New Delhi: A BJP-friendly NRI businessman's proposal to Niti Aayog paved the way for the creation of a task force that authored a report pushing for corporatisation of agriculture as a way to double farmers’ income, documents reveal.

Sharad Marathe, who hooked Niti Aayog with his proposal, isn’t an expert on agriculture, farming or any allied subject but a businessman running a software company.

Documents obtained by The Reporters’ Collective reveal Niti Aayog moved quickly and eagerly to push the businessman's questionable vision: a future where farmers lease out farmland to corporate-style agribusiness companies and effectively work as their cogs.

Aayog later appointed the businessman on the task force, which consulted mostly big corporations involved in agriculture commodities trade, such as the Adani Group, Patanjali, BigBasket, Mahindra Group and ITC.

But no farmers, economists or farmer organisations were consulted before submitting the report in 2018 to the government, whose aim was to double the income of around 60% of Indians who depend on agriculture as imagined by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. The report has not been made public till now.

Two years later, India saw the longest-running farmers’ protest over the Modi government’s decision to bring in three controversial laws aimed at allowing corporate players in farming and deregulating agriculture markets. Thousands of farmers sat in protest at Delhi's borders, and at least 500 of them died from heat, cold and Covid, forcing the government to repeal the laws.

Part 1 of this two-part series reveals how the government actually went about chalking out its plan to double farmers’ incomes – an ambitious promise made by the Prime Minister. The documents, which show how a proposal by someone with no experience in agriculture travelled all the way to the Prime Minister’s Office, expose the ham-handedness of the government in one of the country’s most crucial sectors.

It all began with a letter.

In October 2017, Sharad Marathe wrote a letter to then Vice Chairman of Niti Aayog Rajiv Kumar outlining a grand vision and concept note to revamp agriculture.

Niti Aayog memo announcing a high-level meeting specifically to discuss the proposal Sharad Marathe shared with them

Marathe and Kumar were acquaintances, which partly explains why the letter got cherry picked from among the thousands of unlucky cold mails containing ideas and letters that land in government organisations like Niti Aayog every year. But most important is his proximity to BJP – Marathe boasted of his friendship with the head of BJP’s overseas friend’s unit. 

Marathe's ties with the ruling dispensation are deep enough to have earned him a place in a government delegation that met the Princess of Spain at the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development, the apex rural bank regulator of India, in September 2019.

Sharad Marathe (centre) with Her Royal Highness, Princess of Spain Ms. Infanta Cristina (left) and Dr. Harsh Kumar Bhanwala, then Chairman, NABARD, in September 2019. Source: NABARD

Marathe, a mechanical engineer with Masters in Business Administration from the US, runs a software company in the US called Universal Technical Systems Inc. and another in India, called Universal Technical Systems (India) Pvt Ltd.

Marathe told us, “ I have lived in America since the 60s.”  “My interest goes into topics that have a larger impact on society. Part of my time I spend running my software company ... And the other part I look at saying what have I learned in life that I can bring to the table that will have a bigger impact on the society.”

But his claim to fame in policy circles of India was something else. Public documents suggest he was involved in suggesting the idea of setting up software parks in India during the rule of former prime minister and BJP leader AB Vajpayee. 

In 2016, while addressing a farmers’ rally in Uttar Pradesh, Modi spoke about his dream of doubling farmers’ income by 2022. Ideas were being corralled to achieve it. Marathe’s blueprint headlined, “Doubling of Farmers’ Incomes Through Market Driven, Agri-Linked Made in India” found an eager buyer in Niti Aayog.

Marathe claimed he had a radical new practical solution that the government should test and rapidly scale up: stitch together land leased from farmers, make a big marketing company with government help, and create smaller companies for processing and farming. These companies work together to make and sell farming products. Farmers who lease their land can also be part of it and get a share of the profits. This helps them earn more money and makes farming better.

He recommended setting up a special ‘Task Force’ to oversee it.  And went another step ahead, he listed the 11 people who should be part of the Task Force. He included himself on that list and the then minister of state for agriculture, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat. 

