A word of thanks: Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and United Progressive Alliance chairperson Sonia Gandhi with Punjab farmers who thanked the Central government for waiving their loans, in New Delhi on Monday. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Monday assured a gathering of farmers from Punjab that the UPA government would address their grievances. However, as the budget is to be presented on Friday, Dr. Singh said it would be inappropriate to discuss the issues raised by them at this juncture. The farmers called on him to express gratitude for waiving off their loans. They submitted a charter of demands to him. In particular, they wanted the government to announce a debt relief package for small and marginal farmers in the budget. Dr. Singh said, "I understand the agony of the people of Punjab, especially farmers,' and sought to remind them that even last year, the UPA government announced a loan waiver for Punjab. The government wanted to see Punjab prosper, he said and thanked the farmers for organising the "thanksgiving rally' as it "exposed' the Akali Dal's claim of the Centre ignoring the State's farmers. The Akali Dal had been organising rallies, saying the UPA government was not protecting the Punjab farmers. "This is absolutely wrong and by coming here in such large numbers, you have proved it. The rights and interests of the people of Punjab are safe in the hands of the UPA government.' Dr. Singh and Ms. Gandhi also met another delegation of farmers from north India at the Congress president's residence during the day. At a press conference, party spokesman Abhishek Singhvi said the Congress strongly supported the legitimate demands of diverse sections of the farming community. Referring to farmers' meetings with the Prime Minister and Ms. Gandhi, he said the Congress always played a "pioneering and historic' role in developing agriculture. The government had kept up this tradition since 2004 with a series of "unique' initiatives "tailored and focussed' on the agricultural sector, which has seen an increase in allocation in the past three-and-half years of a scale not seen in the preceding years. He was confident that the government would respond positively to the farmers' demands for loan waiver or significant softening of the loan burden.

Sonia Nudges Manmohan On Package For Farmers, Women And Tax Breaks Setting the agenda for the government, Congress chief Sonia Gandhi has asked it to focus on farm loans, women-related schemes and income tax slabs in the Budget. During three rounds of deliberations with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh spread over the last week, the UPA chief, sources disclosed, sought to nudge her visitor on what she thinks should be the defining themes of the Budget in an election year. Sonia was keen on a package for farmers and there were already signs to suggest that the PM may have already heeded the advice. Addressing a group of farmers from Punjab asking for debt relief for small and marginal land owners, Singh said, "I would like to assure you that under the leadership of Sonia Gandhi, our government will pay attention to the demands listed in the memorandum submitted.' The Congress chief also made no bones of the fact that the package figures on the top of the "to do' list she has framed for the government. "We know farmers are facing difficult times. I hope, I know Manmohan Singh's government will give due attention to your demands,' Sonia said. Sources rated the chances of a waiver, at least on the interest component, for defaulters among small and marginal farmers as a certainty. As reported by TOI on December 31, the package could cover bad and doubtful loans worth at least Rs 30,000 crore. While the PM refused to get into details citing Budget confidentiality, the government's receptivity to suggestions from political leadership should be happy augury for those expecting a relook at income tax slabs. While the government was expected to push up the exemption limit to Rs 1.25 lakh from Rs 1.1 lakh at present, an upward revision in the tax slab was not being hotly pursued by the finance ministry. An increase in the basic slab of 10% from Rs 1.5 lakh to Rs 2 lakh would cost the exchequer around Rs 5,000 crore and the tax department brass was not keen on foregoing easy money coming its way. Given the enhanced stakes for the party in wooing urban India, the party leadership is hoping that Sonia's prod might cause them to pull out their calculators once again. Delimitation has increased the number of urban constituencies where tax payers constitute a significant slice of the electorate while Delhi, which boasts of the largest number of salaried tax payers in the country, is scheduled to go to polls later this year. The party expects tax concession to help blunt BJP's attempt to reclaim its constituency among the urban middle class. Apart from the plight of farmers, Sonia has also asked the government to focus on schemes aimed at empowering women. She had made this priority plain while on a visit to her constituency last week, and the preference for "gender justice' was repeated during the interactions with Singh. Sources said that among other things, the Integrated Child Development Scheme was likely to be strengthened. sidhartha.kumar@timesgroup.com diwakar.asthana@timesgroup.com POPULAR TOUCH: Manmohan Singh and Sonia Gandhi with a delegation of farmers from Punjab, in New Delhi on Monday

