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Why is Modi govt so diffident on agriculture policy?

The NDA government may be aggression personified in manufacturing and services but it’s a lamb when it comes to the key farm sector. That needs to change.

india Updated: Apr 26, 2016 17:21 IST
Zia Haq
A farmer removes dried grass from his rice field against the backdrop of pre-monsoon clouds on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in June 2013.
A farmer removes dried grass from his rice field against the backdrop of pre-monsoon clouds on the outskirts of Ahmedabad in June 2013. (Reuters file photo)

The Narendra Modi government may be moving ahead on Make In India and a host of other catchily named schemes but in the vital area of agriculture, its policies are, at worst, backward-looking and, at best, incoherent.

A grinding drought has brought India’s farm sector, which supports 49% of India’s workforce and indirectly impacts 68% of the country’s population which lives in rural areas, to a halt.

The farm ministry has unrolled a revitalised insurance scheme for farmers, moved fast on a proposal to electronically link 585 wholesale food markets and increased support prices in deficient crops, such as pulses.

Yet it has eschewed any major push to bring a technological revolution to the farms.

Instead, it has been aggressively promoting largely low-scale outdated farm practices, under the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, which translates to “traditional farming development programme”.

Although christened as “paramparagat” or “traditional”, it is essentially a major policy to promote organic farming. Not a bad idea at all, if it is intended to be a segment in which to boost farm incomes, rather than an overarching solution to India’s low-performing farm sector.

In three years, the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana aims to develop 10,000 organic clusters covering 500,000 acres countrywide. Organic farming can boost farm incomes, given that affluent consumers pay ever more for organic foods.

READ | In times of drought: Overuse of water behind India’s dry days

In a recent study published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, a meta-analysis of 44 studies of 55 crops in 14 countries found that organic farming was 22-35% more profitable than conventional farming.

But let’s be clear about what organic farming can do and what it can’t. It can leave soils, water and air better than conventional crops and serve a growing niche market. However, organic farming can’t feed India, which has a voracious appetite for commodities.  Since organics rely only on compost, yields are lower and therefore they sell at a premium.

India is the largest producer of milk accounting for 18.5% of the world’s production with an output of 146.3 million tonne during 2014-15. However, this is balanced by the fact that it is also the biggest consumer. The same logic goes for sugar, of which India is the second largest producer, apart from a host of items, such as horticulture produce. In other words, at current yields, there is little left to export

As monsoons become truant and heatwaves frequent, farmers need technological breakthroughs. One example is drought-tolerant GM crops.

The government is unclear about the path it wants to take. Officially, it has no policy to ban the GM option. Unofficially, it has been dithering on such technologies because of political reasons.

The government could do well to at least nudge conventional technologies, which are non-controversial. What is singularly lacking is a clear, decisive technology policy in agriculture to improve crops and yields. On a global scale, India’s low productivity in a range of crops is embarrassing. India’s rice yields per hectare in 2014 was 2981 kg, in contrast to China’s 5886 kg and even Bangladesh’s 4406 kg. That’s just not good enough.