Agri sector: Basic flaws persist

Farmers continue to face the age-old maladies: small holdings, money-lenders, expensive and inappropriate technology, mismanagement of water resources etc.

bhavdeepkang

Bhavdeep Kang | January 29, 2010


M S Swaminathan, the man who brought about India`s Green Revolution
M S Swaminathan, the man who brought about India`s Green Revolution

Sixty years into the Republic, India’s agriculture sector is serving up some rather unpalatable facts: we have not eliminated hunger; we are not self-sufficient in food; we have not bettered farm incomes. On the other hand, we have bankrupted our natural resources and created a system which is ecologically and economically unsustainable.

The absence of famine has not translated into absence of hunger. Protein and calorie consumption has declined per capita, with the result that 46 per cent of children under three suffer from malnutrition and three of five women from anemia. Per capita availability of pulses, our main source of protein, has fallen from 36 kg in 1960 to 15 kg in 2005. Availability of food grains overall was 171 kg per capita in 1960, but just 159.7 kg in 2005!

As for natural resources, 45 per cent of our land is degraded (State of Environment, 2009) and 15 per cent of our groundwater blocks critically over-exploited. A NASA satellite-based study found the water table in north India falling by 4 cm every year.

Despite having beaten small pox and other infectious diseases, we’ve never been unhealthier as a people. The food chain is contaminated with pesticides and our waterways severely polluted, including 70 per cent of surface water and a growing percentage of groundwater. In Punjab, for example, groundwater contains toxic heavy metals. Short-sighted water management policies and indiscriminate use of pesticides has in fact resulted in the resurgence of virulent diseases like malaria.

Over the last three years, we have imported staples – wheat, sugar and pulses - putting paid to the myth of self-reliance in food. At the same time, our agricultural subsidies have spiraled out of control and food prices are going inexorably north. The more we spend, it seems, the worse off we are.

Clearly, agricultural policy-makers must have taken a misstep, or many. Where and when?

Rewind to the 1950s. It is a time of growing optimism and increasing farm yields (16 to 17 per cent over the first and second plan periods).Land reforms are underway. More land is being brought under crops. The Indian farm sector, decimated by centuries of British rule, is showing the first, faint signs of recovery.

The systematic undermining of Indian agriculture by the British revenue administration (graphically documented by the Gujarat Vidyapeeth in the 1930s) reduced prosperous farming communities to poverty through crippling taxes, enforced shift in cropping patterns and wrecking of community resources. Now, post-Independence policy makers have the opportunity to set matters to rights.

There are two models before them. The western or “modern” approach is mechanistic, founded in the work of Justus von Liebig and his adherents. Agriculture is regarded as a food factory, with quantifiable inputs and outputs. This model is aggressively promoted by the Ford Foundation and western multinationals known for offloading surplus wartime chemicals in the form of agro-chemicals.

The other approach is essentially Gandhian. It sees agriculture as a holistic system encompassing the gamut of socio-economic activities in a given area and taking into account cultural and environmental factors. It is a time-tested approach based on indigenous technical knowledge that has, going by historical records, produced yields remarkable by today’s standards.

At the very time that India is veering towards “modern” or chemical-based industrial agriculture, British scientist Sir Albert Howard is promoting traditional Indian farming systems abroad, through works like The Agricultural Testament (based on his experiences of sustainable farming in India).

The former model is politically expedient; it produces quick surpluses – not just for food but to fuel industrial growth. Farmers become dependent on markets for agricultural inputs like hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers, heavy machinery and water pumps – thus, the pitfalls of a self-reliant, empowered peasantry are avoided. This approach is termed the Green Revolution and gains acceptability as an antidote to hunger. But its primary objective, as stated in the third plan document, is industry.

“The programme of economic development with special emphasis on heavy industries would demand a larger increase in agricultural production… it is of the highest importance that in the Third Plan, besides achieving self-sufficiency in foodgrains, substantial increases should be secured in commercial crops”. The fourth plan notes that “the output of commercial crops has generally grown faster than that of foodgrains”.

More than a half-century later, we are 65th in the Global Hunger Index. Nearly two lakh Indian farmers have committed suicides in a decade, productivity is static or falling, we are suffering from severe water stress, alarming levels of pollution and growing incidence of pesticide-related diseases.

The mindset of Indian policy-makers remains the same; they continue to look westwards for inspiration. The fact that the fathers of the Green Revolution, be it Norman Borlaug or M S Swaminathan, failed to warn of its ecological consequences and self-limiting nature does not appear to detract from their status (ignorance cannot be a defense and in any case, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring warning of chemical-induced environmental catastrophe was published in 1962, before the Green Revolution got off the ground).

The late Borlaug and his adherents have been canonized and the current belief is that seed MNCs will bail Indian agriculture out with fresh doses of technology. Transgenic crops, policy-makers say, will boost yields while coping with water stress, in effect ushering in a Second Green Revolution.

There is not a shred of evidence to support that claim. The technology is very much pie-in-the-sky at the moment and many studies indicate it may be downright dangerous. Besides, if it is based on patents rather than publicly owned, it will beggar our farmers more comprehensively than any drought. In any event, the logic of turning to the very policy pundits and MNCs whose interventions have led to the current crisis in agriculture defies reason.

Interestingly, many of the problems we face today are pretty much the same as those faced by farmers 80 years ago: fragmentation of holdings, dependence on money-lenders for purchase of farm inputs, expensive and inappropriate technology, improper manure management and sub-optimal utilization of cattle, mismanagement of water resources and community wealth like forests and pastures, limited efforts towards preservation and improvement of seeds and absence of marketing linkages and agro-based industries at the local level. It is these enduring realities we must address instead of looking to laboratory-bred chimeras for deliverance.

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