Sunday, July 8, 2007

Reviving Agriculture
In what appears to be a desperate move to prop up agriculture growth, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for reversing the declining trend in investment in agriculture. But his approach may also end up compounding the already existing crisis, writes Devinder Sharma.

15 November 2006 -
India is faced with its worst agrarian crisis. It isn't the spate of farmer's suicides, on an upswing and still counting that made the Prime Minister Manmohan Singh to admit the magnitude of agrarian crisis that prevails. The unforeseen slump in agriculture growth rate – slipping between 1 to 2 per cent – in turn affected the industrial growth rate, which restricted quantum jumps in the national economy made the government to sit back and take notice.
In what appears to be a desperate move to prop up agriculture growth, the Prime Minister has called for reversing the declining trend in investment in agriculture; and among the measures mentioned stepping up credit flow to farmers; talked of creating a 'single market' for agricultural produce and to provide the latest technology to farmers.
Strikingly similar to the faulty Vision 2020 that the former Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh, Chandrababu Naidu, had unsuccessfully applied, and was therefore routed out in the last state elections, Prime Minister's approach may also end up compounding the already existing crisis in farming.
Despite the government's projections the fact remains majority of farmers are keen to abandon agriculture and move into the urban centres looking for menial jobs. Agricultural lands have become unproductive. There is therefore a desperate need to revitalise agriculture, restore the natural resource base and provide for sustainable livelihoods. Any development alternative to ensure long-term food security has to be linked to sustainable agriculture.
Let me therefore draw the outline of the sustainable farming systems that the country needs to focus on. This is the overall framework under which location-specific alterations and adaptations need to be tried. What is needed is a fresh approach that takes the ground realities into consideration before embarking upon any policy imperatives. I am presenting a collection of five of the important rational decisions, which would certainly initiate the revival of Indian agriculture:
Sustainable farming
Indian agriculture faces an unprecedented crisis in sustainability. Foodgrain productivity in the food bowl, comprising Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh, is on the decline. The green revolution areas are encountering serious bottlenecks to growth and productivity. The dryland areas (comprising nearly 70 per cent of the cultivable lands) continue to drown in misery and apathy. Excessive mining of soil nutrients and groundwater have already brought in soil sickness. Indiscriminate use of chemical pesticides has done serious harm to environment, human health and ecology.
There is therefore a need to immediately:
a) Draw a balance sheet of the collapse of Green Revolution. We need to know what went wrong with agriculture, so that we don't repeat the same mistakes. A post mortem of Green Revolution is absolutely necessary.
b) Investments and increased outlays for agricultural research that is based on external chemical inputs like fertiliser and pesticides need to be phased out. Instead, financial allocation should be made for reviving low-input agriculture, which uses cheap and locally available technology and in turn improves production, reduces cost of production and protects environment.
c) Draw a map of the soil health of India. In future, all crop introductions should be based on soil health. If a crop (including cash crops) has the possibility of destroying the soil fertility and thereby accentuating the sustainability crisis, that cropping system should not be allowed.
d) Role of technology too needs to be ascertained. Pesticides were promoted blindly on rice, for instance. The International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines now says that pesticides on rice were a waste of time and effort in Asia. But meanwhile, pesticides usage has already taken a huge toll, and pushed farmers in a debt trap.
e) Agricultural research must reorient itself to learn from the existing sustainable farming models. The focus of genetically modified crops must immediately stop as it is risky and expensive for the farmer. This has been amply demonstrated in several parts of the world.
f) Water productivity and efficiency has to be the hallmark of agricultural research based on the local conditions.
Dryland farming
Despite former Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's emphasis on dryland farming, agricultural scientists as well as the policy makers have failed the resource-poor farmers. This is essentially because the entire thrust of dryland research was to bring in an external model of Green Revolution in which the dryland farmer, who manages to survive against all odds, would fit in. No effort was made to improve the existing technology base under numerous location-technology specifications.
The increased emphasis on water harvesting notwithstanding, the reduced availability of water is emerging as a major social and economic crisis. In addition, the cropping pattern has to be evolved keeping in mind the water availability. At present, more the water requirement for hybrid crop varieties more is its cultivation in the water-scarce regions. This is scandalous and unless the cropping pattern is rectified no measures to protect and preserve water resources will be effective. There is no justification for Rajasthan, for instance, to grow sugarcane.
a) Investments in rainwater harvesting need to be immediately shifted to the revival of the traditional forms of water conservation – ponds and tanks.
b) Fodder cultivation, crop planning according to the water needs and availability and the emphasis on the local breed of cattle (and improving its productivity, rather than importing exotic breeds) need to be encouraged. c) Dryland crops like coarse cereal, pulses and oilseeds require adequate policy measures that bring shine to these forgotten grains. Imports under bilateral trade agreements must protect the dryland crops. d) Farmers in the rainfed areas need to be insured against drought. This can be ensured by making it mandatory for the foreign insurance companies to invest at least 40 per cent of their funds for farm insurance.
Pulses are a part of the average diet. Yet, pulse production has remained in the range of 14 million tonnes. Pulses are also a crop of the marginal lands, requiring less water and replenishing soil nutrients. Strange that the country imports pulses and export sugar, whose production needs to brought down. Why can't we launch a nationwide programme to increase pulse production by re-launching a Technology Mission on Pulses and by providing farmers with small processing units to turn it into 'daal'.