This wasn’t the only taskforce Marathe was part of. In 2018, the software company owner was also appointed chairman of an Ayush Ministry’s task force for enhancing the Ayush (traditional medicine) sector, a job that didn’t dovetail with his area of expertise just like the farmers’ income taskforce.

Marathe would later go on to set up a separate non-profit company with Sanjaya Mariwala, a well-established businessman running eighteen companies involved in food and nutraceutical business, to capitalise on the growing nutraceutical market. Mariwala was among the 11 names Marathe recommended to be made part of the taskforce on farmers’ income.

Marathe's concept note to Niti Aayog also proposed an outreach campaign to seek suggestions from Non-Resident Indians and entrepreneurs on doubling farmers' income. He specifically mentioned involving a person he knew – Vijay Chauthaiwale, who is known for successfully organising Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s  international events and holds important positions in the Bharatiya Janata Party's foreign policy department and Overseas Friends unit. While the Aayog expressed interest in the idea, Chauthaiwale ultimately did not participate, leaving the reasons behind the choice of a party member for official outreach unclear.

Aayog followed up Marathe’s plans diligently. Within days, Niti Aayog decided that Marathe’s concept note be discussed in a high-level meeting. Suggesting that there had already been backroom conversations on Marathe’s concept note, the minister of state for agriculture at that time, Gajendra Singh Shekhawat was asked to join the meeting along with other top bureaucrats from across the government and the government’s think tank. He did. 

Niti Aayog held the high-level meeting of government officials with seven of sixteen participants picked as recommended by Marathe. They decided to constitute the task force that “would develop the framework” with “details of a business plan”. 

On 8 December, 2017, Niti Aayog Member Ramesh Chand wrote in a file noting, “The proposal for establishing the taskforce has been discussed with PMO (Prime Minister’s Office) and we will await their response before proceeding further”.

The Niti Aayog does not mention PMO’s response but one can guess it. By January 2018 – within three months Marathe first sent his draft plan – Aayog had officially constituted the taskforce. 

 In a memo announcing its creation, the Aayog said, “Preference would be to do this through a social entrepreneur and market driven agri-linked Make in India approach.”

Niti Aayog records do not show why the special task force on Marathe’s trigger was set up in a hush-hush manner when the government had already set up a massive official inter-ministerial committee on ways to double farmers’ income. The task force is briefly mentioned in the Aayog’s annual reports without details of members or whom it consulted. The task force’s report was not made public, either. 

The inter-ministerial committee was set up within two months of Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s speech on doubling farmers’ income. One year and four months later the committee began submitting a report in 14 volumes. 

The report addressed all aspects relating to farming, farmed products and enhancing rural livelihoods. It did not lead to doubling of farmers’ income by the deadline the Prime Minister committed. The report with more than 3,000 pages may not have been read by many in the first place. But it was made public.

In fact, the month the Marathe’s task force was set up, this official committee submitted the 13th and penultimate volume of its report. The committee in fact called for a task force dedicated to devising business models for doubling farmers’ incomes – along the lines of Marathe’s proposal. 

For his work at the task force, Marathe asked for a wide range of amenities. The Niti Aayog approved his requests, show records.

But Niti Aayog’s task force was now in full swing. The mundane but essentials were quickly put in place. Marathe asked for a range of amenities – from a working space and desktop to travel allowance. Aayog promptly granted him that. 

Unlike the inter-ministerial committee that consulted a wide range of stakeholders that included agricultural activists, the Marathe-envisioned task force served as a platform primarily for big corporate houses.

In its first meeting, the task force chalked out its agenda. “The time is right,” Marathe said, “to move from agriculture to agribusiness.”

The Collective sent detailed queries to the Niti Aayog, Department of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare and the firms the task force consulted. None of them responded despite reminders.

(Click here to read the concluding part of the investigation:  Adani Group complained against farm law, and Modi government diluted it to allow hoarding by corporates.)