Moves Required for Indian Agri

Farmers can buy seeds with old Rs 500 notes

Government’s seven point strategy has evoked interest among variety of stakeholders—farming community, scientists, economists, political commentators, besides the general public

By K R Sudhaman

Prime Minister Narendra Modi recently unveiled a seven-point strategy to double the income of farmers by 2022. This is a welcome development as agriculture, though important component of India’s economic development strategy since independence, has not achieved desired progress partly because of systemic and inherent problems. It is a plausible and possible target but one has to be skeptical as it looks impossible to achieve in a short span of six years. In a democratic set up, which has slow polity and different pulls and pressures, achieving such targets need herculean effort.

India is endowed with favorable climate, and one of the most fertile land-mass in the world, particularly Gangetic plains. Yet average yield is one of the lowest in the World. This is not the only dichotomy there are many more. India has the largest ground water irrigated area in the world, yet nearly two-thirds of nearly1.6 million hectares of cultivated land is dependent on the weather god – monsoon.

India is among the few countries which has monsoon as a season as it being tropical country and a peninsula, surrounded by two monsoon active seas and Indian Ocean. It starts with South West Monsoon in Kerala and gets deflected in the Himalayas and comes back as North East monsoon to down south in Tamil Nadu. This is a unique phenomenon. Yet India has a long way to go in agriculture despite big strides made in the farm sector during the seventy years of independence.

A modest target of achieving average 4 percent agriculture growth annually has not been realized so far. The closest India came to this target was 3.6 percent average annual growth during the 11th five year plan ending 2012, partly because of good and dispersed monsoon for most of the five years.

India has 60 percent of its land area as cultivable land as compared to 35 percent of China and 25 percent of United States. Yet United States has more arable land than India because of modern agriculture and China produces more food grains than India because of much better yield. China has less area under cultivation in food grains, consumes less fertilizer and yet produces more than the double that of India. China produces over 570 million tons of food grains annually as against India’s 250 million tons.

India is among the top countries in use of fertilizers and production of wheat, cotton, rice, fruits and vegetables, milk, pulses, sugarcane and so on. Yet our agriculture is still in pathetic condition with farmer’s income none too encouraging, land getting increasingly fragmented despite large rural population moving on to urban areas. The main reason is poor water management, largely dependent on monsoon. There is so much wastage of water and fertilizers as farmer education and training is very poor. India grows water guzzling sugarcane in areas like Karnataka and Maharashtra where it should not be grown and not in areas like north Bihar, which has perennial problem of floods. Rice should not be grown in Punjab and yet it is grown there as return is good. As a result of this wrong cultivation, ground water level and soil quality has deteriorated in many parts of the country.

Due to politics a simple Cauvery water issue, the government is not able to solve for over a century, so also several other river water disputes among states and in such a scenario, how water management can improve in short span of six years.

There is a problem. It is a problem of mindset. Several positives that the country is endowed with in agriculture are not being fully reaped due to haphazard development of agriculture. A difficult food situation forced India to achieve green revolution in Wheat in the sixties, when India used to go with begging bowl free wheat. Subsequently came the white revolution in milk and then in cotton production with the introduction of Bt cotton. But many other crops where India could achieve much more are not being achieved because of vested interests. Simple solutions like introduction of genetically modified seeds are not being done to improve yield manifold and thereby raise farmers’ income. This is because of false propaganda being carried out by political parties on GM seeds without any scientific reasoning.

Only time will tell, If Prime Minister Modi succeeds in this massive challenge, through good strategy, well-designed programs, adequate resources and good governance.

Modi rightly listed his seven strategies: Big focus on irrigation, provision of quality seeds and nutrients based on soil health of each field, besides large investments in warehousing and cold chains to prevent post-harvest crop losses. Promotion of value addition through food processing and creation of a national farm market, removing distortions and e-platform across 585 stations

NABARD Chairman, Harsh Kumar Banwala said Modi’s strategy has evoked interest among a variety of stakeholders—farming community, scientists, economists, political commentators, besides the general public. Many a scheme in agriculture, during the five-year planning cycles, generally aimed at enhancing production and productivity which would indirectly enhance farmers’ incomes. The policies were usually farm-centric and not farmer-centric. This is one of the reasons why there is farmers’ distress despite the fact our country has achieved commendable position in food production.

There needs to go beyond food security and think of income security. Sixty percent of marketable surplus in food grains is produced by top 10 percent of rich farmers. Majority of ninety percent of farmers hardly produce any marketable surplus as a result there is no income security to them despite high MSP. High MSP leads to high food inflation and this hits them hard as well.

