore violations by his own party on the inflation front. The Congress, for instance, has promised rice at Rs 2 per kg to BPL families in its election manifesto for Karnataka. The Congress Government in Andhra Pradesh has implemented a similar measure. This is playing to the gallery -- the Prime Minister knows such steps are counter-productive but has done nothing to prevent it.

The short and long answer is the same -- increase food production and also productivity. As Prof Swaminathan, the country's most outstanding agricultural scientist, has said, the extension services have lost their verve. Farmers require timely and proper inputs and also a supply chain to consumer centres that will encourage the cultivation of vegetables, fruit and animal products to supplement income from cereal cultivation.

This would mean micro-management of both inputs and outputs. The micro-management of inputs is the Government responsibility. That this can be successfully done if the political leadership puts some passion into its efforts is what Mr Modi has demonstrated in Gujarat.

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