Seminar Sessions Retail In Agriculture!
In the week that went by, this writer was invited to make a presentation on “Organised Retail: Advantage Farmers, Industry and Consumers” by the Assocham, and deliver a valedictory address to the third International Water Summit organised by the Indian Chambers of Commerce, both at New Delhi. This article is based on the interactions at these forums.
In the first seminar, this writer gave an overview of the farm sector, the recommendations of the Saumitra Chaudhuri Committee Report, the initiatives taken by the Ministry with reference to the National Centre for Cold Chain Development, the vegetable initiative for urban clusters and the PPP IAD (public private partnership for intensive agricultural development) under RKVY, and the policy regime which supports linkages from farm to fork. The main thrust of the argument was that the proposition of Indian agriculture being a gamble with monsoons and markets was still valid though some monsoon proofing had been achieved on account of interventions through the National Disaster Relief Fund, which now had very clear norms both on trigger points and the scale of assistance. However, in spite of all the policy pronouncements on market issues, the farmers are still at the receiving end both when production falls because of poor monsoon, and in cases of glut in a good year. Organised retail has an important role to play in integrating the supply chain, and ensuring that the farmers get a greater share in the consumer’s rupee. However to posit that all the farmers’ woes would be sorted out because of retail, including FDI in retail is not a valid proposition. The real benefits to the producer would come because of reforms in agricultural marketing which is the main stumbling block, not just to organised retail, but also to farmer’s organisations trying to consolidate and sell the produce directly. In fact the Saumitra Chaudhuri report is clear that there is not just one ‘silver bullet’ to resolve all the problems of the farmers.
In fact the Saumitra Chaudhuri report has suggested that a four-pronged action strategy is required, and organised retail is one of the thrust areas. The report understands the need to understand economic agents, market reforms, institutional linkages and financial incentives. It clearly underlines the fact that the core competence of farmers lies in production and that value addition, aggregation, logistics and reaching out to the consumers require different skill sets and competencies. What policy could hope to achieve is the transformation of an opaque market system with transparency in transactions and institutional support to famers to avoid distress sale (warehouse receipts and long range price discovery)
With reference to industry, the NCCD, the vegetable initiative and PPP IAD are all aimed at increasing the direct interface of the organised players with the farmers, and to ensure that the current levels of distrust could be replaced with long-term institutional arrangements. As this writer has understood over the years, industry also looks at issues through its own prism: what is required is a long range vision, and seminars such as these do open new frontiers of possibilities.
The response of the panelists was on expected lines with Mr Raja of the CPI and Ms Nirmala Sitharaman of the BJP opposing government policy and Mr Raj Kumar Dhoot supporting the proposition. Mr Ajay Vir Jhakhar of the Bharat Krishak Samaj made a nuanced intervention: FDI in retail is good because it opens another marketing channel for the farmers, but the main reasons for opening up the sector are driven by interests of large corporate eyeing the retail space as urban India increased its spending power.
The seminar on water was equally interesting. Here the focus was on PPP projects for urban water and sewerage systems, and drinking water schemes in rural areas, besides effluent treatment and waste water management in industrial estates. This writer reminded the organisers and participants that there could be no meaningful discussion on water policy without agriculture playing a salient role as over eighty per cent sweet water is utilised by agriculture. It is true that agriculture development strategy did not factor water as a scarce resource three decades ago, but now micro irrigation, protected cultivation and fertigation have an important role as resource use efficiency is an important pivot. Water saved on account of micro irrigation could be used for urban, industrial and institutional uses but the capital expenditure involved has to be shared across sectors that would benefit from the water thus saved. Industry could play an important role in taking up PPP projects for micro irrigation in command areas, thereby ensuring water for those at the tail end, besides promoting crops which are suited for the agro climatic and soil types. This writer discussed the initiative taken by the Planning Commissions and Water Resources Ministry in this regard. The need of the hour is to get the stakeholders from different sectors, and at least the Water Resources, Drinking Water, Urban Development, Rural Development, Agriculture and Industrial Policy Departments on a common platform together with the Planning Commission so that a common eco-system for water could be evolved. But with all its limitations, the positive take- away was that it had stirred a debate, evoked interest and shaken complacency.
One final point before closing. This writer noted that most speakers come with very long presentations—forty to fifty slides for a ten-minute slot—and forget that they have to address an audience. It is high time time we went back to good old seminars—without prepared texts and presentations. It would be more meaningful, thought provoking and audience friendly!
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)