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Ever More Revolutions

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The Prime Minister promised rural India a  new deal, which would involve a second green revolution; that was while inaugurating the Delhi office of the International Food Policy Research Institute in 2005. The green revolution had run its course, and a second one was necessary — this time in gardens and inedible crops, according to the Prime Minister; that is what he told the Indian Science Congress in January 2006. Addressing an international rice congress the following October, he said that rice needed a second green revolution. In March 2007, he told the Maharashtra government to lead the second green revolution. In April 2008, he gave the same message to the Global Agro-Industries Forum. Speaking next year from the ramparts of Red Fort on Independence Day, he told the nation that it needed a second green revolution. While speaking to the Indian Council for Agricultural Research on 16 July, he repeated the message.

Some people take unconsciously to repetition, but in this case, the repetition should not be taken as evidence of amnesia. On the contrary, it is evidence of the Prime Minister's seriousness. Also, except on one occasion, he was speaking every time to agricultural scientists and bureaucrats, and there is perhaps a paucity of the messages that can be given to them. That may suggest that he spoke too often to them perhaps. But he has been Prime Minister for long, and making speeches is one of his unavoidable duties. Perhaps he did not even take it as a duty. He enjoys the company of intellectuals, and is happy to get an opportunity to lecture them.

People may wonder why he wants even more agricultural production when his government is sitting on 65.6 million tonnes of wheat and rice. It is only a temporary problem; at the end of the monsoon it will be discovered that much grain that was stacked in the open has rotted and no longer presents a problem of storage. By that time, another 25 million tonnes of kharif crop will be waiting to be bought. But if rotting is acceptable, another bumper crop is perfectly manageable. And if it is the government's objective to buy up foodgrains and waste them, there is no limit to the agricultural production it may want. The more is produced, the more it can buy, and the more money it can put in the pockets of those who are supposed to buy and store the grain. This craze for foodgrain buying serves no national interest, but no doubt keeps many beneficiaries of the government satisfied. If the Prime Minister does not want the nation to become cynical, he needs to think beyond storing and wasting grains. If he does, he may find that he does not need a second green revolution.

If he goes that far in his thinking, he may even be prepared to consider the possibility that production is not the problem. It may be in 20 years' time when the population will be larger; but at least at the moment, the country could do with less production. What it needs is a different production mix; as the Prime Minister pointed out, it could do with greater production of pulses and oilseeds. But if their output is to increase, the extraordinarily high prices the government pays for the grains, wheat and rice, which compete with them for land, would have to be brought down. It would work even better if the government got out of the business of price fixing, and let the market determine prices; it would then also give incentive to produce whatever is in short supply.

Every time the Prime Minister discusses agriculture, he implicitly assumes that the country must produce everything it consumes, and that importing anything is bad. This is a strange position for the man who is supposed to have been the harbinger of liberalisation in this country, and to have begun the dismantling of the stifling import restrictions we had till the 1980s. It is, of course, possible that as he became older, more senior and more influential, his opinion changed and wisdom grew. If that is so, he should share with the country his reasons for preferring a closed India today, when 20 years of opening up have given such good results in terms of economic performance.

The only argument he may be able to give is relating to security — the danger of becoming dependent on imports for essential food. But the pile of 65 million tonnes his government holds is supposed to give that security. China takes away grains, oilseeds and oilcake for its growing economy. Even India imports pulses and vegetable oil. There is nothing wrong in that; as long as the country is producing enough overall, exporting or importing particular commodities poses no risk. So maybe the Prime Minister should bid goodbye to his pre-reform mindset.

(This story was published in Businessworld Issue Dated 08-08-2011)


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