Direct benefit transfer, which is seen by the United Progressive Alliance government as a prospective game-changer in India’s social and economic development, is taking a unique form in Karnataka. The state recently announced an Income Commission for farmers on the lines of a Pay Commission for government servants. This would mean that farmers in Karnataka would soon receive a regular salary from the government. This salary could be merely the transfer of the combined subsidies set aside in the name of farmers, but which often do not benefit them, thus making it a super cash transfer programme. Agricultural economist Devinder Sharma, whose proposal formed the basis for this programme in Karnataka, had been in talks with the state government for the past six years to create an Income Commission for farmers, irrespective of whether the farmers were small or big, and landed or tenant. Even if a farmer does not grow enough to sell in the market, he is still preventing imports by growing his own food, says Sharma. According to the National Sample Survey Organisation data for 2003-04, roughly 100 million farmers in the country earned an average Rs 2,500 a month. That puts almost all of them below the poverty line, with the exception of the 40 million who have large holdings. Again, while 42 per cent of farmers were said to be ready to quit agriculture, 300,000 farmers killed themselves between 1998 and 2008, according to the home ministry. In developed countries, however, farmers were receiving direct income support with the US having spent Rs 12.95 lakh crore between 1995 and 2009, says Sharma. The subsidy given to farmers, including those for fertilisers, power and water, if apportioned among the 100 million farmers in the country, would provide Rs 8,000 per head, he says, citing a calculation made by the Planning Commission. So, why can a farmer not get it directly, he asks. He points out how after the Sixth Pay Commission, a peon today gets Rs 15,000. However, agriculture activist Vijay Jhawandhia believes the better way is to increase the minimum wages of agricultural labour to Rs 500 per day to be on a par with what the Pay Commission gives a peon.
If this is done, the farmer would be truly empowered, he says. What is the guarantee that the Karnataka government will give incomes to farmers when it cannot even bear the cost of paying increased minimum wages under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme? The Centre had refused to pay the increased amount, forcing Karnataka to move court. He doubts the genuineness of Karnataka’s announcement, saying it could be an electoral stunt. “Or, why does not the Bharatiya Janata Party make it its national policy in all its states?” he asks. Again, he says, fertiliser subsidies come from the Centre and hence, the state would be in a spot trying to raise money to pay any income directly. Chukki Nanjundaswami of the Karnataka Rajya Rayata Sangha, a farmers’ movement, recalls that Sharma was regularly invited by B S Yeddyurappa when he was the deputy chief minister for pre-Budget discussions in the last four to five years. Sharma has been advising the government that farmers who grow food for the country deserved to earn at least on a par with the lowest salary-earning government servant. It was a valid argument, she says, adding that the sangha fully supports the move. While Yeddyurappa could not translate his promise into action, his successor Chief Minister Jagdish Shettiar seized the initiative to announce the Income Commission in an election year. The Income Commission will draw the basis for deciding incomes. It could include the kind of geographical area where cultivation is being done, the size of the farm, the production, and so on, says Sharma, adding the biggest challenge would be to find a way of reaching out to tenant farmers who are without any land.