Farm incomes
Growing indebtedness in agriculture is forcing an increasing numbers of farmers to end their lives. This unsavoury phenomenon is a manifestation of the declining farm incomes and rising cost of production. No wonder, the average monthly income per family stagnates at Rs 2,100, almost hovering around the poverty line.
a) Farm incomes must be raised. There is a need to immediately provide farmers with a 'minimum take home' income based on the land holding size. Farmers should therefore be included in the 6th pay commission.
b) Schemes that encourage banks to provide easy credit facilities to farmers need to be spelled out. Rural women end up paying 24 to 46 per cent percent by way of interest even in the much-hyped self-help groups. This is four times the rate of interest charged in the urban areas. Farm credit for small farmers should be made available for at 4 per cent interest. Cooperative credit must get priority over moneylenders.
c) Banks should be directed not to confiscate the movable and immovable property of defaulting farmers. Nor should they be put in prison.
d) On top of it, agriculture credit has to be extended to sustainable farming systems. So far the banks are only providing credit for technology-oriented farming systems, which is responsible for the destruction of the natural resource base. Farm credit needs to be extended to organic agriculture, for which an Organic Bank need to be created by NABARD (like the technology credit that goes through the private Robo Bank).
Multiple Cropping
Emphasis on commodities approach during the green revolution has encouraged monocultures, loss of biodiversity, encouraged food trade in some commodities, distorted domestic markets, and disrupted the micro-nutrient availability in soil, plant, animals and for humans. Thrust on farm commodities has also pushed in trade activities, encouraged food miles, adding to greenhouse emissions, water mining, and destruction of farm incomes. The need is to revert back to the time-tested farming systems that relied on mixed cropping and its integration with farm animals, thereby meeting the household and community nutrition needs from the available farm holdings.
a) Contract farming can compound the agrarian crisis. Contract farming provides the companies to go in for still intensive farming systems thereby destroying the soil productivity.
b) It has been observed that contract farming on average is based on 20 per cent more application of chemical inputs and ten per cent more mining of ground water.
c) It is therefore important that all contract-farming approvals be based on farm sustainability parameters. Contract must specify that the company will return back the land to the farmer (which it takes on lease) in the same fertility conditions that existing at the time of the contract.
d) Corporate agriculture must be discouraged. All over the world, agribusiness companies have displaced farmers. This cannot be allowed in India, which supports 65-crore people on the farm.
e) Exotic as well as hybrid seeds should be discouraged. These have been primarily responsible for turning the lands sick. The thrust should be on traditional seeds.
Providing an assured and remunerative market for agricultural producers cannot be left to the market forces. The food policy imperatives of public distribution system and announcing the procurement prices before the crop season have to be further strengthened. Agri-processing too needs to be strengthened, but not at the cost of the domestic producers. Food-processing sector should be directed to use the abundant raw material available within the country.
The 'rainbow' revolution that everyone talks about is actually aimed at helping the industry to exploit the farm sector. Already a number of manufacturing units, for instance, have begun to source the agricultural raw material, including oranges, grapes, popcorn, peas etc, from America and Europe. Domestic production in these crops is going waste. Future trading in farm commodities must stop. Export-oriented agriculture is dependent upon highly intensive farming and should be discouraged. India can create a strong niche in international organic market, which is sustainable and economically viable.
Public Distribution System needs to be strengthened and extended to upcoming agricultural areas in Bihar, Orissa, West Bengal and the northeast. In addition, procurement needs to be extended to coarse cereals, pulses and oilseeds to provide farmers an incentive to produce more. The question of rising food subsidy bill is misplaced since it is far less than the subsidy doled out to a few hundred exporters. Strengthening PDS should also be aimed in such a way that it becomes an effective instrument at tackling hunger.
Food procurement operations, linked to the announcement of assured prices for agricultural commodities, are the two planks of the 'famine-avoidance' strategy that India had adopted and should not be dismantled. Once the government withdraws from announcing procurement prices for agricultural commodities, it is under no obligation to purchase the surplus that flows into the mandis. Farmers would thus be left at the mercy of the trade and the market forces, and if the past experience is any indication it simply means rendering the farming community vulnerable to exploitation thereby threatening the country's food self-sufficiency, so assiduously built over the past three decades.
The biggest crisis afflicting the marketing of farm produce is the inability to manage the agricultural surpluses. It is here that the policy planning effort has to be redirected with an effort to ensure that the surplus does not become a national liability. Farmers have repeatedly and in different parts of the country been dumping tomatoes, potatoes and other fruits onto the streets to express their frustration at the lack of adequate marketing infrastructure. The marketing approach has to be different for the rural and urban areas.
In essence, it is not the growth in agriculture that is of paramount importance. What is crucial for the nation is to ensure that every tear in the eyes of the food producer – annadata – is wiped away. Only then can the country make the process of growth really 'inclusive'. But is anybody listening? ⊕
Devinder Sharma 15 Nov 2006
Devinder Sharma is a food and trade policy analyst. He also chairs the New Delhi-based Forum for Biotechnology & Food Security. Among his recent works include two books GATT to WTO: Seeds of Despair and In the Famine Trap.

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