Agriculture was at the centre-stage of priority sectors for the government in 2016, upstaged only at the fag-end of the year by the demonetisation drive of the government. Significantly two consecutive droughts did not dampen the indomitable spirit of Indian farmers who, as per the fourth advance estimates for 2015-16 crop year, produced 252.22 million tonnes of foodgrains as against the output of 252.02 million tonnes last year.
There was a marginal dip in the output of rice, coarse cereals, oilseeds, pulses and cotton due to monsoon deficiency that hit kharif crops in parts of the country this year. Although rabi wheat yield was projected to be higher at 93.5 million tonnes in 2015-16 as against 86.53 million tonnes the previous year, procurement this year was lower than the set target, Agriculture and Farmers Welfare Minister Radha Mohan Singh said at a press conference in New Delhi on 29th December. To augment supplies and keep prices under check, it was decided to allow wheat import at zero per cent duty on private account.
The government has assured farmers that it will procure more foodgrains for the Public Distribution System and swiftly intervene in the market to ensure that wheat growers get the minimum support price, which is set at Rs. 1625 per quintal for 2016-17 marketing season. Needless to say, the government is closely monitoring the situation.
In a way, the year 2016 saw digitisation of the agriculture sector in a big way with mobile apps being launched in quick succession. The Agriculture Ministry launched Kisan Suvidha for weather information, market prices and crop diseases; PUSA Agriculture that gave information about new variety of seeds and latest techniques; Agri Market that gives news about mandi prices in a radius of 50 kms from the location of a farmer; Crop Insurance relating to all information about fasal bima; Crop Cutting Experiments for asking for crop cutting experiments. Lakhs of farmers have benefitted from downloading these apps.
This year, not only was the limit for farm sector lending by formal banking system raised to an all-time high of Rs. 900,000 crore, initiatives were taken—post-demonetisation—to encourage farmers to move towards cashless transactions and Direct Benefit Transfer of payments. If this happens it will be a big step towards easing out of middle-men/commission agents from mandi operations and a tiny measure to ensure that farmers get at least the minimum support price for the produce they bring to the market place.
Be that as it may, the year 2016 saw the government give high priority to the agriculture sector in order to address the major fundamental concerns about imbalanced use of fertilizers affecting soil health (issuance of soil health cards, neem-coated urea and organic farming) ill-effects of climate change hitting farmers’ income (fasal bima yojna) creating an electronic-platform market for seamless trade (National Agriculture e-Market) and bringing more land under irrigated farming (PM’s Krishi Sinchai Yojna). Related sectors of pulses, oilseeds, horticulture, fishery, livestock, milk, agro-forestry, bee-keeping, agriculture education, research and extension were also given focussed attention.
Pledging the government’s commitment to doubling farmers income by 2021, Finance Minister Arun Jaitley announced long-term measures and raised the agriculture outlay to Rs. 39894 crore from Rs. 15809 crore in the 2015-16 budget. In the interim, the sector is set to receive additional Rs 5000 crore from the Krishi Kalyan cess in supplementary budgets.
Apart from this, a Rs. 20,000 crore corpus fund has been created in collaboration with NABARD for the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojna which is dedicated to bringing water to every field (Har Khet Ko Paani) through completion of last-mile projects and drip and micro-irrigation. An area of 76.03 lakh hectare is proposed to be brought under irrigation by 2019.
One of the ambitious programme launched during the year was the weather-based Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna (PM’s Crop Insurance Scheme) for which Rs. 5500 crore were set aside. Under the scheme there will be no cap on who can be covered and the states and central government pick up 90 per cent of the premium. In this year’s kharif, 366.64 lakh farmers were covered under the scheme in 21 states.
Marketing of their produce and to get remunerative prices is the biggest concern of farmers for which over 250 mandis in 10 states have been integrated under the e-NAM (National Agriculture Market) portal for better price recovery and wider access. Till last week farm produce worth Rs. 7131.21 crore were transacted on this electronic platform bringing a never-before transparency in marketing.
To keep prices of pulses under check, the government set up a 2-million tonne buffer stock of pulses and augmented availability through imports as well as domestic supplies. At the same time, under the National Food Security Mission, the highest allocation was made for pulses and steps were taken to enhance production which had a cooling effect on prices. The production target for pulses next year is 20.75 million tonnes as against output of 16.47 million tonnes last year. Likewise, efforts were made to clear the bulk of the pending arrears of sugarcane farmers.
With effects of climate change threatening to adversely affect the farm sector, the government took a major initiative to revise the norms for compensation for damaged crop as a result of drought, floods and hail etc. Instead of 33 per cent, farmers who suffer 50 per cent crop damage shall be eligible for compensation. The outgo of funds to states under the National Disaster Relief Fund in the last two years has been Rs. 24,556 crore. Using modern technology, smart phones can be used for uploading pictures of damaged crop and drones will be used to assess damage.
The year also saw focus with renewed vigour on the second green revolution in eastern and north eastern states for meeting food security needs of a growing population. The growth of this sector is crucial to the overall economy. Expectations are that the farm growth rate this year will be higher than 1.1 per cent last year.
Gargi Parsai—the author is an award-winning, senior journalist based in New Delhi.
The views expressed in the article are author’s own.