Home / Opinion / Online-views /  Green revolution needs a reset

India’s agriculture became moribund decades ago, and shows no sign of uplift for the long haul. Indeed, the rain gods have played havoc with Indian farmers. But not just the gods, Indian states have done precious little to tackle the problem head-on. The government’s solution is to give financial sops to farmers to buy peace from time to time. It is equally unfortunate that farmers just accept the sops and go away, only to return when hard times hit them again.

India’s agricultural growth rate has hovered around 2-3% annually, when in fact it should be at least 5%. Former prime minister Manmohan Singh repeatedly said Indian agriculture must grow at least at 4%, without which there will be no real rural poverty alleviation and no relief to distressed farmers. India’s green revolution is fatigued and needs a scientific and technological boost.

The irony is that the key to modern and technology in agriculture is with the ministry of environment, which has no expertise in agriculture, and as it happens, won’t talk to the ministry of agriculture to find ways and means of bringing about scientific and technological intervention. The reason the ministry of environment holds the key is that agricultural activities impact the environment. Therefore, using the authority of the Environment Protection Act of 1986, in the name of assessing the environmental impacts of new technologies in agriculture, the environment ministry has put a ban on introducing any new technology in agriculture.

The ministry of agriculture has not lost sleep over it. On the contrary, the Union minister of agriculture revels in eloquence about anachronistic agriculture. He seems to be least bothered about the lack of scientific progress in Indian agriculture, but wants Indian agricultural scientists to investigate the power of cow’s urine, panchagavya and yogic agriculture.

No wonder Arun Shourie remarked that Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s government is the United Progressive Alliance plus a cow. The agriculture minister strongly feels that if Indian scientists can discover the power of cow’s urine and other Vedic paraphernalia, India can become the “vishwaguru" in agriculture. If this is the proclivity of the Union minister, there is nothing much to talk about state ministries of agriculture that never miss a beat to assert their rights over agriculture being a state subject.

Modern science and technology is an alien concept to state ministries of agriculture, state politicians and local farm leaders, all playing petty local politics, extolling the virtues of India’s annadata, with no clue as to what really ails their vote bank. They, too, simply throw good money at worsening problems year after year, and no real solution emerges.

Indian agriculture is seriously sick, and it needs a strong dose of bitter medicine. Market-based solutions are the only way forward. India’s investment in agricultural science and technology and rural infrastructure must be upped by 25%; the Indian Council of Agricultural Research must be turned into a private research corporation headed by a business-minded CEO; and private equity participation must be brought into India’s agricultural R&D.

Secondary agriculture must drive rural economic development. Small-scale farmers and subsistence farming must be gradually phased out as its size is not economically viable in the 21st century. No amount of shoring up economically unviable agriculture can help. Stubbornly persisting on flogging a dead horse is not going to improve the farmer’s plight.

The National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government has given no evidence of its intent to set a future-looking agenda so far. That is not good for the nation, nor for the NDA’s electoral fortunes in the years to come. It needs to act fast. India’s agricultural science is already lagging behind by decades, and if the Union ministry persists in dragging agriculture to the medieval age, only God can save Indian agriculture, and even that looks doubtful.

Shanthu Shantharam teaches plant biotechnology and biotechnology innovation management at Iowa State University and was formerly executive director of the agricultural group of India’s Association of Biotechnology-led Enterprises. He is a former biotechnology regulator with the US department of agriculture.

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