A greater focus on farmer welfare

There is an emphasis on increasing farm productivity, but this might not always align with greater profitability


Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint
Photo: Ramesh Pathania/Mint

While inaugurating the Krishi Mela at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in March, Prime Minister Narendra Modi appealed for a “three-pillared” approach to farming, which included crop farming, agro forestry—that is, planting timber trees along farm peripheries—and animal husbandry.

This is an important enunciation of how Indian agriculture works as an integrated system in which growing crops and rearing livestock coexist.

While over 57% of India’s population depends on agriculture for livelihood, close to 80% of India’s milk, for example, comes from such integrated, “mixed” farming systems. Most farmers in India diversify into different subsectors in an attempt to boost their incomes, and often to mitigate risk.

Indian agriculture has come a long way, with the country among the world’s top seven food exporters today. However, this positive headline obscures continuing challenges with farm productivity and incomes, particularly for small and marginal farmers. While agriculture has progressed significantly, most Indian farmers have not, a key issue being the lack of profitability in farming.

Farmers’ aim is to generate income and make profits to meet living expenses, cover social welfare needs and build assets for their families. Hence, for a farmer, what is significant is not just increased production but rather how much of the production translates into tangible profit.

Most agencies working for farmers focus on increasing farm productivity, but their efforts might not always be aligned with converting increased yield into greater profitability. This fundamental divergence in practical priorities needs to be plugged in order to bridge the gap between what research is keen to deliver and what the farmers are likely to adopt.

The recent rechristening of the ministry of agriculture as the ministry of agriculture and farmers welfare can be realized when there is greater rigour and focus on farmer welfare by optimizing and helping farmers realize the true value of what they produce. The three-pillars message needs better adoption by public sector research, extension and development agencies—which often work in mutually exclusive silos of crops and livestock and typically reach out to farmers through independent, often uncoordinated channels.

This type of compartmentalization can probably end if agricultural universities also adopt a “farming systems” lens that is more aligned with the reality of farming households. The collective impact of India’s large-scale public sector infrastructure in agriculture is reflected in significant improvements in crop and livestock productivity, which is necessary but not sufficient to address the challenges faced by smallholder farmers. What is further required of such platforms and missions is a greater emphasis on an integrated approach and a sustained focus on market development.

The elements that can significantly enable agricultural development are technologies (including appropriate innovations in market systems); extension and dissemination of technologies to farmers; and access to financial services such as loans, savings, remittance and insurance—for achieving higher agricultural productivity, livelihood diversification and improved food security.

Successful implementation of the three-pillared approach will require integration at all levels. We need to balance the existing farming portfolio by increasing emphasis on priority commodities such as livestock and locally relevant legumes and vegetables, while simultaneously exploring the impact potential of new commodities like potatoes. Goods and services reach farmers through both public and private channels. We should leverage the strengths of both sectors—involving the existing community, government and for-profit companies—and streamline the delivery process.

From a financing systems perspective, the newly licensed payments banks can be used to test various digital services such as insurance, direct benefit transfer and savings for smallholders. Measures can include providing funding for proof-of-concept, for-profit goods and services and supporting digitization of financial transactions for key institutions to reduce transaction costs and systems’ leakage.

Providing this initiative with the needed visibility will require a coalition of champions to voice key issues. This can be done by convening a policy advisory group and by partnering with domestic institutions to study the impact of poor land titling and tenancy laws and its impact on smallholders and landless farmers, particularly women.

Our approach must take into account the importance of policy in driving change. For effective policy, we must gather data and analyse evidence on the impact of existing policies, and accordingly modify or revise policies to address constraints.

The latest Union budget offers hope for all three pillars referenced by the prime minister—the total outlay of Rs.35,958 crore is being distributed across important parameters including irrigation, seeds, crop production and livestock. Combined with robust reforms in market development, this could very well transform the lot of Indian farmers by making farming a viable source of livelihood. The ambitious plan of doubling farmers’ incomes in the next five years is not impossible, but will become a reality only when a thrust to markets and farmer incomes will be added to the focus on production. A key task will be to have public sector institutions deliver a “package” of services to farmers, not just for better agricultural output, but for the overall economic well-being of the farming community.

Purvi Mehta is senior adviser and head of agriculture for South Asia at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

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