The crisis of Indian agriculture
If farm ecology and economics go wrong, nothing else will go right in agriculture
The post-Independence history of Indian agriculture can be broadly grouped into four periods. Before describing them, I should mention that during the colonial era famines were frequent and famine commissions were abundant. The growth rate in food production during the 1900-1947 period was hardly 0.1 per cent. Most of the important institutional developments in agriculture emanated from the recommendations of famine commissions. The great Bengal Famine of 1942-43 provided
the backdrop to India’s Independence.
It is to the credit of Independent India that famines of this kind have not been allowed to occur, although our population has grown from 350 million in 1947 to 1,100 million now.
Phase I: 1947-64
This was the Jawaharlal Nehru era where the major emphasis was on the development of infrastructure for scientific agriculture. The steps taken included the establishment of fertilizer and pesticide factories, construction of large multi-purpose irrigation-cum-power projects, organisation of community development and national extension programmes and, above all, the starting of agricultural universities, beginning with the Pant Nagar University established in 1958, as well as new agricultural research institutions, as for example the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, and the Central Potato Research Institute, Shimla.
During this period, the population started increasing by over 3 per cent a year as a result of both the steps taken to strengthen public health care systems and advances in preventive and curative medicine.
The growth in food production was inadequate to meet the consumption needs of the growing population, and food imports became essential. Such food imports, largely under the PL-480 programme of the United States, touched a peak of 10 million tonnes in 1966.
Phase II: 1965-1985
This period coincides with the leadership of Lal Bahadur Shastri and Indira Gandhi, with Morarji Desai and Charan Singh serving as Prime Ministers during 1977-79. The emphasis was on maximising the benefits of infrastructure created during Phase I, particularly in the areas of irrigation and technology transfer. Major gaps in the strategies adopted during Phase I were filled, as for example the introduction of semi-dwarf high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice, which could utilise sunlight, water, and nutrients more efficiently and yield two to three times more than the strains included in the Intensive Agriculture District Programme (IADP) of the early 1960s. This period also saw the reorganisation and strengthening of agricultural research, education and extension, and the creation of institutions to provide farmers assured marketing opportunities and remunerative prices for their produce. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) was set up. All these steps led to a quantum jump in the productivity and production of crops such as wheat and rice, a phenomenon christened in 1968 as the Green Revolution. C. Subramaniam (1964-67) and Jagjivan Ram provided the necessary public policy guidance and support.
The Green Revolution generated a mood of self-confidence in our agricultural capability. The gains were consolidated during the Sixth Five Year Plan period (1980-85) when for the first time agricultural growth rate exceeded the general economic growth rate. Also, the growth rate in food production exceeded that of the population. The Sixth Plan achievement illustrates the benefits arising from farmer-centred priorities in investment and in the overall agricultural production strategy.
Phase III: 1985-2000
This was the era of Rajiv Gandhi, P.V. Narasimha Rao and Atal Bihari Vajpayee, with several other Prime Minister serving for short periods.
This phase was characterised by greater emphasis on the production of pulses and oilseeds as well as of vegetables, fruits, and milk. Rajiv Gandhi introduced organisational innovations like Technology Missions, which resulted in a rapid rise in oilseed production. The Mission approach involves concurrent attention to conservation, cultivation, consumption, and commerce. Rain-fed areas and wastelands received greater attention and a Wasteland Development Board was set up. Wherever an end-to-end approach was introduced involving attention to all links in the production-consumption chain, progress was steady and sometimes striking as in the case of milk and egg production. This period ended with large grain reserves with the government, with the media highlighting the co-existence of “grain mountains and hungry millions.” This period also saw a gradual decline in public investment in irrigation and infrastructure essential for agricultural progress as well as a gradual collapse of the cooperative credit system.
Phase IV: 2001 to the present day
Despite the efforts of Prime Ministers Atal Bihari Vajpayee and Manmohan Singh, this phase is best described as one characterised by policy fatigue, resulting in technology extension and production fatigues. No wonder that the farmers, who keep others alive, are now forced to take their own lives and 40 per cent of them want to quit farming, if there is an alternative option.
The agricultural decline is taking place at a time when international prices of major foodgrains are going up steeply, partly owing to the use of grain for ethanol production. Land for food versus fuel is becoming a major issue. For example, the export price of wheat has risen from $197 a tonne in 2005 to $263 a tonne in 2007. Maize price has gone up from about $100 a tonne in 2005 to $166 a tonne now. International trade is also becoming free but not fair. Compounding these problems is the possibility of adverse changes in rainfall, temperature, and the sea level as a result of global warming. Melting of Himalayan ice and glaciers will result in floods of unprecedented dimensions in north India. If agricultural production does not remain above the population growth rate and if the public distribution system is starved of grain, there is every likelihood of our going back to the pre-Independence situation of recurrent famines. The grain mountains have disappeared and we are today in the era of diminishing grain reserves, escalating prices, and persistence of widespread under-nutrition.
