Prime Minister to chair crucial plan panel meet Monday

By Arvind Padmanabhan, Indo-Asian News Service

New Delhi: A new scheme for additional central assistance to state governments for the farm sector is likely to be announced Monday during the full Planning Commission meeting to be chaired by Prime Minister Manmohan Singh.

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The crucial meeting has been called by the prime minister to draft a short-term strategy to boost farm growth, which has stagnated in the past decade, so that results can emerge at the earliest, officials said.

A note to the Planning Commission from the Prime Minister’s Office says five-six specific strategies must be proposed for bridging the yield-technology gaps in agriculture and for improving the conditions under which farming is done.

“The prime minister desires that in the meeting of the full Planning Commission, the focus should be less on analysis of the problems of the agriculture sector, but rather on specific areas where action would be visible in a short time.”

Monday’s meeting comes against the backdrop of the sharp deceleration of agricultural growth from 3.62 percent in 1984-1996 to less than 2 percent in 1999-2005 and efforts to push it up to four percent over the next five years.

Politically, the United Progressive Alliance government (UPA) also wants to show fast and tangible results in agriculture and ward off criticism by Left allies that its policies have failed to lift the agrarian economy, on which 70 percent of India’s population still depends, officials said.

“The prime minister has made it clear that there has been enough analysis on the problems facing the agriculture sector. He now wants results and fast, and that’s what will be the focus Monday,” a key aide in the Prime Minister’s Office said.

“The impetus will be entirely on the supply side so that in two years’ time one is able to show tangible results. The prime minister will seek the cooperation of all states in this regard subsequently,” the aide told IANS.

After Monday’s meeting, the Planning Commission, led by Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia, and the concerned ministries will begin preparatory work for a meeting of the National Development Council (NDC) here May 29 that will also be attended by all state chief ministers.

According to Planning Commission officials, Monday’s meeting will discuss issues such as one-time debt waiver scheme for farmers, easing supply gaps, higher farm credit, a comprehensive crop insurance scheme and crop diversification.

The meeting will also be attended by Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram, among others, and study the 12 reports of working groups constituted by the panel.

This apart, the other papers that will be considered during the meeting include the five reports of the National Commission on Farmers under farm scientist M.S. Swaminathan and the eight others of the NDC’s various sub-committees.

On the issue of the new scheme for additional central assistance to states, the Planning Commission has proposed that it be called Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana where funds to states could be provided based on twin formulae.

The plan panel feels each state can be asked to outline a four-year action plan identifying individual elements like watershed management, extension support and seed availability that can contribute to the specific targets.

“The new scheme will not replace any existing central scheme. They can continue. But a large part of the additional resources for agriculture needed in the 11th plan (2007-12) could be furnished by directing it to the new scheme.”

Other outcomes of Mondays’ meeting could be an action plan on food security with a special wheat production programme with an outlay of Rs.8.41 billion covering as many as 138 districts, and distribution of improved seeds for pulses to farmers.

Similar strategies, officials added, could also be announced in the area of farm inputs, horticulture, animal husbandry, research, bringing more area under paddy cultivation and ensuring seed testing labs in every district by 2010.

The meeting of the full commission was earlier slotted for April 18. But it was subsequently deferred since the agriculture ministry and the commission first wanted to make separate presentations to the prime minister, officials said.