In 1947, when the British left India, they left a country starving, suffering from centuries of impoverishment by poor climate and poorer policy. Trauma of famine and scarcity persisted through much of the country, and with good reason, for parts of India would continue to be affected by drought. The primary preoccupation of Indian agriculture, therefore, was how to feed the 360 million it supported.
The success of agriculture, then, was measured in terms of the number of the calories it produced. In this respect, the Green Revolution proved to be transformative, a period beginning in the 1960s – characterised by an increase in agricultural production and adoption of certain modern methods.
The Green Revolution was neutral neither in terms of region nor in terms of product, giving rise to uneven growth. Development was restricted to regions like Punjab, Haryana, Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu – areas which were already better suited for agriculture, thus aggravating regional disparities. While the production of primary food grains wheat and rice rose exponentially, that of other crops crashed. Rice and wheat came to dominate fields that once grew pulses, oilseeds and coarse cereals. Major cash crops like cotton, jute, tea and sugarcane were neglected, as were alternate avenues, ecological methods, mixed cropping systems and use of indigenous seeds. The result was, in many regions, a paddy-wheat monoculture.
Despite these ills, the Green Revolution worked in light of the crisis that birthed it. By the 1970s, India had gone from being a country that needed to import grain, to one of the few nations in the world to have achieved grain self-sufficiency. Inarguably, there was cause to celebrate. Yet, a jubilant India took the opportunity neither to examine why, in spite of producing enough food, its people were still going hungry, nor to explore the fallouts and loopholes in its agricultural policy.
Till date, government policy on agriculture is based on the frameworks laid down in the 1960s. With the focus singularly on more and more production, the policy designed to mitigate one crisis would create another one of its own.
India went from a nation of food scarcity, to one of food surplus. India’s current food grain production is around three times that of buffer stock norms, and with insufficient storage infrastructure and inadequate demand, the Food Corporation of India today holds stocks well beyond the standard in its yards. A nation whose population is today growing at just a little over one percent, and is even below replacement levels in some parts, India simply doesn’t need grain to the extent that it produces, year after year.
Policies like Minimum Support Price were introduced with a view to incentivise a particular cropping pattern – one with an emphasis on paddy and wheat. The scarcity of these staples long gone, the policy remains untouched. While MSP mechanisms are in place for other crops like maize, pulses and oilseeds, data suggests the government hardly procures them. India continues to import such crops from other countries, while local production of many of them, as well as fruit and milk remains low. The provision of free or subsidised electricity to farmers has only widened the gap between crops and classes, enabling big farmers with dozens of tube wells to exploit it, and with it, the water table as well. The state’s support to farmers – subsidised fertilisers, pesticides and seeds – all convey the singular message, that the farmer must produce even more. The farmer sows the seeds he was provided, uses the fertilisers and electricity he was given, and the cycle repeats itself.
The answer to the surplus food grain doesn’t lie in exports either. Systems like Minimum Support Price (MSP) and the Essential Commodities Act (ECA) make Indian crops uncompetitive in international markets, where rice and wheat cost over 20-30% less. India is eventually forced to dispose its crops at rates lower than the prices at a local PDS store. Even this is often rejected for its high chemical content. Nor is it desirable. Selling these water-guzzling crops, many believe, is equivalent to exporting water itself. With a falling water table, and desertification looming large over states like Punjab, India cannot afford, today, to export avoidable surplus.
Food surplus hasn’t translated into zero hunger either. In 2020, India ranked 94th in the Global Hunger Index, and continues to be home to the largest number of malnourished people in the world. Over nutrition too has seen a rapid rise. While food is plenty, cold storage and distribution mechanisms are inefficient, tilting food distribution in favour of developed parts that have required technology and infrastructure.
All of this comes back to India’s calorie-centric agronomics. Today, consumption patterns are vastly different from production yields. This flimsy demand ensures that a good monsoon, or a bumper crop, translates quickly into oversupply, and therefore a crash in prices. Producing more is no longer the solution.
India’s support to farmers must move away from provision of inputs for further production, towards direct benefit transfers. The PM Kisan scheme by which a fixed amount is directly transferred to the bank account of the farmer is seen as an important first step in this regard. Today, under the Jan Dhan scheme, most people have, nominally at least, a bank account. Most citizens hold Aadhar cards, rapid digitisation of land records is underway. The time to bring in direct transfers is now.
The paddy-wheat monoculture should give way to more diversified farm production, one that would be in sync with demand and consumption. The government must incentivise the growth of vegetables, fruit, oilseeds and pulses, through adequate investment, research, and if need be, MSPs for these crops. The cultivation of cash crops, bolstered by the deregulation of their production under the new Essential Commodities amendments would not only bring in profits domestically, but could also make India a competitive player and exporter in international markets.
Diversification of farm production leads to the larger aim of diversifying rural incomes. Agriculture today accounts for about 17% of the economy, and even with a great push, does not grow consistently at more than 3% per annum. It has been agreed upon for many years, that such a sector simply cannot sustain 60% of the population. Rural India understands this. Studies by economists like Dipankar Dutta indicate that non-agricultural activity already accounts for over 45% of rural India’s economy and employs 35-45% of the rural workforce. Governments that continually ship agricultural growth with rural development should recognise this shift and encourage farmers to shift to part-time models. As is done in countries like Japan, incentives and subsidies must be provided to move towards dairy and other sectors.
A move away from agriculture needs to be adequately backed by policy. Electricity shouldn’t be free, rather, it must be made regular to support an evolving non-farm sector. Governance systems in rural India were, in theory at least, designed to support farming. To encourage investment in industry, construction, finance and services, the focus must be brought on policing, contract-enforcement, property rights and easing business operations. Amenities for education and health must be developed – a move that would not only diversify income, but would also address India’s poverty problem much more effectively than unwieldy redistribution schemes that serve only to leak money into the hands it passes through.
The answer within farm itself, is not greater production, it’s efficient production. The threat of water depletion and overuse of chemicals, in the long run, puts India’s food security under threat. Investment must be channelled towards water resource management (not extraction), research and development, and encouragement of greener, sustainable farming methods. Cold storage infrastructure and distribution mechanisms must be bolstered – concerns that schemes like the Kisan Rail and the government’s emphasis on highway-building are expected to address.
Today, when the national spotlight is finally on the farmer, this nuanced discussion must begin. The narrative, however, is heading in the opposite direction. The homogenous group of farm leaders assembled around the national capital are calling for the repeal of all three farm laws, and for increasing input subsidies like free electricity – in effect, calling for the status quo to be retained. It is this very status quo that has turned the farmers of Punjab and Haryana in. The paddy-wheat monoculture, encouraged by the MSP regime and mandi systems, puts the farmers in the cycle of ground water exploitation, chemical overuse and borrowing of funds. It is the root of agrarian distress.
Admittedly, rethinking such fundamentals of agricultural policy is difficult. India has, for reasons economic, historical and cultural, a fear of impoverishment and a deep sentiment against hunger ingrained in her conscience, and consequently, a comfort with the idea of surplus, however uneconomic. Agriculture is seen as sustenance, not aspirational beyond the daily roti and dal. Farming is thrown in the same basket as poverty alleviation and village development, where increase is blindly perceived as desirable. It is telling that in the Union Budget, agriculture is included with health and sanitation under the heading ‘Aspirational India’. It finds no mention under ‘Economic Development’.
India cannot brush agriculture off its agenda for reform as it did in 1991. Our view of the farmer needs to change from an aspirant for better living conditions, to the risk-taking entrepreneur that he is. We must de-hyphenate the farmer from the village. That is where change in agriculture will begin.