Farm diversification vital

Agrarian Crisis

By Dhurjati Mukherjee

The recent farmers’ protest march by the Bharatiya Kisan Union, stopped at the UP-Delhi border, was eventually withdrawn after the Government ‘conceded’ a few demands. However, the knee jerk reaction without any tangible intervention, suggests the agrarian crisis is far from over. With their two key demands — loan waiver and enhanced minimum support price (MSP) — not being resolved, the small and medium farmers will continue to suffer as productivity hasn’t increased substantially. In such a scenario, it’s quite discernible that promises of doubling farmers’ income, as envisaged by 2022, shall remain an illusion.
Unfortunately, policy makers at both the Centre and States are ensconced in their cherished dream of percentage of growth from the secondary and tertiary sectors with agricultural development considered a ‘desirable’ platitude. Most political leaders betray a dual personality to calculations of GDP growth vis-à-vis the imperative for upgrading the living standards of the rural people and providing them productive employment for the young generation.
Thus, modernisation and diversification of agriculture has taken a back seat, primarily due to the lack of government investment in this sector. The reality that the country, in spite of large geographical area, has an extremely high population level compounded by a very low man-land ratio and high levels of pollution, makes it imperative to find ways and means to deal with the compulsion of feeding over a billion mouths.
As per a study by the Organization for Economic Cooperation & Development with the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, the country’s agricultural growth in the past two decades has not been particularly rapid, as compared to Vietnam and China, amongst our Asian neighbours. But its composition has been changing from agriculture towards meat, eggs and milk and from wheat and rice towards fruit, vegetables and maize.
However, it cannot be denied that India has extremely fertile alluvial Indo-Ganga-Brahmaputra basin within its domain, besides excellent soil endowments for dryland farming. And though the country has ensured self-sufficiency to a great extent, it has the potential of becoming a global food supplier. But a large section of agricultural scientists feel that it is criminal to divert farmlands, even those that are two crops, for other uses.
Added to this, scant regard for basic terrain has rendered major chunks of various types of farmlands irreversibly degraded. Excessive irrigation in Narmada, Tapti and Chambal and other major projects in the arid and semi-arid zones have led to land degradation by salt infestation of soils, thereby destroying the invaluable dryland farming zones. The other problem of going for hybrid cultivation caused water logging and alkalinisation. Moreover, excessive use of pesticides and chemicals, essential for such exotic hybrids and mostly promoted aggressively by MNCs has been steadily destroying farmlands.
The situation is thus a cause of serious concern, more so because to gear up growth there is scant concern for agricultural transformation. This has led to conditions of the peasantry not improving at all, in spite of increase in production. And this is because they are unable to get the requisite MSP, to ensure survival.
If farmers’ income were to double, it should have grown by around 30-32% in the past three years but thus hasn’t happened. In fact, such income were to be doubled in a decade, it should involve rising at 7.1% a year on average. Even if this had happened, the problem would have been conserving the agricultural products, which would have necessitated construction of more warehouses and cold storages. Moreover, the demand for such products grows at a very slow pace.
Though India grows 10% of the world’s onions, 23% of bananas and around 40% of mangoes, these rot unless they are eaten up quickly as cold storage capacity is below 15% and refrigerated transport just one% of the fruit and vegetable production.
As regards employment, the National Sample Survey shows a fall. There are smaller agricultural holdings and many have become so small that their owners have sold their tiny plots and are making a living out of casual labour. There is no plan or initiative to develop cooperative farms by taking land from 6-8 owners and carrying out modern farming for higher yields.
Almost half the years since 2000 have been abnormal — five saw droughts and three saw abnormal wetness. Plus, local rains fluctuate enormously more. The effect of climate change has led to erratic rainfall with some regions witnessing over-flooding while others are subjected to drought.
The obvious answer lies in diversification. For example, experts are of the opinion the crop diversification in rice fields increases the cropping intensity with additional returns and generates more employment opportunities. It is particularly relevant to the rice fields of Assam as rice is the major crop which occupies 2.5 million hectares of land area.
Integration of horticultural plants with field crops like rice and also pulses become extremely important to achieve inclusive growth so that together it can boost up production of the agriculture sector. The main objective for this combination is to grow rice, pulse, kharif and rabi vegetables on the same field during the same period of time, contributing towards nutritional security and ensure soil sustainability in the long run.
The main advantage is that vegetable crops, grown on the soil columns, can make effective use of the resources applied on rice fields with less requirement of irrigation, which makes it cost effective. Thus, the horticulture sector being an important component of high value agriculture, the economic importance of such produce, though increasing over the years, has to be further boosted and considered an important area of exports. Demonstration farms with active support from ICAR would bring in more efficacies in helping increase output.
Another aspect of gearing up productivity is the need for agri-mechanisation that has recently emerged as a strong driver of this sector. The sale of tractors has increased significantly in the last few years while power tillers are widely used since they are effective in smaller areas and reduce field levelling time considerably. The demand for rice transplanters and laser land levellers are also expected to increase in the coming years.
Thus, diversification of the agri sector with value addition in horticulture, floriculture and spices and on-farm processing for production of various types of oil, both for domestic and export markets, is the need of the day so as to ensure higher incomes on a sustained basis. Besides, oil seeds production of the country is way below world average and needs to be boosted with proper usage of micronutrients and mechanisation apart from increasing processing centres with latest technology.
To sum up, following steps need to considered urgently for any success: Rejuvenation of soil, healthy for sustainable agriculture through introduction of products and mode of application that leads to high nutrient use efficiency; Promotion of balanced and integrated nutrient management through awareness programmes; Scaling up activities in various areas like ‘On Farm’ production of organic manure, drip irrigation, watershed development, dryland farming etc; Sensitising farmers to make optimum use of farm inputs like fertilizer, pesticides etc. along with efficient use of natural resources like soil and water;
Introduction of cooperative farming with modern technology; Transfer of technology and more emphasis on R&D; and Reducing wastage, improving marketing strategies for export and exploring the use of products for higher prices through cold storage facilities.
The government would do well to take a holistic view, rather than deal with farmers’ protests piecemeal and miss the woods for the trees.—INFA