Credited with spearheading the National Horticulture Mission during the UPA government, SK Pattanayak, a 1982 batch IAS of Karnataka cadre, was selected by the NDA government as secretary in the agriculture ministry. Foremost among the government’s schemes to be implemented is the prime minister Narendra Modi’s promise of doubling farmers’ income by 2022. Pattanyak’s tenure as secretary has seen India achieving record foodgrain production. The senior civil servant has also suggested measures to boost crop prices ruling below minimum support price (MSP). Pattanayak spoke to Prabhudatta Mishra on a range of burning issues such as stubble burning, farmers’ death in Maharashtra and lower crop prices, among others. Excerpts:
As Delhi was engulfed with air pollution, the blame was laid on stubble burning by farmers in Punjab and Haryana. What is the way out?
A couple of factors led to the smog in Delhi and stubble burning was one of them. There were earlier reports in the media saying stubble burning in Punjab, Haryana and parts of Rajasthan contributed to the pollution in Delhi. There is also a report in the press that said the dust storm, which originated somewhere in the Gulf region, has contributed significantly to the smog share this year. So, it is for the experts to find out what could be the possible causes. As stubble burning relates to agriculture, there are a number of steps taken to curb this practice. We all know that stubble burning is reported after harvesting of paddy and before sowing of wheat. The time gap in between is too short and farmers prefer to burn the residues to clear the field, as they feel it will take much time to dispose off or even to decay.
Do you have any plans to launch schemes to stop burning of crop residues?
We are, in a big way, giving agricultural machineries to four states, Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. These include machinery like Happy Seeder, which can reduce stubble completely. While sowing the wheat seeds, this machine decomposes the paddy residues that become organic manure. Haryana has utilised the amount allocated by Centre, so this year the pollution from that state is less compared to Punjab, which has now promised to make use of the funds in a big way next season. We have committed to these states, saying if more money is required, it will be allocated to them to buy Happy Seeders.
The Centre provides 50 per cent subsidy on procurement of Happy Seeders. The government has also held a meeting at the highest level to chalk out a medium and long-term solution to this problem of air pollution. One of the measures is to convert straw into briquettes and pellets. Different industries are already using briquettes while pellets will be directly used in coal-fired furnaces to the extent of 10 per cent of the coal mass without changing the design. Direct fuel-based energy production has been contemplated. There are also some 10 plants coming up in Punjab to use this stubble for generating power, which may be ready by next year. But the long-term solution will be to convert all these straw into bio ethanol.
The government is working on this and it will take time and higher investment. Farmers complain that labour cost is so high that even if they use manual labour to clear the field, they will not be able to recover the wages from selling the stubble. That may be true for individual farmers, I do not deny it. But the government has been extending a large number of benefits to farmers. Secondly, the stubble can be partially used as cattle feed and also as soil nutrient. I am informed that in Punjab and Haryana farmers are not using these stubble as cattle feed while in the other states it has been used on a wide scale. It is not mean that a cattle does not eat at all. We have received a demand from Punjab government to allocate extra money for farmers so that they cut it. Right now it is difficult to accommodate such a demand. But we are looking into it and by next season we will be able to find a solution.
Is the government concerned about the death reported from Maharashtra due to spraying pesticides?
Any farmer death anywhere in the country and the government is very much concerned. More so, the current government is extremely sensible to such reports. The Maharashtra government has constituted a probe team and we are waiting for its report. We had sent a team to that area. The team could not conclusively say death was due to spraying of pesticides, but the fact remains that the crop was in very good condition and the height of the cotton crop was also high. There was some laxity in following safety measures. The state has already blacklisted the companies who had supplied those pesticides. The government has also launched an awareness campaign to adhere to safety measures while spraying.
What is the progress on the big announcement – doubling of farmers’ income?
Once the call to double farmers’ income was made by the prime minister, every state government was asked to come out with a clear roadmap to achieve the target. A lot of discussion and exchange of ideas has taken place. State-specific strategies have been brought out taking into consideration climatic zones, types of crops that farmers are growing and possibility of commercial crops in areas dominated by traditional crops. Doubling can take place if the cost of cultivation is reduced, productivity is improved and if farmers can diversify from traditional crops to commercial crops and from commercial crops to high-value crops, if they take to allied activities such as animal husbandry and fisheries.
We have also encouraged farmers to go for supplementing their income with bee keeping, mushroom cultivation, vermin compost making and growing timber on field boundaries. We want farmers to make best use the land and water. Input cost should be managed by the most judicious use of water.
What happened to the irrigation scheme announced in the Union budget?
