New Delhi: Chief Minister of Bihar Nitish Kumar on Sunday said the income of farmers was showing no signs of improvement, even as he criticised farm loan waiver as a "regressive step" and found fault with the central government's crop insurance scheme.
Speaking at the fourth meeting of the NITI Aayog's governing council, he sought to have the practice of cooking food under the midday meal scheme replaced with direct benefit transfer. Kumar said farmers were not getting remunerative prices for their produce, and "farm income is showing no signs of improvement", which was a "major challenge" for the government.
His comments came amid talks of farm distress in various quarters, an issue the Opposition has often used to target the government of the BJP-led National Democratic Alliance at the Centre.
The Bihar chief minister described the rise in the share of states in the pool of taxes from 32 percent to 42 percent as merely a "compositional shift", saying the increase in revenue was negated to a large extent by the reduction in the Centre's allocation for centrally-planned and sponsored schemes.
The Modi government has often cited its decision to raise the share of a state's revenue — as recommended by the 14th Finance Commission — as an evidence of its commitment to strengthening the power of states.
Kumar also batted strongly to have Bihar granted special category status, saying that the state is far below the national average on multiple parameters of development. The special status will increase its resources, improve access to external resources and act as a catalyst for private investment, he added.
Granting Bihar special category status has been a longstanding demand of the Janata Dal (United) chief. He has been raising the demand vociferously since joining the ruling NDA last year.
The main agenda of the NITI Aayog's governing council meeting was to deliberate on measures taken to double farmers' income and the progress of the government's flagship schemes.
Kumar, however, warned against farm loan waiver, which he said is being adopted as a measure to overcome the agriculture crisis. He also asserted that experience indicates that it is a regressive step from a long-term perspective.
Several states, including many run by the BJP, have waived farm loans to placate distressed farmers, and Opposition parties have demanded that the Centre do it across the country.
"This benefit is only limited to those farmers who have taken loans," the Bihar chief minister said. "Non-loanee and non-raiyat farmers, who are in a large number, do not benefit from the scheme... I firmly believe that farmers should be given assistance through input subsidy. By doing so, we can reduce the total input cost of farmers and ensure higher actual returns."
The Bihar government recently launched an input subsidy scheme, Kumar said, seeking financial assistance from the Centre.
Kumar had held the portfolio of the agriculture minister in the government of Atal Bihari Vajpayee.
Sharing his views on the 'Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojna' — a key initiative of the government in the farm sector — Kumar said substantial numbers of farmers are not getting its benefits.
Insurance companies quoted excessive rates of premiums, he said, adding that it caused the average rate of premium to rise by 15 percent in Bihar for kharif produce in 2015-16 as against the scheme's provision of only 2.5 percent.
The total amount of premium, including shares of the state, Centre and farmers, was Rs 1,122.50 crore, but insurance companies paid only Rs 289.36 crore as compensation to farmers, Kumar said.
"It is evident from the experience of implementing this scheme that non-loanee farmers and non-raiyat, whose number is substantial, are not getting the benefits of the scheme," he said.
The Bihar government has launched its own scheme considering these factors, he said, seeking 50 percent central assistance for it.
The chief minister also spoke against the involvement of 'Anganwadi Centres' in cooking food under the midday meal scheme, saying its real objectives of enhancing the nutrition of pregnant and lactating mothers have been lost due to this.
On the other hand, the midday meal scheme has diverted the focus of teachers away from teaching, leading to poor learning outcomes, he added.
"Instead of being a centre of learning, students see schools as a centre of food," the Bihar chief minister said. "Inadequate infrastructure in schools results in poor storage and untrained, low-paid cooks results in unhygienic management of food grains. This, in turn, contributes to poor quality of cooked meals."
Unpleasant incidents keep happening when the cooked meal prepared in schools have led to children sometimes becoming sick for one reason or the other, leading to law and order situations, Kumar said, adding that this was not good for the teaching environment in schools.
It is time to begin experimenting with direct cash transfers and put trust and faith in the wisdom of beneficiaries on how they spend the resources made available to them, he said.
He also shared how his government was preparing to celebrate Mahatma Gandhi's 150th birth anniversary and suggested granting amnesty to those accused of petty crimes. "Female prisoners or prisoners above 60 years of age may be given priority," he said. If suitable changes are required in the law, it may be considered."
He also stressed that India has a tradition of granting amnesty on special occasions.
Updated Date: Jun 17, 2018 19:57 PM