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For sustainable agriculture

Print edition : Nov 22, 2002 T+T-

Towards an Agro-Ecosystem Policy for India Lessons from Two Case Studies by Dr. A. Damodaran; published by Tata-McGraw Hill for the Centre for Environment Education, Ahmedabad, Environment and Development Series, 2000; pages 190, Rs.300.

THE dispute over the sharing of Cavery waters, which at present occupies centre stage at least in Tamil Nadu and Karnataka, has seen film personalities, politicians and many others express their views, but hardly any ecologists, agricultural specialists and natural resources experts who can speak with a long-term perspective voices of experts who can talk about the overall sustainable management of water in all forms as a resource, and not river waters alone, experts who address issues of social equity as a framework to find dispute resolution than harp only on the differential rights of riparian States.

Rivers are an integral part of a complex natural system, fulfilling several important ecological functions, not just as the resource for meeting agricultural and drinking water needs. When law and the courts are also dragged in, unfortunately there is a lot of talk about rights but very little about equity, especially equity that factors both intra-generational and inter-generational aspects. Both are key dimensions indispensable to any sustainable long-term management of the use and sharing of any natural resource, not to mention so critical and central a resource as water. One could even go so far as to say that it is the steady undermining of equity in the present atmosphere of governance, not only in relation to the use of natural resources, but in all other spheres of activity, that is making every conflict to go out of spin. This, quite understandably, is contributing to the impression gaining ground both within and outside the country that India at the current historical juncture is on a downward spiral of conflict, social instability and violence.

One cannot get this impression so palpably in the rural hinterland and the towns closer to such areas. This is not surprising considering that agriculture provides household food security and employment to more than 70 per cent of the population and that the well-being of the towns and cities close to rural areas is dependent on agriculture. The overall neglect of agriculture, the deliberate erosion of equity in public policy discourses coupled with a highly urban-centric view of development and progress in a vast, diverse and essentially rural country is leading to a twin process of increasing violence in rural hinterlands and steady delegitimisation of the institutions of governance.

In such a context, there is an urgent need to re-focus on agriculture and on the deteriorating state of the natural resource base. The increasing social tensions and, with the failure of the monsoons, the headline-grabbing conflicts over river waters are only manifestations on the surface of a deeper malaise. Agricultural policy needs urgently to be brought centre stage; it must be revisited with a sense of urgency about the parlous state of the natural resource base on which the country's agriculture is based. The ecological dimension has to be made an integral part of agricultural strategy and resource use. While river water disputes hold centre stage, how much does the larger public know about the precarious state of our groundwater resources and the way it is mined for agriculture? Which Minister or politician or policy-maker worries about ground water? The National Agriculture Policy of the present government looks more like a document of some amateur non-governmental organisation (NGO) than any serious statement of policy and intent by a Central government. The recently announced National Water Policy also conveniently sidesteps the harder questions. It is frightening to think of what lies ahead.

For a larger public, concerned especially about the future of agriculture, this book has much to say in addressing the future that awaits agriculture. Even if the present dispensation at the Centre has little time or interest with regard to the more critical bread-and-butter issues of the people, the book provides route maps for at least the individual enlightened farmer and planter. Solon Barraclough, the eminent scholar on agricultural policy issues, writing about sustainable agriculture, says: "Policy in this context means a purposeful course of conduct by a social actor. Public policy refers to lines of actions by governments of nation states together with their subdivisions and dependencies as well as their interstate organisations. Policy has to do with courses of conduct and not rhetoric." In the Indian context, Barraclough's comment is an apt one, considering the fact that what we are continuously subjected to is more and more "rhetoric than courses of conduct".

In refreshing contrast, Damodaran in his book not only addresses crucial agricultural policy issues that confront us but uses a new and creative perspective by examining agricultural policy through the prism of "agro-ecosystem policy". He uses an interesting methodological approach by taking two case studies, one from a semi-arid agricultural ecosystem and the other from a plantation ecosystem, to develop some useful guidelines for policy, especially with regard to sustainable agriculture. The position of eminence given to `sustainable agriculture' is not because it is currently fashionable but because there is an urgency to move towards it. Accordingly, Damodaran approaches sustainability issues from a hard-nosed and pragmatic policy perspective.

For the first time in our post-Independence history, we face a double challenge, internal and external, with regard to agricultural policy. We have already referred to the dire straits we are in with regard to the natural resource base on which Indian agriculture is based. That is the internal challenge. As his case studies show, Damodaran takes full cognisance of that challenge, and also the other challenge, emanating from external trade sources. This relates to the urgency for our agricultural policy to face up to the pressures from the global agricultural trade and in terms of what is really viable for us in the immediate and long term.

From a sustainability optic and in terms of policy interventions in a policy environment that has to take into consideration global pressures and thus advocating changes and perspectives for Indian agricultural policy, the conclusions Damodaran draws are a mine-field of ideas and options waiting to be explored by the practical policy maker who wants to make a difference on the ground. Indian agriculture urgently needs such policy people who make a difference on the ground, and are not simply traffic wardens of policy on paper. The book also speaks to the individual planter or agriculturist and voluntary organisation that has ground-level involvement with agriculture, especially in arid and semi-arid zones.

