Shed apathy, embrace innovation

10th December 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD Huge gains can be made by giving agriculture disproportionate priority, even more than GST India has more than 140 million farm holdings, of which 20 million account for 80 per cent of the area.

10th December 2015, BUSINESS STANDARD

Huge gains can be made by giving agriculture disproportionate priority, even more than GST

India has more than 140 million farm holdings, of which 20 million account for 80 per cent of the area. Imagine a community of these 20 million farmers connected digitally – as change agents, leaders and a consumer community. It should be the most thrilling start-up in India and should dominate the national narrative.

Apathetic folks tend to be cynical about new ideas. The word “cynic” is derived from the Greek school at Cynosarges that was run by philosopher Antisthenes, who lived around 400 BC. He was a pupil of Socrates and famously said, “In public life, you must be guided by virtue and not by laws.”

In my last Innocolumn, I referred to a paper jointly authored by Y S P Thorat and me, titled, “Sarthak Krishi Yojana”, which has been circulated to more than 100,000 people interested in agriculture. Agriculture is staid compared to magical themes like start-ups, so I expected a weak response from readers. Surprisingly, the column got a stronger response than my earlier 30 columns. Readers’ responses reminded me never to be cynical or apathetic.

Most readers commented positively about “Sarthak Krishi Yojana” and hoped the current crisis in agriculture would serve as a wake-up call to governments at all levels. Other responses were doubtful or cynical. A senior journalist observed that we should not rely on the government; one agricultural scientist berated me, “You should give practical suggestions instead of writing about frameworks”; another tired moan was “another yojana will not succeed because there are already 445 yojanas (institutions, schemes, awards, stadiums, airports) bearing the names of a celebrated father, his daughter or his grandson.”

Apathy is a poison for innovation because it leads to low expectations and the broken window syndrome. New York was bedevilled by crime in the 1980s and citizens were cynical about a solution. When Rudolph Giuliani became the mayor in 1994, he was determined to break the apathy. His team invoked the words of two criminologists, James Wilson and George Kelling: “If a window is broken and left unrepaired, people walking by will conclude that no one cares and that no one is in charge… The impetus to engage in a certain type of behaviour comes not from a certain type of person but from a feature of the environment.” The story of how the environment was changed and crime in New York was curbed has been told by Malcolm Gladwell in The Tipping Point.

Farming is the nation’s broken window – regrettably, not the only broken window. Public interest about how food gets to the table is low; Indian farming policy has been unfocused despite the governments’ good intentions. This is because there has been no overarching and integrated framework for agricultural development as there has been for industrial development. Political and economic institutions make the difference between a system’s success and failure, and systemic change requires a holistic understanding of the problem.

In The Turn of the Tortoise, T N Ninan wrote, “What commentators often ignore is the enormous untapped potential of Indian agriculture… Changes in agriculture will directly affect half of the country’s workforce… The reform of factor markets (land, labour, capital and technology) and improvement of governance standards are central to the question of rapid growth… China began under Mao (Tse Tung) by emphasising change in the countryside while India sought industrialisation.”

Two questions arise: Does our nation have a holistic approach to farming and agriculture? If not, what could constitute a holistic approach? “Sarthak Krishi Yojana” attempts to address these.

Although agriculture is a state subject, there is political sagacity for both the Centre and the states to strategically (not mendacious subsidies) promote rural and agriculture. Look how agriculture grew in Gujarat, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh by about eight to 10 per cent per annum during the last decade and how the ruling party got repeatedly re-elected. Writing about Madhya Pradesh, Ashok Gulati, Infosys chair professor for agriculture at Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, stated, “There are several factors driving agri-growth but the most important one is leadership and its focus.”

The focus should be on farming, not farmers. The passion of the governments, both at the Centre and in the states, should shift from the yogic state of kshipta (unfocused and scattered) to niruddha (focused and controlled). “Sarthak Krishi Yojana” suggests how. The Centre must embrace states, irrespective of political differences. There will be huge gains by giving farming and agriculture disproportionate priority and attention, even more than the important goods and services tax.