New Delhi: Latest numbers from the agriculture ministry released on Tuesday showed that production of horticulture crops like fruits and vegetables touched a record high of 295 million tonnes in 2016-17. Apart from being higher than foodgrain production estimated at 273 million tonnes during this period—another record i.e. 2016-17 marks the fifth straight year when production of horticulture crops surpassed that of foodgrains.

India’s horticulture production grew at a phenomenal pace—Indian farmers now produce more than double the quantity of fruits and vegetables compared to what they did in early 2000.

Data shows that between 2001-02 and 2016-17, horticulture production rose from a mere 146 million tonnes to 295 million tonnes. During this period, production of foodgrains grew from 213 million tonnes to 273 million tonnes, showing the growing importance of short duration horticulture crops for Indian farmers.

More importantly, production of horticulture crops is more resilient to weather shocks like sub-par rains, the data shows. Since 2000, production of foodgrains fell sharply during deficit rainfall years (2002, 2004, 2009, 2014 and 2015), but horticulture output was unaffected and continued to grow even during drought years.

Data from the agriculture ministry shows that eight vegetables that make up 74% of the total vegetable production in the country have 73% access to irrigation. In comparison, only 50% of the area under foodgrains has access to irrigation. Barring wheat, which is an irrigated crop, irrigation access varies from 16% for pulses to 59% for rice.

That horticulture crops were grown in less than 5% of India’s gross cropped area, compared to 63% used to grow foodgrains is another positive for the sector, showing how resource poor farmers with marginal landholdings drove the growth in horticulture production.

Another positive for the horticulture sector is that unlike the green revolution in foodgrains which was limited to states like Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh, horticulture production hubs are spread out across the country. For instance, Maharashtra is the largest producer of fruits in India while West Bengal is the second largest producer of vegetables. While Gujarat grows the most amount of spices, Tamil Nadu tops the list of states in production of flowers.

However, this apparent success isn’t spotless. Farmers also had to bear sharp dips in wholesale prices, and often they were forced to dump their tomatoes, potatoes and onions by the roadside. This implies they need better access to markets, and infrastructure facilities like warehouses and cold storages (or a functional and an affordable cold chain network), to help them better manage price risks and avoid distress sales.

India’s agriculture markets are notoriously fragmented. So, some months back when farmers in Chhattisgarh were forced to let their tomatoes rot, consumers in Chennai were paying Rs20 per kg. This too needs to be corrected if the success of a bumper crop has to translate to better farm incomes.

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