Hi-tech farming: Can Rajasthan make the desert bloom?
Neat furrows of cabbage, uniformly spaced cherry tomatoes, bell peppers and pomegranates, and exotic fruits, make the International Horticulture Innovation and Training Centre near Jaipur a veritable horticultural Disneyland.
The technologies on display are striking: slim polyethylene hoses with small nozzles run along the length of the plantations; the jets shoot water mixed with fertilizer directly at the roots; climate-controlled greenhouses create balmy conditions, just right for the plants inside.
Hi-tech in farming, however, is not easy. In Rajasthan, modernisation faces a typical structural hurdle. The share of marginal and small land-holdings in total land ownership in the state is 40.12% and 21.90% respectively, according to the state’s Economic Survey 2017-18. Such highly skewed land distribution itself makes the use of even simpler tools, such as a tractor, uneconomical.
A document on Rajasthan’s agriculture challenges by the Niti Aayog in 2016 cites this as a “major barrier in effective intervention in the advancement of agriculture”.
Yet, India’s largest state with 61% arid or semi-arid climate and 35 million in poverty (those with less than Rs 1 lakh in annual income) wants to do an ‘Israel’ in agriculture: make the desert bloom.
It has, over the last couple of years, set up six hi-tech centres, such as the one outside Jaipur, to disseminate cutting-edge Israeli horticulture technologies. Three more are in the works. No state has so many Centres of Excellence.
The six are in Kota (citrus fruits), Bassi (pomegranates), Jaiselmer’s Sagra Bhojhka (date palm), Devravas in Tonk district (guavas), Jhalawar (mandarins), and Khemri Dholpur ( mangoes). Three more are coming: Chittor (pumpkin), Boondi district (vegetables) and Sawai Madhopur (flowers). There is an olive programme as well.
“We have got the best technologies from countries such as Israel and Netherlands for these centres of excellence,” says agriculture minister Prabhulal Saini.
Why would a state with diverse farm produce want to go big on fruits and vegetables more suited for the overseas palate? Rajasthan is after all India’s largest producer of mustard, with a 48% share in national output. Despite being mostly arid, it is also the country’s largest producer of bajra (pearl millet), guar (cluster beans) and coarse cereals, apart from spices.
On all-India basis, the state ranks second in total pulses and oilseeds as well as milk output. The main justification is that Rajasthan’s topography and agro-climatic conditions are similar to Israel’s. The Jewish state has been known for its agricultural success using innovation. Rajasthan too, the logic goes, can go from being David to Goliath in agriculture.
There are both supporters and critics of this new strategy that aims to shift a sizeable section of middle farmers away from traditional water-guzzling crops, such as wheat.
The idea is to make them grow citrus fruits and vegetables with water-economising technologies. In these crops, the state could do better, just like Israel. So, it’s looking at a mixed cropping patterns. “A little maths and you’ll understand,” says director horticulture VP Singh. “Input costs in traditional crops are rising. Agree? And farmers’ returns are falling,” he says.
“Greenhouse cucumber production gives an average 50 tonne of average production. The average cost of cucumber is about Rs 20 per kg. So that’s Rs 10 lakh in total revenue. If total costs are Rs 3-4 lakh, that means saving of around Rs 6 lakh.”
On paper, this makes sense. On the ground, the task is neither easy nor cheap. One hurdle is funds. The number of applications from farmers aspiring to go high-tech is low but still far higher than earmarked subsidies can support.
Moreover, farmers can’t be dictated on what to grow and how much water to use. Israel overcame its water crisis by imposing huge tariffs on excessive water consumption. At the peak of a drought in 2010, citizens were asked to cut their shower time. Israelis couldn’t wash cars with hoses.
“We can’t do all that here. Rajasthan should not be growing much wheat. Where is the water? But you can’t ban it. All we can do is give them alternatives,” says Neelkamal Darbari, the state’s principal secretary.
Agriculture – which contributes 27% to state’s GDP – has seen volatile returns mainly because of rainfall swings. For instance, in 2013-14, farm GDP grew an impressive 6.8%. That slowed to 2.6 in 2014-15. The next year (2015-16), farm growth almost flattened at 0.78%. It rebounded in 2016-17 at 6.3%.
To popularise high value horticulture, the Vasundhara Raje-led state government launched a series of events to showcase technological demonstrations and attract investments.
Three chapters of the “Global Rajasthan Agritech Meet” have been held so far — at Jaipur in November 2016, Kota in May 2017 and Udaipur in November, 2017. “Approximately 1.23 lakh farmers participated in these events. They saw technology with their own eyes,” Saini says. These events also led to 40 agreements worth Rs 1,555.83 crore for investments in agriculture and allied sectors, according to a government document.
Until these investments come through, state subsidies are the only way. “Protected cultivation is expensive. Since there is great demand, we will need substantially more funds,” says Singh.
Protected cultivation refers to a package of practices requiring capital investments in equipment such as greenhouses, shade-nets and micro-irrigation.
The mission faces a classic budget constraint. The first limitation is that the National Horticulture Mission’s spending limit for protected cultivation is 25% of the total budget (of about Rs 150 crore annually). Farmers need to submit plans for a minimum of 2000 square meters (half an acre) to avail a subsidy of Rs 10 lakh (or 50% of the costs, whichever is lower). A protected-cultivation farm on one acre (4000 sq m) costs about Rs 35 lakh.
Currently, the government has received about 1,500 applications from farmers for 5000 acres. For protected cultivation, the subsidy allotted is Rs 32 crore. Given that each farmer is entitled to Rs 10 lakh, only 320 — or just 21% — can be covered in the short-term.
“If in a district, there are 100 applicants, then the waiting time can stretch up to 5 years,” Singh adds. One of those in the queue is 50-year-old Bishen Paroda outside Sikar town, who says he wants to grow cucumber.
To reduce the waiting time, Rajasthan has increased the subsidy limit to 70% from 50% for smaller farmers and sought to link them with bank loans. The Niti Aayog review says the subsidy for all types of farmers should be raised to 70%, otherwise the scheme could be “adversely affected”.
Critics of the programme say Rajasthan can’t take its eyes off traditional crops because that’s what the majority grows. “From an experiment point of view, hi-tech horticulture is fine. But there must be an income boost from traditional crops which employs the most people,” says Bhagirath Choudhary, the director of the New Delhi-based South Asia Biotechnology Centre, who hails from the state.