‘Everyone Wants Wheat And Rice’

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It is only 8 am, but India’s Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, 69, is already at work businesslike behind a desk in his home office, dressed in his trademark starched white shirt and trousers. Of course, his largely deserted house at New Delhi’s 6, Janpath, belies both his importance in Indian politics and his popularity with the people in Maharashtra, who flock in larger numbers when he is in Mumbai or in his hometown of Baramati. In the eye of a storm over rising food and vegetable prices, a defiant Pawar spoke at length to TEHELKA’s Ajit Sahi and Rana Ayyub to defend his agriculture policies during his six-year tenure. Excerpts from the interview:

Photo: Reuters

AGRICULTURAL PERFORMANCE UNDER UPA
Agricultural growth was practically facing stagnation when UPA came to power. A report from [Planning Commission Deputy Chairman] Montek Singh Ahluwalia says growth in the first two years of the 11th Five Year Plan (2007-12) was 3.2 percent, which is definitely better than the 10th Plan. Our target was 4 percent, and if we had achieved it, the country’s overall economic growth rate would have crossed 8 percent. But last year, there was no rain in many districts. Practically more than half of India faced a drought.

One of the important things we have done is that the investment in agriculture has substantially improved. The percentage of agriculture in GDP has improved from 14.1 percent in 2004-05 to 19.8 percent in 2008. For the farmer, the purchase of seed at the appropriate time is the main thing. They had been borrowing from private moneylenders at an abnormal rate of interest. When this government came to power, the total crop loan disbursement was Rs 86,000 crore. This year it was Rs 3.2 lakh crore.

Our flagship programmes of the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, the National Horticultural Mission and National Food Security Mission are doing very well. We have invested Rs 55,000 crore in the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and have authorised states to decide the area they want to concentrate on. Some want to concentrate on fishery, others on horticulture. The choice to formulate schemes is also given to them. The only condition we’ve put is state support. Normally, it is Rs 100 and if they are ready to pay Rs 150, we’ll give another Rs 50. For the National Food Security Mission we have concentrated in three areas — wheat, rice and pulses. Rs 5,000 crore have been earmarked, basically to provide excellent quality seeds.

Sugar Daddy Pawar defends high levels of sugarcane farming saying demand has gone up for cash crops such as sugar, wheat and rice, but not for cereals
Photo: Reuters

The new procurement [of foodgrain] will start in less than 15 days. Our expectation is we’ll cross last year’s figures. [We need to work out] where to keep the crop, and continuously, we are trying to offload it in the open market. We have started daily selling [on the Internet]. Substantial quantity has been given to the public through the Public Distribution System (PDS). There are three categories in PDS — AAY (for the poorest of poor), BPL (below poverty line) and APL (above poverty line). For AAY, we are charging Rs 2 per kg for wheat and Rs 3 per kg for rice. Even APL was only Rs 7. These were fixed in 2002. Our costs have gone up but the issue price has not changed.

If you recollect, when the last session of Parliament started in 2009, the first two days we could not function because the farmers came in from UP and tried to gherao Parliament. What was the demand? The entire Opposition in Parliament said you have to enhance price. Okay, we took the decision. Now when we enhance the sugarcane prices, it will automatically reflect on sugar. In those days, the farmer got near Rs 120. Today it is Rs 250. So, sugar prices have gone up. Farmers have started concentrating on sugarcane. The initial industry assessment was, we will produce 140 lakh tonnes of sugar this year. I’m sure we’ll reach 170 lakh tonnes.

ON COARSE CEREALS VERSUS CASH CROPS
The real problem here is that there is no demand. In my childhood, we used to eat bhakra (flatbread made of millet). Today we eat chapatis made of wheat at home. We have taken to produce bajra and ragi but not a single state is ready to accept these items. They say give us wheat and rice. Now we are changing our food habits. Those places which depended on jowar and bajra now want wheat. In southern India, nobody touched wheat. Now even Kerala asks for wheat. Change in food habits means that the focus is shifting from coarse grains and cereals to wheat and rice. There are many states like Punjab, Haryana, western UP, Chhattisgarh and Orissa which are investing in rice and doing extremely well. But in the long term, continuous cultivation of wheat and rice will spoil the texture of the soil. This is not good.

‘If we succeed in GM, our approach will not be like Monsanto.They want to earn money’

ON COTTON FARMERS’ SUICIDES
In fact, the cotton farmers got maximum subsidy in last two years. If you look at the reports or go to the villages in Vidarbha and see that construction is going on, the standard of living is changing.

ON SUPPORT TO MONSANTO
You see, Monsanto is a bad name. I am sorry to say that. This is one of the companies that are facing maximum number of cases even in America. In India, 40 institutions are working on GM technology and we are doing a lot of research in this area. But we are very cautious. If we succeed, our approach will not be like Monsanto, because they want to earn money. They are not here for charity. If they are investing in research, they will try to earn money. We cannot blame them. My complaint is that they should not exploit. Only thing we need to do is find solutions.

ON LOWERING OF IMPORT DUTIES
Three years back, there was a lot of sugar stock, and prices were practically collapsing. When we entered the international markets, the markets collapsed. Whenever we enter to purchase, the markets go up; we enter to sell, the markets go down. I am sure in another two years if things are good with sugar, wheat and rice, there will be too much production of these things and we will have to enter international markets to sell. If we take a restrictive approach, tomorrow other countries are going to create the same problems for me.

VISION FOR THE NEXT 20-30 YEARS
Sixty-two percent of the population depends on agriculture. You must see the reason and analyse why prices are going up. Unless and until I motivate the producer, why should he produce? Unless he gets a good price, given that the prices of all commodities are going up, why should he produce? If you have to improve the overall economy of the country, you cannot neglect your own population. That’s why we have to strengthen their purchasing power. We also have to change the overall face of this country, but we cannot neglect rural India. And of course, the major problem which India is facing today is too much concentration on agriculture.

‘Sugarcane farmers wanted higher prices for their crop… now cost of sugar has gone up’

When India got freedom, its population was 35 crore and 80 percent of it was dependent on agriculture. Today we are 106 crore and 62 percent is dependent on agriculture. That means growth in agriculture is 300 percent. But is there any growth in the land? In Delhi, most of the area around the airport was agricultural land. Look at what has happened today. Each and every city is expanding. We are constructing national highways and SEZS by acquiring [agricultural] land. We even construct village school buildings by acquiring fertile land. That is the reason 85 percent of the farming community works on less than five acres of land each. And out of them, 60 percent has no water. So having to look after one’s family is impossible. This explains the poverty. If we have to improve, we have to shift the pressure from agriculture to non-agriculture sectors. We also have to invest substantial money to create new irrigation. Sixty percent [land] is non-irrigated and if we improve that, production will improve. So all these are interlinked. Manmohan Singh is the first prime minister who started taking interest in this.

Linked to this is science and technology. Consider how the first Green Revolution succeeded. Most of us had been asking for traditional wheat. Many of us took a conscious decision to import the Mexican variety of wheat. Nobody was ready to touch it. Punjab did so, and suddenly there was a spurt in growth. Within one year, the whole country took to it. In the 1960s, the success of the Green Revolution was due to a hybrid variety. Today if we have to resolve the basic problem of food security, we have to develop varieties, whether it is hybrid, GM [Genetically Modified] or any other. [But] if you are going to develop any new variety, we have to be cautious if it will have an adverse impact on the health of people, birds and animals. If the scientific community concludes that this is fair from all angles, [only] then we should go ahead.

ajit@tehelka.com
rana@tehelka.com

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