Some of our major challenges in the immediate and long term, especially in terms of sustainability of critical resources like water, is the way agriculture is to be carried out in our arid and semi-arid zones. The ecosystem decline that Damodaran refers to is one of the most serious crises and challenges that we are facing in terms of the sustainability of our agriculture. This is a silent crisis that will not make it to the newspapers or be able to compete for attention in the electronic media where "politics has become a spectator sport". When governments, nor agriculturists, nor the general public has hardly any grasp of the serious crisis threatening critical resources such as soil and water and the urgency of moving to sustainable pathways to produce food and other agric-horticultural crops, there may be those who may hope that the changing demands of the market might hopefully change the practices. It is in such a context that Damodaran, who has himself been involved with practical policy formulation and can double as academician and government official, makes some concrete suggestions for growing sustainable plantation crops keeping in line with changing world demand.

If the individual planter is ignorant or takes time to make changes to such shifts in global agricultural trade, governments, especially at the State level, should work with the planters and, through carefully worked out incentives, prepare the plantation economy for the impending changes in demand. Although he does not really say it and at best alludes to it, an enlightened policy approach would be to see how best to approach both food security and market competitiveness in a global agricultural trade sense. He suggests how to support our small and marginal farmers, especially those in difficult agro-ecosystem zones who provide household food security. At the same time, Damodaran indicates how to provide an edge, in terms of global markets, to our plantation and commercial crops by reducing their dependence on heavy water use linked to high chemical input production systems. For anyone who has cared to look at the condition of our plantation areas and the plantation economy in the wake of the crash in prices, his suggestions for plantation crops like coffee by moving to sustainable coffee to meet shifting and increasing global demand makes great practical sense. His is a policy perspective that coherently combines the two great imperatives for public policy of our times, that of environmental sustainability and equity.

One has to recognise that ecologically sound agriculture or conservation agriculture is the future, however much the chemical industry that has been parasitic on and has grown on the backs of global agriculture, backed by some agricultural scientists, has tried to portray it to be otherwise. Increasingly, because of changing consumer preference, which in turn is a result of increasing evidence of the adverse effects on human beings of high chemical content in food, the market globally is adjusting itself to this reality. This reality is seeping into global trade talks also. However, when environmental and sustainability issues that are considered "green" enter trade talks, the immediate response of our trade negotiators is to see "red". While there might be some rationale for such a response since such issues are and can be used in a trade protectionist sense, it is still a short-sighted move just to oppose. From the perspective of our tactics for trade policy negotiation, a better alternative to one of stubborn opposition and then abject surrender is to ensure that equity issues are also addressed along with "green issues".

This is also the line that Damodaran implicitly argues for in his book with reference to agro-ecosystem policy. But equity concerns become a no-go area in trade talks, considering that currently, in our internal domestic policy arena, we have long given up equity considerations. The South Centre, the intergovernmental organisation assisting poorer countries of the south in such complex issues of trade negotiations, in a publication entitled `Meanings of Sustainable Agriculture-Some Issues for the South', written by Barraclough, also advocates a similar line of integrating equity and sustainability issues in relation to global agricultural trade policy talks.

The other reason that conservation or ecologically sustainable agriculture will be the path ahead is because, as Barraclough puts it, "A major share of the world's natural resources is directed towards agricultural production, processing and distribution." Agriculture also, as he further states, "has high dependence on widely dispersed natural resources, climate and biological resources". Today, according to the Third World Network, conservation agriculture is practised in about 58 million hectares. Interestingly, around 20 million hectares of this is in the United States, the country that dumps its agricultural chemicals, pesticides and fertilizers on poor countries. Our ruling elite will never tell us the aforementioned fact or that in countries such as Cuba and China, organic and low chemical agriculture is emerging as major trends. They will only conveniently use China when they have to market genetically modified (GM) crops at the behest of powerful multinational corporations.

Often, when people do not address the fundamental problems of our agriculture and keep looking to what Damodaran refers to as "technification" as the answer, one is always tempted to ask, "Pray, what is the question?" The question is about food security for our citizens, not scandalous stockpiles of food in a country of the hungry. The question is about the millions of rupees squandered and workdays lost over manufactured chauvinistic disputes, whether over the sharing of river waters or about places of worship, and in order to prevent any discussion around the steady erosion of the rights of the poor. It is about the inability of the poor people in such situations of social instability and violence to earn an honest day's wage and thus going to bed hungry. It is about social and ecological sustainability. It is about sustained and efficient economic growth based on equity, and not in hoping that one can duck questions of equity. It is about competitiveness on the global market without permanently destroying our natural capital.

If such questions are to be addressed, works of people like Damodaran have immense value. Or else he will become one more voice in the wilderness in a country determined to go on a downward spiral of social and ecological self-destruction. A downward spiral, which our ruling elites seem increasingly determined to push us towards since, almost reminiscent of apartheid regimes, our rulers, while refusing to address the concerns of people at the grassroots, also hope that somehow the poor and marginalised majority of this country will be taken care of by dying of hunger, suicide or alcoholism.

We may keep hoping that this will never happen in a democracy, but that is not going to help. This is why we urgently need an enlightened public policy and a debate that creates the demand for such policy; otherwise democracies can also die. With regard to shaping public policy on agriculture, Damodaran's book is an important contribution.