• Focus on SSA alone akin to 'fooling ourselves': FM's adviser

    As the UPA government grapples to step up spending on education to 6 per cent of GDP, a commitment made in its governance agenda, a key Finance Ministry official has said accent on primary education will not yield results if not complemented by focus on secondary schooling. Sarva Shiksha Abhiyan (SSA) tantamounts to "fooling ourselves... It (focus) should go to secondary education as well,' Adviser to Finance Minister Shubhashis Gangopadhyay said at a discussion on Budget 2008-09 organised by the Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability here yesterday. SSA is the government's flagship programme for universalisation of primary education implemented in partnership with states. The UPA, in its National Common Minimum Programme, had pledged to raise spending on education to 6 per cent of GDP and at least spend half this amount on primary and secondary sectors. "Whether it is 6 per cent or 8 per cent or 10 per cent. These are just talking points,' Gangopadhyay said, adding that unless the spending gives the desired results it made no sense to talk about percentage alone. He was responding to a query whether the government should revisit its commitment to spend 6 per cent on education, considering the fact that the country's Gross Domestic Product has grown by a robust 8.8 per cent in the last four years. According to the Economic Survey for 2007-08, the government has made a provision of Rs 10,671 crore for SSA. Raising expenditure on education to 6 per cent of GDP was a goal set in 1948 by the Kothari Commission, and reiterated over and again by the National Policy on Education, but successive governments are yet to fulfil it. "You need to spend a minimum of 8 per cent of GDP for education (considering the GDP expansion),' Economist Jayati Ghosh, who was part of an official committee that looked at spending requirement for education, said. "It is very very clear you need very significant expansion. Forget the percentages,' she said, adding that if any government has to really look at meeting the minimum goal on education sector, it has to double the spending. Panelists at the discussion said spending on education has been declining. During the NDA regime, it was 3.6 per cent of GDP and has fallen to 3 per cent now. According to the Economic Survey 2007-08, the achievements under SSA up to September 30, 2007, include construction of 170,320 school buildings, 713,179 additional classrooms, 172,381 drinking water facilities, construction of 218,075 toilets, supply of free text books to 6.64 crore children and appointment of 810,000 teachers, besides opening of 186,985 (till March 31, 2007) new schools. Finance Minister P Chidambaram, in his Budget speech, too had said the focus of SSA will shift from access and infrastructure at the primary level to enhancing retention; improving quality of learning; and ensuring access to upper primary classes. He proposed to increase the total allocation to education sector by 20 per cent from Rs 28,674 crore in 2007-08 to Rs 34,400 crore in 2008-09. Of this, SSA will be provided Rs 13,100 crore.

  • FM raises a toast to women, minorities

    The Union Budget 2008-09 has seen funds for women, minorities and Scheduled Tribes go up substantially. One of the beneficiaries of a 24 per cent rise in allocations for the Ministry of Women and Child Development is a plan to prevent trafficking of girls for which the ministry has chalked out a scheme called Ujjwala. The Budget has kept a provision of Rs 9 crore for the scheme, following sustained campaign by NGOs and international bodies. The ministry's allocation of Rs 7,200 crore for 2008-09 is up from Rs 5,793 crore, the revised estimate for the 2007-08 Budget. A major part of the enhanced allocations would go to Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS) that caters to the nutritional and healthcare needs of pre-school children and mothers in rural areas. The ICDS allocation is mainly meant for the hiked emolument for workers and helpers of some 6,284 Anganwadi centres across the country. Another Rs 200 crore has been allocated for a new scheme

