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Magic seeds

Subsidies and loan waivers may or may not win votes, but for food security and for genuinely making farming sustainable, India has to go back to the laboratory. Supriya Bezbaruah examines...
None | By Supriya Bezbaruah
UPDATED ON MAR 16, 2008 09:32 PM IST

Farmers seem to have found a fairy godfather in the Finance Minister. As he said in his Budget speech, “We need an ambitious scheme... to revive agriculture.” He’s right. But is his Rs 60,000 crore giveaway the answer? Perhaps it might win him some votes, but in the long run putting that money in agricultural infrastructure would have provided far better results. The essential problems have still not been addressed. India’s 40-year-old Green Revolution appears to be turning yellow. The agriculture sector contributes only 18.6 per cent of India’s GDP but employs 60 per cent of the workforce. Perhaps this is an inevitable consequence of the transition to a developed economy. But the declining contribution of the farm to the national economy isn’t merely due to an expanding GDP dominated by the services sector.

While the country races ahead at 9 per cent growth, agriculture has only grown, the Economic Survey 2007-08 says, at 2.6 per cent. What’s more, rice productivity is decreasing, and we are importing pulses and wheat. Almost like a mantra, a number of reasons are frequently cited for this low productivity: small farm size, lack of sufficient arable land, low farm mechanisation and insufficient use of fertilisers. Yet the facts belie this. As the Economic Outlook for 2007-08 brought out by the Economic Advisory Council to the Prime Minister points out, India has the world’s second largest area of arable land of 161 million hectares, more than China and only marginally smaller than that of the United States (176 million hectares). It has the highest area of irrigated land (55.8 million hectares, compared the China’s 54.5 million and the US’s 22.4 million hectares). India is also one of the world’s largest users of artificial fertilisers (11 per cent of world usage, up from 5 per cent in 1980).

While the degree of farm mechanisation, such as use of tractors, is low compared to many countries, it is still higher than China or Australia. Yet, India’s agricultural productivity remains lower than that of China, the US and many other countries. According to the report, for almost all crops, yields per acre are stagnant, and Indian yields are lower compared to other major growing countries. For example, India’s wheat yield per acre in 2003-05 was 2,688, compared to 6,499 for the top five countries with the highest yields after excluding China.

India has the largest cultivated area under pulses in the world, but production has decreased from 14.26 million tonnes in 1990-91 to 13.38 million tonnes in 2004-05, although consumption has increased. In fact, India would need to import an estimated three-five million tonnes in the next five years to meet domestic demand. If we go by our 11th Five Year Plan targets, by 2012, foodgrain production should reach 337 million tonnes from 208 million in 2005-06. That would entail a greater than 200 per cent increase, in some cases, of production of the principal crops, with no increase in net cultivable area. Pulses production would need to more than double, to 30 million tonnes. On its part, oilseed production is envisaged as increasing from 16 million to 58 million tonnes.

Is this possible, given that, as in the case of pulses, productivity is so low that we are actually importing? The only way to increase productivity is through better research and technology. New plant varieties with higher yields would be the answer. China, for example, increased rice production from 160 to 180 million tonnes in just three years from 2003 to 2005, following reforms in agricultural research. The Chinese government has been strongly supporting agricultural research since the 1980s. Today, this has made China the world’s third largest food donor, after the US and the European Union. As per the China Agricultural Yearbook 2005, 2,046 new plant varieties were submitted for registration. Seed quality is tested using molecular DNA technologies.

In India, on the other hand, rice varieties developed 20 years ago are still predominantly used by farmers. It is not surprising then that India’s rate of growth of rice production is the lowest in Asia, lower than even Pakistan, Myanmar and Sri Lanka. In 1997, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (Icar) developed 72 new varieties of field crops. By 2001, this had been reduced to 35. There is no publicly available data on how effective or widely adopted — in other words, how useful to the farmer — these new varieties have been.

Yet, India is very proud that its agro-scientific manpower is the largest in the world, with over 30,000 scientists and technicians employed in 39 state agricultural universities and over 500 Krishi Vigyan Kendras. It is not that this sector is lacking in investment — the Icar and the Division of Agricultural Research and Education (Dare) annual budget since 2000-01 has been more than Rs 6,000 crore.

However, funding has been uneven. Morale is low, and there is little accountability, scientific or otherwise. Finally, there is a gap between academic research and effectiveness in the field, outlays and outcomes to use the FM’s words. Greater research is needed not only in new varieties and strains, but also fundamentally in the way agriculture is conducted. There is empirical evidence that it is difficult to sustain productivity in intensive cultivation of only rice or wheat monocultures.

The importance of technology in agriculture is something Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is well aware of from his experience of handling the food crisis in the early 1970s. The Indo-US Agriculture Knowledge Initiative — signed when Singh visited Washington D.C. in July 2005, but dwarfed unfortunately by the nuclear deal — was an attempt to address this issue.

It envisaged technology transfer, trade and investment in agricultural research and education, including developing effective policy, regulatory and institutional frameworks, in the spirit of the mid-20th century Green Revolution. There has been some progress since — a three-year plan and the very limited amount of $ 24 million pledged till 2008. It has led to collaboration on the pigeon pea genome project to improve legumes through genomics — but that is only one legume, and even here, the practical outcome, if any, is far away.

More significant, perhaps, is collaboration between US and Indian universities in water management, including on-farm efficient water management. Inefficient use of water by farmers is India’s under-reported crisis. The use of, for instance, seeds that may be inappropriate as they require a great deal of water for optimal yield has led to drilling of tubewells and large-scale depletion of groundwater reserves. The problem is particularly acute as water and energy prices are subsidised and groundwater is free for small-scale irrigation.

The number of small farmers with less than two hectares of land has increased in the past decade and so groundwater irrigation has been increasing too. Between 1970 and 1994, the area under groundwater irrigation increased by 105 per cent, while the area under surface irrigation went up only 28 per cent. Today, groundwater irrigation accounts for 60 per cent of the total irrigated area in India.

An Icrisat study has shown that this trend of overpumping water due to subsidised electricity without sufficient investment in recharging facilities has led to an alarming rate of depletion, especially in dryland villages. More than 90 per cent of open wells in many villages have completely dried up. This could affect 20 per cent of agricultural output. Research and investment in technology for better land and water resources management is therefore crucial. Subsidies and loan waivers may or may not win votes, but for food security and for genuinely making farming sustainable, India has to go back to the laboratory. Writing out large cheques is no substitute.

Supriya Bezbaruah is a Delhi-based writer on science, health and technology.

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