The conversation on the farm sector needs to free itself of the haunt of food shortage and radically shift to issues of nutrition and safety.
Having inherited an unsustainable farm economy, made worse by bad monsoons and low international commodity prices, the government is struggling to show progress in the face of farmer suicides. To its credit, the government is consulting farmers for the preparation of a budget that will not only address their concerns but will appear to be doing so.
In the recent pre-budget consultations on agriculture attended by the finance minister, the head of a multinational commodity trading house suggested that “international commodity prices are low and so it is time to import food to build stocks for food security”. I was aghast not just by his statement but also at his presence at the meeting. A desperate commodity firm looking for foolish nations to accept subsidised food for which there are no buyers today. Cheap imports artificially drive down commodity prices, leading farmers into a cycle of perpetual poverty and, as a result, rural-urban migrations.
First, the conversation on the farm sector needs to radically shift from focusing on fears of insufficient production to issues of nutrition and safety. The ghosts of decades of food shortages, “ship-to-mouth” horrors and Lal Bahadur Shastri’s appeal for skipping a meal continue to haunt us. Technology input companies and commodity firms are scaremongering us into a narrow tunnel of fear. But for long, India has moved on to greener pastures. Outdated fears are being reinforced by allegedly insurmountable new challenges posed by population growth, changing dietary patterns and climate change inhibiting food production. Even after taking into account these underlying anxieties, we farmers, on the contrary, feel India has entered an era of marketable surpluses — but there are no buyers for our produce. The challenges India faces are price spikes and production fluctuations, not insufficient production. Onions and pulses, etc, augment the anxiety, but these are the consequences of lopsided farm support programmes and detached policymaking.
Why am I sticking my neck out in the face of widespread pessimism? For one, we farmers are an optimistic lot. Second, as a farmer, I recognise our potential. Consider an example of plenty from my own farm, where an acre can yield approximately two trucks of onions, potatoes, tomatoes, carrots or citrus fruit. If just one village (about 3,000 acres) cultivated the same crop — god forbid, but let’s assume this for the sake of analysis — it could produce 6,000 trucks of a particular crop. There are over six lakh villages in India. Not all are bestowed with the same bounty of circumstances, but just imagine the possibilities.
India is already among the largest producers of foodgrain, pulses, sugarcane, tea, spices, eggs, meat, fruit and vegetables in the world. These milestones have been reached even though we lag behind in crop yields. Investments in research for better farm technology and applications hold endless opportunities for yield improvement. Additionally, there is a difference in yields within villages, as well as between a research centre and even the best farm. These differences can be bridged by improved extension services. Other than research-induced increases, productivity can be enhanced by a quarter across the spectrum without adding extra inputs (and with fewer seeds) if we simply upgrade sowing machinery. While farmer-ownership of machinery will lead to debt, service leasing will lead to prosperity. Merely defining objectives is half the work done; the fine print holds the key to achieve the objectives.
India is the largest milk producer in the world, but cooperatives are collapsing because of just the interest burden of unsold stocks and competition from cheap, imported, subsidised and substandard milk products. Milk production in the country will rise by a third if a preventive health programme of the National Dairy Development Board could be standardised countrywide. Better handling of food, right from the time it is harvested till it reaches the table, would reduce wastage and make an extra 15 per cent of produce available for consumption.
The farmer’s biggest concern is not insufficient production. In irrigated areas, farmers worry about markets and, in rain-fed areas, they worry about water availability. Only time will tell if the consultations are seeking to validate existing ideas or a new rationale will be accepted.