Revisit administration of agri sector

A significant recommendation of the M.S. Swaminathan-headed National Commission on Farmers that has not received the needed attention is to shift agriculture from the State List to the Concurrent List of the Constitution. This would allow the Union government to have a greater and a relatively more decisive say in the matters related to agriculture and farmers without majorly diluting the powers of the state governments. At present, the Centre has to rely on the state governments to implement even those farm development and farmers’ welfare schemes that are sponsored and funded by it.

Leaving agriculture in the hands of the states has, indeed, been the legacy of the antiquated Government of India Act, 1935. The logic then was that since agriculture was basically region-specific and depended primarily on local agro-ecological conditions and native natural resources, the provincial administrations would be better placed to look after it. The predominantly subsistence type of agriculture in vogue in those days was, more or less, self-contained with little inter-regional interactions for procuring inputs or selling the output. The problems besetting the farmers, too, were generally location-specific.

The situation is vastly different now. The modern agriculture transgresses regional boundaries with inter-state commercial dealings being part of the game. Agriculture is also getting integrated with other sectors of the economy, notably trade, industry and services. Policy initiatives and regulatory decisions taken by one state can now affect, directly or tacitly, the agri-economy of the other states as well. An unbridled control of the states over the farm sector is, therefore, posing problems and proving counterproductive.

The fifth and final report of the Swaminathan panel released in October 2006, mooting the transfer of agriculture to the Concurrent List, also referred to some of the key aspects of administration of this sector which necessitated a revisit to its constitutional status. The report pointed out that the decisions concerning support prices of crops, institutional credit and agri-commodities trade, both domestic and international, are taken by the Centre. Some important laws having a significant bearing on agriculture have been enacted by Parliament and are being administered by the Centre. The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, the Biological Diversity Act, and the National Food Security law can be the cases in point. Besides, the bulk of the funding for rural infrastructure, irrigation and other farm development programmes comes from the Centre. “By placing agriculture in the Concurrent List, serving farmers and saving farming becomes a joint responsibility of the Centre and the states,” the commission said.

There are other pressing reasons for the statutory change as well. Some of the Centre’s flagship initiatives to address the farmers’ woes and boost their incomes are not delivering the expected results because of non-cooperation of some state governments. The notable ones among these are the crop insurance scheme; the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-Kisan) scheme to augment farmers’ income by direct payment of Rs 6,000 a year; and the Pradhan Mantri Annadata Aay Sanrakshan Abhiyan (PM-AASHA) to ensure remunerative prices for the farm produce. Moreover, some vital reforms concerning agricultural marketing, land leasing, contract farming and a few others are not making much headway for the same reason.

Little wonder, therefore, that the Dalwai committee, which went into the issue of doubling farmers’ income, has also pitched for placing farm marketing in the Concurrent List to enable the Centre to revamp agricultural mandis, improve their functional efficiency and expand the rural marketing infrastructure. This report has further strengthened the case for moving agriculture to the Concurrent List.

In the past, too, the Constitution has been altered to switch items from one List to another. The 42nd amendment, carried out in 1976, for instance, had shifted five subjects, including forests and wildlife protection, from the State List to the Concurrent list. Considering the significance of the issue and the potential gains from it, all political parties should support another Constitution amendment to put agriculture in the Concurrent List for the benefit of the farmers.

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