Promises galore as parties put spotlight on farmers in Punjab
It would be helpful if economists were to be encouraged to look beyond textbooks, and use their analytical skills to examine the promises made in the party manifestos, comprehend and squeeze it to fit into an economic blueprint for future growth based on what people need
The 'double engine' sometimes works in cross-directions. Often, the focus of the annual budget is on investments and capital expenditures, tax concessions and stimulus to India Inc and economists hail any cut in social sector spending as a step towards fiscal consolidation. This year also, while the budget has reduced the spending on food security, fertiliser, MNREGA, among other activities, it has raised the amount substantially for capital expenditure.
Obviously the mainline economists and business analysts are excited. Some hail it as the budget for the future. But when I look at the election manifestos of the BJP and its allies, it gives me an impression as if I am reading a 'people's budget'. The same political party that tries to cut on social spending in the budget is lavish and elaborate on social sector spending in what it promises for the voters. The focus is on areas that require special attention, and in totality is aimed at benefitting the larger section of the society. The priorities change, and so does the economic blueprint.
While the annual budget is more often than not aimed at the supply side or in other words relies on the failed economic thinking of 'trickle down', like this year's budget did, on the other hand the election manifestos normally spell out a 'bottom's up' approach directing the focus to what should constitute economic development for all. The election manifesto of the BJP and its allies this year focuses on the demand side, something that a section of the economists had been wanting the Finance Minister to focus on for quite a number of years now. The argument is that if people had more money in their hand, it will give a fillip to consumption and the demand will rise thereby leading to growth.
If only the Election Commission were to decide to make the election manifestos legally binding, probably the electorate would then keenly await and debate the election manifestos in its entirety. Release of 'people's budget' would then become not only a keenly watched event, but would lead to heated debates and discussions not only in TV studios but also in village chaupals. Just like the hyped media debates and analysis on the budget day every year, I am sure the release of election manifestos would then perhaps turn out to be a bigger media event.
If we were to take out the outlandish promises and pronouncements (often referred to as freebies) made at the time of elections to lure voters, I find the manifestos to be seriously thought out prescriptions for the economic woes that people are struggling with. Take the 11-point 'Sankalp' (commitments) that the BJP and its allies in Punjab have released for the rural areas. Similarly, the BJP manifesto for Uttar Pradesh and Uttarakhand does come out with promises that makes tremendous economic sense, and in my understanding are very meaningful. Read the BJP manifesto for the three states, and collectively these provide a roadmap for Sabka Saath Sabka Vikas.
That is why I think the election manifesto are in reality, the 'people's budget'. If only the Finance Minister were to find ways to seek public opinion, instead of seeking too much of expert opinion prior to the budget every year, probably we can look up to a budget truly reflecting the aspirations of the people, talking about the real issues that affect masses, and protects the environment.
When I look at the BJP manifesto this time (the manifestos of other parties are equally important, but here we are looking at the party that is seeking voters for 'double engine' government), it promises among other things, a Aarogya Kendra (clinic) in every village, high-quality smart schools in every village, playgrounds at the village level, sports kits for sports clubs and government schools. These are investments that are crucial for rural development, and in fact will help build a healthy and inclusive rural society.
More importantly, let's look at what the BJP manifesto promises to do in agriculture and allied activities, an area where the BJP at the Centre was expected to focus on for the next 25 years. At least, the Finance Minister was expected to give a sense of direction in making farming an economically viable enterprise given the high growth agriculture had sustained more so at a time when the economy had severely contracted during the lockdown.
Nevertheless, the BJP manifesto for Punjab reads like a state-version of what the Budget 2022 should have made provisions for. While the annual budget is silent on agriculture, and in lot many ways gives an impression as if agriculture has been sidelined in the growth story for Amrit Kaal period, the thrust on agriculture and allied activities in the BJP manifesto shows where the real focus should be. After all, for an agrarian economy, and given the negative environmental impacts arising from intensive farming practices, the high challenges have to be addressed by hand holding and creating an environment that encourages farmers to make the shift.
Promising "Mehnat Da Pakka Mull" (right price for the hard work undertaken), the BJP manifesto promises to guarantee Minimum Support Price (MSP) for fruits, vegetables, pulses and oilseeds. To move towards 'sustainable Green Revolution' the manifesto promises to provide Rs 5,000-cr for sustainable agriculture and organic farming. In addition, Rs 5,000-cr will be allocated for crop diversification, something that Punjab has been asking for several decades now. The party calls it as a futuristic manifesto aimed at revolutionising rural and agriculture economy of the frontline agricultural state.
The 'Sankalp' also promises to provide a complete debt waiver for farmers owning less than 5 acres, and commits to provide an annual financial assistance of Rs 6,000 to every landless farmer under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Yojna. To augment the depleting groundwater, it promises to set up rainwater harvesting for free, and also enhance support for solar panels on canals and at the same time encourage solar tubewells. For the dairy sector, a chilling centre is proposed for every village with a processing plant for a cluster of 30 villages. Wonder why the same proposal couldn't figure in the Finance Minister's budget speech.
You certainly can't call it freebies. These proposals seem to have been arrived at after a detailed round of discussions have taken place with numerous stakeholders. Similarly, the election manifestos of Akali Dal, Aam Aadmi Party, Congress and the farmers' new party – the Sanyukt Samaj Morcha (SSM) have rich inputs aimed at inclusive growth. It would be helpful if economists were to be encouraged to look beyond textbooks, and use their analytical skills to examine the promises made in the party manifestos, comprehend and squeeze it to fit into an economic blueprint for future growth based on what people need.
(The author is a noted food policy analyst and an expert on issues related to the agriculture sector. He writes on food, agriculture and hunger)