The PM has shown a refreshing approach towards agriculture, but for the real challenges to be surmounted he needs a massive dose of digital technology in all parts of the value chain
R Swaminathan | August 19, 2014
Three seemingly unrelated developments have put food on the front pages of newspapers after a long time, and I’m not even including the Centre for Science and Environment’s report on antibiotics-infused chicken that’s making infections, common and uncommon, resistant to modern medicine.
The first is India’s position on agriculture subsidies that has been widely panned in the western media as having brought the painstakingly crafted Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) framework to the brink of collapse. In theory, the aim of TFA is simple: lower trading and transaction costs. In practice, it is a little more complicated than that, especially when it comes to agricultural subsidies and food security. The TFA wants India to permanently put a cap on its agricultural subsidies (which WTO calls “trade distorting”) at the existing level. Now, that in itself is a debatable contention, considering that India’s agricultural subsidy for close to half a billion farmers is about $15 billion while the American handout for its 3 million farmers is close to $120 billion. The Indian subsidy works out to about $3 per farmer per year, or approximately Rs 180.
The American subsidy, on the other hand, is about $4,000 per farmer per year, or about Rs 2,40,000. Moreover, unlike the Western bloc, chiefly the US, India has never dumped its foodgrain in the world market (to me that positively sounds like trade distortion) despite holding on to massive stocks of close to 70 million tonnes. India’s position, and a rightful one at that, is that trade facilitation can take place only if it is linked to the continuation of agricultural subsidies for food security. The Americans wanted the TFA to be pushed through without any such linkage.
The second is the issue of farmer suicides that has been reignited by P Sainath. It has not been given the kind of mainstream media attention that it deserves, but it has at least filtered through into the policy and research circles. Sainath persuasively argues through an analysis of the statistics (http://ncrb.gov.in/adsi2013/table-2.11.pdf) released by the national crime records bureau (NCRB) that several states have been economical with truth in claiming a massive reduction in farmer suicides.
He argues that states like Chhattisgarh and Puducherry have declared themselves ‘farmer suicide free’ by simply transferring the deaths in the self-employed-farming category to the self-employed-others category. He further argues that the suicides have increased in states like Maharashtra (its officials claim that suicides have actually decreased) that have seen an increased commercialisation of agriculture and focus on cash crops, such as cotton. On the basis of available evidence, Sainath seems to be right. But even if one assumes that the various state governments have not indulged in questionable number juggling, the sheer number of farmer suicides – over 60,000 taking their lives since 1995 – just cannot be justified by any means. If despite bumper harvests, over a decade of good monsoons and increasing minimum support prices (MSP), farmers are killing themselves to this extent, and so often, then there is something seriously wrong with the nuts and bolts of our agricultural system.
The third is prime minister Narendra Modi’s call for ‘per drop more crop’ that he made recently at the foundation day of the Indian council of agricultural research (ICAR). On the face of it, it appeared nothing more than smart repositioning of the food and agriculture organisation (FAO) slogan, ‘more crop per drop’ that it had unveiled when it rechristened 2003 as the international year of freshwater. A closer scrutiny of Modi’s speech unearths layers that reveal a new farming narrative, one that is very different from what we have been hearing till now from policymakers. It might as well become the new blueprint for Indian agriculture.
In integrating the need to use water efficiently, and not in any rhetorical sense, with another pithy call, ‘lab to land’, Modi is showing a path filled with technological possibilities in terms of increasing soil fertility, better quality seeds, last-mile technical and scientific support to farmers and, of course, water management solutions like drip irrigation. In some ways Modi’s nascent blueprint embeds within itself the solution to some of the critical issues and concerns emerging from the first two developments.
The most concerning takeaway for policymakers from the TFA tussle, especially from the angle of food security, is the irrefutable fact that India has a massive stockpile of foodgrain, yet has a dismal record of distributing it to the destitute and needy. It shows massive structural faults in the logistical and distribution mechanisms, most notably the public distribution system (PDS). The heartbreaking lesson, not that we needed another round of statistical objectivity to reiterate it, was that farmers were ending their lives because agriculture as a profession has become increasingly unsustainable.