By Devinder Sharma Union Finance Minister P Chidambaram should address the woes of those ailing farmers in the budget. General elections are around the corner. It is therefore more of a political compulsion than the requirements of a prudent fiscal policy that should have automatically diverted public funds for the ailing agrarian sector. Unfortunately, the game plan all these years has been to ignore agriculture and instead pamper the bloated rich of big business to grow richer. No budget is complete without the Finance Minister reminding the country, with possibly a catchy phrase thrown-in, the Herculean task his budget will perform in addressing the agrarian crisis. P Chidambaram is no exception. He often quotes a couplet from the writings of some of the best-known poets, saints and thinkers of south India. After all, 60 per cent of the population is still directly engaged in farming. Despite all these efforts to rescue agriculture, the annual budget has truly been a carnival for the rich and beautiful. As the veteran economist Kamal Nayan Kabra reminds us: "Indeed, the corporate income tax foregone by the government is trivially less than the total amount spent by both the central government and the 28 state governments on all rural development schemes.' Accordingly, in 2004-05 Rs 2.06 lakh crore was the revenue loss from the numerous tax concessions, exemptions and incentives, the total excise, customs and personal income tax and corporate income tax exemptions. In 2005-06, these exemptions amounted to Rs 2.35 lakh crore. For the debt-ridden farmers, and despite reports of farmers suicides regularly pouring in from various parts of the country, the Finance Minister will gloat while announcing that he has managed to meet the target of providing Rs 2.25 lakh crore as farm credit in 2007-08. Ironically, this is less than the total revenue loss of Rs 2.35 lakh crore incurred a year earlier from tax exemptions for India Inc. Isn't it therefore strange economics? What millions of farmers get is simple gratitude (and credit), whereas a few hundred rich walk away with almost an equal amount as direct income (money saved by way of tax exemptions is like money earned). Why can't the industries be asked to avail more credit, and let the direct income be for the farmers? I have often wondered as to how does the economist justify more credit to farmers who are already reeling under the burden of non-repayment of credit. Well, everyone knows that farmers are committing suicide because they cannot repay back the loans. Mounting indebtedness is the reason behind the death toll on the farm. Why can't the Finance Minister make an honest effort to pull these farmers from the credit trap? Why can't the Finance Minister actually provide farmers with more steady and assured monthly income? After all, like all of us what the farmers too need is a monthly take-home income package. The first step that needs to be taken is to write-off the outstanding dues of small and marginal farmers owning less than 5 acres of land in irrigated areas and 20 acres in un-irrigated regions. There is already a talk of writing-off Rs 65,000-crore, including Rs 25,000-crore, which the nationalised banks fear would be the non-performing asset. The accumulating losses that the farm sector has been incurring year after year are much higher than this amount. Such bad debts need to be immediately struck off so as to provide a new lease of life to the debt-ridden farmer. In fact, the UPA government should have done this soon after it came into power in May 2004. At the same time, lowering the interest rate for farm loans to 4 per cent across board is also required. In China, the interest rate for credit to small farmers has been abolished. Along with this, what is more important and does not require any fiscal outlay is the need to abolish the draconian law that was enacted during the British Raj. Between 1904 and 1912, the British had framed Public Demand Recovery Act, under which farmers could be jailed for defaulting the State for a paltry sum. So much so that even the jail expenses were to be borne by the farmers. The banks have very cleverly used the same provisions for debt recovery in agriculture. Striking out the bad debt needs to be accompanied by a new farm policy that guarantees against making this a recurring exercise. Unless the government ensures that the National Food Security Mission and the Rs 25,000-crore fund it has set aside for agriculture as per the recommendation of the National Development Council are diverted to a nationwide Low External Input Sustainable Agriculture (LEISA) programme, the cycle of mounting indebtedness and then writing-off loans will not end. Replacing the current system of fertiliser subsidy wherein the government reimburses the industry for production expenses can make a beginning. Fertiliser subsidy, which is expected to touch Rs 50,000-crore in the near term, should in future be provided directly to farmers. What is acting as a roadblock for implementing this recommendation is the lack of political consensus. Farmers should be encouraged to utilise this subsidy for shifting to organic means of production. Such an initiative will drastically reduce the cost of production, rejuvenate the soils, provide income to farmers and also reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

