Agriculture is not merely a profession in India. It is the spine of rural living and has influenced the progress of our civilisation. Ever since Independence, development plans have always focused on agricultural growth.
Food grain production has increased from 51 million tonnes in 1950-51 to 210 million tonnes in 2006-07. Yet, the scenario today is not so promising. In recent years, growth has plummeted and is around 2.7 per cent as against the growth target of 4 per cent. This is a matter of concern. To sustain an economic growth of 9 per cent plus, and reduce poverty on a long-term basis, we need to achieve agricultural growth of at least 4 per cent annually. This is going to be a formidable challenge that we have to face and overcome.
With the population explosion, cultivable land has become deeply fragmented. The average size of operational holdings for cultivation decreased from a little more than 5 hectares during the 1950s to as small as 1.41 hectares during the 1990s. Such uneconomical size of available farmlands forced many farmers to abandon farming. The number of marginal holdings has increased from 3.5 crore to 7.1 crore over the last three decades. Today, there are about 7 crore farmers with holdings of a meagre 1 hectare or even less.
It is, therefore, not surprising that many small land holdings are becoming economically unviable, making the small and marginal farmers live in perpetual debt . The large number of suicides reflects the overall plight of these farmers.
Agriculture growth is not just about increasing yields and incomes. The key issue is ensuring the farmer’s welfare. There will not be any sustainable agricultural growth unless our farmers are comprehensively empowered to lead a life without deprivation and with affordable access in real terms to basic education, healthcare and shelter.
Such empowerment is critical particularly for small and marginal farmers. It was this philosophy that motivated me to launch the Antyodaya programme when I became Rajasthan’s Chief Minister in 1977. The programme covered every village, identifying five poorest families every year for their economic uplift. The small annadata is worthy of our utmost consideration and has to be at the centre of any strategy for rejuvenating our agriculture.
We need agricultural development that is measured not just in terms of percentage increase in GDP contribution but which goes far beyond so that it uplifts poor farmers from the morass of poverty and misery. We need agricultural development that ensures access to basic education, healthcare and shelter to every farmer, so that he may enjoy in full measure his fundamental right to live with dignity. The prosperity and happiness of poor, small and marginal farmers will determine the content and the contour of the country’s economic growth.
To begin with, we must develop new technologies and take advantage of developments in areas like biotechnology; the thrust and content of technology development should be of direct relevance to the needs of the given region.
We must also seriously consider ways to expand cultivable land by converting potentially cultivable holdings that have otherwise remained non-cultivable. At present, only 40 per cent of our cultivable area is under irrigation. Our ability to enhance irrigation facilities is severely limited. Our focus thus has to be on mono-crop dry farmlands. We need technologies that will insulate small and marginal farmers from large fluctuations in yield by developing varieties of high value-low volume crops. Another area of focus should be oilseeds and pulses. Pulses are the major source of protein for the rural poor and the declining trend in production, from 70 g to 35 g a day a person, is a matter of concern.
Farmers need effective linkages with universities and easier access to information that impacts their farm practices. Cooperatives can play a pivotal role. These societies should be in a position to offer integrated inputs like improved seeds, fertilisers, warehousing, marketing and services of tractors and allied agricultural machinery to the small and marginal farmers and make their holdings viable.
There is also a need for the non-formal education of the large unemployed rural workforce. Vocational training on a large scale in various fields can partly bridge this gap. Rural youth and women should be provided with necessary skills to earn a dignified living. We have to face growing international competition. Our products need to meet international quality standards and competitive prices. Then alone will our farming community be in a position to take advantage of new markets available to us.
Bhairon Singh Shekhawat is Vice-President of India. This is an edited extract of his address at the 41st Convocation of the University of Agricultual Sciences, Bangalore.