INDIA needs to radically re-examine its agricultural policy so that it serves current national imperatives and also looks after its farmers. The contribution made by the late MS Swaminathan, father of the Green Revolution, to bring about a turnaround in the agriculture sector reminds us that if the country’s leadership knows where it wants to go and has the vision to set out a path, it will get there and do itself proud. From having to lead a ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, dependent on the whims of the US leadership, India is today a significant exporter of agricultural produce.
The foremost current goal needed is to set out a ‘post-Green Revolution’ strategy by moving away from raising output by simply using more and more inputs. While the country needs to remain self-sufficient in food, it needs to be examined if it should remain a food exporter. It also needs to figure out how it can do well by its farmers and change farm practices and techniques so that agriculture can make do with fewer farmhands. By raising farm productivity, fewer hands can deliver the same output and, in the process, raise farmers’ incomes.
The new policy will have to also serve two emerging needs. Agriculture must do its bit to fight climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions. The country also has to serve a special need — make agriculture less water-intensive to address depletion of water resources.
Indian agricultural export earnings have fallen by over 10 per cent in the first quarter of the current financial year compared to last year. This is due to two reasons: actions taken to rein in domestic prices and a fall in international prices.
International prices are not in India’s hands and they cut both ways. Poorer earnings from exports usually go hand in hand with having to pay less for essential imports like edible oils. But is India handling domestic prices, which are in its hands, the right way? Through last year and into the current year, the government has banned the export of wheat and certain categories of rice and also imposed new export duties. Additionally, sugar exports have been restricted.
Restrictions on farm exports have been introduced to ensure that domestic food prices do not go up in an election year. But this does no good to the farmer who sees mandi prices being adversely affected, with traders going easy in view of the likely fall in export earnings.
If farming is to become more scientific, farmers should be able to plan their planting with a view on what demand and prices their output is likely to fetch. There needs to be a price stabilisation policy and a fund. Over time, drawals and inflows can be made to even out so that there is negligible impact on the exchequer, if at all. So, the first imperative is: don’t look at elections to fix farm prices and regulations. This is bad for both the health of Indian agriculture and the well-being of its farmers.
This brings us to the issue of devising a strategy for farmers to engage in sustainable agriculture, which is able to withstand shocks delivered by extreme weather conditions. This can be done cost-effectively if the focus is kept on raising the efficiency and resilience of agri-value chains and digitisation is extensively used as a catalyst for agricultural transformation. Sensor-equipped drips, drones and low-earth orbits can be deployed to use resources better. Drip irrigation, for example, addresses the issue of scarce water resources and also removes the need for flooding of fields, which causes methane (greenhouse gas) to be generated. This, and promoting food and nutritional security, cannot, of course, happen unless more investment is made in R&D. Plus, something can be done to better handle international prices. A multilateral trading system, using the WTO (World Trade Organisation) platform, can help anticipate prices better and boost the confidence of business interests engaged in agriculture.
The policy which needs to go is open-ended and assured procurement at minimum support prices for staples like paddy and wheat. Also, the massive subsidies for fertiliser, power and irrigation, which were introduced to bring about the Green Revolution, have to go. These have done damage not just to government finances but also to soil, water and biodiversity.
India is the world’s biggest rice exporter, accounting for 40 per cent of the global rice shipments, and putting the brakes on them will affect countries like Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Nepal. India is also the world’s second largest exporter of wheat, whose exports have been stopped since earlier in the year. India was also the second largest sugar exporter until the government imposed curbs. India has been cultivating the image of a global enabler through its leadership of G20. Abruptly stopping or restricting food exports which have caused global prices to rise goes against this attempt at image-building.
Rice, wheat and sugarcane are big water-guzzlers. India is seriously depleting its water resources, which have and will be affected by erratic monsoons and changes in glacial melting. The worst possible thing is groundwater reserves getting depleted faster than they are replenished during the rains as agricultural pump sets, powered by free or subsidised electricity, pump out water to grow crops like paddy, wheat and sugarcane. A major challenge before the government is to persuade farmers to shift from the cultivation of water-guzzlers to crops like millets and oilseeds (India is a major importer of edible oils).
A water-scarce country exporting water-guzzling crops amounts to exporting water. The desirable scenario that should lie ahead is cutting down, in fact eliminating, the cultivation of water-guzzling crops. This will result in a fall in foreign currency earnings, which the country will have to get around, possibly by raising services exports. Countries like Taiwan and Israel are keen to recruit a large number of Indian workers, whose remittances back home will boost the country’s foreign exchange earnings.
In sum, the policies that are needed to set agriculture right should focus on helping farmers modernise farming, boosting R&D investment to produce better seeds and working for the sunset for the export of water-guzzling crops.
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