Thursday, February 14, 2013

Governance in Agriculture


Prof M.S. Swaminathan recalling the combat with Bengal famine observes rightly: ‘If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right in this country”.[1] Excepting the unleashing of a National Policy for Farmers in 2007[2] that still is crying for implementation, nothing seems to have gone right in agriculture sector. Farmers’ suicides continue still in agriculture-intensive States like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Punjab etc. There are regions where the farmers declared a crop holiday to demonstrate their anger against poor governance. The purpose of this article is to address the issue of governance in this sector.
Ministries influencing the farm sector:
There is no other sector than agriculture in the country that is in the stranglehold of a number of inter-connected Ministries at the Centre: Union Ministries of Agriculture and Cooperation; Water resources; Food Processing Industries; Rural Development; Commerce (dealing with international trade) & Industry; Environment and Forests; Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises; Consumer affairs and Public Distribution; Science and Technology; Non-conventional Energy Sources; Finance and above all the Planning Commission. Agriculture being a concurrent subject in the Constitution of India, the States has as many corresponding Ministries that interact with the Central Government in governing this farm sector. I have not come across another country that governs the farm sector through such a web of governance. Each Ministry and each State Government has its own last word that rarely matches with the other. The farmer stood at a disadvantage finally.
It is politically infeasible to reduce the number of Ministries either at the State or Centre for the simple reason that each stratum of the fragmented democracy should get a berth in the seat of power. But after six and half decades of independence, having successfully combated the famine, having moved to impressive ranks in the world like milk, poultry, horticulture etc in production we are far away from providing food security. 40% of production is still wasted or rotting in the government warehouses that invited the wrath of the Supreme Court to correct the situation with expedition.
The Cabinet Sub-Committees at the Centre and States that constitute a coordinated mechanism for releasing the policies relating to agriculture or for that matter any other policy are the only coordination forums now functioning. The oversight mechanism for monitoring and concurrent evaluation of the functioning of regulatory institutions suffers from lack of such coordination. There is no regulatory impact assessment of any policy and regulation as an ongoing exercise like in the UK.
We are living in a fast changing and dynamic world requiring quick and correct responses. Land and water resources, the principal factors of production in the farm sector are scarce but the bourgeoning population adds pressure year after year on these scarce resources. Resources like water, soil, plants and animal life have the capacity to regenerate but the speed may not cope with the ever-increasing demand on them. Sub-division and fragmentation of holdings, riparian water resources and shrinking farm labour coupled with rising consumer expectations for quality food and water make the governance complex. If the farmer has one cow in his backyard, it will take care of his organic manure requirements of one acre of cultivable land. But the cow is with department of animal husbandry department; backyard is with panchayati raj department, manure is with department of agriculture and biodiversity; and land is with the revenue department. This is where governance matters as each department moves to regulate its own area according to what it thinks right and not what is right.
What do we mean by ‘governance’?
Wikipedia defines: “Governance is the act of governing. It relates to decisions that define expectations, grant power, or verify performance. It consists of either a separate process or part of decision-making or leadership processes.” Governance relates to consistent management, cohesive policies, guidance, processes and decision-rights for a given area of responsibility. This stands on the four pillars of decentralization, accountability, transparency, and coordination. It embraces action by executive bodies, legislatures and Parliament and judicial bodies (from the local levels to the Supreme Court, the highest judiciary).
In the post-liberalisation era, governance has been the most discussed subject but is like the four blind men trying to defining elephant. It has resulted in assertion and acceptance of certain rights for good: the right to work; the right to information; the right to safety and security for every citizen. Some have already taken the effect of legal sanctity and yet trying to find space for functional existence. Since my focus is on governance in the farm sector, I would try to look at areas that need reform viewing from the interest of the farmer, the centre of attention.
The reform in governance in so far as the farm sector is concerned should start from understanding the complexity of farming, farmer and his family and the society in which he lives and to which he contributes most. Philosophically speaking, if I receive something, I should be in a position to return something to the giver. The farmer gives me food and makes me live and therefore, the least I can give him is to provide conditions that continue to enable him to live happily and continue to giving me all that I want to feed myself, my family and my dependents.
How does this happen in the diverse and complex of governance that we have today?  Implementation of multiple schemes and programmes by different departments and Ministries for the farmer has led to centralization. Decentralisaton of administration, the first principle of governance in the absence of the focused attention on the target led to maldistribution of scarce resources and the equity has become a casualty in the name of equality. Conceptual correction is required at the point of decentralization. How is the decentralization process involving the farmer at the lowest level of administration – the panchayat?
Accountability is the next principle demanding performance not just from the point of view of financial goal but from the point of view how this target of governance has improved – the lot of the small farmer, the marginal farmer, the landless labour, and the tenant in the overall framework of farming.
Transparency is the third principle of governance: How is this achieved? Has information technology been effectively used in communicating to the farmer all that he needs to produce, store and market and earn a cost plus to continue in production with dignity and honour? Mobile technology has made rapid strides in passing on information from the learned to the learning and also for effecting payments and receipts. How much of investment is required to take this technology within the operating convenience of the illiterate and semi-literate soiled palm of the farmer?  Responses to these questions have the potential to resolve the information asymmetry of the farmer in remunerative technology adoption.
Coordination is the fourth principle of governance, the real villain of the piece. How can this be achieved?
In all the States – that is, nearly about twelve that have preponderance of agriculture as the driving force of their growth and are also carrying the burden of growth of the rest of the economy and at the Centre, agriculture vision document should be prepared after a thorough inquest by the Agriculture, Animal Husbandry and Horticulture Universities in the State as a first step. This vision document should be shared with all the stakeholders and the scientists within a set timeframe. This document shall lay down the objectives and goals of farm policy and coordination mechanism.
Second, each of those States shall prepare annual agriculture sector survey with the farming related universities in the lead and this annual survey should be presented before the Legislative Assembly, a day ahead of the presentation of the Agriculture Budget that should also be presented every year ahead of the General Budget session. This Budget shall be subsumed in the General Budget. This process would make sure that the finances of the state move in tandem with the requirements of the farmers.[3]
Third, once in two months the Coordinating Forum on Agriculture (COFA) with the Minister of Agriculture ( could be designated as Deputy Chief Minister in such States) presiding should review the budget releases and ensure that the lowest level of delivery gets the physical resources to be in the reach of the farmers. This COFA shall be vested with the authority of vetoing any proposals and censuring any actions of those that run counter the effective implementation of the policy goals in agriculture.
Networking is the name of good governance. Technology should help taking innovations and research on the field to the lab for commercial assessment and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and the farm extension wings in the States should spearhead this area and for backward integration.
Agriculture Marketing needs to move to farmers from the politicians. This would require change in the Agriculture Marketing Acts of the States and huge investments in technology at each market yard where the farmer finds comfort to unload his produce with the swiping of his SMART card and walk away with cash into his bank account. Improving governance in this area holds the key as, in all the other areas we have reached some milestones that can be moved forward more by miles than inches faster than a few decades ago. Let us resolve to make agriculture right to make sure that everything else in the country goes right. 

[1] M.S. Swaminathan: From Bengal Famine to Right to Food’, The Hindu 13th February , 2013
[2] M.S. Swaminathan: Agricultural Strategy, internal security & Sovereignty, The Hindu 1st January 2008
[3]B. Yerram Raju: Forthcoming publication: “ Getting the Perspective Right: Comprehensive History of Agriculture Banking”, Konark Publishers,p.27