The Bata Atha agro technological farm was set up as a tribute to the farmers of Ruhunu Magam Pattu, said the Minister of Ports and Aviation Chamal Rajapaksa. The Minister was addressing a meeting at Siyabalaheddewa in Weeraketiya DS area that followed the opening of several common amenities including a housing scheme set up by the Southern Development Authority (SDA) under the Jathika Saviya Gama Neguma programme. Rs. 3,197,037.80 were spent for the projects. The Minister said that the farmer community is the lifeblood of the nation and that it is the community that produces the staple food, rice. They are an asset and a legacy for a nation. We provide them necessary facilities and protect them like precious gems. He said the farming community has a lot of things to learn from the agro technology farm at Bata Atha. I request them to visit it in order to learn the latest technology in farming. The Minister said late D. A. Rajapaksa was instrumental in setting up the Chandrikawewa reservoir at Embilipitiya. That was also a tribute for the farming community. He said 4,000 villages are being developed in Sri Lanka under the Jathika Saviya Gama Neguma programme. The SDA has been entrusted with several villages under the programme in Hambantota district. The Minister said President Mahinda Rajapaksa became President in 2005. He is a leader with farsighted policies as such the people decided to elect him President. He said President's farsightedness has brought the NE conflict almost to an end. The cost of living has risen as a result of a colossal sum of money spent in this endeavour. The Minister said the people of Deduru Oya grow gotukola and earn a substantial income from it. They export them to America through an agency. In America they convert gotu kola into powder and tablets and export them to Sri Lanka. Ranjith Gunasekera Chairman and Director General SDA said that the Siyabalaheddewa village is an underdeveloped village which was known to him since 1970. A period of transition has occurred in the village with projects implemented under the Jathika Saviya Maga Neguma programme. He said President Mahinda Rajapaksa who is familiar with the less fortunate downtrodden masses implements development programmes to elevate them to the status of the haves. The Minister said we summoned the Jana Sabha to identify the priorities that need development in the village of Siyabalaheddewa. We as SDA utilised funds provided to us for fruitful purposes and the people reap the benefits of it. The Chief Coordinating Secretary to the President Upul Dissanayaka, Coordinator to the President Wasantha Gunasekera, SPC Minister V. K. Indika and SPC Chairman Somawansa Kodagoda were present.

World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF-N) Faisalabad will organise a three-day Agri-skills training workshop here from February 26 to 28. The workshop will focus on sugarcane sowing, disease resistant and high yielding varieties of sugarcane, operation of farmer's field schools and necessary skills to transfer technology. Project Officer WWF Rana Lal Khan Babar said that Dr Arshad Ali Chattha, Director Sugarcane Research Institute Faisalabad, Dr Shahid Afghan, Director Shakar Ganj Sugarcane Research Institute Shakar Ganj Sugar Mills Jhang and Makhdoom Arif Hameed of WWF Lahore will deliver lectures and give presentations. They would also elaborate new technologies to get maximum yield with minimum use of water. Copyright Business Recorder, 2008

