Meghalaya State Budget: Confusion galore
By Bhogtoram Mawroh
Last week the Meghalaya Democratic Alliance-2.0 tabled the first budget of its second term in office. Out of the 31 sectors listed in the budget, Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) got the highest allocation with around 13,145 Crore rupees. This allocation becomes very important in light of the fact that Meghalaya was placed second from the bottom in the NITI Aayog ‘North Eastern Region: District SDG Index, Report and Dashboard Baseline Report 2021-2022’. Among districts East Khasi Hills achieved the highest rank, coming in the 57th position out of the 103 districts in the North East. Being an average rank this means that on some individual goals the performance was even worse. In fact, 91% of the districts in the State were in the Performer category which is the second last category in the SDG index. So the highest allocation to Sustainable Development Goals is a welcome sign and must be applauded. But looking at the other allocations in the budget particularly under Climate Change Goals and Organic and Natural Farming Policy, there is confusion as to what kind of activities are actually being formulated for spending under Sustainable Development Goals.
To begin with allocation under Climate Change Goals is the third highest in the budget with 3412 Crore rupees being earmarked for the sector. Like elsewhere in the world, the impact of climate change is already apparent in the State. In 2022 Meghalaya experienced record rainfall with Mawsynram and Sohra breaking their previous records. This resulted in numerous landslides all over the state leading to loss of lives in some. Agriculture was also severely affected by the torrential rainfall with the yield of potato, an important crop especially in the Khasi Hills, being badly hit in many locations. With uncertainty of weather and extreme events already becoming more frequent, taking steps to combat climate change is extremely important. The inclusion of Climate Change Goals in the state Budget is therefore very timely.
The confusion, however, is that climate change is already a part of the SDG goals, viz., SDG 13: Climate Action whose aim is to take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts. So in effect this means that allocation for climate change has been made twice, once under Sustainable Development Goals and another under Climate Change Goals. The question is how is the government going to disentangle activities under Climate Change Goals from those under Sustainable Development Goals? Inability to do this clearly would lead to double spending under the same heads. Considering that both the goals constitute 50% of the total allocation in the budget this will lead to a huge waste of financial resources for the State which in turn will have a negative impact on its financial health. Things might become clearer when the list of specific activities under each sector is known. Until then it is very confusing.
Another confusion but more of a disappointment is the allocation under Organic and Natural Farming Policy which is 6th from the bottom with only 23 Crore rupees being earmarked for the sector. Just before going into elections, the MDA government announced the policy on Organic and Natural Farming. This was an important step taken to support the Indigenous Peoples’ Food System (IPFS) in the State where the majority of the indigenous farmers are already organic or practicing natural farming by default. Emphasis on natural farming also matches the policies announced by the Union Government. In the recent Union budget, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced the target of getting 10 million people to adopt natural farming in the upcoming three years. In fact on the 25th August, 2022 the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, Government of India, had released the Guidelines of National Mission on Natural Farming to support natural farming (most certainly the State Policy must have taken inspiration from these guidelines) in the country. Two types of areas have been accorded highest priority under this policy, viz., area falling under 5 km corridor on either side of River Ganga and rain-fed and traditionally low or no fertilisers using areas like the hilly, tribal, high forest land districts and remotely located districts, i.e., the North East region which includes Meghalaya.
However the Guidelines as formulated will lead to exclusion of many indigenous farmers in the State. Guidelines Section 10.2 (d) and Section 10.4 (m) makes it very clear that consideration of whether a farmer can be considered as a practitioner of natural farming will require assessment of at least 2-3 years. Then such farmers will be brought under a certification system which according to Section 10.4.5 will start from the second year onwards. These provisions clash with the traditional farming systems practiced by the indigenous farmers of Meghalaya, viz., jhum and bun where plots are cultivated for a period of one and two-three years respectively and then allowed to remain fallow from a period of 5-6 years to more than 7-10 years. Hence, if strictly followed indigenous farmers in the State will lose out on the benefits of the Scheme. There is therefore a need to amend the National Guidelines to take into consideration the local farming systems. If this is done it will have many positive spillovers which will benefit other sectors and here lies the confusion as well.
One of the important benefits of the IPFS as practiced by the indigenous communities in Meghalaya through their local farming systems is in terms of climate resilience. This was unequivocally established by the 2021 The White/Wiphala Paper on Indigenous Peoples’ food systems published by Food and Agricultural Organisation which found that IPFS contributes to resilience to climate change in four ways, viz., insurance against resource failures; adaptation of food resources over longer time frames through evolutionary processes; encouraging positive symbiotic interactions between species and areas in the landscape that support nutrient cycling; control pests and disease, and facilitate pollination; and sheltering the food system from the impact of ecological shocks. This is achieved through the genetic, species and systems diversity found in the IPFS.
For example indigenous farmers practicing jhum cultivation in Meghalaya grow dozens of species in their plots, viz., potato, sweet potato, taro, maize, tapioca, millet, job tears, cucumber, beans, perilla to name a few (Species Diversity). These again have multiple landraces/varieties (Genetic Diversity). A single farmer might grow only four to five varieties of potato but the entire community may be growing more than a dozen local varieties. Same is the case with the other species as well. In locations where jhum is not possible or not required farmers practise bun and wet paddy cultivation along with keeping a homestead garden and collecting food from the forest and water bodies (Systems Diversity). This diversity of options is an important attribute of resilience required to strengthen the capacity of the food system to withstand the shocks of climate change. Furthermore, many of the species and their varieties grown by the indigenous farmers of Meghalaya are climate smart crops like millet which are known to be highly resilient to extreme weather conditions, a hallmark of climate change. It is, however, not the only one. Essentially this means that action taken under the Organic and Natural Farming Policy will have an impact on Climate Change Goals as well. But there is more.
As the IPFS found in Meghalaya follows the principle of natural farming it will affect SDG 12: Responsible Consumption and Production which aim to ensure sustainable consumption and (food) production patterns (i.e., organic and natural farming). Similarly, with diversity being an important feature of IPFS there will also be an impact on SDG 15 Life on Land which among other things wants to halt biodiversity loss (Species and Genetic Diversity). And finally, since 70% of the population in State is rural and agriculture and allied activities contribute 19% to the state’s GDP, livelihood built around IPFS through certification will determine SDG 8 Decent Work and Economic Growth, i.e., the promotion of sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.
However despite its immense importance, the allocation under Organic and Natural Farming Policy is just over 30,000 rupees per village, a very low figure. Also as was the case with the Climate Change Goals, delineating activities under Organic and Natural Farming Policy from those identified for Sustainable Development Goals is going to be very difficult. Not getting it right will lead to problems in terms coordination and implementation resulting in wastage of scarce financial resources. With the Per Capita Net State Domestic Product of Meghalaya already being one of the lowest in the country, this is something the state cannot afford. Hopefully the elected representatives from the Opposition can raise these concerns with the government in their discussion on the budget.
(The writer can be reached at: [email protected])
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