Wasting the potential of our vast wastelands

  • Mark Tully
  • Updated: Oct 19, 2014 02:23 IST

With his emphasis on industry and ‘Make in India’ campaign, PM Narendra Modi has done a great deal to assure business and industry that he is aware of their concerns and intends to resolve their problems. But has he forgotten the farmers of India? They need some grandiose plans too to raise productivity, to get a fair price for their produce, and to prevent what they produce being wasted.

Modi has started to address one of these problems, the wastage of food estimated at nearly 40% of total production by the former minister of agriculture, Sharad Parwar. A committee has been set up to consider reforming the Food Corporation of India. The state governments have been asked to free the sale of fruit and vegetables from restrictive, outdated, marketing agricultural produce acts, which benefit the middlemen not the farmers.

It’s not as if Modi is unconcerned about agriculture. The Prime Minister’s Office has instructed the commerce ministry to discover why “unwarranted imports” of nine major agricultural products are costing more than $100 million each annually, and to devise a strategy to reduce them. Edible oils lead the import table with 60% of India’s foreign food. They are followed by pulses — 15%.

There is plenty of room for improvement in pulses productivity. India’s pulses yield is one of the lowest in the world. But there is a project that could go well beyond increasing productivity and would fit in well with Modi’s talent for eye-catching promises. He could promise to reclaim the degraded wastelands of India. If reclaimed, this land would be particularly suitable for oilseeds and pulses, which grow on comparatively poor soil.

In Auroville in Tamil Nadu, I have seen the forest and the variety of vegetables two enterprising entrepreneurs Bernard and Deepika have grown on rocky, apparently barren, land. They have achieved this by sowing the seeds of the few plants that could grow on their land. When the leaves of those plants fall, they decompose, forming soil. The UNDP has published a book by Bernard and Deepika, describing their technology. But no government organisation had shown interest in their work.

Development Alternatives, an NGO, has demonstrated the effectiveness of its techniques for reclaiming degraded wasteland in Bundelkhand, where at least 60% of the population is entirely dependent on agriculture. Through soil and moisture conservation, Development Alternatives has grown forests in three districts of Bundelkhand. “Have the state or central governments shown much interest in this?” I asked vice-marshal (retired) Surendra Sahni, who has worked on the reclamation of degraded land with Development Alternatives for 28 years. “No,” he replied.

Only the central and state governments have the financial and other resources to replicate these methods of reclaiming degraded wastelands. But the simple fact is that the armies of officers governments employed to bring about the vikas, or development, Modi has promised are just not capable of replicating them. The government employees are too firmly stuck to their office chairs to exercise the constant vigilance required. Instead of getting officials in rural areas into their offices on time, Modi will have to get them out of their offices if he wants to fulfil any promises he might make to farmers and the rural poor.

Sahni does have a solution that should appeal to Modi. He suggests that private firms should be encouraged to spend their corporate social responsibility funds on land reclamation, and involve their management skills in implementing the schemes.

Reclaimed wastelands could more than compensate for land lost to mining, industry and infrastructure. The pulses produced would go a long way in combating malnutrition. The problem of imports Modi is so concerned about would be solved.

But the failure of Rajiv Gandhi’s Wasteland Development Board, with some two million hectares of agricultural and forest land becoming degraded every year, is a warning to Modi.

The views expressed by the author are personal

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