  • Anachronistic budgeting

    Is the 2007-08 fiscal deficit 3.1 per cent of GDP, or is it 3.5 per cent

  • Sethu: Indian Govt counters environmental concerns

    Indian Govt counters environmental concerns Hit hard by the flip flop over the

  • Do more for farmers

    Union finance minister's Rs 60,000-crore loan waiver in the Union Budget proposals has won kudos for the government and has to some extent queered the pitch for the Opposition on this score. But a lot more needs to be done if the Congress-led UPA government has to regain the confidence of farmers. Bank loan is just one minor part of the problem and concerns only those farmers who take loans from banks. There are millions of farmers who take loans from moneylenders and commission agents at usurious prices. Maybe the government could issue an ordinance to stop payment on these loans, because in most cases the interest amount is more than double the actual loan. Even in the case of the farmers whose loans with banks have been waived, fresh trouble will begin next season. The crux of the problem which any farmer from Hoshiarpur to Wardha or Warangal will tell you, is remunerative price. Unless he gets remunerative prices, he will be in debt to the banks again. And what about corruption? A farmer from Hoshiarpur, for instance, if he wants to buy a tractor which costs say Rs 5-6 lakhs, has to pledge his four acres of land in addition to the ten per cent interest he pays on the loan. When he pledges his land he has to deal with the patwari and senior revenue officials. He has to bribe them to get his work done. Then he has to look for a middleman and pay him to negotiate to get his loan from the bank and finally at the bank he has to grease the palms of officials sanctioning the loans. On Rs 4 lakhs he pays over Rs 4,000 as bribe, and this is the minimum. The other important issue is cost of production. The government gives the farmer what it calls his cost of production. Perhaps the bureaucrats use their own parameters to arrive at the cost of production, but the farmer needs to survive. The businessman, for instance, adds his profits and perks to the cost of the items he produces. Shouldn't the farmer get a reasonable profit? He and his family work 24 hours, seven days a week, 365 days a year on their farm. In Maharashtra, farmers wait all night for power to run his pumps. And yet his cost of production does not take all this into account. This bias against the farmer must be removed.

  • Congress plans rallies to cash in on farm debt waiver

    Buoyed by the popular reaction to the farm debt waiver and debt relief scheme announced in the budget, the Congress has planned a series of rallies in State capitals and district headquarters. It will begin with a massive show of strength on the Ramlila grounds here on March 9. At the same time, Congress president Sonia Gandhi will meet State-wise all-party MPs from March 3 to 5 in the Parliament House. In a bid to pull out all stops to cash in on the popular sentiment, Ms. Gandhi's meetings with MPs will generally carry the message that the momentum and high ground gained by the party on the farmers' indebtedness issue, should be maintained throughout the year when six States go to the polls, and till the Lok Sabha polls next year. The States going to the polls this year are the ones where farmers would benefit the most from the Rs.60,000-crore debt waiver scheme. These are Karnataka, Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Chaattisgarh, Delhi and Jammu and Kashmir. A senior party leader said that the mood in the party is upbeat and the leadership wants it to be sustained. Central to Ms. Gandhi's meetings with MPs would be the message that the programmes launched by the Congress-led UPA government should be "properly explained' to the people. In particular, the Congress would like to take the credit for the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme and now the farm debt relief issue, the sources explained. On Monday, Ms. Gandhi will meet MPs from Andhra Pradesh, Assam, Bihar, Manipur, Meghalaya and Arunachal Pradesh. On Tuesday, she is to meet MPs from Jammu and Kashmir, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Karnataka, Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Puducherry, Haryana, Punjab, Chandigarh, Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand. On Wednesday, the Congress president will meet MPs from Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Goa, Dadar Haveli, Daman and Diu, West Bengal and Andaman and Nicobar. The AICC has planned the rallies keeping in mind the hundreds of Congressmen who want to "thank' the Congress president for the decision on the debt relief scheme.

