Thought for food

Improving agricultural productivity is key to our fight against poverty

Thought for food

Roopen Roy

Although it “employs” nearly 58% of the country’s total workforce, agriculture is considered the slow coach of the Indian economy. India ranks second in the world in farm production. It is the largest producer in the world of cashew, coconuts, tea, ginger, turmeric and black pepper. It is the second largest producer of rice, wheat, sugar, groundnuts and inland fish. We account for 10% of the world’s fruit production. But when all the sums are done, it contributes only 18.5% to our GDP compared with services and manufacturing which contribute 52% and 29.5% respectively. Thus, the per capita income in the farm sector is abysmal .The rural poor constitutes the bulk of the 75% of Indians surviving on below $2 a day.

India has always been concerned about food security. Prior to independence, the world’s worst recorded disaster known as the Bengal Famine happened in 1943.Nearly four million people died of hunger and starvation in Eastern India alone. It was not just shortage of food production that caused the famine. The apathy of the British rulers and the hoarding of food by traders also played a role. Even after independence India was woefully short in the production of food. For many years we literally lived from ship to mouth.

However, in the decade beginning 1967, a combination of high-yielding seeds, superior farming techniques, expansion of farming areas, investments in irrigation, higher inputs of fertilizer and multiple cropping in fertile lands led to our “Green Revolution” .But India remains a laggard in agricultural productivity. Our average yield per hectare is generally between 30% to 50% of the best performers. Looked another way, if we could attain the productivity levels of the leaders, we would increase our farm output by 100% to 200% .

Farming cannot sustain 52% of the workforce of India. Therefore, rapid industrialization is crucial. But industrial conversion can only be part of the answer. It will not be realistic to assume that such conversion will rapidly move, say, 30% of the farming workforce to industry or services. The war against rural poverty must continue to be waged in the battleground of the farming sector .

Since the issues in the farming sector are complex and inter-related, the solution lies in a parallel attack and not a sequential approach. There are politicians and social thinkers who advocate that until clean drinking water is provided to every villager, India should not spend a paisa on space and satellite technology. Little do they realize that even for hydrological surveys you need space and satellite technology. You need technology to provide weather forecasts, to spread subject-matter knowledge among farmers and even to run e-mandis and e-choupals.

The first and central focus should be on the improvement of productivity in agriculture by benchmarking against the leading performers and adopting their best practices. Better seeds of superior genetic origin, fertilizers, modern agricultural equipment and improved farming techniques will enhance our productivity.

Secondly, significant investments should be made on better irrigation and conservation and efficient use of scarce water resources. India has vast tracts of farmlands which have limited precipitation. Practices such as drip irrigation will improve productivity while conserving water resources .Large outlays are required in renewing water bodies and expanding irrigation systems. These investments must largely come from the government sector although they should be farmer-led and community –managed.

Thirdly, large investments are necessary in promoting indigenous scientific research both in private sector and in the public sector focused on increasing farm yields and improving water and energy management in a sustainable and “green”manner.

Fourthly, the policy framework regarding land ceilings and commercial and contract-farming must be radically restructured. Commercial farming will change the game by bringing in scale, accelerating the adoption of best practices, creating quality jobs for agricultural scientists, rural MBAs and products of “farm schools”. It will invariably improve access to the global market. Successful examples are available in contract farming of fruits and vegetables like pineapples and gherkins. The farmers have flourished because of their linkages to the agro-processing sector that is largely addressing the global market.

Last but not the least, we must forge public-private partnerships to transform our logistics and cold chain. A FICCI study pointed out that India wastes 30% to 35% of its fruits and vegetables owing to lack of appropriate storage and transportation facilities. The value of the waste (Rs 600 billion) is more than the value of the total production of fresh vegetables and fruits in the UK.

All the five measures must be unleashed in parallel. Improving the farm sector is a long, relentless journey, not an event. Announcement of large-ticket “mission mode” projects from the Centre is not the magic that will transform agriculture. It will require vision, focus, large investments and tough decisions. Above all, it will require a willingness on the part of those in the corridors of power to allow local-self governments and the farming community to take the lead .The Centre must get comfortable with the philosophy : nose in, fingers out. Regulate by all means but do not interfere and try to remote-control from Delhi.