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9-Misc: India's Minister of Agriculture and Chair of GE AdvisoryCommittee resign

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TITLE:  Ajit Singh's Exit: A Setback For Agriculture Sector
SOURCE: The Financial Express, India, by Ashok B Sharma
DATE:   May 26, 2003

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Ajit Singh's Exit: A Setback For Agriculture Sector

In the last week two major happenings took place which show how politics
is given predominance over agricultural development. One incident was the
resignation of agriculture minister Ajit Singh from the Union cabinet and
the other was the shifting out of Ms Sushma Choudhary as chairperson of
the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC).

Mr Singh was, in fact, was pressured to give up his portfolio in exchange
of some other ministry in the Union government at the instance of an
urban-centric lobby. This created an uneasy situation for Mr Singh and he
opted for an honourable exit on May 23.

Incidently, Ms Choudhary has been shunted out of the GEAC after the
regulatory authority headed by her failed to approve GM cotton hybrid,
Mech 915 for commercial cultivation in north India, citing scientific
reasons. Instead of approving GM mustard seeds, Ms Choudhary ordered
further field trials and she upheld her predecessor's decision not to
allow imports of GM corn-soya blend from US for distribution among school
children by CARE-India and the Catholic Relief Services.

Mr Singh's departure is a causalty to Indian agriculture at a time when
the country is negotiating on the Harbinson draft for finalising the
modalities for agri trade within the WTO framework. Mr Singh, hailing
from a farmer's family in Uttar Pradesh, had taken up as a mission to
project India's case before WTO. He, as agriculture minister, had
meticulously drafted the Indian proposals complaining about the high
domestic support and heavy export subsidies given by the developed
countries to distort global prices, affecting the farmers of the Third
World. He raised the issue of several non-tariff barriers imposed by
developed countries to deny market access to the developing countries.

Mr Singh had rightly pointed that some of the sanitary and phytosanitary
(SPS) measures are being used without scientific validations, just to
reject consignments from the developing world. He was firm that India
should not agree to convert the existing applied tariff rates for
different commodities into the WTO-bound rates unless the developed
countries drastically reduce their domestic support and exports subsidies
on agriculture and cut their tariff barriers. Mr Singh had complained
about the developed countries shifting their support to agriculture given
under 'Blue Box' to 'Green Box' and 'Amber Box'.

The Harbinson draft is in the process of negotiations which is likely to
be taken up in the Cancun meet. India needs to continue with its
consistent stand on the issue of finalising the modalities for agro
trade. Will Mr Ajit Singh's successor follow this uncompromising stand?

Mr Ajit Singh's stand at the WTO negotiations, however, did not invite
much opposition in the ruling coalition. What angered Mr Ajit Singh's
rivals in the government is his policies to seek greater facilities for
Indian farmers with a view to protect them from the onslaught of the
globalisation in trade. Much to the dislikes of the Union finance
minister, he pointed out that farmers are unable to reap the benefits in
the era of deregulation of interest rates. The banks' interest rates on
loans to farmers are higher than that extended for purchase of several
consumer durables and cars.

In the last year, farmers suffered the worst drought in the century. Much
to the displeasure of the Union finance minister, Mr Ajit Singh suggested
that the interests on loans extended to farmers in drought-hit areas
should be waived off. But the Union finance minister, Mr Jaswant Singh,
found it convenient to reschedule or postpone the payment of interests,
to which Mr Ajit Singh said it would only added to the burden of payments
at a later date.

Mr Ajit Singh also demanded input subsidy for farmers affected by
drought. Though the government had accepted some of the proposals by Mr
Singh like a hike in procurement prices for wheat and paddy and
disbursement of funds for relief and rehabilitation, major issues still
remain unaddressed. His proposal that sugar mills in UP pay the cane
growers as per the state declared price also remains unresolved. Whether
it is the case with Mr Ajit Singh or with Ms Sushama Choudhary, it is
clear that political considerations and lobby interests rule the roost
and not any sincerity for agri development.