We must grow more food from less land, using fewer resources.
One doesn’t need a crystal ball to predict the two most crucial challenges that Indian agriculture will face in the coming years. If the shrinking resources of land and water are one, the other more serious concern is the availability of human resources.
Reports from various government sources are worrisome. Some time ago, the Minister of State for Agriculture announced in the Lok Sabha that the agriculture sector is on the verge of losing four million workers in the Twelfth Plan period.
The 2011 Census points to another important trend. The movement of labour away from agriculture has gathered momentum in recent decades, although the share of workers living off the land still remains substantial at 54.6 per cent of the work force.
The result that has attracted the most attention is that the farmer population has shrunk by nine million between 2001 and 2011.
Another interesting trend highlighted by the Census is the steady rise in the number of agricultural labourers, who outnumber cultivators in 2011. This may be reflective of the fact that agricultural growth has been sluggish, although overall GDP growth has been robust at 7.5 per cent per annum.
Owing to the pressure of population, the average size of land holding is getting even more fragmented over time.
INFUSION OF TECHNOLOGIES
But experts believe agriculture needs infusion of technologies, including mechanisation, as there is scarcity of labour to undertake activities such as weeding in corn cultivation or manual transplantation in rice cultivation.
The future of agriculture is dependent on penetration of scale-neutral technologies. The trend has already begun in some ways, with those who remain in farming turning to newer methods of optimising the output on their farms, including adopting newer technologies to save cost and time. The use of tractors and tillers increasing five-fold in the last four decades is a testimony to this fact.
According to the Department of Agriculture, the share of agriculture workers and draught animals (farm power sources in agriculture) has come down from 63.5 per cent in 1971-72 to 13.67 per cent in 2009-10, whereas the share of tractors, power tillers, and motors has gone up from 36.51 per cent to 86.33 per cent during the same period.
The increasing cost of agriculture labour and upkeep of draught animals has also partly resulted in the greater adoption of tractors for farm operations.
With newer farm techniques such as zero-tillage, raised-bed planting, precision farming, drip or sprinkler irrigation, the dependence on farm mechanisation has increased.
Although India is the largest manufacturer of tractors in the world, accounting for one-third of the global production, farm mechanisation in India is still at a nascent stage, with the average farm power availability in the country lower than in countries such as Korea, Japan and the US.
The Ministry of Agriculture is giving a major thrust to farm mechanisation through its various schemes. A dedicated Sub-Mission on Agricultural Mechanisation has been proposed for the Twelfth Plan, which includes custom-hiring facilities for agricultural machinery as one of its major components.
Its focus is on increasing the reach of farm mechanisation to small and marginal farmers and to the regions where availability of farm power is low.
PRIORITY FOR MECHANISATION
Union Minister of Agriculture Sharad Pawar recently informed MPs that in order to attain the projected demand of 280 mt of food grains by 2020-21, farm power availability in the country has to be scaled up to at least 2.0 Kw/ha by the end of the Twelfth Plan. For achieving this, farm mechanisation has to be given primacy.
It is now well recognised that increase in agricultural production would have to come mainly from enhancement in farm productivity in the existing cultivated area.
To meet future global grain demand, FAO estimates suggest that about 90 per cent of crop production growth is expected to come from higher yields, but land available for farming will also have to expand by approximately 120 million hectares in developing countries.
We can only grow more food from less land, using fewer resources, by providing farmers with the innovation and the knowledge to use natural resources more efficiently.
The government is indeed coming up with innovative schemes to increase farm mechanisation. It would also help if it could come up with good public-private partnership (PPP) models that would bring more private players into the fray with the latest in farm mechanisation.
Private players also have the fully integrated ‘tool box’ — from genetics to various aspects of chemistry — to tackle the various productivity challenges.