Union Minister Narendra Singh Tomar. (PTI photo)
The appointment of Narendra Singh Tomar as Union Minister in charge of both agriculture and rural development marks the start of an effort to integrate two departments that have tended to work in isolation with markedly varying performance.
The Narendra Modi government’s track record on rural development has been considered generally good. During 2014-15 to 2018-19, about 1.55 crore houses and 2.18 lakh km of all-weather roads were built in rural India under the Pradhan Mantri Awaas Yojana-Gramin and Pradhan Mantri Gram Sadak Yojana, respectively.
Further, 9.58 crore toilets have been constructed under Swachh Bharat Mission-Gramin since October 2, 2014; 11.28 crore new active LPG connections given out since April 2015 (mainly courtesy the Ujjwala scheme); and the number of un-electrified rural households (out of a total 21.45 crore) brought down from 2.63 crore on October 11, 2017, to 18,734 under the Pradhan Mantri Saubhagya Yojana.
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The success in the rural sector has, however, not been seen vis-a-vis agriculture. Part of it has to do with the lack of imagination and focus: the flagship rural development schemes have been well-funded. Moreover, they have been target-oriented with clear deadlines and dashboards tracking implementation on a near real-time basis. The same sense of purpose and scale has been missing in agriculture-specific programmes.
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The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana, for example, is alleged to have benefited insurance companies more than farmers. Not only have the gross premiums collected by insurers far exceeded the claims paid out but even these have been made with considerable delays, due to the lack of mechanisms for timely and accurate crop loss assessments. Nor have claims been assessed using smartphones, GPS, drones or remote sensing technologies, as originally projected.
The inability to make any tangible impact on the ground has been common to other schemes too – whether e-Nam (a pan-India portal to connect all agricultural mandis), soil health cards, Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (for organic farming) or Rashtriya Gokul Mission (for conservation and development of indigenous cattle breeds).
Dithering over the introduction of new technologies (denial of permission for commercialisation of genetically modified mustard and herbicide-tolerant cotton) and not appointing full-time directors in most Indian Council for Agricultural Research institutions (including the Pusa Institute in New Delhi) has not helped either.
The Modi government’s first term has, on the whole, not been the best for farm incomes, despite the pledge to double these by 2022-23 (over the base year of 2015-16). The average annual growth in the agriculture sector’s gross value added from 2014-15 to 2018-19 was just 2.9 per cent in real (constant prices) terms and 7.6 per cent at current prices. This is as against the required 10.3 per cent growth required for doubling in seven years.
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“Agriculture and rural coming under a single minister is a good thing as it will help bring in synergies. For example, MGNREGA is viewed as a pure rural scheme when we should be looking at greater convergence with agriculture for achieving doubling of farm incomes. There should be increased focus at asset creation on individual farms, as opposed to community-based works,” says Siraj Hussain, former Union Agriculture Secretary.
In June 2018, a sub-group of Chief Ministers was constituted to align works under the MGNREGA “fully to the requirements of achieving the goal of higher farmers’ income”. The panel headed by former Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan was tasked with looking specifically at ‘pre-sowing and post-harvest intervention’.
The panel’s report has been submitted to the NITI Aayog and Tomar could well be the one to implement the recommendations which the government believes is a crucial step in Modi’s promise of doubling farm income by 2022.
But even as Agriculture and Rural Development has been brought under a single minister, the Centre has created a new Ministry of Animal Husbandry, Dairying & Fisheries under Giriraj Singh. He has been given full Union Cabinet rank. So has Harsimrat Kaur Badal, who is heading a separate Ministry of Food Processing Industries, in addition to the Food Ministry under Ram Vilas Paswan and the Department of Fertilizers under Mansukh L Mandavia (who has a Minister of State with Independent Charge rank).