Where do we go from here?
The Green Revolution of the 1960s was the result of synergy among technology, public policy and farmers’ enthusiasm. The post-60th anniversary era in agriculture will depend upon our determination to implement Jawaharlal Nehru’s exhortation, “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture” in both letter and spirit.
If farm ecology and economics go wrong, nothing else will go right in agriculture. This is the principal message of the current agrarian crisis. The agrarian crisis is likely to spread if the economics of small-scale farming is not improved. At the same time, State governments should not promote policies for ecocides (that is, acts of ecological suicide such as free electricity to pump groundwater, leading to the exhaustion of aquifers). How can we resolve the crisis? The first and foremost priority should go to making the era of farmers’ suicide history.
— Photo: K.K. Mustafah
Needed, a new deal: Progress in agriculture must be measured principally by the growth rate in the net income of farmers.
About 35 districts identified by the Union Ministry of Agriculture as the most affected by the agrarian crisis should be developed into Special Agricultural Zones (SAZ), where integrated attention will be paid to natural resources conservation and enhancement, eco-farming, improved local level consumption to overcome malnutrition, and pro-small farmer commerce. Most of these areas are rainfed and attention will have to be paid to the generation of multiple livelihood opportunities. These areas require the joint efforts of agricultural scientists, extension agencies, policy makers, and mass media. Unless the various government departments/ Ministries dealing with agriculture, animal husbandry, fisheries, forestry, environment, agro-processing and agri-business, irrigation, commerce, rural development and finance work on the principles of convergence and synergy, it will be difficult to find lasting solutions to the problems of small farmers. The major purpose of a Special Agricultural Zone is ecological restoration and the strengthening of the work and income security of farm families with about one hectare or less of land. While the Special Economic Zone (SEZ) is designed to enhance trade and export income involving mega-investment by the private sector industry, the SAZ is needed to save the lives and livelihoods of small farmers and landless labour by providing key centralised services to support decentralised small-scale production as well as market and income security. The SAZ concept will provide an effective method to end farmers’ suicides by creating a platform for collective action by all the departments and agencies concerned of the Central and State governments, private sector industry and civil society organisations. The present relief measures are fragmented both in design and implementation, and unless they are replaced with a holistic approach, with special emphasis on minimising risks and maximising net income, the crisis will get worse.
While carefully designed SAZs can help end the era of farmers’ suicides, the emerging larger agricultural production and food security crisis can be managed if the following steps are taken to achieve an evergreen revolution, leading to the enhancement of productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. The five basic components of an evergreen revolution strategy are:
Conservation of prime farmland for agriculture and soil health care and enhancement, issue of Soil Health Cards indicating the organic matter and macro- and micronutrient status of the soil;
Water harvesting, management and conjunctive use of surface, rain, ground and treated effluent water and safeguarding water quality;
Credit and insurance reform;
Low-risk and environmentally friendly Green Technologies (such as integrated pest and nutrient management) and the provision of the needed inputs at the right time and place and at affordable cost;
Assured and remunerative marketing.
These five steps need to be taken and implemented in an integrated manner, so that we generate an Ever-green Revolution Symphony. The above steps are common to all farming zones. However, differentiated steps are needed in the following three areas:
First, we must defend the gains already made in the Green Revolution areas of Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh. This heartland of the Green Revolution, or India’s fertile crescent, is in a state of acute ecological and economic distress. Conservation farming and green agriculture should replace exploitative agriculture. Public policies promoting ecocides should be withdrawn and replaced with incentives for conservation farming. This region will remain a major source of foodgrains for the public distribution system, and hence needs urgent attention.
Secondly, we must extend the gains to additional areas like Bihar and the entire eastern India, which possess good soil and water resources, as well as to rainfed, hill and coastal areas. A second fertile crescent can be created immediately in the region comprising Bihar, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Chhattisgarh, West Bengal and Assam, where the untapped production reservoir even with technologies on the shelf is high.
Finally, we should make new gains, particularly in the areas of farming systems diversification and value addition. There is now a mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies. This should end. A quality literacy and value-addition movement should be launched.
The National Commission on Farmers has outlined a detailed strategy to achieve these goals. A draft National Policy for Farmers has been provided by the NCF, which if adopted will help make the growth rate in the net income of farmers as the principal criterion for measuring agricultural progress. Farmers are ready to help the nation. Are we ready to help them?
M.S. Swaminathan, eminent agricultural scientist, is founder-chairman of the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai.
Independent India at 60