For achieving Modi’s objective, Banwala said India will have to devise micro-level action plans to augment farmers’ income from all sources and not just from crop cultivation. Farmers’ income can be improved if/when productivity goes up, if/when the cost of production comes down, if/when we ensure agricultural commodities produced get a remunerative price through a transparent price discovery mechanism. An integrated approach had to be taken at micro level.

Also localized solutions are needed rather than universal approach. Land laws need drastic changes, Bank funding has to improve, rural infrastructure has to be created, post harvest losses have to be reduced, multi-brand retail has to be encouraged, food processing encouraged, skill of farmers have to be improved. These cannot be done overnight and six years is too short a time.

India’s irrigation covered crop area was about 22.6 million hectares in 1951, and it has increased to a potential of 90 mha at the end of 1995, inclusive of canals and groundwater wells. However, the potential irrigation relies of reliable supply of electricity for water pumps and maintenance, and the net irrigated land has been considerably short.

According to 2001/2002 Agriculture census, only 58.1 million hectares of land was actually irrigated in India. The total arable land in India is 160 million hectares (395 million acres). According to the World Bank, only about 35% of total agricultural land in India was reliably irrigated in 2010. These are real problems how government proposed to solve this problem as every state has a problem with neighbouring states with regard to waters. The grand linking of rivers in the country has remained only a dream as lot of politics is played by every state and centre.

Once Principal Economic Adviser in Finance Ministry Dipak Dasgupta was asked what is the problem of Indian agriculture. He said in one word that Indian agriculture has to become “smart”.  

A lot has been done in the last seventy years but the cutting edge development has not happened. The reason has been that a holistic approach has not been taken so far for the development of agriculture. The holding is getting fragmented, Technology has been inadequately utilized. As a result, 60 percent of the population, still dependent on agriculture accounting for less than 15 percent of GDP. Average farm productivity is one of the lowest in the World in most of the crops though India’s yield of various farm products in pockets matched the best in the World. This is a paradoxical situation.

If the distribution of monsoon is good, then India’s farm production is good but not because of improved productivity through technology. This season has been the best in the last three years, with only a third of the districts seeing deficiency compared with almost half in fiscal 2015 and 46% in 2014. Importantly, most of the deficient districts are either well-irrigated or not important agriculturally, according to Crisil report. This may bring good agriculture growth this year but the question is are we on an increased farm growth path on a sustainable basis. The answer is clearly No and we are far

from it.

No one in India now dies of starvation as used to happen in the past during the British Colonial rule, the most well known being the Bengal Famine of 1942. But farmers now commit suicide because of crop failure or due to not getting remunerative price for his produce. High input costs and injudicious use of them aggravates his problems. Fruits and vegetables go waste in large quantities because of no development of markets, cold storage and difficulties in inter-state movements. Also timely credit is not available to farmers. Dismantling archaic and obnoxious APMC act will benefit farmers besides doing away with adhoc import-export policy on agri-commodities.

Disguised unemployment is rampant in agriculture in India and it becomes more pronounced during difficult years. One important solution could be to encourage development of rural industries so that sizeable farmers could move out of agriculture and thereby helping farmers to increase their per capita income. This required development MSME clusters all over the country and that is not happening.

NREGA programme is a welcome development to help distress farmers during difficult years.  But the scheme has been abused badly by middlemen and money has been siphoned off by local politicians. The leakage is so much that it has not served the purpose it is meant for.

These are hard reality of Indian farming. .Prime Minister Narendra Modi government has at last taken some positive initiatives after it got a drubbing in the Bihar elections. The people in rural Bihar made their voice heard that India is not shining for them yet. The misery of poor farmers is real and one only hopes that the government is able to come out with solution on a war footing, which at the moment look far-fetched considering the enormity of the problem.

Now technology is there. In an era of internet, communication is so easy that government can achieve wonders though e-farming and e learning.  Modi has taken a good initiative in crop insurance to end the misery of farmers. Modi’s E- portal initiative announced recently will create national agriculture market, helping farmers get remunerative price for his produce as farmers need no longer sell his produce only in local mandis. There will be much better price discovery for his produce if properly implemented. Encouraging food processing parks in length and breadth of the country will not only bring rural prosperity but also help farmers’ get more income. These are good moves but the devil is in their implementation. It certainly will have to be humongous effort to make Indian agriculture smart and prosperous. Like government’s programme on smart cities, there has to be a massive programme on smart agriculture as well. The need of the hour is second green revolution, which has not happened in the last 50 years.

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