(Retired Dean, College of Horticulture, Dr Y S Parmar University of Horticulture and Forestry, Solan (HP)
India has always been an agricultural state, characterised by small holdings, where bulk of its farmers are small and marginal, depending on subsistence farming, yet they feed 1.3 billion people. Agriculture employs about 55 per cent of the population and contributes roughly 17 per cent to the GDP. India is second in agricultural production, next only to China. We produce 12 per cent of the entire world’s agricultural out.
The sector creates wealth from land, water and light, using semi-skilled labour and agri-inputs. In learning to live with coronavirus, we also must realise that agriculture may be a saviour. It is ultimately our self-reliance in agriculture that would help us sustain during this pandemic.
It is true that there is need to shift some population engaged in farming to other related ventures, such as the post-harvest industry, yet it cannot be done in a short span. In the present scenario of covid-19, functioning of agricultural supply chains is essential not only for food and nutritional security but also for livelihood of millions engaged in farming. This fact was realised by the government, and agricultural operations were soon allowed to be carried out during the lockdown.
All farm sector value chains, however, cannot operate with other sectors remaining shut. Subsistence farming in rural India is a major reason for the workforce to move to urban areas in search of better livelihoods. Due to the impact of covid-19, migrant workers have moved back home. The question is what will they do back at home? Many, of course, will return to cities once the lockdown is over, yet a substantial number will stay back, most likely taking to agriculture. Agriculture, therefore, has to be more intensive and profitable for them to make a living. Linking of MGREGA with agriculture, therefore, should be a long-term policy and not just a temporary one-time measure.
The bane of the Indian farmer has been that agriculture goods cannot be expensive as millions of poor people would otherwise starve. The government thus has to ensure that the MSP for agricultural products is reasonably high so that farmers find farming a profitable venture and are able to sustain farming.
Some of the government’s economic measures for the farm sector are directed towards “high-hanging fruits”, i.e., measures that will provide relief in the long run. A measure such as development of post-harvest infrastructure, though a far-sighted idea, will give its benefit of preserving nutritious food (mostly horticultural produce) over a period of time.
The supply of hybrid seeds of staple and horticultural crops needs to be watched to sustain productivity. Here, the approach of “atmanirbhar Bharat” is important, and we must strive to produce our own hybrid seeds rather than depending upon imports. Another means to become self-reliant in the seed sector is to promote our own land races, particularly in the tribal areas.
It is appreciable that the government envisions developing post-harvest and value addition sectors right at the village level; this will provide jobs and livelihood. Entrepreneurs can also take advantage of the economic package announced by the government.
India produces 313.85 million tonne of fruit and vegetables from an area of 25.49 million hectares — a productivity of 12.31 tonne per hectare, which, compared to cereals and pulses, is nearly four times. Besides higher productivity, the value of horticultural produce is far more than that of food grains and pulses. This makes the horticulture sector a major driving force for doubling farm incomes. However, perishability of horticultural produce is a drawback, which makes the government’s support for infrastructure for processing of horticultural produce at the village level praiseworthy.
Importance of horticultural foods in meeting the Sustainable Development Goal of “Zero Hunger” by 2030 (United Nations) has assumed greater significance after covid-19, mainly because they are a source for many nutraceuticals and build our immune system. Farmers’ health needs attention, particularly because they have a relatively older demographic profile as compared to the general worker population.
Certain horticultural plants with medicinal value will occupy centre stage in the post-covid period because of their stated value in strengthening the immune system. This field needs more research and exploration.
With such diverse benefits from the agriculture sector in the lockdown and post-covid period, when food demand is expected to keep growing, it should remain a priority sector. A renowned economist of our times, Jacques Attali, has commented on the post-covid economic situation thus: “The dominant economic sectors will also be related to empathy: health, hospitality, food, education and the environment — by relying, of course, on the major networks of production and the flow of energy and information, which are necessary in any case.”
As we learn to live with corona, we also must realise that empathy will be our major healer, and agriculture is our only saviour. It is ultimately our self-reliance in agriculture that would help us sustain in this pandemic.
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