Despite consecutive years of normal monsoon, farmers are protesting. How do you see the distress situation in Indian agriculture?
On the price front, there are certain crops where Indian farmers have a reason to say that they are not fully compensated for their effort. But if one looks at the comparative prices globally, Indian agricultural produce prices are not very low, especially for grains. FAO studies show that during the next decade, agriculture commodity prices are unlikely to rise significantly, and market conditions will remain soft. On prices, for some crops the government could open up exports, but the major opportunity will not come from there.
Agrarian distress is persisting as the right kind of technology or technical advice is not reaching farmers. For instance, in cotton-growing areas where suicides are taking place... those areas are more suited for dry land agriculture and not input-intensive farming as risks are high. There, one needs to practise diversified agriculture... growing coarse grains and millets.
Another problem why distress is there is that the extension system is not robust enough.
Can you explain why the right kind of technology is not reaching farmers?
One, agriculture research globally is focused very heavily on rice, wheat and to some extent, maize. Now, in dry land areas (unirrigated low-rainfall zones) these are not the crops that we need. Crops like pulses and millets need more attention in terms of research and also for their positive dietary impacts on the Indian people.
Secondly, although India’s average input application is not that high, the imbalance in application of inputs like fertilizers is very high. Now the incentive structure is such that in certain areas there is huge intensification (rice and wheat in Punjab) while in others there is none. If we go to eastern India and use the same amount of fertilizers we will get much more (yield). If we continue to focus on rice and wheat, farm incomes will not improve. We need more research on pulses where productivity is low even when compared to countries like Myanmar.
Other than horticulture, livestock is another area which can help improve farmer earnings. The cooperative movement in dairy was a marketing intervention, not so much of a technological intervention to improve breed quality. In the livestock sector the herd composition is very unproductive.
That’s because culling is not allowed?
With cows, there is a strong value system attached. But we have to make up our mind. It’s not worth pushing hard due to strong cultural and spiritual reasons. If one cannot cull the male calf, the economics goes in favour of buffaloes but there the potential is not that great as the global genetic pool is very limited. So basically, in dairy we have to use semen production technology so that production of male calves is reduced. Also, we can emphasize on goat-based milk production and pig meat where there has been little research. The Chinese and the Philippines have done quite a bit of work there.
The problem is that the livestock sector is not a focus area for the government. 90% of discussion on agriculture is around crops, and 90% of the discussion on crops is around rice and wheat. We still suffer from the (food) insecurities of the 1960s which we do not need to.
The rural youth is not keen to continue with farming. What are your views on rural-urban migration?
The classical economic transition in Europe happened when people moved out of agriculture to industry. That was feasible as those countries were colonial powers with a captive market: cotton is grown in India, taken to Birmingham (in UK) and the finished product is sold back to India. The shortest transition, from close to 90% workforce in agriculture to less than 10% engaged in farming, was achieved by Belgium, a small country, in 112 years. Today, we don’t have that colonial model of development and manufacturing technology is less human muscle driven and more automated. Today, it takes an enormous investment to create one job in manufacturing.
In India, around 9 million people left farming (between 2001 and 2011) but that is largely due to distress, not because industry is inviting them. The solution is to invest in rural areas and value addition in agriculture, by moving farmers from grains to horticulture and animal husbandry. That means large investments in marketing and processing infrastructure.
Are loan waivers a solution to farm distress?
There are better ways to spend the money going to waivers. Uttar Pradesh (which is spending Rs36,000 crore on waivers) could go to Nepal and build dams which would benefit farmers far more. Why don’t we invest that money in watershed development so that there are lots of in-situ soil and water conservation projects. Insurance and waivers are financial transfers which cannot do away with the risk. Appeasement does not help, we should be investing that money and improve both the quantum and quality of investment in agriculture. Even before going for something like the river linking project there are several low hanging fruits. India’s irrigation efficiency is only one-third of Thailand’s and technologies like the system of root intensification can bring down water usage.
On the food policy front, where are we headed? The Global Hunger Index report ranks India at 100 among 119 developing countries.
The naked hunger that we used to see 25 years ago in tribal areas... we need to admit, is no longer there, food intake has gone up. Now converting that food security into nutrition security is a challenge and several factors like education and sanitation play a role there. For instance, a large part of the child stunting problem is due to diarrhoea. Also, India should expand the food basket under the (subsidized) public distribution system to include pulses and millets. But successive governments have shunned the idea due to cost implications.