For nearly 10 years now, I have been a very discerning reader of the annual Economic Surveys. The voluminous document is generally presented two days before the annual budget and gives you a fairly good assessment of how the economy had behaved during the year.
At the same time, it also tells you how short-sighted the economic thinking of the successive governments had been. In fact, if you read it carefully, you realise that the economists who wrote it, blindly follow the economic thinking that the World Bank/IMF as well as the credit rating agencies have been prescribing. What becomes abundantly clear, if you have cared to read at least a few of the Economic Survey documents, is that the economists cannot even dare to think outside the box. The same hackneyed suggestions and recommendations, even if these had failed over the years.
Just like the horses are made to wear blinders so that their gaze remains focused, I think knowingly or unknowingly what the mainline economists do not realise is that they too actually wear a psychological band of blinders. They can’t see beyond that. Perhaps they are not even expected to see outside the box. And let’s not forget, blinders actually deprive horses from seeing what nature wanted them to see. Our economists are no better.
When you don’t have the capacity to see beyond the dotted line, you actually end up making mistakes, often serious blunders. Take the case of agriculture, which provides livelihoods, directly or indirectly, to 52 per cent of the population. At least for the 10 years that I have carefully gone through what the Economic Surveys have been saying, I am very much convinced that the root of the terrible agrarian crisis that the country is faced with actually lies in wrong economic thinking. It all emanates from the Economic Surveys. And the worst tragedy is that those who write the Economic Surveys are not even bothered to admit that the economic prescriptions they have been suggesting is what in the first place has led to the farm crisis.
Year after year, the Economic Survey continues to make the same failed suggestions to prop up agriculture: Raise crop productivity, expand irrigation, reduce risks, provide for remunerative prices, and privatise markets. For the past 10 years at least I find the Economic Survey making the same suggestions to build agriculture, and no wonder the agrarian crisis has been deepening with every passing year. Not even the spate of farmer suicides, which shows no signs of ending have provoked them to look beyond the ideological prescriptions being doled out. After all, an estimated 3.30 lakh farmers have committed suicide in the past 22 years, and the fact that the economists can’t even dare to come out with some sensible recommendations is a sad reflection on the policy framework.
As if this is not enough, and knowing that almost nothing that it has prescribed in the past has worked, the Economic Survey 2017 now shifts its focus to the controversial Genetically Modified (GM) crops. Using the same flawed argument that farm distress can only be decreased if the crop productivity increases Economic Survey is now trying to justify the cultivation of GM crops as the saviour. It even suggests that not only the junk GM Mustard variety that awaits commercialisation, India should actually open up for all kinds of GM crops.
It has even drawn up a matrix to justify the introduction of GM crops, following exactly what the GM industry has been saying all these years. Earlier, in a report presented on how to raise pulses production, a committee headed by the Chief Economic Advisor (CEA) Arvind Subramanian had openly backed bringing in GM technology in pulses to increase productivity. Since the recommendation came under a severe attack from the civil society, the CEA has gone a step ahead to use the policy document to lobby for the commercial interests of the private seed companies.
The scientific fact that there is no GM crop in the world which raises crop productivity has been simply ignored. The only GM crop which has been in cultivation in India is Bt Cotton. If GM cotton had helped raise cotton grower’s income, I see no reason why farmers cultivating Bt cotton should be committing suicide. It’s estimated that nearly 70 per cent of the total farm suicides in India relate to only cotton. Moreover, if raising crop productivity was the way forward, I don’t see any reason why Punjab, the food bowl of the country, should turn into a hot spot for farmer suicides. Punjab has the highest productivity of cereal crops in the world, and with 98 per cent assured irrigation it has the highest area under irrigation in the world. Yet, there is hardly a day when 3 to four farmers are not committing suicide.
Even without using GM crops, pulses production had increased manifold this year. But because the government didn’t know how to handle a surge in production, farmers suffered as the prices crashed. Against the procurement price of Rs 5,050 per quintal, a majority of the farmers were not able sell beyond Rs 3,500 to Rs 4,200 per quintal. Where was the problem with productivity? How long will economists paint a wrong narrative to promote the interests of the input suppliers?
I have no hesitation in saying that Economic Survey-II of 2017 makes a very disappointing reading. Since the economists use a blinder, it is high time they are exposed to the ground realities, to understand why farmers are dying. Otherwise we will continue to receive such shoddy policy documents. My suggestion therefore is to make it mandatory for the economists forming the team that puts the Economic Survey together to spend at least 3 months in a year in the rural areas. The team should be led by the Chief Economic Advisor, and comprise the members of the Niti Ayog too. I am sure you will agree there is an urgent need to expose the economists/bureaucrats to the rural pulse. Or else, the terrible crisis that the country faces for over a decade now will only worsen.