Agriculture – India’s road to prosperity

Agriculture in India

The grain bowl states Punjab, Haryana, Andhra, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh, and Assam evoke in our minds a beautiful picture of lush green fields replete with hard working men and women working in unison and tranquility. The green revolution in the late 60s and its resounding success meant that India attained food self-sufficiency within a decade by the end of the 1970s. This ushered in levels of prosperity hitherto unseen, amongst many of the states especially Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu. This wave of success was followed by several other waves of smaller but arguably consequential periods of research in food production and implementation, which helped cement the idea in the minds of not just the common man but the government itself, that all was well with Indian Agriculture. After all, self-sufficiency and overflowing godowns surely were proof that the pain of constant famine and hunger that was common in the pre and early post-independence period was just a bad memory and a thing of the past.

I would argue that India, led by a series of different governments cutting across political hues unfortunately felt that its overarching commitment to its people was largely restricted to hunger alleviation and creation of large food surpluses to buffer against any climate related issues rather than build an economy that understood and appreciated the fact that more than half of India’s workforce were agricultural workers and in their increased prosperity lay the future of a strong and resilient India. The common man none the wiser chose to believe the narrative solely because it was a great story that embellished the triumph of the scientific prowess and social good, and in hindsight rightly so.

However, this is where in my opinion, the missionary zeal and efforts that went into creating the green revolution tapers off because of the set of priorities we set for ourselves thereafter for the nation’s economy. In the decades that followed despite the great strides we made in Manufacturing, Services, Banking and Finance, IT, Retail and other sectors, agriculture’s contribution to GDP has steadily declined from 1951 to 2011. However, as I mentioned it is still the country’s largest employment source and a significant contributor sf to the nation’s socio-economic development. Agriculture accounted for 23% of GDP and employed 59% of the country’s total workforce in 2016. At the risk of sounding repetitive and borrowing shamelessly from the sentiments, views and research of many eminent researchers and scholars in the past, I truly believe that if we truly want to address poverty alleviation as a nation, which is what makes a nation truly strong and prosperous then considerable amount of effort, energy and commitment needs to be made in increasing farmer income.

I would also now quote some statistics to drive home the point on the competitiveness of Indian agriculture on a global scale. For purposes of comparison I have chosen China, which rose from the same levels of deprivation and famines and has the obvious population context. Writing in an article in the Wall Street Journal, Lakshman Krishnamurthi and Sugandha Khandelwal point out that India has the second largest amount of arable land of any country after the U.S. India’s arable land is marginally bigger than China’s. Yet India is the second largest producer of rice and wheat after China, with China producing about 40% more rice and wheat than India. India is also the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world after China, but China’s fruit production is three times India’s production. On average, acreage devoted to paddy cultivation declined by 6 million hectares between 1970-1979 and 2000-2009 in China, while it increased by 4.6 million hectares over the same period in India. In fact, India has had more land under paddy cultivation than China every year since 1960. Yet, China out-produces India by a wide margin.Even in cotton production, where India has made impressive strides, Chinese production of raw cotton is more than 40% higher than in India, and China’s cotton yield is about 2.5 times higher than India’s.

Yield is a function of controlled inputs such as seed quality, fertilizer usage, water, acreage under harvest and mechanization. Crops grown on irrigated land are not dependent on the vagaries of the weather. Steadily, over the last four decades, the amount of paddy crop under irrigation in India has increased and is now about 57%.

One possible reason for India’s low productivity, whether wheat or rice or any other crop, is the small size of individual farm holdings making it difficult to encourage technology driven agriculture, marketing and differentiation of produce, inputs, farmer credit and most importantly economies of scale. However, interestingly, the average Chinese farm holdings are even smaller, averaging just 0.6 hectares.Both in China and India, small farm sizes inhibit mechanization. But fertilizer usage is much higher in China than India. In addition, China invests significantly more in agricultural research and development compared to India to produce high-yield and quicker-growing crop varieties. This, along with better irrigation and more intensive cultivation of the land by double or even triple cropping, are possibly the primary reasons for China’s superior yields.
This is of concern because agricultural land availability has remained about the same over three decades. This means that yields must improve to produce more.

Yields for rice and wheat have increased, as they have for food grains. But the growth rate in yields are moderating.Unless input factors, water in particular, change dramatically, the future looks daunting. Double cropping to increase yield is not possible without reliable access to water supply. More than 50% of the cultivated land for all crops depends on rainfall.Not surprisingly, the yield from rainfall-dependent land is much lower compared to the yield from irrigated land. To supplement rainfall, farmers mostly depend on water from wells dug on farmland. Although use of groundwater has been a major factor in the rapid growth of Indian agriculture, water depletion and wastage have become significant challenges. The water table in many areas has eroded, requiring deeper and deeper wells.In addition, a water management report in the government’s 11th Five-Year Plan, finds that water use is often inefficient. Coupled with the fact that a significant amount – at a minimum one third — of farm land is degraded, it is imperative that water management techniques such as drip irrigation be employed, which conserves water and improves yield. But such systems are costly and beyond the reach of most farmers. Even in Punjab, the most productive state in India, rice and wheat yields only match the recent average for all of China.

The challenges are numerous and highly disparate as the regions and states that we have. My attempt as an agriculturist in the next couple of blog pieces would be to discuss and try and explain the rationale behind my views on several initiatives that could be possible solutions in improving the health of the agriculture sector which would have a direct bearing on poverty alleviation and nation building.

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