Indian agriculture during troubled times and the way forward
By Dr Sarba Narayan Mishra*
In view of the colossal loss of lives due to both the waves of COVID-19 pandemic since its outbreak last year, the news of onset of another such wave certainly disturbs the minds of all of us. Till now, more than 40 lakh deaths worldwide and more than four lakh deaths in India only are caused due to these two waves of the pandemic. This indicates the grave nature of this frequently mutant virus. During these troubled times, this invisible enemy of our human race caused turmoil globally by crashing the world economies in general and Indian economy in particular to the severest extent. According to a study by International Labour Organization, almost 25 million jobs could be lost due to this pandemic situation.
During these trying and testing times, when all the sectors of the global economy could face severe setback, agriculture happens to be our savior, as this ancient profession has done since the beginning of our civilization. It is a fact that agriculture has been the main frame of our civilization since 10,000 years ago in India. Thanks to our diverse and conducive climate, soil systems, vibrant rivers and water bodies and long coastline, all of which continued to make agriculture highly sustainable in India over the years. But there has been a drastic change in the pre-independence agriculture and present day agriculture. The percentage of the population dependent on agriculture going on reducing consistently in every decade from about 80 per cent during fifties to about 48per cent at present. Thanks to our series of agricultural revolutions starting from Green Revolution during sixties to White, Red, Silver, Blue, Golden, Yellow, Pink, Evergreen, Rainbow as well as the most recent Protein Revolution which are responsible in transforming our country from a deficient and underdeveloped agricultural economy to a major food surplus economy globally during past several decades. Presently Indian agriculture is approximately valued about US$300 billion out of which 100 billion comes from horticulture alone, followed by 75 billion from livestock and fisheries and just about 60 billion US$ or roughly 20per cent comes from the so called dryland based food grains like cereals, pulses millets and oilseeds etc.
In spite of severe loss of lives and vocations in our country due to corona pandemic, agriculture has been the only sector showing positive growth during this difficult time. Last year, this sector performed 3.6 per cent growth over the previous year. This was possible because agriculture could be free from all the restrictions in the form of lockdowns and shutdowns throughout the country. Besides this, favourable monsoon, good harvest and uninterrupted Mandi sales could be the contributing factors behind this positive story.
But this year after the onset of second wave, most of the States imposed lockdown and shutdown after April. This time, the Rabi harvest and subsequent Mandi sales are partly affected mainly because the rural pockets of our country were also worst hit by this second corona wave. As a result, wheat in UP and Rajasthan, soyabean in MP and onion in Maharashtra couldn’t reach the mandis in large quantities. But in spite of all these hurdles, the agricultural growth rate could again be more than 3 per cent during this year as forecasted by NITI Ayog recently.
During coming decades, the demand for agricultural commodities will be driven mainly by population growth and income growth. More demand is expected to rise for horticultural products (fruits and vegetables) and livestock products (dairy, meat and eggs etc). Apart from this, the demand for processing products will also rise in view of the global trend. In order to meet these rising demands. the only option left before us is to increase the productivity enhancing the processing facilities of major agricultural commodities. Because over the years, the average per farmer land availability has gone down from 2.2 ha during seventies to 1.08 ha during 2015-16. On the contrary, the proportion of small and marginal farmers has been rising to 86 per cent as of now.
With the onset of green revolution, the per hectare yield of rice for instance has increased three-fold from 864 kg during sixties to 2569 kg in 2018-19 at all India level. Further there exists high disparity in the interstate productivity level of crops. For example, the per farmer per hectare yield of rice in Punjab and Odisha happens to be 4366 kg and 1739 kg respectively during 2017-18. Similar yield variation among States is observed in case of other food grains. Over the years, crop farming has become highly input intensive mainly on quality seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and most importantly on labour and irrigation. In spite of the fact that both Punjab and Haryana are fully irrigated, only 47 per cent of India’s land has assured irrigation on an average.
On the contrary, over- intensification of inputs in some pockets of our country has caused substantial environmental degradation. Besides this, the incidence of cancer and other health-related issues are now reported in large numbers because of the residual effects from excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. This also seriously affect the export opportunities of food items from our country. Therefore the latest regulation on “Food Safety Standards (Organic Foods) Regulations 2017” by Food Safety Standards Authority of India (FSSAI) looking after the Organic Food Lebelling, Certification and Traceability will certainly strengthen the production and export potential of organic food products of our country. Further, the promotion of natural farming can improve biological soil health and local biodiversity and enhance the climate resilience to crops.
