The news of Dr Manmohan Singh's selection as prime minister has given the farmers, among others, a cause for cheer. Their happiness has to do with Singh's statement that "agriculture should be given first priority. We will work for creating employment opportunities and accelerating rural development." To the farmers, it seems the government means business. They also trust that like in other policies, the Left Front - which is generally supportive of its interests - will also have a say in agricultural policies. However, a closer look at the two manifestoes shows that though both parties agree on broader issues, there are some basic differences where a common meeting ground has to be found.
In its election manifesto, the major party of the Left combine - the Communist Party of India-Marxist CPI(M) - had criticised the Congress saying that its policies were no alternative to the BJP. "The Congress advocates economic policies that are not different from the BJP's," read the CPI(M) election manifesto.
Some of the sticky points now could be the CPI(M)'s insistence on reintroducing quantitative restrictions (QRs) on imports of those commodities which are backed by domestic and export subsidies in developed countries, increase in import duty to protect agriculture, protection of biodiversity and seed rights of farmers and setting up an institutional state framework to fight biopiracy. It also calls for a review of amendments to the Indian Patent Act which weighs heavily in favour of multinational companies.
On the domestic farm policy front, the CPI(M) in its poll manifesto had insisted on strict implementation of land reforms. It said "keeping in mind that 70 per cent of the people of India live in the rural areas, the single most important step for rural transformation is the implementation of land reforms." The Congress poll manifesto skips any mention of implementation of land reforms and suggests only to redouble is efforts to distribute surplus. productive land to the landless.
The CPI(M) has categorically urged "to prohibit sale of agricultural lands to foreign companies or their subsidiaries for agri-business." This statement of CPI(M) runs counter to the policy of the erstwhile NDA coalition and the Congress party on inviting foreign direct investments (FDIs) in agriculture.
The Congress stand on inviting foreign investment in agriculture is directly contrary to the Left's demand that there be no foreign ownership in this sector. The CPI(M) poll manifesto has called for remunerative prices for crops through market intervention by the government which the erstwhile NDA planned to gradually dismantle through a series of substituting measures like farm income insurance scheme, introduction of futures trading, encouraging farmers to set up companies of their own with landholdings being treated as equity base and persuading state governments to amend laws permitting private operators to directly purchase farmers' produces in regulated markets. The Congress is, however, silent on this issue.
The CPI(M) wants to revert to universal public distribution system of foodgrains and ''giving up targeting in the name of reaching the poor.'' In fact, this system of targeting the poor in PDS was initiated by the Left parties-supported United Front government in late 1990s but was not implemented then till the NDA coalition came to power. CPI(M) suggested that 14 essential commodities should be distributed under PDS.
The CPI(M) also suggested that those who are not income tax payers should get the same benefits now extended to families living below the poverty line (BPL) under PDS. The Antodaya Scheme for highly subsidised grain distribution to the 'poorest of the poor' should cover all sections of the rural poor. It calls for a network of fair-price shops and consumer cooperatives covering all panchayats, cutting down overhead costs of Food Corporation of India and streamlining its mechanism.
However, the Congress manifesto does not talk of universal PDS or restructuring of the Antodaya Scheme to include all the rural poor. It says that the focus of the PDS will be BPL families. But it talks about extending the reach of the PDS. The Congress approach to the PDS is similar to that of the erstwhile NDA coalition.
The CPI(M)'s insistence on increase in subsidies on agricultural inputs may clash with Manmohan Singh's desire for doing away with subsidies on power.
There is some agreement between the parties, however, with varying degrees of emphasis on issues. These include increasing public investment in agriculture, ensuring self-sufficiency in food output, greater allocation for developing irrigation, comprehensive insurance schemes for crop and cattle, expansion of farm credit facilities, sufficient allocation to animal husbandry, pisciulture, poultry and sericulture and legislation for protecting the rights of farm workers.