Seeds of hope

None of Kalam’s concerns regarding agriculture have vanished

Illustration: Job P.K. Illustration: Job P.K.

INDIA’S FOOD AND agriculture sector has reasons to celebrate as well as be worried. Surprisingly, there is not much that was not predicted or talked about by former president A.P.J. Abdul Kalam. Having grown up in the fishing community, and having worked across rural India as part of the space and nuclear programmes, he understood the pulse of Indian agriculture and rural society.

Each state should concentrate on agricultural products most suited to its agro-climatic conditions, as it cannot hope to be self-sufficient in all the essential commodities. Suitable marketing and transportation systems can be evolved to facilitate the exchange of commodities. —India 2020: A Vision for the New Millennium

His prime concern was with problems of rain-fed agriculture, and cereal-based food systems in the drylands of central India, which he saw as a misfit because of water scarcity and agro-ecological conditions. Unsurprisingly, today we see these cereal producing regions as being the lowest on irrigation efficiency and on the brink of unsustainability. He cautioned that we need to shift to oilseeds, vegetables and coarse grains in regions with low groundwater availability. This is a long way from being a reality because of high market prices for cereal crops.

He was also worried about low productivity in eastern India and felt that good seeds and irrigation were not sufficient, and better farm practices were required. While methods such as the system of rice intensification have been successful in pockets, they have not become significant methods of cultivation nor have they had a massive impact.

Kalam worried that unless we increased mechanisation and improved input efficiency through better technology, Indian farmers will remain in a vicious low-income cycle.

He was, of course, aware that small land holdings were at the root of the failure to adopt best practices. He felt innovative methods of land aggregation were required, with private sector engagement but without compromising the ownership by farmers. Kalam was clear that green house gas emissions from food production and impacts of climate change were only going to intensify. He wanted more home-based scientific models for better information and decision making to counter geopolitical pressures on what India should do. His vision for connecting farmers to better processing was clear so that there is lesser wastage and better price realisation close to the farmer’s end.

Now that we are in 2020, how is Kalam’s India doing? Good and bad. Cereal production continues to increase in drylands, but there is awareness towards adopting conservation practices and water saving technologies such as micro-irrigation. There are government schemes such as the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana that incentivise adoption of efficient irrigation practices. Improved market integration, storage and transport have made the farming of perishable vegetables, oilseeds and coarse grains attractive for farmers, thanks to retail procurement and urbanisation that brings premium markets closer.

There is also increasing consumer awareness about chemical-free food, which means there is an itch to return to organic agriculture. There is government support in some states (such as Sikkim which is a 100 per cent organic state) as well as Central schemes such as the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana. Farmer welfare has become more central to discussions, such as the call for doubling farmer’s incomes by the prime minister.

There is an excitement around the processing industry where facilities are coming up closer to production centres enabling farmers to better clean and grade commodity that can fetch higher prices from private agribusiness players. Many states have also moved away from the dominance of traders by deregulating markets through the Agriculture Produce Market Committee reforms and are attempting to connect farmers to buyers nationally through direct trading or eNAM (National Agriculture Market). There has been progress also on providing safety nets to farmers through increased awareness and uptake of crop insurance schemes.

The most exciting change is happening in the value chain. New entrepreneurs are entering into agribusiness with aggregation models and agri-tech innovations aimed at providing direct market access to farm produce. Some companies are helping provide better crop and weather management information using satellite and digital technologies. Big retail chains are coordinating with smaller aggregators to help farm produce reach markets in time and helping better price transmission to the farmers. New organisational ventures called the farmer producer companies is spreading across the country, enabling farmers to have more bargaining power free of political control—something which had earlier stymied the potential of cooperatives.

However, there is a long way to go before these interventions and innovations can make a large-scale impact, especially under changing climatic conditions and loss of agricultural land to urbanisation. While reforms are being pushed, implementation faces the usual bottlenecks of weak last-mile delivery owing to capacity constraints. Technology is bettering post-production quality and information about markets, but on-farm technology adoption is limited by small farm sizes, poor land records and titling, outdated tenure systems and fragmentation—essentially, rigid land markets.

While farmers are being freed from mandi (traditional market), alternative distribution and marketing channels are too few and low-scale at best. Although farmers are aware of long-term benefits of sustainable practices, such as better soil health and water availability, remuneration for intensive crops and uncertainties in price realisation of high value crops mean chemical inputs cannot be avoided.

Farmers surely want to engage in rural, non-farm value-added activities. However, they are sending their children away for urban jobs, partly out of desperation, partly out of aspiration and generally for a better life. While none of Kalam’s concerns have vanished, there are silver linings in 2020. Hopefully, when we remember him in 2031, his birth centennial, there would be more reasons to smile.

Ghosh is an assistant professor, Centre for Management in Agriculture at Indian Institute of Management Ahmedabad.