Besides all these, another distorting fact is that in spite of our food surplus economy which dominates the entire world, we could fetch a meager share of only 2 per cent in the export of agricultural commodities globally. For example, India ranks first in world in the production of milk and milk products but its global exports share is a meager 0.2 per cent. Similar situation is observed in case of food grains (1.2per cent), coffee, tea and spices (4.4 per cent ) and fisheries (2.6 per cent).
Every year, India used to import edible oil to the tune of 15 million ton which cost around Rs.50,000 crore to Rs.70,000 crore. This happens to be around 40 per cent of our agricultural imports and 3 per cent of our overall imports. To tackle this, we can utilize the vast fallow lands in all the eastern States including Odisha in cultivating oilseed crops like sesamum, mustard, safflower, sunflower etc after harvest of paddy. In our Eastern Ghat region, niger can also be grown extensively in the hilly tracks. Besides this, farmers in States like Punjab, Haryana and Rajasthan etc. can be motivated to shift to oilseeds and pulses from water guzzling crops like paddy and wheat through specific incentive measures.
In order to make Indian agricultural products globally competitive, strategies like product segmentation, quality enhancement, market diversification, market penetration, value addition agri-infrastructure upgradation, skill development, branding and promotion etc. may be adopted. Further, aspects like market intelligence and establishment of traceability system also count much in securing export contracts for most of the agricultural commodities from India in today’s competitive global environment. In this context, some of the recent policy initiatives taken by government at national level may be the game changer during coming years, which are explained below.
1. Farmer Producer Organisation (FPOs) are the institutional innovations in collectivising small holder farmers to address several constraints in agriculture such as rising cost of farming, supply of quality inputs, access to institutional credit, access to technologies, post-harvest processing, value addition and marketing. A massive campaign is underway to aggregate small, marginal and landless farmers into FPOs to enhance their economic strength and market linkages. In this direction, Government of India has envisaged the formation and promotion of 10,000 new FPOs recently with a budgetary provision of Rs. 6865 crores.
2. The electronic National Agricultural Market (e-NAM) facilitates farmers, traders and buyers for online trading of agricultural commodities. Recently, government has removed the barriers for licensing, movement and storage of agricultural commodities by integrating 1000 major wholesale agricultural markets (APMCs ) across 18 states and three union territories and develop the concept of ‘one nation one market’ for agricultural produce. Till now, more than 1.69 crore farmers and 1.55 lakhs traders are registered in this online and transparent bidding system amounting to Rs.1.22 lakh crores through this e-NAM platform.
3. Another positive outcome will be through Food Processing Industries (FPI). As per NITI Ayog, the estimated annual post-harvest loss is Rs.90,000 crore approximately, mainly due to lack of appropriate food processing facilities. Besides reducing this mammoth food wastage, FPI can create huge employment opportunities, boost trade and earn foreign exchange, curb food inflation and promote crop diversification. For the purpose, effective contract farming models and domestic start-ups should be promoted on war-footing basis with suitable forward and backward linkages.
Lastly, we cannot close our eyes towards major technological innovations happening swiftly around us. Those include land resource inventorisation technology, micro irrigation technology, vertical farming, farm automation, sensor-based livestock farming, modern greenhouse and precision agriculture technologies, Block Chain Technology, Artificial Intelligence technology, variety use of drone technologies in agriculture, bio fortification of HYV varieties, soil less technologies like Hydroponics, Aquaponics and Aeroponics and 3D Farming technology etc.. All these technologies are of wider use now in agriculture and allied sectors. Time is ripe now to increase their outreach as well as scales of operation.
In spite of the colossal loss of lives and vocations through these corona waves, all the government bodies, private players, FPOs and growing agricultural start-ups should come forward to transform the outlook of agricultural sector, which has been the savior to our dwindling economy during this troubled time. Aided by arrays of market oriented innovations and digital drive, Indian agriculture can look forward towards a major transformation during the years ahead.
To conclude, I quote here the popular message by Albert Einstein ‘Learn from yesterday, live for today and hope for tomorrow’.
The author is Professor & Head, Dept of Agricultural Economics, College of Agriculture, OUAT, Bhubaneswar. He can be reached via e-mail at [email protected]
DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in the article are solely those of the author and do not in any way represent the views of Sambad English.