We donít talk to the farmer

The forthcoming budget will, for good reason, accord priority to agriculture and education. Concerns on food security have both nationally and internationally increased in recent months. The World Bank's Annual Economic Outlook 2008 also focuses on agriculture, which presents myriad challenges.

The Special Plan on agriculture as part of the XIth Five Year Plan, based on the consensus of a Special Meeting of the National Development Council, mirrors these new challenges. Given the constraints of ground water availability and a wasteful water-use pattern, the replenishment of ground water aquifers is difficult. The renewed emphasis, therefore, on region specific and agro-climatic zones is only appropriate.

In this context, the grossly underutilised agro potential of a state like Bihar, which has abundant ground water, offers enormous opportunities. Nitish Kumar began by identifying and honouring successful and progressive farmers at the block, district and state levels. This generated competition, and the Agriculture Action Plan stipulating targets both on productivity and diversification is based on the concept of 'Rainbow Agriculture'. This implies simultaneously improving incomes through fishery, poultry, orchard, dairy and numerous other neglected agro-related activities.

The blueprint of the plan was discussed ten days ago at a special meeting in which I was a participant. This meeting brought together over a thousand progressive farmers from all over the state. This 'Kisan Panchayat' enabled active intervention and comments by over 75 farmers on the draft Action Plan. Frankly, I was quite amazed at the quality of farmer intervention and wondered why a dialogue of this kind in other parts is not being pursued. The farmers' comments had coherence, and design as well as consistency in the complaint pattern. The dominant challenges appeared to be:

Bank credit: I never realised that statistics at the aggregate level fail to capture the harassment, anger and frustration at the ground level on the scrutiny and disbursal of bank credit. These include multiplicity of personal verifications, and seeking collaterals from landless labourers even when they wish to enhance income through herbal or fruit plants in their homestead plots. Several committees have written volumes on agricultural credit. But if the anger of the farmers assembled to comment on the state agricultural strategy is any indicator, their recommendations were either inadequate or ground-level implementation grossly inadequate. This deserves our continuing attention.

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