Indian agriculture has progressed over time but hunger and nutrition worries persist

Modern agriculture calls for equitable use of technologies, appropriate policies, regulatory practices, food security and more to sustain progress.

Published : Aug 09, 1997 00:00 IST

Photo credit: The Hindu archives | Agricultural advance occupies pride of place among the achievements of independent India.

THE economist Joan Robinson once remarked that whenever something was asserted as true of India, the opposite could also be shown to be true. With regard to agriculture, this situation still prevails. Punjab farmers produce nearly 10 tonnes of foodgrains per hectare per year by growing rice and wheat in the same plot in succession. Many Punjab farmers also take a crop of potato in between rice and wheat.

On the other hand, farmers in the north-eastern part of the country still practise shifting cultivation, causing both soil and gene erosion, and harvest about 500 kg of grain per ha. Such regional imbalances in the productivity and profitability of major farming systems are considerable. India thus provides opportunities for studying the many evolutionary steps involved in the history of agriculture.

In spite of regional variations, agricultural advance occupies pride of place among the achievements of independent India. Famines were frequent in the last century when, according to the 1891 Census, the combined population of India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, constituents of the then British India, was about 290 million. India alone has now a population of over 960 million and yet famines of the kind witnessed frequently during the last century have fortunately become tragedies of the past.

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Widespread under-nutrition and malnutrition still prevail, largely because of the lack of adequate purchasing power in families possessing no assets such as land or livestock or fish ponds or trees. Experience shows that given the needed political will, this problem can be overcome through appropriate public policies such as the Maharashtra Employment Guarantee Scheme and the Tamil Nadu Nutritious Noon Meal Programme for schoolchildren.

That poverty alleviation is a must for the elimination of hunger is evident from the following conclusion of the Famine Inquiry Commission, which investigated the causes of the Bengal Famine of 1942-43: “It has been for us a sad task to inquire into the course and the causes of the Bengal Famine. Over two million of the poor of Bengal died of starvation. Society, together with its organs, failed to protect the weaker members following moral, social, and administrative breakdown.” Amartya Sen’s advocacy of public action to ensure entitlements for eliminating hunger at the household level is thus the most appropriate pathway.

Agricultural progress

We are now approaching a food production level of nearly 200 million tonnes as compared to 51 million tonnes in 1950-51. Wheat production has gone up from 6.4 million tonnes in 1947 to over 65 million tonnes in 1997. Milk production has more than trebled and egg production has been going up on an average by 7 per cent a year since 1971. Fish production has also gone up. Consequently, the per capita net availability of food went up from 468.7 grams per day in 1961 to 511 grams per day in 1991. Today, we not only produce substantial quantities of wheat, rice, oilseeds, cotton, sugarcane, jute and other food and industrial crops, but also over 100 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables and 70 million tonnes of milk.

Workers weeding in Tamil Nadu. India’s progress in the field of agriculture since the mid-1960s is the result of the toil of farm women and men, supported by mutually reinforcing packages of technologies, services and public policies.

Such progress in a country that had been regarded by foreign experts in the mid-1960s as a hopeless case from the point of view of its ability to end agricultural stagnation, is the result of the toil of farm women and men, supported by mutually reinforcing packages of technologies, services and public policies. West Bengal, where a combination of land reform and empowerment of grassroots-level panchayati raj institutions has triggered significant agricultural progress in recent years, illustrates the power of appropriate public policies.

Dark clouds on the horizon

In spite of India emerging as a major agricultural power in the world within a short span of three decades, there are now real concerns about our ability to maintain the tempo of agricultural progress and to end widespread chronic hunger and deprivation. These concerns arise from the lack of an all-party political consensus on issues relating to population, environment and farm policies. The countryside is still witnessing what Gandhiji termed in the 1930s as “the drain of brains and resources from villages and their transfer to towns and cities.”

We still do not have well-defined policies for the conservation of arable land and the sustainable use of groundwater. Heavy energy subsidies are promoting the unsustainable extraction of groundwater. “Waterlords”, water markets and water conflicts are growing. We have an excellent scientific infrastructure in agriculture and have the capability to mobilise space, information and bio-technologies to accelerate agricultural progress. But our advances in science are only leading to a situation where we are data-rich, but action-poor.

The per capita availability of arable land and of irrigation water is going down year after year, since we are adding over 16 million children to our population each year. At the same time, problems of pests and diseases and soil degradation are growing. This is why experts like Lester Brown of the World Watch Institute believe that we may have to import over 40 million tonnes of foodgrains annually in about 30 years. Under the prevailing conditions where trade is becoming free but not fair, the international prices of foodgrains will go up enormously if India enters the world market for the purchase of large quantities of foodgrains. The poor will suffer more, because of high prices and increasing unemployment.

