India’s shrinking agriculture space: Can we turn it around?

Isn’t the present condition of agricultural lands in our rural hinterlands a food for thought to ponder over India’s food creation and distribution system?

New Delhi: We cannot deny the fact that huge number of people in India are opting for the non-agricultural and industry based jobs. This includes predominant percentage from the rural areas which traditionally host the farming hubs. The reasons are not hidden but much obvious. Earning livelihood is getting difficult and thereby maintaining even a simple household expenditure is a herculean task for traditional small land holding farmers.
Many of the policy steps that would have made a huge difference are at the fingertips of agriculture experts. To sum up, these include the increased investments into infrastructure for agriculture including better transportations and roads, cold storages, market chains, growing variety of crops. The research systems and extension systems too require a revamp, making them in sync with the ground realities. While we already have the vast network of Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) system, much more resources, better investments, technical skills are required.

Since 1995-96, the average size land holding has decreased from 1.41 hectares to 1.15 hectares which accounts for the decrease of 30,000 hectares of cultivable land each year.

But the big question is whether we can continue resting on our laurels from green revolution or seriously try to find ways to turn around the situation? As per Dr Prabhu L Pingali, Professor of Applied Economics and Director, Tata-Cornell Institute (TCI), what happened was that once the green revolution was achieved successfully, Indian policymakers had this feeling that the entire problem is solved. He feels the follow up on the crop management was missing, investments were off, leading to worst agricultural performance in few states. He elaborates, “The problem was that the local issues were not adequately addressed in other states as much as in states like Punjab, Haryana and Tamil Nadu. One didn’t say that what are the best crops for these fragile states. Less investments and the lack of R&D led to it. But now in last 10 years, I have seen that there has been attention given to it. The cultivation of the hybrid maize in Bihar, pulses in coastal areas of Orissa are an example. Some changes have happened but we still have a long way to go. Extension system and farmer awareness levels needs to be strengthened.”
Shrinking agricultural land
The statistics reveal that the Indian agricultural land has been shrinking. Data from the agriculture ministry shows that as many as 20 states reported decrease in cultivable land to the extent of 790,000 hectares in four years from 2007-08 to 2010-11. Since 1995-96, the average size land holding has decreased from 1.41 hectares to 1.15 hectares which accounts for the decrease of 30,000 hectares of cultivable land each year.
The shrinking cultivable land may not pose an immediate problem for the nation’s food security but its long-term effect could be disastrous with the country needing more and more foodgrains to support its growing population. The obvious factors behind it are the mass migration due to poverty and rapid urbanization.

radha-mohan-singh-agriculture-ministerIf we desire to change the destiny of India, we must change the rural scenario. The greatest problem we are facing in the present perspective is how we should provide advanced technology and recent inventions to the farmers.”

Mr Radha Mohan Singh, Union Agriculture Minister

India is required to reduce the cost of agriculture and balance the use of fertilizers and water. Timely sowing process, solution of pest related disorders and required techniques are to be used. This is the best scientific modus operandi for sustained agriculture. The prominence of rain fed farming, increasing population, unabated use of land, deterioration in natural resources resulting in ecological imbalance is leading to the decreasing agricultural production. The policymakers need to work towards creating the cost affective innovative environment friendly situation for durable farming.
While the agriculture ministry claims that within four years, the objective of “Water to every field” will be achieved, it would be appropriate to wait and review the statistics as in when they are released.
Prosperous farmers a distant reality?
The fundamental natural resources in Indian agriculture sector like availability of big holdings as well as water is going to be reduced. The unexpected change in climate has triggered low yield in the crops leading to economical loss to the farmers. Indian farmers need to do away with the conventional way of farming. The right seeds in the right soil can produce the right number of crops.
The government itself has admitted that there is imbalance in the availability of credit to the agriculture sector and amongst small and big farmers in certain regions including Marathwada and Bundelkhand. As per the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) survey, 46 percent of farming households are burdened by debt and the loans are from different institutions.
“It may be true in few cases but then over period of time the things have begun to change. For small farms, the migration, remittances, service sector employment etc. I think we are not accounting for all the source of incomes,” says Prof Prabhu Pingali. He gives an example to support his point. “If I travel to a remote village in Orissa and list out all sources of income, I can see that there are increasingly other sources of earning money by farmers apart from farming. The sole dependence on agriculture is changing and there are diverse sources that are increasing. So when overall you add up the sources, the story changes.”

prabhu_pingaliWe must think future is positive but need to keep in mind that majority of our population in future would be urbanized. The demand for safer and quality food would only increase. To provide that attention and investments would be the key to agriculture progress.

