Covid-19 and the resulting lockdown are among the biggest challenges that the modern world is facing. Covid-19 has attacked the very core of our present society, and has thrown light on many problems the states will face going forward. One must not forget that Covid-19 may pass, but global warming simply will not. Now is the time we need to rethink how we approach the agricultural sector and the Indian economy.
April 13 traditionally marks the beginning of the harvest season in many states in India. This year, the harvest was done in the midst of the world’s largest physical lockdown. This harvest season is not the first in the middle of a crisis for our farmers. India’s rural population has been facing crisis after crisis for the last few years. Niti Aayog reported that 22 out of 28 states/UTs saw an increase in poverty in 2019 from 2018. The same report also details how 24 states/UTs have seen a growth in hunger and 25 states/UTs a growth in inequality. A National Sample Survey Office report on consumer expenditure has detailed how rural consumption fell by 8.8 per cent and rural food consumption fell by 10 per cent. I point this out because the Economic Survey of 2019-20 released by the Ministry of Finance reports that 70 per cent of rural households depend on agriculture for their livelihood.
These sharp increases in poverty and rural distress signpost the necessity for reforms in economic sectors that impact their livelihoods the most. Moreover, the head of the United Nations World Food Programme has highlighted how Covid-19 puts over three dozen countries at risk of a famine of ‘biblical’ proportions. That is a famine that could affect hundreds of millions of people, post Covid-19. Global warming, insect attacks, global health pandemics, these are not few and far in between anymore, but a fact of life.
Given that this is the scenario that the government has to deal with today, we must reinvent how we approach the sector most affected by this — agriculture.
The most important of ideas that we must implement for a modern agricultural revolution is that of crop diversification. Numerous agricultural scientists have argued that we must diversify what we produce. Punjab, for example, has become one of the largest producers of rice in the country, thanks to the Green Revolution. While it was a necessity when it was first implemented, we have learnt from experience and it is time the government takes steps to evolve a policy that promotes crop diversification. Punjab is not a state that should theoretically be producing rice anymore. It is better suited for different crops other than rice, yet it is hard to diversify if there is no incentive for the farmer to do so.
Therefore, the government must incentivise the farmers to diversify into crops more suited for their lands by expanding the procurement system. By procuring cereals, millets, edible oils and other goods, the government ensures that the farmer has a market to sell to. The idea that liberalised free markets could be the panacea for our farmers is simply untrue.
In fact, lower prices and increased costs have led to farmers’ distress in the US, for example. Robert Johansson, Chief Economist of the US Department of Agriculture, in 2018, reported that farmers’ income in real terms — after inflation — would actually fall in the next decade.
An industrialised, liberalised farming economy, simply does not work. Especially, in the unique position that we find ourselves in, the government must focus on providing an assured price and an assured market to ensure that our farmers can start diversifying crops.
In fact, the Minister for Agriculture responded to a question posed by a few colleagues and myself in 2019, that the government has conducted a study on farmers’ suicides in 2016-17 and one of the suggestions to combat this problem was crop diversification. Yet, there has been no real discussion on this topic.
We must start focusing on agricultural research. We spend roughly 0.3-0.4 per cent of our agricultural GDP on research. That is dwarfed in comparison to countries like Brazil that spends 1.8 per cent of its agricultural GDP on research, Mexico 1.05 per cent and Malaysia close to 1 per cent. The Dalwai Committee Report in 2019 had suggested an increase to 1 per cent on research, yet there has been no move to do the same. Without spending more on research, we simply will not leave a strong agricultural sector for the next generation of Indians.
We must focus on our land-use policies. We have the technology to discern the ideal crops to be grown in regions/states. We must start focusing on promoting such scientific use of land. Israel, for example, is able to harness remote-sensing technology for data-driven agricultural practices. We have been working with them on the Centres of Excellence initiative. Using the best practices from countries that we are cooperating with would benefit our farmers. We must look at tailor-making farmer policies at the local level, especially when it comes to land use. An empirical, data-based approach to land-use policy making is the need of the hour, to ensure sustainable development of the agriculture sector.
The creation of an assured market and an assured price, along with a focus on research-based agricultural policymaking, are positive steps that would strengthen the agriculture sector. Furthermore, this would also solve another problem that our country faces, as well as open new opportunities: specifically, rural migration. The Covid-19 lockdown, if anything, has shown us the vast inequalities between urban and rural India. A strong agricultural sector will help bridge that gap. It reduces the strain on our urban conglomerations, while heralding a rebirth of Rural India.
This modern revolution also rests on another important plank, and that is the industrialisation of rural India. Industrialisation and agricultural sectors are not mutually exclusive, but two sides of the same coin. A modern, global India requires us to decentralise industries from the urban to the rural sector.
Now is the time that we must focus on our farmers and rural India. It will unlock the economic potential of our country. After all, as Jawaharlal Nehru said, “Everything else can wait, but not agriculture.”
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