In recent years, the agricultural growth rate has tended to be lower than the population growth rate. This year, the former is nearing the target of 4%. But we still have a very large percentage of undernourished children, women and men. Poverty and destitution also remain stubborn.
The Indian food security enigma rises from the mismatch between the grain mountains and the hungry millions. What are the prospects for ensuring food and nutrition security for a population that is expected to hit 1.4 billion by 2020, given the diminishing per capita availability of arable land and irrigation water and the expanding biotic and abiotic stresses? Climate change will further compound our difficulties in achieving a balance between human numbers and the human capacity to produce the necessary food and jobs.
In addition, we will need a major effort at social engineering, involving gram sabhas (village councils) across the country, to effect a small-farm-management revolution. Special programmes will be needed for women and young farmers. Packages of technology, services and public policies will have to be delivered in an integrated manner.
“Deliver as one” should become the norm for inter-departmental functioning. Conservation, cultivation, consumption and commerce should become parts of an integrated system of biodiversity management.
The biovillage paradigm of sustainable human security developed by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) should be widely adopted, so that every village becomes a biovillage. Similarly, every watershed should become a bio-industrial watershed, so that job opportunities are created in the secondary and tertiary sectors of economic activity.
I would like to pick three areas to illustrate what needs to be done during the next 10 years to achieve a poverty- and hunger-free India.
REAPING THE DEMOGRAPHIC DIVIDEND
During his recent visit, US President Barack Obama pointed out that India is fortunate to have a youthful population with over half the population of 1.2 billion being under the age of 30. Of the 600 million young people, over 60% live in villages. Most are literate. Gandhiji considered the migration of educated youngsters from villages to towns and cities as the most serious form of brain drain adversely affecting rural India’s development. He therefore stressed that we should take steps to end the divorce between intellect and labour in rural professions.
The National Commission on Farmers (2004-06) stressed the need for attracting and retaining educated youngsters in farming. The National Policy for Farmers placed before Parliament in November 2007 includes the following goal: “To introduce measures which can help to attract and retain youth in farming and processing of farm products for higher value addition, by making farming intellectually stimulating and economically rewarding”.
We are currently deriving very little demographic dividend in agriculture. On the other hand, the pressure of population on land is increasing and the size of the average farm holding is dipping below 1 hectare. Farmers are getting trapped in debt and, as real estate rates continue to rise, the temptation to sell prime farmland for non-farm purposes is growing.
Over 45% of farmers interviewed by the National Sample Survey Organisation want to quit farming. Under these conditions, how are we going to persuade educated youngsters, including farm graduates, to stay in villages and take to agriculture as a profession? How can youngsters earn a decent living in villages and help shape the future of India’s agriculture sector? It will take a three-pronged strategy. We must:
Improve the productivity and profitability of small holdings through appropriate technologies and market linkages.
Enlarge the scope for the growth of agro-processing, agro-industries and agri-business.
Promote opportunities for the services sector to expand in a manner that will trigger the technological and economic upgradation of farm operations.
Yuva kisans or young farmers can also help women’s selfhelp groups manufacture and sell the biological software essential for sustainable agriculture. These would include biofertilisers, biopesticides and vermiculture compost.
A fisheries graduate could promote both inland and marine aquaculture, using low external input sustainable aquaculture techniques.
Feed and seed are the important requirements for successful aquaculture and trained youngsters could promote their production at the local level. They could also train rural families in induced breeding of fish and spread quality and food safety literacy.
Similar opportunities exist in the fields of animal husbandry. Improved technologies can be introduced in small-scale poultry and dairy farming. The Codex Alimentarius (Latin for ‘food code’), a set of internationally recognised standards for food safety, could be popularised in the case of perishable commodities. For this, young farmers should establish gyan chaupals or village knowledge centres. Such centres would be based on the integrated use of the internet, FM radio and mobile telephony. For example, artisanal fishermen — those fishing in tiny boats on a small scale, or merely for subsistence — could be empowered with information on wave heights and the location of fish shoals. Such techniques would help transform the lives of these families.
SEAWATER AS A SOLUTION
No discussion on food security can be complete without bringing in water security. There is an urgent need for a sustainable water security system with concurrent attention to two areas — supply augmentation and managing demand. The major sources of irrigation water are rainfall, rivers, tanks, reservoirs and other surface water resources, ground water, industrial and domestic effluents and seawater is almost 97% of the global water resource and an important social asset. With the melting of Artic and Antarctic ice, sea levels will go up with disastrous consequences. The tsunami of December 26, 2004, gave us a glimpse of this.
To augment supplies, we must harvest rainwater and store it carefully both above and below ground. We should also ensure that all waste water — industrial and domestic — is purified and recycled. Rainwater harvesting should become a way of life. Seawater is an invaluable resource for agriculture and aquaculture, and seawater farming should become a normal activity for coastal communities. Seawater farming involves an integrated approach to agro-forestry, horticulture, aquaculture and marine fisheries. MSSRF is establishing a research and capacity-building centre for seawater farming near Chidambaram in Tamil Nadu. Another one, for below-sea-level farming, is being developed in Kuttanad in Kerala.
The second road to water security is by managing demand. Unfortunately, water is generally measured in quantitative terms alone. There is not much interest in getting the best out of the available water by emphasising the economy and efficiency of water use. There are great opportunities for minimising demand through increased efficiency of water use in the agricultural and industrial sectors. We should launch a Water Literacy Movement using modern information and communication technologies to make economy and efficiency the bottom line of water-use policies.
FOOD CONSCIOUSNESS BY 2020
If the above strategic plan is adopted through a fusion of political will, professional skill and people’s participation, feeding a population of 1.4 billion with nutritious food will not be a difficult task. Fortunately, we have a large untapped production reservoir because of the wide gap between potential and actual yields in most farming systems. Therefore, we can safeguard our food security — provided we bridge not only the yield gap but also the urbanrural digital and technology divides and the male-female gender divide. Above all, the proposed Food Security Bill, which confers on every citizen the right to food, will once again arouse consciousness of the fact that we live as guests of the green plants that convert sunlight into food, and of the farm women and men who cultivate them.
(MS Swaminathan is Member of Parliament (Rajya Sabha) and chairman, M S Swaminathan Research Foundation)
*The views expressed by the author are personal