Spring is not far away and the villagers of Gatana, Paro know it well. But the farmers are not in a hurry - they know they will finish their work well in time. With the sound of few power-tillers echoing from the hills, that enclose the village located below Dzongdaka monastery, Gatana farmers say that what they did in a week's time in the past can now be done in a day. Behind all their confidence is the power-tiller, what many farmers call the farmer's norbu (precious jewel). What was once considered a status symbol has become a practical necessity to farmers all over the country. It is, in the words of one of the first power-tiller owners in Paro, Tshering Pem, an "agent of change' in Bhutanese farming. Tshering Pem, 68, recalls the first day when her late husband, a former gup brought home a power-tiller in 1981. "All my neighbours came with tea and khadar to celebrate the occasion. I didn't know why then,' she said with a contented smile. "I do now. It became so significant in my life,' added the successful farmer. A multipurpose machine - from fetching water to ploughing fields to ferrying people About a kilometre below Tshering Pem's house, the Agriculture Machinery Centre is hosting another significant function. The Japanese government is handing over 179 power-tillers to the centre under the KRII grant, which will travel to various dzongkhags to make a difference in the lives of farmers. "Nothing can beat the power-tiller,' says farmer Lhamu in Lobesa. "From fetching water to ploughing fields to ferrying people, it can do it all,' says Lhamu. "Without it, farming would be difficult or, at least, different.' Many farmers like Lhamu feel that farming would indeed be difficult without power tillers. One of the immediate benefits, according to farmer Thanka, was that it solved the problem of labour shortage. "With every parent knowing the value of education, there were no hands left to help on the farm,' said the former gup. "Power-tillers came as a blessing. It can do both men's and women's work. Moreover, it can do 20 men's work in a day.' Aum Tshering Pem recalls how her neighbors relied on her power-tiller to help them. "It was like magic as it tilled terrace after terrace within minutes,' she says. "Many people stopped their work and watched it for hours.' A prosperous farmer, Aum Tshering Pem says the power-tiller is more valuable than her Toyota land cruiser. Farmers run short of adjectives when asked how power-tillers changed their lives. According to one of the early owners in Paro, Gup Dep Dorji in Shari, for many farmers, they are valued more than their parents. "There are no words to describe how it helped Bhutanese farmers,' he says. Dorji bought his tiller in 1987 and boasts that it still works fine. "The greatest thing the tiller brought to farmers was that it relieved both men and women of their drudgery,' he says. "It's a multipurpose machine. I'd prefer it to a truck.' Dorji has a long list of what the tiller can do, and says that it enhanced farmer's income from cash and food crops and made many self sufficient. "From the same area of land, yields are almost doubled when a tiller is used,' he says. AMC officials say that a power-tiller can till 1 to 1.5 acres of land in a day. "That would be the work of four pairs of bulls,' said the official. A power tiller can plough, transplant rice, thresh paddy, and pump water, besides doing many other domestic work. Aum Tshering Pem's village, with about 30 households, has now about 15 power-tillers. AMC's administrative officer, Wangchuk, who served with the centre since its inception in 1984, says that he has witnessed a sea-change since the machine's intervention in Bhutanese farming. "It has helped farmers improve yield, save cost, and lessened drudgery,' he says. "Today, it has become indispensable in farming.' The tillers from the KRII grant are sold at a subsidized rate to farmers. However, the cost of one has gone up from Nu 19,500 in 1983 to about Nu 112,000 now. Wangchuk said that the centre tied up with Bhutan Development Finance Corporation to lend farmers money to purchase the machines. "Today, farmers buy, even paying cash down,' he says. According to the centre's engineer, Kinga Norbu, because of the demand, distribution is done to ensure that every dzongkhag gets the machine. He said that Paro, Punakha, Wangduephodrang have the highest demand, but preference is given to farmers' groups. The demand for power-tillers is so high that a few private firms have started importing them from China and India. Paro has the highest number of power tillers at 458, followed by Punakha with 241, and Wangdue with 221. Remote dzongkhags like Zhemgang have 40 and Gasa 34. Yesterday, at the handing-over ceremony, the programme director of the centre, Chetem Wangchen, said that the popularity of the tiller has become evident with a huge surge in demand. More than 800 farmers have already applied for tillers since last year. From 30 sold in the first lot in 1983, AMC has distributed 2,180 to date. Meanwhile, the list of the KRII grant, the 20th instalment, was handed over to the agriculture secretary, Sherub Gyeltshen, by Mr Keizo Takewaka, minister, Japanese Embassy in New Delhi, India. At the ceremony, the minister commended the agriculture ministry for their policy in mechanizing agriculture and said that the Japanese government was happy to see their assistance put to best use in Bhutan. "We're happy to see that our assistance is helping the development of agriculture and rural farmers,' said Mr Keizo Takewaka. The agriculture secretary, Sherub Gyeltshen said that the KRII grant is an unprecedented and unique grant from the Japanese government in achieving Bhutan's food self sufficiency policy and developing agriculture. "The grant has benefitted Bhutanese farmers, especially when most are dependent on agriculture, farmlands are located in difficult terrain and when there is an acute shortage of farm labour,' he said. Back in Gatana, two men are taking their power-tiller home after a day's work. "I've made Nu 3,000 from hiring out my tiller today,' says the proud owner of the tiller. "It will be enough for my daughter's shopping when she goes back to school.' By Ugyen Penjore ugyenpen@kuensel.com.bt