Prof Prabhu L Pingali, Director, Tata-Cornell Institute (TCI)

As per agriculture ministry, during last year, the enhancement of farmers’ income has been 18.95 to 25 percent. At the same time, the national estimates show that poverty among smallholders is much higher than for other farmers. The rising number of marginal and small landholdings along with the large number of people that continue to be employed in agriculture is a major development challenge for policymakers. This highlights the opportunity of adopting the concept of smart villages and promoting productive enterprises to raise income levels of marginal landholders and landless agricultural labourers as well as promoting non-farm activities within rural areas.
Government is trying to encourage farmers through various schemes to turn to alternative livelihoods. For example the Blue Revolution scheme of Department of Fisheries is providing incentives to farmers for starting fish cultivation within farming fields. Agro-forestry is being encouraged and some new programmes like “Medh Par Ped” have been initiatives and extension and capacity building support is being provided to farmers for additional income.
Coming to the hardcore agriculture, the agriculture ministry claims that by the next year about 14 crore farmers will get Soil Health Card and significant numbers will get the insurance cover. The premium under Prime Minister Fasal Bima Scheme has been reduced significantly with full coverage of the loss. Under Soil Health Card scheme, Rs 368.30 crore has been allocated this year compared to Rs 142 crore last year. Besides that an allocation of Rs 5500 crore in the year 2016-17 budget has been made under Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana which was are Rs 3,185 crore in the previous budget. This is an increase of about 73 percent in this scheme. Subsequently, Rs 500 crore has also been allocated by Finance Minister and there is further demand for Rs 10,583 crore.
NABARD is making groups of farmers and agriculture producers to provide them cheap agricultural loans from banks. Till January 2016 across the country 14.43 lakh joint liability groups were formed and by March 2016, NABARD has set up approximately 2424 producer groups. The Minister said that from April 2005 to March 2014, Rs. 6775 crore were spent. Whereas, the new Government has, from April 2014 until December 2015, extended Rs 7084 crore as financial assistance to joint liability groups. The cooperative societies will be able to withstand the competitive global economy. The development of the rural economy and to increase employment opportunities in the agricultural, cooperatives have an important role to play.
Few steps by the government are indeed novel. For example, the cleaning drives were undertaken in 271 agricultural mandis. Further, Swachhta Action Plan has been prepared in which it was decided to make provision of Rs 10 lakh for each mandi for setting up waste management plants under e-Nam scheme. Agriculture ministry has decided to set up 150 seed hubs in country to increase production of pulses. Each hub produces 1000 quintal of quality seeds which will be provide to farmers.
Erasing the disconnect between farmers and market
The credit flow to the agriculture sector has been increased to 9.0 lakh crore and to reduce the pressure of loan on farmers, Rs 15,000 crore has been allocated for interest subvention. The centre is already providing 5 percent interest subsidy to the banks out of 9 percent being charged by them for agriculture loan. Ministry appealed to the state governments to provide remaining 4% from their exchequer so that farmers can get agriculture loan at zero percent.
At the same time, Indian government has expressed commitment for the prosperity and welfare of farmers, and for this purpose, it says number of initiatives have been taken during last two and half year. Addressing the Regional Editors Conference in Chandigarh on October 18, 2016, the union agriculture and farmers welfare minister, Mr Radha Mohan Singh stated that to ensure better prices for the produce of farmers, government is working in connecting all agriculture mandis with a national platform and by next year all the 585 mandis will be connected to a common single market where farmers would be able to sell their produce for better price. He said that direct benefits transfer to farmers under various scheme will also be made possible in near future.
The Agricultural Marketing Infrastructure (AMI) scheme, capital investment subsidy at 25 percent of the capital cost for general category beneficiary and at 33.33 percent for special category beneficiary is provided for construction/creation of scientific godowns and other marketing infrastructure in the country. Under AMI scheme (storage component) (erstwhile GBY), up to June 30, 2016, a total of 37371 godown projects have been sanctioned for renovation/ construction throughout the country. Further, under Private Entrepreneur Guarantee (PEG) Scheme, storage capacity of 134.83 lakh MT has been constructed.
The farmers through cooperatives and youth employment at the local level are being added, as well as through self-help groups of village women work towards self-sufficiency. The central and state governments are working together in this direction rapidly.
Way forward
Experts say that the inclusion of horticulture, pulses and other food crops in the overall focus is happening currently, which is a good step. Oilseeds production has increased even in dry belts of Madhya Pradesh and Gujarat which too is being appreciated. But at the same time, getting vegetables from small holder farmers to market is missing, cold storages and transportation is not at par with the objectives. Therefore, the role of private players which can even include new startups as well, becomes highly relevant. Both the private and public investments will be required to see the change on ground.
While there can be debate on failures and successes of Indian agriculture system, the fact is that it is important to break shackles from past and move ahead to reclaim the lost glory. The modernization of machinery and right mix of agriculture policy with direct inputs from farmers is mandatory for the success of any scheme. Sustained efforts and participation of all the stakeholders can bring the change we look for.