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A substitute for planning

- Learning to do better by looking at other states

Strawberry cultivation has now spread to many villages in Meghalaya

As chief minister, Narendra Modi had to spend a few days every year in meetings with the Planning Commission. It was a begging trip; the Planning Commission decided the allocation of plan funds to states. He had to accept whatever he was given. Gujarat's fiscal and economic performance was good. He was not rewarded for it; instead, he was given less because he was raking in so much in taxes. He hated the supercilious looks and shrill sermons of Montek Singh Ahluwalia; he did not see why Ahluwalia should lord it over just because he had been to Oxford. He was determined to abolish the Planning Commission if he ever came to power in Delhi.

When he finally arrived in 2014, he kept his resolve. That, however, raised problems he had not anticipated. For one thing, loans and revenue transfers from the Centre to the states had to be determined on some rational criteria. That is what the meetings with the Planning Commission that he hated were doing; in its absence, who was to do it? He could have asked Vijay Kelkar, the fortune-teller who gives weekly and annual astrological predictions for each of the dozen astrological signs; for instance, if you are Leo, his current advice to you is to take care of your belongings when you travel. But he was never asked; instead, Vijay Kelkar, the familiar figure who has spent years in the Delhi government, was asked. He passed on the report of the Finance Commission which he had chaired. That was, however, five years old; and it only told how Central revenue should be shared with states. When he was asked to come back to Delhi and show how to do that from year to year, he refused; he was happy to be out of Delhi's dog-eat-dog world.

So the prime minister imported Arvind Panagariya from America, and made him head of the Planning Commission, now renamed nighty - national institution for transforming India. Panagariya walked into Ahluwalia's chamber, and opened the drawer; he found it empty. It was a shock: the prime minister had transferred planning to states, and his finance minister had passed on all the money for it to them. So Panagariya decided to find out what states had made out of planning. What he found was fascinating; while there were sleepy states, some had tried out various new tricks. He was so impressed that he brought out a study of the best ones. None of them is new; but they increase productivity and incomes, and so deserve wider use.

As its population and incomes rose, India has been using increasing amounts of water. First, hundreds of dams were built on rivers. Then, tubewells were drilled to take deep water out of the soil. Now these methods of increasing water supply have been exhausted, and it is necessary to economize on water. The Food and Agriculture Organization, together with a local non-profit organization, tried out an information system in Andhra Pradesh. Farmers and other observers spread across the land would report water levels in ponds, wells, dams and so on to information centres. This information would be collated and analysed, and the results would be sent down to farmers through the same machinery that collected information on water. Local farmers' organizations would receive the information, and act on it by taking various steps to use or economize on water.

Gujarat faces the same problem of water shortage. There, the government has taken a different approach. It gives farmers a subsidy of 50 per cent of the cost, up to a maximum of Rs 60,000 a hectare, of investment in micro-irrigation - either drip irrigation or sprinklers or both.

In Madhya Pradesh, the government trains men under 40 as agricultural engineers and makes them familiar with agricultural equipment. Then they are helped to set up custom hiring centres in or near villages, which they stock with agricultural equipment; they hire and train local young men to service the equipment. The custom hiring centres hire out equipment to farmers, thus saving them the capital cost of buying it.

Maharashtra grows a lot of soybeans. In 2008, an army of caterpillars descended on the soybean crop and rapidly gobbled up the leaves. The crop was destroyed, farmers lost Rs 14 billion, and the government gave them compensation of Rs 4.5 billion - a fraction of their loss. Now, the government has appointed pest spies, who keep watching the fields; if they find any pests - not just caterpillars - they ring up data collection centres, which pass on the information to people in agricultural universities. The academics feed in the data and work out the probability and geography of pest attacks. The state's five million farmers get two SMSs a week warning them if there are any signs of a pest attack; they can then apply pesticides as indicated.

Pests are not vegetarian. One of the most virulent pests is peste des petits ruminants - pest of small wanderers. A ruminant is any animal that eats in a hurry, stores the leaves and grass in its rumen, and regurgitates and enjoys them at its leisure; it includes cattle, sheep, goats, deer, giraffes and so on. The peste des petits ruminants gives a combination of stomach upset, fever and conjunctivitis that strikes bovines. It is deadly; most sheep and goats it infects are dead within a week or two. The 2012 livestock census counted 3,225,000 goats and 166,000 sheep. They are the poor man's cattle and are particularly popular in the eastern and northeastern states. There is a vaccine for peste des petits ruminants, but it cannot be administered like a run-of-the-mill inoculation; if veterinarians sit in air-conditioned offices and wait for goats to walk in, it will not work. The best way would be to visit villages with a lot of goats and send drummers all over to summon goat-owners. That is what the government of Chhattisgarh has been doing since 2010; it has managed to inoculate millions of goats.

Some 10 or 12 years ago, the Meghalaya government decided to try out strawberries. It chose two villages, Sohilya and Mawpran, brought strawberry seeds from Maharashtra which ruled the market, and got the villagers to try them out. Now strawberry cultivation has spread to many villages, which send their strawberries to Delhi, Bangladesh and elsewhere. As the villagers have prospered, the Sunday collections of the Sohilya church have gone up from Rs 2,000 to Rs 5,000.

These are only a few of the stories told by Niti Aayog in State Forward: Best Practices from our States. I do not know how far the colourful brochure would lead to the dissemination of the practices. But in principle, the idea is good; I would even say it is better than the Nehruvian plan. This government makes terrible mistakes sometimes - demonetization is an example - but it also has a good idea once in a while. I hope it will carry forward this idea of learning to do better by looking at other states. And why just states? It should look at other countries as well. The prime minister frowns on officials going abroad; but what matters is what they bring back.