Friday, May 04, 2007

No succour for distressed farmers from PM package

No succour for distressed farmers from PM package
Rajeev Deshpande
[4 May, 2007 l 0258 hrs ISTlTIMES NEWS NETWORK],prtpage-1.cms

NEW DELHI: The Prime Minister's special package for 31 distressed rural districts, including six in Maharashtra's suicide-prone cotton bowl of Vidarbha, has not just failed, it seems to have boomeranged.

Ill-conceived cash doles, stalled irrigation projects and misdirected credit have left farmers in dire straits. Nearly 10 months after the package was announced by PM Manmohan Singh, it is now being recognised that the relief effort was a deeply flawed knee-jerk response to an agricultural crisis which needed a more in-depth approach. The package is floundering and suicides by Vidarbha farmers continue even as the mainstay of the relief measures, 540 irrigation projects including 40-odd major works that envisage dams for storing water in the dry region with rain-dependent farming, have simply not got off the block.

Official sources closely monitoring the relief package said that the schemes remain caught up in the process of receiving technical, engineering and environmental clearances. The rollout period for the irrigation works, the critical Rs 2,177 crore element in the Rs 3,750 crore package, was to be three years. But, now, completion in even six years sounds optimistic. Increased credit to farmers has paradoxically heightened debt burdens even as crops are at the mercy of rains and low support prices.

The plea for increasing MSP is also being seen as counter-productive — it may lead to farmers investing more heavily in cotton when the effort, officials feel, should be to help diversify crops.

The Rs 50 lakh given to district collectors has proved to be easy money that vanished swiftly and has left Maharashtra asking for more. The money was meant for distressed families, and at an average of Rs 10,000 per household, it has been distributed among 500 beneficiaries in every affected district. Besides being just a drop in an ocean of impoverishment, it has been difficult to even check if the money was claimed by genuine beneficiaries.Given the size of the handout, an average of Rs 10,000, the assistance did not really change fortunes of those affected by the double whammy of poor crops and debt.

Officials had opposed dole, but the PM is understood to have been greatly moved by scenes of rural despair and urged that the amount be made available for instant relief. But the scheme's benefits have been largely unverifiable.

It is felt that a better approach to the debt problem could have been restructuring of credits, loans and repayments through cooperative banks on a partnership with states even as long-term efforts to improve irrigation were initiated.

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