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India at 70: The farmer sways between bumper crop and suicide

Rajeev Khanna | Updated on: 12 August 2017, 10:12 IST
(Frank Bienewald/LightRocket via Getty Images)

Over the last 70 years of Independence, it has been a bumpy ride for Indian agriculture. Amid some major achievements, the country today stands at paradoxical cross roads when it comes to agriculture.

The Green Revolution, which is portrayed as the most important success story in text books is today showing some major side effects. Some of the areas that ushered in this revolution are facing the prospect of becoming drought-prone in the years to come.

On one side, the annual yield of food grains have been showing upward trends with record-breaking production being reported at regular intervals and on the other, the hunger index points to a dismal low. The farmer who had scripted the success story of Indian agriculture is marred by distress which has, quite often, lead him to take the extreme measure of ending his life. Yet this sector still holds a lot of promise provided the right kind of interventions are introduced.

Talking at length about India's agricultural journey, Dr Ranjit Singh Ghuman who heads the Nehru-SAIL chair at Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development (CRRID) in Chandigarh said –

“In 1951, 72% of India's work force was in agriculture and the country's 55% of GDP came from this sector. Today 55% of the work force still remains engaged in agriculture while the sector's contribution to the GDP has fallen to 15%. This means that occupational diversification could not keep pace with the sectoral share. In the long-term dynamics, work force in agriculture should have declined in proportion to its share in the GDP like in the developed world.”

The points of significance

There have been several landmarks in India's agricultural journey. Ghuman explained that the sector got a big push in the first five-year plan when there was a major allocation of planned resources in agriculture.

The emphasis was on multipurpose dams for power and irrigation. The 1950s also saw partial land reforms and consolidation of land holdings. “But the agenda of the country's first Prime Minister Jawahar Lal Nehru in this regard remains unfinished,” Ghuman pointed out.

Till the 1960s, India had remained a food deficit country surviving on 'ship to mouth'. A large quantity of food grains was imported from the United States under the Public Law 480 of the latter.

The mid-60s saw the ushering in of the Green Revolution through the high-yielding variety of seeds, assured irrigation, a supply of fertilisers and other inputs while the emphasis was on wheat and paddy. This phenomenon was mainly confined to Punjab, Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh and some parts of coastal India where water was available.

The decade had also seen the establishment of agricultural universities with a focus on research and development along with an extension of benefits from the laboratory to the fields.

This Green Revolution helped the country become self-sufficient in food grains by the mid-70s and over the next two decades, the agriculture sector grew at a relatively fast pace.

The down-slide

But by mid-90s the deceleration started.

“This was because of the stagnation in yield at the given level of technology. The cost of production increased at a faster rate than that of the output. This led to the shrinkage of the net income of the farmers. All this culminated in the phenomenon of farmers suicide in the first decade of the 21st century. This was recorded more in the areas where the Green Revolution was a success story along with the cotton belt of Maharashtra. Then even the farm labourers started ending their lives because their man days of employment had shrunk because of more mechanisation,” Ghuman explained.

Today the scenario is that of a heavy dependence of the work force and population on agriculture with disguised unemployment. Another factor responsible for the crisis is that India could not increase the area under irrigation to the level required.

“Only 43% of cropped area is covered under irrigation while the rest remains rain-fed. The public sector research and development suffered a setback for want of funds and the cost of research and development in the private sector is very high for individual farmers. The scenario is complicated by the fact that 86% of the farmers own less than five acres of land and they can't get adequate income to support education, health, household cost and agriculture. Along with this is the serious limitation of the over dependence of ground water,” he underlined.

This over-drafting of sub-soil water has led to the fear and apprehension that some areas of the Green Revolution belt may face a drought like situation soon.

Ghuman explained the paradox of bumper crops on one side and food insecurity on the other pointing that 67% of the Indian population – 50% in the rural areas and 77% in the urban areas – face this problem as it does not have the purchasing power to procure food.

He pointed out that this led to the enactment of the Food Security Act whose implications will come forth with studies conducted.

He also pointed to the rainfall variations while describing that the low-levels of rainfall coupled with depleting water table has been adding to the problem. Different parts of the country face floods and drought like situation simultaneously.

“As students, we used to read 'Indian economy is a budget gamble in monsoons' and the situation remains the same. Today while the government talks of doubling the farm income by 2020, the NITI Aayog says it is not possible,” he said.

But, what now?

This leads to the question of what is the way forward?

Ghuman underlined that agriculture still remains strategically very important for food security, employment and industrial inputs and hence there is a need for special strategy, policy and a long term road map.

“What needs to be done in terms of strategy within agriculture is to lay more emphasis on public research and development, development of agro-processing industry with greater emphasis on farmer producers' co-operatives. The strategy from outside should be to create avenues for employing the surplus work force outside agriculture and preferably within the vicinity of their residence. There is a need for rural non-farm sector development and this can be done by setting up agro-processing and small industries. There is a need to overcome irrigation deficiency through technological breakthrough,” he said. Ghuman also underlinined that small holdings remain a serious limitation for the adoption of modern technology.

He also advocated the doing away of the institution of Arhtiyas (commission agents) and other middlemen to cover the grey area between farmers and consumers.

The lack of political will has ensured the survival of such institutions that have led to nothing but farmers being exploited.

Ghuman also pointed out to the policy failure when it comes to farmers not going in for diversification of crops. He said that the farmer is ready to go in for diversification if a viable crop combination is offered to him that would ensure that his income would not go less than what he earns from the wheat and paddy cycle.

He also pointed out that although there is a Minimum Support Price (MSP) provision for 25 crops but in practice, the market clearance is not there for them. In fact, in several states, the MSP is not being given on wheat and paddy.

Interestingly, Ghuman has a different take on the ongoing farmers' agitation demanding the implementation of Swaminathan formula on MSP which calls for payment of the input cost plus 50% of this cost to the farmers. He believes that this formula mainly favours middle-level and big farmers while the 86% with small holdings whose marketable surplus is very small will not benefit from it.

“Had there been any economist in Swaminathan Commission, this recommendation would not have been there as he would have known its feasibility. The alternative to this lies in the five reports of this same Commission that go beyond the MSP,” he said while pointing that MSP is neither the cause nor solution for the agriculture crisis.

According to him, these five reports suggest strengthening of rural school education at affordable cost, health delivery services, strengthening of physical infrastructure and connectivity of villages along with proper marketing of produce and setting up of processing units.

“Rural youth with a good education can develop skills, will be healthy and have mobility. This will increase his or her employability in other sectors and it will even be more meaningful in agriculture,” he said.

“The politicians are playing politics on the issue. Even the farmers' associations are doing the same,” he said.

The answer to the crisis according to him lies in comprehensive rural development plans of which the government is an integral part.

Edited by Jhinuk Sen

First published: 11 August 2017, 18:29 IST