Surplus of advice

The government’s plan to set up a high-powered committee on structural reforms in agriculture makes little sense. Numerous panels have already gone into this issue and have come out with substantive reports covering nearly everything that needs to be done to put this beleaguered sector on a sound footing. The most notable among these panels are the M S Swaminathan-headed National Commission on Farmers, the Shanta Kumar-chaired committee on food sector reforms and the Ashok Dalwai-led empowered committee on doubling farmers’ income. Besides, the government’s own think tank, the National Institution for Transforming India (NITI) Aayog, has come out with some well-judged inputs for reforming the key segments of the farm sector. In fact, most of the issues marked out by Prime Minister Narendra Modi and others in the recent meeting of the NITI Aayog’s Governing Council for reference to the proposed committee have also been dwelt upon comprehensively in these documents. These issues pertain to private investment in agriculture, logistics, value-addition, marketing support, irrigation, especially drip and other means of micro-irrigation, and, most importantly, the legislative changes required to revamp agriculture and its allied activities. 

Significantly, the Swaminathan commission’s five-part report (2006) had sought a paradigm shift in the focus of agricultural development programmes from increasing production to raising farmers’ income. It took over a decade for the government to realise the importance of this counsel and begin acting on it. However, many other equally prudent recommendations of this commission still remain unattended. Not too different is the fate of the Dalwai committee’s 14-part report which has devoted a full volume to discussing the structural reforms and governance framework for agriculture. Being the latest exercise on this count, this September 2018 report is the most relevant to the prevailing agrarian situation marked by widespread farmers’ distress. So is, indeed, the three-year action plan for agriculture crafted by NITI Aayog. If the government is truly serious in refurbishing the farm sector, all it needs to do is to sift through these treatises, pick up the pertinent suggestions and implement them in a time-bound manner. 

That said, the truth that cannot be disregarded is that the Centre has a limited authority to intervene in matters related to agriculture which, according to the Constitution, is a state subject. It can do little without the cooperation of the states which, often, is unavailable in adequate measure. The meagre success of some of the Centre’s game-changing initiatives such as reforming agricultural marketing, legalising land leasing and regularising contract farming bears this out. The model Bills drafted to serve as the guides for the amendment of the state laws have failed to deliver the desired results. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the Swaminathan commission chose to recommend shifting of agriculture from the State List to the Concurrent List of the Constitution. This would allow the Centre to play a more meaningful role in the agricultural sector without significantly diluting the powers of the state governments. Similar translocation of subjects was carried out in 1976 when five matters, including education, forests and wildlife protection, were moved from the State List to the Concurrent List through the 42nd amendment of the Constitution. Unless the Centre is able to take the states on board through statutory means or persuasion, it is unlikely to succeed in reforming the farm sector.