Even today 70 per cent of our population, particularly the poor, earn their livelihoods directly or indirectly from agriculture. Hence, inadequate attention to agricultural intensification, diversification and value addition will result in an increased number of women and men lacking secure livelihoods. While further agricultural intensification will be ecologically disastrous in industrialised countries, the lack of progress in promoting sustainable intensification will be socially disastrous in our country, since food imports will have an impact similar to importing unemployment.

Also, the prevailing mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies is harming both producers and consumers. This is why we need to reverse the current pattern of the “drain of brains and resources” and make them flow from cities and towns to villages. The countryside is crying for investment in infrastructure and management skills, both for improving farm productivity and for reducing food losses.

Sustainable food security

The onward march of democratic forces, the onset of the information age and the continuing spectacular progress in science and technology have created uncommon opportunities for food- and livelihood-secure India. Environment-friendly technologies are knowledge-intensive and we should harness both the electronic and print media as well as computer technology for providing rural families with location-specific information on meteorological, management and marketing factors. This is essential to enable farmers to adopt precision-farming techniques involving the correct application of inputs at the correct time and in correct doses.

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With a rapid reduction in the size of farm holdings, the Kerala model of group farming needs to be adapted in other States. The National Dairy Development Board has demonstrated the power of cooperatives in strengthening the income and livelihoods of the rural poor. A small farm is ideal for intensive agriculture based on ecological techniques. A small farmer, however, suffers from many handicaps caused by the cost, risk and return structure of farming. It is only by helping the small farmer to overcome his or her handicaps that the untapped production potential of a small farm can be realised. Unfortunately, such issues are receiving little attention.

It is now 29 years since the term “Green Revolution” came into use. “Green” denotes chlorophyll, which enables plants to harvest solar energy. Agriculture is the largest solar energy-harvesting as well as private sector enterprise both in our country and in the world. The term “Green Revolution” denotes agricultural progress through the improvement of productivity per units of land, water and time. In the coming millennium, we will have no option other than producing more food and other agricultural commodities from diminishing per capita land and water resources.

This can be done only by blending the best in frontier science with the ecological wisdom of the past. Had yields per hectare of rice and wheat remained at the levels at which they were in 1966 and had the improvements in productivity achieved in wheat and rice during the last 30 years not been achieved, we would have needed about 80 million ha more land to produce the quantities of these foodgrains that our farmers produce today. The productivity-based pathway of agricultural progress is best described as forest-saving farming.

It is equally clear that we would not have been in a position to take an independent stand on important foreign policy issues, such as the decision not to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty (CTBT), if we had to depend on industrialised countries for our food needs. I am mentioning this because there are environmental and social scientists who criticise India’s recent progress in achieving food self-sufficiency based on yield-enhancing techniques on grounds of ecology and equity.

Ecological problems must be addressed through education, through technologies, such as integrated nutrient supply and integrated pest management, and through regulations relating to land and water use. Equity issues will have to be addressed through appropriate public policy measures. However, it will be suicidal just to recommend going back to old methods of cultivation, ignoring the fact that recurrent famine was the dominant feature of the farm scenario in the past. Our environmental movement should not only oppose unsustainable development but should propose sustainable options.

The next 50 years

Our population is likely to range from 1.4 to 1.5 billion by 2050. It will be even higher if our population policies go wrong. Will it be possible for our farmers to produce over 300 million tonnes of foodgrains, assuming one tonne will support five individuals, from less land and water? The answer is “yes”, provided appropriate technologies, services, farm management structures and public policies are introduced. We have to graduate from a mere “Grow More Food” approach to farming for more income and employment in addition to more food.

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This will call for an end-to-end approach in agriculture, with special emphasis on assured and remunerative marketing opportunities. The private sector should help women and men operating small holdings through contract cultivation and should not attempt to buy their land and resort to corporate farming. Further increases in the number of families without productive assets in rural and urban areas will lead to increased social conflicts and disintegration.

Both home trade and external trade in farm commodities need to be enlarged. Agricultural exports now earn about Rs. 20,000 crores annually, but this can be more than doubled in the next five years through value-addition to primary products, investment in infrastructure for perishable commodities like fruits, vegetables, flowers, milk and eggs, and greater attention to the promotion of a green health movement. Our heritage in medicinal plants should be fully utilised and our vast coastal areas can be developed into “Green Health Tourist Centres”. There are special opportunities for the production and marketing of organically grown foods and plantation crops. Such steps will help to create more on-farm and off-farm employment.

TO conclude, we can be proud of the achievements of Independent India in eradicating a begging-bowl image and in creating self-confidence in our agricultural capability. The tasks now relate to the total eradication of hunger and the promotion of an ever-green revolution rooted in the principles of ecology, social and gender equity and employment generation.

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