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Published on: Aug. 11, 2022, 11:09 p.m.
A tale of two extremes
  • It is the toiling work of millions of farmers that transformed India from a food deficit country to a food surplus nation

By Ritwik Sinha. Consulting Editor, Business India

With the supply crunch in basic commodities (especially wheat) in the international market due to the Russia-Ukraine war since the beginning of the year, several countries and agencies like the IMF have, in recent months, been repeatedly urging India not to impose strict export restrictions on commodities like wheat and sugar. To rein in inflation due to supply disruptions, as many as 30 countries have imposed export restrictions and India too has resorted to this strategy.

“I do have an appreciation for the fact that India needs to feed nearly 1.35 billion people and I do have appreciation for the heat wave that has reduced agricultural productivity, but I would beg India to reconsider as soon as possible because the more countries step into export restrictions, the more others would be tempted to do so and we would end up as a global community less equipped to deal with the crisis,” Kristalina Georgieva, IMF MD had commented around the end of May.

While the comment certainly underlined a grave global situation, to an Indian it could well have delivered a moment of pride. For a country that, especially in the first two decades after its independence, could barely feed its people, Kristalina’s comment confirmed a dramatic change in scene.

Considering the equation then and now, it does indeed appear to be a tale of two extremes, as an analyst points out. From acute shortage to self-sufficiency to a surplus situation in many commodities, the Indian agriculture journey has been quite a story notwithstanding the fact that the reforms of the 1990s gave preference to services and manufacturing. Even the recent attempts to liberalise the farm sector by way of new legislative laws failed to take off, with vehement protests by some farmers’ associations.

There have been strong undercurrents of both quantitative and qualitative growth, probably best exemplified in the tremendous growth of the horticulture sector which is now bigger than foodgrain. The future seems promising, with the prospect of technology delivering major changes in production dynamics. However, some structural challenges still remain to be addressed and a much bigger issue would be to save the sector from the increasing vagaries of climate change.  

Reaching a commendable base  

Nobody even talks about this today but in India’s recent history, food security has been a major challenge. Between the 18th and the early 20th century, famines used to be a usual occurrence, as the main occupation – agriculture – was mostly dependent on rainfall. Historical accounts suggest that the country suffered nearly a dozen large scale famines in the stated period, resulting in millions of deaths.

“There have been several periods in Indian history, when food shortages had a serious impact on civilization. In pre-independent India, agriculture had been heavily dependent on climate. Unfavourable monsoons, particularly the southwest monsoon, caused droughts and crop failure. Such droughts, sometimes in consecutive years, led to famines. Famines in India resulted in more than 30 million deaths over the course of the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries,” underlines a recently published report by the Indian Council of Agriculture (ICAR).

  • New age concepts like hydroponics and precision farming have begun to take root in the country

The arrival of AgTech firms (agriculture start-ups) is slated to be a gamechanger for the farming community as they help farmers with better market access and the adoption of improved cropping methods in different pockets of the country. Agri-techs now figure among the leading start-up domains which are attracting the interest of investors – they had drawn $636 million in 2021 and $539 million so far in 2022.

New age concepts like hydroponics and precision farming have begun to take root in the country and the government too is giving a serious push to link the agriculture sector with the evolving digital one. Besides, there are a set of measures which the government has initiated (these include consolidating schemes which have existed for quite some time).

Some of these are: supplementary income transfers under the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi (PM-KISAN) scheme; soil health cards for rationalising the use of fertilisers; ‘per drop more crop’ initiative through drip/sprinkler irrigation for optimal utilisation of water, thereby reducing cost of inputs and increasing productivity; Kisan Credit Cards (KCC) offering production loans to even dairy & fishery farmers (besides agricultural ones); formation and promotion of 10,000 FPOs; adoption of drone technologies in agriculture which have a potential to revolutionise the Indian agriculture scene, and so on.

Battling challenges 

But there are some serious challenges which are also structural in nature. “Indian agriculture continues to battle several intimidating challenges. These include increasing productivity, profitability and resilience against the backdrop of an increasing population, depleting the natural resource base, aggravating climate change and reducing farm income,” says the report by ICAR while pointing out that in agriculture practices, the target in the medium run should include reducing fertiliser use (25 per cent) water use (20 per cent), increasing use of renewable energy (50 per cent), reducing greenhouse gas emission intensity (45 per cent) and rehabilitating the extent of degraded land (which stands at 26 million hectares).

As per a report, climate change is going to disrupt the production pattern in over 150 districts in the coming decades and the government is currently working on a plan to encourage a new farming strategy in these pockets. Stakeholders also point at diverse sets of issues which Indian agriculture will have to deal with to emerge stronger.

“Low investment, small land holding, over-dependence of rural India on agriculture, low income for actual growers, depleting ground water, etc are some of the basic challenges which will have to addressed in the coming years,” says Chaudhary Pushpendra Singh, President of Kisan Shakti Sangh which was recently in the forefront of opposition to the farm bills. 

  • Is agriculture’s business balance is tilting in favour of horticulture?

Siraj Chaudhary, Chairman, National Collateral Management Services and a commodity sector veteran in the country strongly believes that production in the future should be strictly governed by business metrics. “Demanding an appropriate production pattern is what we will need. Producing more with less using advanced scientific techniques, should be the guiding strategy,” says he.

Even as the government’s recent emphasis on natural farming is dismissed by most stakeholders saying it can be pursued only in selective pockets, farmer leaders like Anil Ghanwat believe that in horticulture, India has enormous scope in the future. “With the right kind of backend infrastructure support, India can rule the world in horticulture,” says he.

During the course of this decade, the country is expected to witness the emergence of a revolution in an allied sector – the blue revolution which will propel the fortunes of stakeholders in India’s vast marine sector. Interestingly, in the past 75 years, the highest share of agriculture in GDP was recorded around 1970 when it had touched a peak figure of 43 per cent. Since then, it has been in a declining mode, dipping to even less than a fifth of the total economy.

However, since 2017-18 an uptick has been noticed and as per government data, it crossed the 20 per cent mark in 2020-21 after more than two decades. So, are we noticing the beginning of a serious reversal in agriculture vis-à-vis its contribution to the national economic growth? It is probably too early to reach a definite conclusion.

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