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Issues at stake in rural development

U. SUBRAHMANYAM



AGRICULTURE, FOOD SECURITY AND RURAL DEVELOPMENT: Asian Development Bank; Oxford University Press, YMCA Library Building, Jai Singh Road, New Delhi-110001. Rs. 775.

The papers in this volume, as indicated in the preface, are not envisaged to be mere academic exercises; they are intended to provide the basis for informed discussions among key stakeholders and with policymakers involved in the areas related to agriculture, food security and rural development in India.

If achieving self-sufficiency in food is the primary goal of agriculture policy, poverty alleviation is the second. As has been pointed out, the consensus-building process of policymaking is time consuming but robust, and in a democratic system a prerequisite for successful implementation of policies is that those sections of society who have a stake in the outcome feel a sense of ‘ownership' vis-a-vis those policies.

Review

The first of the eight chapters in the volume offers a review of the agricultural policy. It emphasises that, in the era of globalisation, the prospects for Indian agriculture are encouraging, mainly due to the “too-little-too-late” syndrome in our policymaking. The major challenges faced by agriculture — growth and diversification; long-term sustainable development; and poverty reduction — are discussed candidly.

Although the thrust of the five-year plans was on land policy issues, the question of distributing the land resources figured at the core. The author says the key areas of action include a GIS-based land survey, computerisation of records, legalising tenancy markets, cooperative farming, and development of degraded/waste lands. While the issues involved have political-economic dimensions, the main problem has to do with identifying the right kind of institutional framework and ensuring coordination among different implementing agencies.

In chapter four, the author of a paper on food and nutrition security makes out a case for improving the working of the Public Distribution System (PDS) and suggests measures for doing so. They include: letting the poor draw their entitlement in instalments; ensuring the quality of grains supplied; vigorous drive to weed out the bogus cards; and allowing a substantial trade margin for the PDS dealers. As for nutrition security, he says, the approach has to be multi-pronged for better results.

Transparency

On the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, under which rural households are promised employment for 100 days in a year, the author says it should be operationalised in lean agricultural season when there will be no work for the farmhands. The scheme should be implemented through the panchayats, subject to periodical audit by the ‘gram sabha'. There has to be transparency and accountability at all levels by mandating, for instance, that wages are paid in the presence of community representatives, muster rolls are publicly displayed, and job cards are properly maintained.

The author rightly emphasises that, in view of the huge money spent on it, there have to be strong institutional overseeing arrangements. An unflinching political commitment at the implementation level is a must if the scheme is to make a significant dent in rural poverty and food insecurity.

The chapter on crop diversification calls for huge investment in infrastructure development, pointing out that what exists for agro-processing is woefully inadequate, considering the galloping demand for processed food. Providing an adequate number of food chains, a good road network, and reliable and quality power should get priority attention.

Specifically, the author argues that a robust linkage among production, marketing, and processing is a primary requirement and that contract farming or cooperatives can serve as a viable link between the producer and the market.

In the chapter on ‘legal impediments to rural development', the author says the most fundamental of the legal handicaps is the lack of a comprehensive approach. There is always a clash between political empowerment and the empowerment of the poor at the community level and there is no proper institutional arrangement to remove the road blocks in achieving the ultimate goal of economic empowerment. In his view, a careful understanding of the challenges as also the policy-related recommendations that are available will help in overcoming legal hurdles.

The chapter on capital formation highlights several policy reforms in respect of public investment and support for private investment in agriculture. Overall, the book should serve as a useful guide for those who are in the field of rural development. True to its declared objective, the publication offers a basis for fruitful interaction among the policymakers, researchers, and all stakeholders in rural development.

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