Seeking relief: UPA chairperson Sonia Gandhi listens to the grievances of farmers from Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra at her residence in New Delhi on Thursday. Congress president Sonia Gandhi on Thursday assured delegations of farmers from Haryana, Rajasthan and Maharashtra that she would convey their budgetary demands to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and Finance Minister P. Chidambaram. The delegations sought waiver of farmers' debts, reduction in interest rates on loans, remunerative prices for farm produce, health insurance for farm families and crop insurance. They highlighted the high costs of inputs, crop losses on account of calamities (Rajasthan delegation spoke about the heavy damage to mustard crop from frost), lack of adequate power and poor quality of seeds. Among those who formed part of the delegations were S.S. Surjewala, Ashok Gehlot and Mukul Wasnik. On Friday, farmers' representatives have convened an emergency meeting of the National Council of the organisation of farmers and farm labour to discuss the financial and social problems of farmers. They will finalise a charter of demands to be sent to the Prime Minister.

AHEAD of the Union budget, which is expected to make major announcements for the farm sector, Congress president Sonia Gandhi and Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met farmers' representatives from Maharashtra, Haryana and Rajasthan here on Thursday. A large number of farmers from these states were given audience with Ms Gandhi at her 10 Janpath residence in a bid to give her an opportunity to directly understand their problems, the party said. Congress leaders who attended the meeting said Ms Gandhi had assured them that "she would talk to PM and the FM' about their concerns. However, the Congress chief has already conveyed her message to the government that the budget should be aimed at the

THE upcoming Union Budget should have a special focus on women and farmers. This message was conveyed by Congress chief Sonia Gandhi while speaking at a function in her constituency, Rae Bareli, on Wednesday, where she expressed certainty that finance minister P Chidambaram would "keep the common man's difficulties, especially faced by women and farmers, in mind while preparing the budget'. Speaking at a Bank of Baroda function to launch the 1,000th self-help group, Ms Gandhi was also quoted by agencies as saying that while 8-9% economic growth was not a mean achievement, real happiness would come when the common man's difficulties are wiped out. She added that health and education were keys for achieving real happiness. The comments are politically significant as many in the Congress have been saying much the same thing. At a pre-budget meeting with Mr Chidambaram recently, Congress leaders pointed out that 9% growth alone growth was unlikely to pay dividends for the party in an election year. They had asked the FM to focus on the

Chief Minister Shivraj Singh has announced waiver of the pending penalty on electricity bills of farmers, payment of their fifty percent pending electricity bills, arrangement for payment of electricity bills by farmers twice in a year, extension of benefit of Deen Dayal Upchar Yojana to farmers owning upto one hectare of land, additional bonus of Rs. 100 per quintal on procurement of wheat on minimum support price this year. The Chief Minister also announced to reduce the interest rate on cooperative farm loans from seven to five percent from April one next.