Farm revival and nutrition security
Indian agriculture desperately needs resurgence. Farm growth over the last ten years has been tardy,even as the country registered remarkable rates of economic growth , driven primarily by the manufacturing and services sector.
Rising incomes and demographic pressure generate expanding demand for food products; but output growth lags demand growth, leading to tightening supplies, rising prices and increasing dependence on imports (pulses and edible oil regularly; sugar and wheat occasionally).
India has all it takes to become a farm superpower — with about 270 days of sunshine, over 160 million hectares of arable land, 900 millimeters of annual rainfall, varied agro-climatic conditions and biodiversity, two cropping seasons, over 7,000 km of coastline, and of course, abundant supply of cheap labour.
5-POINT ACTION PLAN
A five-point action plan as detailed below can lead to agricultural resurgence.
Strengthen the input delivery system: The input market needs to be monitored, and if need be regulated , to ensure easy access of quality inputs (seeds, fertiliser, agro-chemicals) at affordable prices.
Rapidly expand irrigation facilities: Just about 40 per cent of land under cultivation is irrigated and the rest is rain-fed or dependent on vagaries of monsoon. Many irrigation projects have been languishing for long years, while enormous amounts spent on numerous schemes have not yielded desired results. Major field crops (rice, wheat, coarse cereals, pulses, oilseeds, cotton and sugarcane) show no marked increase in acreage under irrigated land over last ten years. Scientific management of water resources will help raise crop yields substantially from the current low levels as well as help raise land use intensity currently at 1.3.
Improve antiquated agronomic practices through revival of extension services; and by involving the private sector through appropriate policy support. adoption of scientific pre- and post-harvest practices as well as infusion of technology inputs such as genetically-modified seeds would help cut on-farm losses. (Bt. Cotton is a good example of success through tech infusion).
Invest in rural marketing infrastructure: Huge budgetary outlays are necessary for building scientific warehouses, primary grading and sorting facilities, revamping the agricultural marketing yards and laying roads to connect them with villages. Quality-related pricing of farm produce will enhance growers' incomes.
Use of information technology to deliver price and market information to growers: Timely delivery of price and market information will convert growers into savvy traders. If public investment in agriculture is stepped up, much-needed private investment will begin to flow into the farm sector.
India can learn from the OECD farm support programme. While developing countries generally attack the humungous farm support programme of OECD countries ($375 billion a year and counting), a look at the details of support would reveal that as much as $85-95 billion year are spent on what's described as ‘general services' to agriculture which include expenditure on research, infrastructure, inspection and control as also marketing and promotion. These are absent in India.
India should invest large sums in general services as described above and build capacity among farmers. Higher farm output through higher yields or productivity gains is the way forward. Agricultural resurgence in India will improve rural incomes and allow easier access to nutritious food as well as other essential goods and services. It will set-off a virtuous cycle.
India suffers from pervasive malnutrition and under-nutrition, especially among the poor in rural areas, and mainly among women and children. This follows skewed pattern of economic growth or ‘growth without equity'.
There are easy policy options to deliver calories and protein to the poor at affordable prices. The Public Distribution System (PDS) which reaches a large number of the poor delivers subsidised rice, wheat and sugar. It is critical that the government includes edible oil and pulses under PDS at subsidised rates.
Admittedly, PDS as it works at present has certain limitations. The government needs to plug leakages through close monitoring and use of innovative means such as ‘smart cards'.
Additionally, in agrarian economies such as India where hunger is turning chronic and shortages endemic, government policies should check rampant marketisation of agriculture and rabid financialisation of agricultural markets. Curbs on speculative capital that chases essential foods in short supply and creates avoidable price volatility are necessary.
Rising incomes and spread of information and communication technology (ICT) are changing people's food habits. Consumers have to be educated about eating healthy foods. A campaign to ‘make eating healthy food fashionable' is needed.
THE CONSTITUTION ANGLE
Under the Constitution of India, ‘agriculture', ‘health' and ‘education' are State subjects. Importance given to agriculture, health and education varies across States.
India needs a unified approach to agriculture which can help improve nutrition and health.
It is suggested that ‘agriculture' and ‘health' may be shifted to the Concurrent list so that the Central government can come up with legislation that can be implemented uniformly across the country. Finally, the government must demonstrate ‘political will' to implement progressive and growth-oriented policies. Accountability for outcomes is necessary.
G. CHANDRASHEKHAR WRITES FOR THE HINDU