Policy apathy and a resistance to innovation are holding back Indian agriculture. Now is the time to break free from those shackles.
The primary issue in Indian agriculture is one of ignorance – ignorance regarding the key role that agriculture can play in our economy. After liberalization, the service and industrial sectors have grown at almost 8 to 10% annually. Growth in agriculture, however, remains stagnant and may actually have declined during that period.
The consequences of neglect over the past 25 to 30 years are manifesting themselves in a few different ways. There is the issue of youth migration from rural areas, with many in this demographic turning away from agriculture as an occupation. There is widespread malnutrition across parts of the country where food availability is a real challenge. The last and most troubling problem arising from policy apathy is that of farmer suicides. In addition, much of the political unrest in various states – typically linked to factors such as regional parties or the reservation issue – can be traced to agricultural sector failures.
Since 1991, most other sectors – automobiles, IT, and communication, to name just a few – have been enabled and nurtured through technology, foreign investment and trading incentives.
And it shows in the results. The fact that Mahindra’s Bolero car is now driven in Argentina gives us a sense for the level of global competitiveness we have achieved in many sectors. We may still import mobile phones but we do have several indigenous brands as well. Our IT sector is outstanding and recognized globally and our medical sector is growing rapidly. In contrast, we are still lagging in agriculture despite the availability of abundant natural resources such as sun, wind and good soil.
Water is a major constraint. Almost 59% of arable land in the country is rainfed with uncertain farming outcomes. Irrigation implementation has not kept pace with the ambitious plans of various central and state governments. There are now approximately 380 projects in varying stages of completion across the county. If the Government allocates more financial resources to these, they can be completed in two to three years.
And even though we have several thousand institutions and scientists working on hybridization and related research, we have not made the most of this potential. This is despite the evidence that this research can be leveraged for improved crop productivity. We have already seen outstanding success with some vegetables and cotton. Rice hybridization has similarly taken off as it has penetrated interior parts of Bihar, Chattisgarh, Assam and Bengal.
The results we have obtained in cotton have allowed us to go from being an importer of the crop in 2002-03 to a second largest exporter by 2013-14. We can even look beyond our borders to a country like Brazil that has become one of the world’s biggest producers of soya and maize due to effective implementation of genetic technology.
However, even such stellar results have been politicized and questioned by certain groups.
So, the real challenge our farmers face today is not the threat of climate change. They have been dealing with extreme conditions for decades now.
The Koshy floods in Bihar, cyclones along the Andhra coast and drought in Bundelkhand, Telangana and Vidarbha – these are all examples of harsh and unprecedented climatic events. It is possible that there has been a 5 to 10% increase or decrease in such patterns in recent years but that is not likely to impact the lives and livelihood of farmers in a big way. The biggest threats to our agricultural sector currently are man made problems, not natural disasters.
If we have the political will, there is a way out of this situation. We can look to our achievements in horticulture, dairy and cotton cultivation for inspiration. Technology is the common thread across all these success stories.
Oilseeds, maize and soya are just a few crops that serve as critical inputs in genetic research. If these become widely available, Indian agriculture can be revolutionized. We will be in a position to develop drought and disease tolerant hybrids as well as weed resistant crops, among other varieties.
We have almost 40 billion hectares of land available to us. By embracing technology and simultaneously educating and empowering farmers, we can dramatically change the face of Indian agriculture in just a few years.
But this requires a shift in how we think about the sector and its many players. It calls for growers and industry to collaborate and work together without the need for government intervention.
Farmers must join hands with promoters, processors and exporters in order to get their output to more markets across the globe. They must have channels to the scientific and research community in order to get an inside view of technology they can implement in their fields. This may seem like a Utopian ideal but is really the only way forward for India’s agricultural sector.