  • Ending the debt trap & attaining food security

    Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's initiative is a major step in recognising the country's debt to farm families but much more needs to be done. Finance Minister P. Chidambaram's budget 2008-09 has aroused widespread interest in methods of saving our small and marginal farming families from indebtedness and acute economic distress, which lead to occasional suicides. The steps proposed in the budget will give relief to nearly four crore farmers, at an estimated outlay of Rs.60,000 crore. As stressed by Mr. Chidambaram, this is a major step in recognising the indebtedness of the country to farm families who, th rough their toil in sun and rain, are safeguarding national food security and sovereignty. The question arises whether this step will mark the end of farmers' dependence on moneylenders and traders for their credit needs. Some of the following issues need consideration: First, the definition of small and marginal farmers has to be different for irrigated and dry farming areas. The present definition classifies marginal farmers as those owning up to 1 hectare and small farmers as those owning 1-2 hectares. Farmers cultivating crops in rainfed, arid, and semi-arid areas may own 4-5 hectares but their income is uncertain and their agricultural destiny is bound closely to the behaviour of the monsoon. A large number of farming families affected by the agrarian crisis in Vidharbha fall under this category. They will not be eligible for debt waiver and debt relief under the present scheme. A second problem relates to the source from which loans have been taken. The programme announced in the budget covers farmers who have taken loans from scheduled commercial banks, regional rural banks, and cooperative credit institutions. It does not cover farmers indebted to moneylenders and traders. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO), 48.6 per cent of the farm households surveyed were indebted; of these 61 per cent had operational holdings below 1 hectare. Of the total outstanding debt, 41.6 per cent was taken for purposes other than farm-related activities, such as healthcare and domestic needs; 57.7 per cent of the outstanding amount was sourced from institutional channels and 42.3 per cent from moneylenders, traders, relatives, and friends. It has been estimated that in 2003, non-institutional debt accounted for Rs.48,000 crore; and out of this, Rs.18,000 crore was at an interest of 30 per cent per annum or more (NSSO 59th Round cited by the Economic Survey 2007-08). The Expert Group on Agriculture Indebtedness chaired by Professor R. Radhakrishna has recommended, in its report of July 2007, the inclusion of the financially excluded, particularly the small borrower households, and the adoption of risk-mitigating measures for agriculture. The concept of financial inclusion is in its early stages of operationalisation. Loan waiver is the price we have to pay for the neglect of rural India during the past several decades, as reflected in a gradual decline in investment in key sectors like irrigation, post-harvest technology (even today, farmers dry the harvested paddy on roads), market, and communication. The four crore farmers who are to be relieved of their debt burden before the end of June 2008 will become eligible once again for institutional credit for their cultivation expenses during kharif 2008. The challenge now is to prevent them from getting into the debt trap again. For this purpose, both Central and State governments should set up immediately an Indebted Farmers' Support Consortium at the district level. This should comprise farm scientists, panchayati raj leaders, input supply agencies, representatives of relevant government departments and financial institutions, rural and women's universities and home science colleges, private sector and media representatives, and others relevant to assisting the farmers relieved of their past debt in improving the productivity and profitability of their farms in an environmentally sustainable manner. This is essential for enabling them to have a higher marketable surplus and thereby more cash income. The smaller the farm, the greater is the need for marketable surplus to avoid indebtedness. Such an Indebted Farmers' Support Consortium should get the four crore farmers the benefits of all the government schemes such as the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, the National Food Security Mission, the Accelerated Irrigation Benefit Programme, the National Horticulture Mission, Rural Godown and Warehousing Schemes, and the National Rural Health Mission. If this is done, every farm family released from the debt trap should be able to produce at least an additional half tonne per hectare of food grains or other farm produce. This should help increase food production by about 20 million tonnes during 2008-10. At a time when global and national food stocks are dwindling and prices are rising, this will be an extremely timely gain for our national food and nutrition security system and for the control of inflation. We should ensure that the outcome of debt waiver is enhanced farmers' income and production. The prevailing gap between potential and actual yields in the crops of rainfed areas such as jowar, bajra, millets, pulses, and oilseeds is over 200 per cent even with the technologies on the shelf. The restarting of the agricultural career of four crore resource-poor farmers through loan waiver could mark a new dawn in both agrarian prosperity and national food sovereignty

