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A thought for farmers
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The full extent of the destruction caused by the global financial crisis is still unknown. But one thing is certain: The crisis means Chinese farmers will find it difficult to raise their incomes this year. So maintaining their wellbeing has become a big challenge for policymakers.

In his government report, Premier Wen Jiabao vowed to maintain the steady development of agriculture and growth of farmers' income.

To this end the government is adopting more supportive measures than ever before.

A pity then farmers' issues failed to feature heavily in group discussions and catch the attention of media during the recently concluded two sessions.

Many questions worthy of asking weren't, both in and outside the meetings. Among these were: How is spring farming faring after the drought? Is the land transfer reform experiencing practical problems? What concrete steps are being taken to help migrant workers get new jobs after they return to rural areas?

How does the government ensure central agricultural subsidies reach farmers?

One reason that these questions failed to steal the limelight is that so many other issues were deemed more pertinent to the ongoing financial crisis.

But we should never forget that agriculture - the foundation of our national economy - should be consolidated, as Premier Wen stressed in his report. The making and implementation of our policies should not only aim to solve immediate problems related to the economic downturn but also realize long-term goals including better livelihoods for farmers.

Concrete measures should follow Wen's report on how to improve their wellbeing. Much has been said about expanding domestic demand with farmers playing a big role in the process. So it is commendable the government has provided them subsidies for electrical household appliances, motorbikes and cars with small engines.

However, in some places farmers, worried by taxes, lack of infrastructure and so on, are reluctant to spend their savings.

Indeed, this year farmers face many problems stopping them from spending.

We can only hope and pray for a good harvest because more than 2.66 million hectares under wheat cultivation have been exposed to the worst drought in more than half a century. And contrary to normal trends, prices of farm products have continued their southward journey since the third quarter of last year.

Worse, more than 20 million migrant workers have already lost their jobs after factory closures in response to weakening external demand.

The central government has already taken the first important step, giving priority to stabilizing prices of farm products and raising the minimum purchase price of grains. However, authorities have to ensure that central subsidies reach farmers.

The last time the media felt farming was a major issue was during the two sessions in 2008, when the price of pork doubled from a year earlier. Now pork prices have dipped to 2006 levels along with media interest.

Next time pig prices rise, urbanites will feel the pinch and again we'll be reminded why agriculture is the base of the national economy.

(China Daily March 16, 2009)

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