In his historic Tryst with Destiny speech Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru said: "Everything can wait, but not agriculture." Six decades after Independence, though our country’s economy may be soaring, agriculture still remains its Achilles’ heel.
Low public investment, inadequate irrigation facilities, shrinking landholdings, low technology application, and farmers’ debt have stymied this sector that supports 65 per cent of the country’s population. "Something is terribly wrong in the countryside," says Dr MS Swaminathan who led the country’s Green Revolution and is now the chairman of the National Commission on Farmers.
Even the government’s National Agricultural Policy admits this. It says that agriculture has become a relatively unrewarding profession as an unfavourable price regime and low value additions are causing farmers to abandon farming. The National Sample Survey Organisation estimates that 40 per cent farmers would like to quit farming if they have the option to do so.
Government investment in agriculture has fallen from 14.9 per cent in the first Five Year Plan to 5.2 per cent in the current plan. This decline has had an adverse impact on the creation of infrastructure and the growth of farm output.
Even commercial bank lending to farmers, despite being a priority sector lending, has gone down. A Reserve Bank of India report says that bank lending for agriculture has declined from 15.9 per cent in 1990 to 9.8 per cent in 2003. What is particularly worrying is that large farmers are increasingly edging marginal farmers out of credit facilities.
This shift has compelled marginal farmers to turn to private moneylenders for loans at interest rates anywhere between 40 to 120 per cent per annum to purchase seeds, fertiliser and other agricultural inputs. The report highlights that institutional credit has to increase to make agriculture a viable option.
One of the major issues impacting Indian agriculture is its dependence on monsoons. Currently, only 40 per cent of the land under cultivation is irrigated and a large number of river-valley projects have failed to meet their deadlines. For example, out of the 494 ongoing irrigation projects in the Tenth Five Year Plan, almost half have spilled over from the previous plans.
Improved irrigation not only increases food production, but also helps in improving the use of fertiliser even on rain-fed land. Irrigation projects also create new jobs in rural areas. A Food and Agriculture Organisation study states that if 10 hectares of land are irrigated, employment increases from 8 to 24 persons.
The agrarian structure in the country comprises mostly of small and tiny holdings. From 1970 to 1999, the average size of holdings declined from 2.28 to 1.55 hectares and the proportion of landless farmers increased from 20 to 35 per cent.
In fact, a ministry of agriculture study has found that very small patches of land often at great distance make cultivation virtually impossible for marginal farmers. Noting the glaring inequalities in land distribution, the study found out that in all states a very small percentage of the population owned very large proportion of land.
To usher in a second Green Revolution we have to look back at the first Green Revolution model which involved a huge collaborative effort between Central and state governments, agriculture universities, research institutions and community extension programmes. The next story shows how a renewed focus on research on crops, water management and market linkages can boost our agricultural produce.