The conventional academic and non-academic approaches to explaining India’s logistical and distribution hassles and the declining productivity of agriculture have primarily revolved around four main reasons: complex political economy of class and caste, declining soil fertility and quality linked to an erosion of traditional agricultural knowledge and spread of unsustainable modern practices, land fragmentation, and the flawed structure, composition and procurement system of the India’s agricultural markets. The range of solutions advocated, from communes at one end of the spectrum to corporatisation involving land consolidation, massive infusion of farm equipment, genetically modified seeds and chemical fertilisers on the other, has not really played out the way that their theories insisted they would. The bulk of farmer suicides, for instance, come from five states where capital intensive farming techniques have taken deep roots. Modi’s approach is refreshingly different, almost naive if you consider that he never mentions caste, class, size of land holdings, political economy of a village or even market dynamics. But it is in this seeming naivety that Modi displays his inherent understanding of the potential of digital technologies: a suite that is as global as it is local, a technological set of possibilities that has the ability to provide solutions to a farmer and empower individually, collectively and selectively in a simultaneous manner.
The most prominent structural Achilles’ heel of Indian agriculture has been the declining productivity per acre and the lack of economy of scale due to the shrinking size of each land holding. Several policy and institutional instruments, for instance, Section 25 producer companies and self-help groups (SHGs), are already available to bring together community-level small land holdings. Such integrations have been failing to convert into sustainable and replicating networks due to the lack of a binding mechanism, a platform if one may call it. It is here that a suite of digital technologies – from satellite maps to short videos – can be layered upon mobile devices to provide a platform to the last mile user, in this case, the farmer.
Several successful prototypes already exist: m-Krishi of TCS and the hyper-speech transport protocol (HSTP)-based voice web of IBM are prominent examples. The expanding internet protocol (IP)-based community radio network is another such tool.
The second structural factor hobbling the growth of agriculture has been the complete lack of integrated data on land holdings, soil fertility and composition, cropping patterns, productivity per hectare, water and fertilizer usage and institutional and non-institutional processes related to procurement, local level storage, transportation and access to agricultural markets and real-time prices.
Here again, digital technologies offer a range of integrated and networked solutions from data gathering, data mashing and creation of searchable knowledge repositories to the detailed tracking of a cropping cycle (from sowing to final marketing). Interestingly, the entire technical ecosystem for such an integrated approach towards agriculture already exists in the rapidly expanding food retail sector. It is precisely in such integration that the back of the complex and chaotic political economy of caste, class, procurement prices and agriculture produce market committees (APMCs) can finally be broken for good.
The third fault lies in our storage and logistical systems and mechanisms. It is quite a well documented fact that food corporation of India (FCI) godowns not only need to be revamped and retrofitted with smart technologies, but a new generation of cold storage chains, food processing units and shelf-life extension technologies at the village storage level have to be rolled out quickly. Here again, the digital technology ecosystem, for instance, algorithms and systems needed to remotely store critical pharmaceutical products like human insulin at steady temperatures, are already available. Combined with networked solutions mentioned earlier, the current rate of loss of foodgrain due to natural elements, rodents and pests, estimated at up to 30 percent, can be drastically reduced.
The fourth problem is that of last-mile connectivity. In short, how do we, as a nation, ensure that the hungry, destitute and poor, the ones who really need our help and support get the food they need to survive? The Modi government’s endorsement and the enthusiastic continuation of the Aadhaar scheme is a major indication of how the new government plans to plug leakages and loopholes and weed out false beneficiaries. In itself, Aadhaar isn’t the solution, but together with the other three pieces of the puzzle, the food security value chain becomes watertight, sustainable, politically rewarding and economically justifiable.
One is always welcome to look at Modi’s call to action on the farming front as just another smart social marketing gimmick, as one more attempt to appear farmer-friendly. But if there is one lesson that the last decade has taught self-styled experts, it is that this man usually ends up walking the talk.
(This story appeared in the August 16-31, 2014 issue of the print magazine)
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