So far, so good; but it’s uphill from here | india | Hindustan Times
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So far, so good; but it’s uphill from here

Despite agriculture’s growth tempo struggling to push above 4 per cent, one of India’s leading agricultural economists says the past five years have been the best ever “as far back” as he can remember, writes Zia Haq.

india Updated: Feb 16, 2009 22:32 IST
Zia Haq

Breaking news: Agriculture has posted a growth of 3.7 in the past four years or so. The country’s overall growth clocked 8.5 per cent. Farming, forestry and fishing — the three pillars of India’s farm sector — together is likely to post a growth rate of 2.6 per cent during 2008-09, down from previous year’s 4.9 per cent.

Breaking views: Despite agriculture’s growth tempo struggling to push above 4 per cent, one of India’s leading agricultural economists says the past five years have been the best ever “as far back” as he can remember.

As always, taking stock of the farm sector remains a tunnel-vision act through the “glass-half-empty, half-full” prism.

“Last year, despite the estimation being just over 2 per cent, agriculture posted a growth of 4.9 per cent. In agriculture, we tend to be very cautious in the projections we make. So don’t make so much of the figures. They are not all,” says Planning Commission member and leading farm economist Abhijit Sen.

So, why were the last five years exceptionally good? That’s because there was great improvement over the terrible mess agriculture was in the late 90s.

Let’s crunch the numbers. Here’s how agriculture grew in the past five years: in 2003-04, it grew at a whopping 10 per cent; in 2004-05, it didn’t grow at all (0 per cent), then it was 5.8; then it came down to 4; moved up last year to 4.9 and finally this year it’s 2.6 per cent.

Plan allocation went by 300 per cent between 2003-04 and 2008-09; farm credit increased from Rs 87,000 crore to Rs 2,50,000 crore up to 2007-08, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced while unveiling the interim budget. Add to that a revival package worth Rs 13,500 crore in 25 states. The government will continue to provide interest subvention in 2009-10 to ensure that farmers get short-term crop loans up to Rs 3 lakh at 7 per cent interest. The central plan outlay for the farm sector is 10,136 crore for 2009-10.

Extension service or farm knowledge service is being revived after its collapse and weather has been good. Add to that the National Food Security Mission, (launched from Rabi 2007-08) which aims to increase rice production by 10 million tonnes; wheat by 8 million tonnes; and pulses by 2 million tonnes. We produced 96.43 million tonnes of rice and 78.40 million tonnes of wheat, and sitting on mountains of foodstocks.

Yet it’s an uphill from here. The biggest challenge is to conserve resources — land and water — and yet take up productivity.

Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar summed it up at the World Congress on Conservation Agriculture on February 4: “The demand for food is growing…we need to produce about 320 million tonnes of food grains by 2025. It implies more pressure on our existing land, soil and water resources which are already in short supply and degraded.”

Sen says the answer lies in bringing knowledge, from the “lab to the agricultural offices to the farm”. Then, small farmers continue to Indian agriculture’s Achilles’ heel, a class of farmers the government has utterly failed.

“Almost 86 per cent of India’s farm holdings are marginal or small; they don’t seem to benefit from current agricultural policies,” says Rajeswari Raina, senior fellow, Centre for Policy Research.

Yet, I asked Sen to rate our performance in the past five years on a scale of 1-10. He gave 7. But then, in his own words, don’t make much of the numbers.