  • Lack of quality seeds hits prawn production

    During this biting cold what can be better than a dish of black-tiger prawns cooked in oriental style for dinner or just batter fried along with your evening drink. But then, be prepared to shell out a huge sum as black-tiger prawns supply is going down with stagnant production over the past several years. India is the leading producer of black-tiger prawns in the world but today the prawn farmers are faced with the problem of stagnant production due to lack of quality seeds and financial support from the government. According to I.P.R. Mohan Raju, president of the Prawn Farmers Federation of India, "Although India is the leading producer of black-tiger prawns in the world, the production in our country is stagnant for the past few years. The primary reason for the stagnation is the inadequate supply of quality seeds. The hatchery operators depend on the supply of wild brood stock for the production of seeds. The quality and quantity of this wild brood stock has deteriorated over the past few years.' The hatchery operators depended on the supply of wild brood stock for the production of seeds but the quality and quantity of this had deteriorated over the past few years. The federation, the first national platform for prawn farmers constituted by state federations of the 10 maritime states and union territories, would collaborate with the hatchery operators and the government to address this issue, he said. India has over 1,50,000 hectares under prawn cultivation with around 1.2 to 1.4 million hectares potential brackish water area available. More than 91per cent of the 1,00,000 plus farmers are small scale with land holding of less than two hectares. About 6 per cent of the farmers' own land only between two to five hectares and the remaining three percent own land over five hectares. Total production is around 1,35,000 tons with an average production of less than 1000 kg per hectare. Farming methods are mostly extensive or modified extensive with less than 20 per cent of the farms having electricity connections. Black-tiger (Penaeus monodon) is the major species cultivated constituting over 97 per cent of the total production. More than 90 per cent of the 135,000 tons produced and over 94 per cent of the value of exports come from small-scale farmers. Said V. Balasubramaniam, general secretary of the federation, "Lack of institutional finance and insurance coverage is a big deterrent for the growth of the small farmers. More than 90 per cent of the over Rs 3,000 crore invested in prawn farms in India is from the pockets of the small farmers or borrowed from unorganised money lenders. More over, more than 90 per cent of the production cost is financed by credit from the dealers of inputs and companies, since the farmer does not get any type of crop loan from financial institutions. "This drives the cost of production up by 20 to 30 per cent, since credit is involved at various levels in the chain of crop input supplies. If farmers get institutional financing and insurance coverage for their crop, the accrued benefits will make him more competitive in the world market,' he said.

