By Bhogtoram Mawroh
The dates for the 2023 Meghalaya Assembly elections will be shortly announced. Concurrently, many parties have also announced their first list of candidates. Very soon the final list will be released as well. While there is greater clarity in the identity of the candidates contesting the upcoming elections, the manifestos of the different parties are yet to be released. This is very crucial because it will reveal the vision or lack of it among those aspiring to form the next government. Nevertheless, whenever these are released agriculture will have to be an important item and the manifestos must inform the public about the proposed roadmap for the future. This is important for many reasons.
The 2011 Census revealed that around 80% of the population in Meghalaya is rural. Updated figures are not available since the 2021 Census has not been conducted. But extrapolating from the past historical urbanization rates in India, it is fairly safe to assume that more than 70% of the population will continue to be rural. This population, whether directly or indirectly depends on agriculture. When it comes to contribution to GDP, though, agriculture and allied activities contribute only 19% albeit making up almost 90% of the total contribution from the Primary Sector. This, however, is an underestimation.
When the agrifood food value chain is considered, which includes not just the agricultural value (the wages, rent, and profit for producing an agricultural commodity) but aggregates it with the processing value, manufacturing value, wholesale value and retail value, i.e., all the stages from the farm to the consumer, the actual contribution of agriculture is much higher. This is known as the “tower of value added” approach and has been explained very succinctly in the 2022 FAO report ‘The Future of Food and Agriculture: Drivers and Triggers for Transformation’. Put simply, the “tower of value added” approach reveals that at “a fundamental level, agriculture and other raw materials sectors are the foundation of the whole economy.” Hence, considering the proportion of the rural population and the value it creates for the economy, agriculture should be an important issue in the upcoming assembly elections.
The ruling MDA (Meghalaya Democratic Alliance) has a head start compared to others when it comes to a roadmap for agriculture. Launched in September 2021 the FOCUS (Farmers Collectivization for Upscaling Production and Marketing System) Scheme require the farmers to make Producers Groups which is then given a financial assistance of Rs. 5,000 per member to be used as seed money to help scale up their business operations. In 2022, FOCUS+ was launched as an expansion of the previous program. Two types of criticisms have been leveled at the Scheme: first, it is being argued that it is just a version of freebie politics which will kill the entrepreneurial spirit of the farmers; second, there are complaints about the improper implementation of the Scheme and it being misused for political gains. Both arguments have their merit but are also mistaken on many counts.
I wish passion was the only thing that mattered for success in business but in practical terms it is adequate capital which is the most important thing for undertaking any entrepreneurial activity. Considering that the Per Capita Net State Domestic Product of the State is Rs. 82,182 or Rs. 6,848 per month (fourth from the bottom in national rankings) financial capital is in great paucity particularly among the rural population. A possible solution is to take loans, either from formal or informal sources. However, this carries the risk of indebtedness. In fact, farmers suicides in India to a great extent are driven by debt. The NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) revealed that in 2015 of the 3000 farmer suicides studied 2474 suicides were because of unpaid loans from local banks. With 76% of the rural households being landless the risk is even greater. Till date, according to the government website, 54,881 farmers have enrolled for the Scheme and 4,409 Producers’ Groups formed. This means the total amount transferred to the farmers is Rs. 27,44,05,000 with an average of Rs. 62,237 per group. Since the amount is in the form of grants the danger of debt is removed which is a big benefit for the farmers.
However, it cannot be denied that in some, maybe most cases, the amount might not be used for the intended purpose, i.e., for investment in the business. Some members might use the money for consumption purposes (buying items for household needs). But even then the money is going to help the local economy as these farmers are not going to use the money to buy Lamborgini from Delhi (?) but will spend it in the local markets. This increased consumption will increase local demand providing income to local businesses and with it tax revenues will also be augmented which in turn will increase the financial resources of the State. The freebie argument ignores all of this.
Coalition partners of MDA have complained that the Scheme is being given where farming is not possible (i.e., given to people who are not farmers) and the NPP (National People’s Party) is taking all the credit by ignoring its allies. Personally, if a resident of Meghalaya is getting the amount (because it will improve local demand) I am not bothered about who gets the benefit or who takes the credit. That is a matter of politics and an issue for the concerned parties who feel left out to sort out during the next term, if they get one. As long as no misappropriation is detected the Scheme should continue.
But the question is what lies beyond FOCUS and FOCUS+. Business can only expand (main aim of the Scheme) if the potential in the local economy has not been exploited or a larger market is being tapped. On both fronts there is ample scope. Meghalaya is still very much a food importing state which means that local production is insufficient to meet local demand. Upscaling of the business can look to fulfill this demand while at the same time shortening the food value chain which will also has positive environmental benefits. Catering to a bigger market, i.e., a pan-India market is also an option but will require additional steps to make that possible.
Notwithstanding the recent regressive move by the Government of Meghalaya to lift the ban on chemical fertilizers and give 50% subsidy on it, most of the farmers in the State are organic by default. This is particularly so for those in traditional farming systems like jhum or shifting cultivation. However because of lack of certification the produce from such systems do not get the premium price, an important loss for the farmers. Recently the ‘Guidelines of National Mission on Natural Farming’ was announced which has a special focus on North East for supporting natural farming which includes a certification system. However, the guidelines do not take into consideration local farming systems like jhum and bun which are rotational in nature. As such many of the local farmers will be excluded from the benefits of the Scheme. Demand for non-chemical food, especially among the affluent section of the Indian society, will grow and Meghalaya can be one of the sources for meeting that need. Therefore, whoever forms the next Government needs to make sure the Guidelines do not ignore the local farmers. As for those farmers that are using chemicals, the Government can use the PM-PRANAM (Pradhan Mantri – Promotion of Alternate Nutrients for Agriculture Management) Scheme to help them wean away from it. The scheme incentivizes states that use lesser amounts of chemical fertilisers by providing incentive grants at the rate of 50 per cent of the total amount of subsidy saved by using less fertilizer. The Government can use these grants to support the farmers while they are in the transition stage, i.e., from chemical to natural/organic farming.
To conclude, agriculture is the backbone of Meghalaya’s economy and the manifestos of the contending parties must reflect that. Anything less than the blueprint for a robust agricultural policy will be a big disappointment and an important opportunity missed. As voters we must make sure that does not happen.
(The views expressed in the article are those of the authors and do not reflect in any way their affiliation to any organization or institution)
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