Visakhapatnam: Indian agriculture is heading for a crisis as food output stagnates and millions of poor farmers struggle with high debt and crop failures, the nation’s foremost farm scientist has warned.
Economic growth averaging 9% a year, fuelled by manufacturing and services, has masked the crisis in the countryside, said MS Swaminathan, who led the “Green Revolution” of the 1960s that made India self-sufficient in food.
“While the contribution of manufacturing and services is laudable, it is still the farm sector that provides the largest employment in the subcontinent,” said Swaminathan, 82, who heads India’s National Farmers’ Commission.
About two thirds of India’s 1.1 billion people still depend on agriculture for a livelihood and are being neglected in the euphoria of a surging economy, the scientist said in an interview last week in this southern Indian city.
At a conference in Visakhapatnam attended by Swaminathan and other scientists, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh called for a “second Green Revolution” using new technologies that are “eco-friendly, efficient, affordable and scalable” to boost food production and improve farmers’ lives.
Farmers are a powerful voting block, where Singh’s Congress party came to power in 2004 on a pro-rural platform amid perceived disenchantment over economic policies tilted towards industry and cities.
Swaminathan, a plant geneticist, spearheaded the first Green Revolution that began in the late 1960s, helping turn India from a starving nation into a food exporter.
Under the programme, recognized as one of the world’s most successful agricultural turnarounds, the planting of high-yield varieties of wheat and rice resulted in a dramatic rise in food output.
But Indian agriculture, hostage to the vagaries of the monsoon, has been in decline in recent years and is growing at less than a quarter the pace of the overall economy.
Annual per capita foodgrain production declined from 207 kilograms (455 pounds) in 1995 to 186 kilograms in 2006. The rate of agricultural growth fell from 5% in the mid-1980s to less than 2% in the past half-decade.
At the same time, thousands of debt-ridden farmers have committed suicide after crop failures forced many to sell plots held for generations.
“Unlike in the 60s and 70s, when the first Green Revolution was ushered in, farmers of the present generation are a lot more pessimistic,” Swaminathan said.
“They are cynical and diffident about the way politicians and governments deal with them,” he added. “They are no longer enthused to take to farming seriously.”
In 2006, the ruling Congress party launched a multi-billion-dollar welfare drive promising 100 days of work for every rural family in the battle against rural poverty.
But only about 3% of households which signed up received employment for 100 days and many only got about two weeks. The data came from a six-month internal audit of the programme which cited widespread examples of corruption, inefficiency and misuse of funds for the poor performance.
The government has repeatedly said it wants to make India’s economic growth more inclusive as national elections in 2009 near. But the delivery system has collapsed because of “monstrous growth” in the bureaucracy, said Swaminathan.
“When the first Green Revolution was launched, it was carried out like a symphony in unison by scientists, policy makers, state agriculture departments, marketing agencies and farmers,” he said.
While the government is spearheading the establishment of Chinese-style special economic zones for industry, Swaminathan said the time has come to set up special agricultural zones to boost farm production and reduce the widening income disparities between rural and urban India.
The government should step in with administrative and infrastructure support and market access while scientists and agricultural think tanks contribute “technology and tools,” he said.