  • Farm loan waiver via cash, bonds

    HERE'S the answer to the most intriguing question about this year's budget

  • The political economy of Budget

    Support for further economic reforms in the context of India's globalisation will be mustered more easily if the deprived sections are assured of some safety net, says M K Venu FINANCE minister P Chidambaram's fifth budget stumped the chattering classes, mostly with incomes of well over Rs 10 lakh a year. The Rs 10-lakh income threshold is relevant because there are less than 300,000 people in India showing a taxable income of Rs 10 lakh and above. But they exercise disproportionate influence on policy. There are many more in the above income category, who do not pay taxes and probably have even greater influence on public policy! The budget also stumped economists, who are also part of the chattering classes. Initially they did not know what to make of a budget that seemed to give everything to everybody. The budget certainly did not lend itself to instant analysis on television channels where many economic pundits were sitting. In the first flush, one economist simply said he was overwhelmed, and didn't know how the numbers would work after so much goodies were handed out by the finance minister. "I am overwhelmed', is what he kept saying. The impatient TV anchor, obviously looking for a one liner, kept pressing, 'Is it good or bad?'. The only reply was,' I am overwhelmed.' It didn't take long for everyone to realise that it is not necessary for numbers to strictly add up in politics. In certain situations, sentiment and psychology can subsume numbers that don't add up. Which is why politics is often described as the art of the possible. While economics parades as an exact science, there are times when economists get lost in their linear frameworks and miss the wood for the trees. Further, what really stunned the chattering classes was someone like Dr Manmohan Singh or P Chidambaram could come up with such a massive loan waiver package. They associated such acts with politicians like the late Devi Lal, Charan Singh or among contemporaries, Prakash Singh Badal and M Karunanidhi. How could Manmohan Singh and Chidambaram do this, was the main question on their lips. However, at the end of the day the budget seemed to have got overwhelming support, if one went by how the vernacular press treated the finance minister's announcements. Politically, it is one of the sharpest statements one has come across in the past decade and a half. Chidambaram's dream budget in 1997 too had a mesmeric impact on the people but this one covers a much wider terrain in its inclusiveness, whatever critics may carp about. It took a while for the immensity of the political statement to sink into the BJP leaders. Initially some leaders tried to attack the Rs 60,000 loan waiver as irresponsible. Later, possibly after deeper consultations within the BJP leadership, it was decided to tone down the attack. The politics of it was visible even in Parliament when Chidambaram said only kulak landlords will oppose loan waivers for small farmers holding up to two hectares of land. The invocation of kulak landlords has an interesting dimension. Politically, it is significant that the Congress is attempting to wean the poorest among the backward caste, scheduled castes and minorities away from regional parties that have established themselves over the years. This would easily rank as among the most audacious attempts by the Congress to upset the present political arithmetic of various strong regional parties. If viewed in this perspective, it becomes easy to understand why considerations such as fiscal profligacy and misplaced budget assumptions do not stand a chance. In any case, of late, a feeling had developed in non-urban India that the country was reaping the riches of globalisation, in terms of mounting forex reserves, high corporate profits, and government revenues doubling in three years. IN SUCH a situation it becomes difficult to convince the other India that fiscal belt tightening is the way to go. Besides, this would be most hypocritical as even anecdotal evidence would suggest that the bulk of the growing government subsidies today are consumed by the urban middle class. Just take the Rs 71,000-crore energy subsidy. Over 80% of it must be going to the urban middle class. The finance minister has also been careful in not going overboard while opening the purse strings. He has kept enough head-room in his fiscal deficit target to ensure that some discipline remains. For instance, he has budgeted fiscal deficit at 2.5% of GDP, when he could have kept a target of 3% as per the FRBM timeline. He can technically spend extra about 0.5% of GDP or Rs 20,000 crore, without violating the FRBM Act. In fact, the expenditure on loan waiver in the first year could be no more than Rs 20,000 crore. Operationally, the waiver of Rs 60,000 crore will occur over three years. More interestingly, much of the write-offs will happen among loans which are already sitting as non-performing assets (NPAs) in banks. So the bank books will get cleaned up to that extent. In lieu of the write-offs, the banks could receive government bonds which they could liquidate in the market or sell to the Reserve Bank of India. True, this may constitute another offbalance sheet borrowing by the government. Even after taking some of the off-balance sheet items, heavens won't fall if the fiscal deficit moves up to 4% of GDP. What is the great sanctity to the 3% figure, one fails to understand. Both oil and food subsidies today are being enjoyed across the board by urban and rural India, and these subsidies have helped to keep food prices under control. It is difficult to imagine the political class surviving if the price of wheat in India were to track international trend. Global wheat prices have doubled in the past year. The price of other mass consumption items such as edible oil too has been maintained at lower than international price. Bad economics, but good for collective survival. So current circumstances in the global economy are exceptional and the budget has done well to admit that there are off-balance sheet subsidies whose value is growing by the day on account of rising global prices. Finally, support for further economic reforms in the context of India's globalisation will be mustered more easily if the deprived sections are assured of some safety net. The benefit of all this will eventually accrue to the growing aspirational middle class. This perspective must not be lost sight of. After all, it is in the interest of the emerging bourgeoisie to keep the present system alive and ticking.

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