For long Indian agriculture has been beset by two kinds of problems. One, the farming problem, which essentially relates to falling productivity and overall production. Two, the farmers’ problem, which is about how agriculture is un-remunerative to those involved in it. Of course, the two are interlinked but often the solution to the former, such as increased use of fertilizers and pesticides, aggravates the latter, by further squeezing monetary resources.

More often than not it is the second problem that attracts greater attention, I suspect, due to the human element. It is true that every year more and more farmers give up farming in India. Not surprising when one notes that agriculture accounts for 55% of all employment while generating just 14% of the GDP (gross domestic product) share. In fact, the latest economic survey shows that for the first time there has been an actual decline in the absolute number of people involved in the farming sector. The total number of cultivators has gone down from 127.3 million in 2001 to 118.7 million in 2011.

However, there has been little focus on the agrarian data emerging from the fields. And perhaps the lack of reporting is one big reason why it comes as a surprise that Indian agriculture has performed better than it has ever done in its history—both in terms of total production and in terms of yields.

A study done by Bipin K. Deokar and S.L. Shetty of the EPW Research Foundation (EPW, June 28, 2014) shows how Indian agriculture (along with forestry and fishing) has grown at an average annual growth rate of 4%, which is also the targeted growth rate for agriculture by the government, between 2005-06 and 2013-14 (Period-1). That the sector grew just 2.4% between 1994-95 and 2004-05 (Period-2) puts the achievement in context. During the last nine years, which were co-terminus with the two terms of the United Progressive Alliance, India did not experience a single year of negative growth, although 2008-09 witnessed a growth of just 0.1%.

It wasn’t just the production but also the yield that improved, across crop groups, between Period-1 and Period-2. So foodgrains (which includes cereals and pulses) witnessed a yield increase of 3.30% while oilseeds yields grew by 4.32%.

As far as acreage is concerned, more land was brought under cultivation of vegetables, especially onion and potato, where the acreage increased by 9.80% and 8.30%, respectively. Diversification was not limited to vegetables. Land used for cultivation of fruits increased by 3.9% and as a result, the overall production of fruits has gone up by 5.80% over Period-1.

The impressive gains on the ground appear to reflect the improved investment in the sector. “...The combined budgetary expenditures of the central and state governments on agriculture as well as their capital expenditures components as proportions of their aggregate expenditure or as proportions of the agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) at market prices, have experienced distinct increases after 2004-05. For instance, following the Fifth Pay Commission recommendations, the share of agriculture in total developmental expenditure had dipped from 15.2% in 1999-2000 to 12.7% in 2001-02 and to 11.8% in 2003-04. But this loss in the share was restored to around 15% in 2008-09," states the study. As a result, the total gross capital formation (as a percentage of agriculture GDP) went up from 12.9% (average between FY00 and FY04) to 17% in FY13.

But there is a downside in the data when one looks at the details. Much of the high growth witnessed in the past nine years has come from the states which are considered weak in terms of either irrigation capacity or crop productivity or both. For instance, between FY05 and FY12, Punjab (which scores highly on both irrigation capacity as well as crop productivity) has grown by 1.8% on an average every year. In comparison, Chhattisgarh with low levels of irrigation and crop productivity grew at a rate of 7.3% every year. Similarly, the likes of Jharkhand (8.0%), Rajasthan (5.5%) and Manipur (5.9%) outperformed West Bengal (2.6%), Haryana (4.2%) and Uttar Pradesh (2.8%).

While it is great news that the rainfed areas and areas not associated with high productivity are performing well, it would be a matter of great concern that the agriculturally strong states appear to have reached a plateau. As such, while the strong performance of the weaker states papers over the deceleration in the strong states in the short term, India would have to urgently address the larger agrarian problem in the country.

The monsoon deficit in the current year, while reduced from the highs, still continues to be considerable. And despite the increased investment and production, not enough has been done about improving extension services. A recent story in Mint showed how 60% of farmers’ queries to the Kisan Call Centres (KCCs) go unanswered because of inadequate capacity in KCCs. Agricultural extension services will have to be the centre piece of any future strategy to improve agricultural performance. In this regard, the results of the latest Situation Assessment Survey of Farmers, expected in December 2014, will be crucial. Inadequate extension services are the main reason why farmers resort to imbalanced use of fertilisers and pesticides. This, in turn, leads to substantial soil degradation and impoverishes the farmers by raising the input costs beyond his means.

The key agenda for the Narendra Modi government then should be to re-invigorate the tired performance from the agricultural heavyweight states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and West Bengal. The performance of the last decade may have been impressive but it also highlights significant gaps.