Friday, December 17, 2010

India urgently needs a new Green Revolution

Agriculture has an importance in India out of all proportion to its 15 percent contribution to Gross Domestic Product, which nevertheless absorbs at least 40 percent of the workforce (not to mention the centuries of rural tradition lying behind it). Everybody talks about the role of globalization and software in opening up the Indian economy in the last two decades but would economic takeoff have been possible without the Green Revolution?

But the Green Revolution has since run out of steam with India losing its self-sufficiency in food (apart from rice and wheat) since 2005 (India was a net food exporter until then). If nearly half the population is needed for less than a fifth of output, a second Green Revolution to snap India out of primitive subsistence agriculture would seem to be urgent. Or is it — might it not be that India deliberately tolerates the inefficiencies of an overmanned agriculture in order to keep them down on the farm as a lesser evil to swamping already overcrowded cities?

Last month the Herald put these questions to the Agriculture Ministry’s Mukesh Khullar in his office in Krishi Bhavan (the Ministry building) in the heart of New Delhi.

Khullar did not hesitate in replying that a new Green Revolution cannot be postponed despite any possible social disruption — with food security a global issue, India owed it to both itself and the world to realize its full economic potential and dramatically raise productivity. Everything else was simply growing too fast — the economy, the population (which could reach 1.5 billion people within the next generation) and demand for more and better food from that population. Even a totally successful second Green Revolution could not avert the need to increase food imports from countries like Argentina because of the explosive growth of demand at every level. In particular, an agriculture based on a vegetarian culture is not used to producing proteins and here Argentina could come in very handy (this year’s intensified imports of soy oil from here has been joined by an incipient interest in lentils).

Yet even without a new Green Revolution or economies of scale, Indian agriculture is not to be despised. Its total grain harvest of 260 million tons almost trebles Argentina’s on only around 25 percent more land while its cattle population of 282 million head vastly outnumbers ours (not in quality though) — India is the world’s third-largest producer of agricultural commodities (number one in rice, tea and milk). This does not necessarily establish Indian agriculture as more efficient but rather goes to show that with ample sun and monsoon rain, India is naturally far more fertile than even the fabled pampas — apart from the structural bottlenecks, the main barrier to India being the world’s food basket is that it already houses a sixth of the world. India and Argentina are very different in agricultural as well as other aspects but the two countries could learn much from each other, says the Foreign Ministry’s Dammu Ravi (Joint Secretary Latam & Caribbean Division).

Even without maximizing agricultural potential with a new Green Revolution, only two percent of the food being produced now is processed and that is the key to improving efficiency while keeping them down on the farm in Kullar’s view — bring in food-processing companies (whether multinationals or local agri-businesses) to produce at source, offering them free land and tax holidays in areas of high rural unemployment with the short-term aim of creating 10 million jobs.

Some experts think that the potential for food processing is so huge that agriculture could return to being a third of the economy despite such rapid growth in the two other sectors (especially services) — agri-business has clocked 20 percent growth per annum in recent years and there are hopes of trebling its volume by 2015. Even riddled with poverty, inefficiency and substandard yields, Indian agriculture could still be a vibrant player in globalization. Because of the immense cultural and political importance of the rural world, agri-business is a priority for the government and perhaps more deregulation work awaits here than in the rest of the economy.

Khullar does not only look to food-processing industries and agri-business to integrate rural communities into a globalized world — various services could be extended to villages with investment in education, human resources and new skills. There is an enthusiasm for introducing professional management into farming like the rest of the economy, turning farmers into shareholders — this actually seems to appeal more to the peasant mentality than co-operatives. Khullar feels that the ancient traditions can be overcome far more rapidly with modern communications — television and telephones make a huge difference. The new communications technology will also make it easier to educate people in villages, instead of forcing them to urbanize.

Credit and infrastructure are also crucial — India has already been successful in providing electricity generation and Indian ingenuity is starting to come up with new ways of making agriculture more water-efficient, such as micro-irrigation and techniques of harvesting rice without the traditional flooding. All these policies need to be implemented in not only an intelligent but also region-specific way with regard to the available technologies.

Yet in these days of worldwide concern about climate change, India cannot simply let rip with agricultural development — some very strange things have been happening in Indian weather recently such as droughts in lushly green Bihar and Assam and downpours in arid Rajasthan. Thus the concept of sustainable agriculture was at the heart of the Biennial Agro Technology & Business Fair held last week in Chandigarh, ensuring that agro-chemicals and fertilizers are placed under ecological stewardship.

The net result of all these changes would not be to shrink rural population or overcrowd the cities but to reduce pure farmers to around 10 percent of the population with the rest in related activities — those with skills would continue to migrate but there should be no need to force anybody to leave. This transformation would require 20-25 years in Khullar’s opinion.

Is it possible for an economic transformation which owes so much to the private sector to modernize agriculture without affecting property rights, the Herald asked? This was a tricky question, Khullar agreed — this involved not only questioning the efficiency of smallholder production but also the quantity of land left idle by rich landlords in states like Bihar. But one thing is clear in Khullar’s mind — change is both urgent and possible but he draws the line at modernization at the cost of social disruption.

Perhaps agriculture is as good an example as any of India’s knack for turning its problems into opportunities.

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