Union Budget 2021: Farm innovation fund needed to support agri-tech solutions, startups, boost innovation

The available statistics amplify the potential of India’s agriculture sector to aid fiscal growth

Randhir Chauhan January 31, 2021 21:02:46 IST
Union Budget 2021: Farm innovation fund needed to support agri-tech solutions, startups, boost innovation

Representational image courtesy Pixabay

The agriculture sector accounts for close to 16 percent of the country's GDP, uses nearly half the available land, consumes around 80 percent of the freshwater resources, and engages almost 50 percent of the country's workforce. Approximately 70 percent of the rural households still depend primarily on agriculture, with close to 80 percent of farmers being small and marginal. Even though the recent COVID-19 pandemic has posed challenges for most sectors of the Indian economy, agriculture and allied activities demonstrated extraordinary resilience. The available statistics amplify the potential of India’s agriculture sector to aid fiscal growth. However, adherence to a traditional approach and unscientific farming methods still loom large over the agricultural space.

Budget 2021 is a window for the policymakers to actively identify and poise volumetric targets with sustainability while moving up the value chain to enhance farmer and national income.

Agricultural productivity through micro-irrigation

As of 2020, out of the 141 million hectares of cultivated land, 51 percent of the land is under irrigation and within this, only about 16 percent (11 million hectares) have access to modern irrigation technology. The government data suggest that in the year 2019-20, only 11.72 lakh hectares have been covered under micro-irrigation.  The current target is to popularize the use of micro-irrigation technology by covering additional 10 million hectares of land in five years. To achieve this ambitious target and contribute towards making the sector self-reliant, it is imperative that the government places a mechanism to ensure a smooth flow of funds, thereby ensuring adequate utilisation by the end-beneficiary.

Special budgetary assistance for micro-irrigation

The financial strain caused by the COVID-19 pandemic has left many states across the country to slash the budget for micro-irrigation. Policymakers should consider supporting the states through an additional corpus of funds either by direct special assistance program or increasing the existing Micro Irrigation Fund (MIF) set up under NABARD to facilitate states in mobilising resources for expanding coverage of micro-irrigation.

Irrigation subsidy

The delays in the disbursal of micro-irrigation subsidies under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) program are hampering its progress. Online portal for an end-to-end process execution and visibility, transparency in the process for fund disbursement, ensuring checkpoints at various stages and adherence to timelines would bring the efficiency in subsidy disbursal and support farmers to be debt-free in a faster way. SOPs to map the district-wise annual progress and penetration of micro-irrigation would act as an instrumental measure.

Water budgeting for the entire village could be created under the model village program and executing District Irrigation Plans (DIP) to push PMKSY goals at the district level would work in advantage. The installation of micro-irrigation could be geo-tagged to get real-time data annually. All these measures would assist to ensure faster transmission of funds to the beneficiaries. Infrastructure status would help the micro-irrigation manufacturer (95 percent of which comes under MSME) in reduced operating costs, thereby accelerating the industry growth as well as bring the equipment cost down for the farmer community.

Aligning different schemes

Focus on renewable energy like solar will not only ensure energy security especially in agriculture and the rural landscape but also address environmental concerns. Making farmers energy-sufficient would also reduce the burden on government energy subsidy bill. Solar installation-friendly agriculture would help farmers with reduced operational costs, boost land utilisation and improve overall income. Additionally, making micro-irrigation mandatory for subsidised solar installations at individual farms would lead to a faster adaption of modern farming techniques.

Diversification programs to increase productivity

Around 12 percent of the cropped area under Fruits and Vegetables (F and V) leads to 24 percent in value terms, in contrast to 13 percent area under oilseeds which gives only 6 percent in value terms because of lack of scalability. Addressing the domestic demand for edible oils, it is inevitable to promote domestic oilseeds and oil palm cultivation with higher productivity measures. Similarly, rice which has been the major crop both in terms of area coverage and water usage can be disrupted through drip technology intervention which can improve yield, save water and reduce carbon emissions.

Focus on creating infrastructures

Special focus and fund allocation in the upcoming Budget for infrastructure in rural areas would support the digitalisation of agriculture and put the agriculture sector on the fast-track. Currently, India is spending less than 1 percent of aagriculture GDP in R and D. An agriculture innovation fund, which supports agri-tech solutions, startups and digitalisation at different levels of the agriculture value chain can transform the agriculture economy in the future.

Interest subsidy on agriculture

Access to credit remains one of the critical elements in a sustainable and more importantly a growing ecosystem. Interest subsidy on agriculture for long-term loans to help farmers with long-term investment in farming and micro-irrigation equipment or infrastructure creation related to farming can go a long way in building a sustainable development model in agriculture. Credit Guarantee Fund Scheme for adopting micro-irrigation similar to Credit Guarantee Fund Trust for Micro and Small Enterprises for MSMEs will be helpful where initial support can be provided by the government.

The writer is Managing Director, Netafim India and Senior Vice President, Netafim Ltd

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