It has been found that the productivity is two-and-a-half times more in irrigated land than dry areas. The objective of the government is to ensure that land that is not irrigated, has access to water. Under the Prime Minister Agricultural Irrigation Scheme, 99 projects have been identified, 33 taken up for completion this year, out of which nine are reported to have been completed by the water resources ministry. Where these projects have been completed, we are working with state governments to do crop planning so that farmers do not grow water-intensive crops and use water unnecessarily. Depending on the agro climatic zone, we have devised crops, which can yield farmers better income.
The rural development ministry has been encouraging farmers to go for creating ponds and water harvesting structures under MNREGA funds. Already, 5 lakh ponds were constructed last year and an equal number will be created this year. We all know monsoon is erratic. So, as and when rains happen, these ponds will be useful for farmers.
You talked about lowering input costs. How it can be done?
Take for example a vermin compost plant. When the farmer produces on his own, it will reduce his expenditure on chemical fertiliser. Secondly, the soil health card scheme, which allows farmers to use fertilisers to the extent that land requires. Farmers know the nutrients’ capacity in the soil.
Can you explain about crop planning since agriculture is a state subject and the government cannot force a farmer to grow a certain crop?
Once we introduce crop planning and sensitise farmers, they will have requisite information to go for a particular crop. Right now their selection is based on what their neighbours plant or on the basis of past experience. If onion fetched a good price last year, a farmer is going for the tuber crop this year. He does not look into the prevailing circumstances or the likelihood of demand in the market.
Depending on the soil a farmer has at his disposal, an advice is given to chose from a few crops that suit the climate. The farmer will take an informed decision after we provide them with necessary information. We are not forcing them to grow or not grow any particular crop. There will be a more balanced approach to our production. What is happening now is farmers are taking decision on hearsay.
What happened to market reforms?
The risk of farmers is covered under the Prime Minister Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY). And next biggest reform is the market – linking the farmer’s produce with the market. Wherever you have seen farmers’ distress, you will notice that in such areas farmers have not got the right price. Our objective is to ensure that farmers take their crops directly to the market. Our efforts are on. Wherever prices have fallen below MSP, the government is pro-actively purchasing their produce. This year in several states, the government has started procurement of crops at MSP. Last year, the government procured 20 lakh tonnes of pulses for the buffer stock. We have also started e-NAM, an electronic market platform and are trying to popularise it. Today, 465 mandis are linked with e-NAM. It is in its initial stage and many things are not perfect. But it is a new beginning. Farmers are now getting to know about the electronic platform.
How do you plan to implement the much talked about diversification of crops?
When the National Horticulture Mission was launched, there was a big gap in what was available in the market and the demand. There was no MSP system in fruits and vegetables. But when NHM was launched (during UPA), subsidies were given to enhance production – be it in plantation or post- harvest management. As there was a demand-supply gap, the fruits when it arrived in the market, have fetched a good price. People have gone from traditional horticulture crops to advance or temperate horticulture crops. Earlier Kiwi, a temperate fruit, was imported from New Zealand. Now, it is being grown in Arunachal Pradesh, Sikkim and Uttarakhand. Even with higher production, only 50 per cent of the apple demand is met from domestic production while the remaining is imported.
So, our approach is to know what the market needs. Once you diagnose the mind of the consumers and grow crops accordingly, it will fetch better prices. You see the same thing happened in poultry and milk, which is all consumer-driven. India is self sufficient in wheat and rice and the demand is not going to change significantly in the coming years. If the farmer has to make money, he has to grow other crops than wheat. Even millet will fetch better. Health conscious people are opting for millet than wheat. Pulses demand, which is full of protein, will also be there. With our campaign, we are hopeful that farmers will slowly shift from wheat and rice to millets and pulses. The government has also been making efforts to create demand for pulses and millets by including these cereals in the mid-day meal scheme and ICDS programmes.
Farmers are complaining about not getting MSPs, when the promise was to give them 50 per cent more than cost of production. How do you plan to address the issue?
The government has taken a number of steps. All pulses are allowed to be exported without any restriction. A duty of 50 per cent has been levied on yellow peas coming from outside. Quantitative restriction on import of other pulses has been imposed. In the oilseeds sector, never before in recent history has import duty on crude and refined oils been increased in such a way. I am certain these steps will boost the market and give the right signal to grow oilseeds and pulses in a very big way. We are hopeful that the interest of the farmers will be fully protected and in the coming days the prevailing price will rise to the MSP level.
The government has also imposed 20 per cent import duty on wheat. I do not think such pro-active steps have been taken before. We must compliment the government for taking such bold steps, which are all farmer-friendly. But there will be a time lag between a decision taken and the actual benefits flowing. That difference may take three to four weeks. The stock limit on agricultural produce has also been removed.