Sowing the seeds of a farm-growth revival - Hindustan Times
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Sowing the seeds of a farm-growth revival

Jun 23, 2024 11:23 PM IST

Centre should focus on expanding land under irrigation, pushing greater adoption of horticulture by farmers, and raising agri-R&D spending in the country

The provisional estimate of the real gross value added for the agriculture sector in the financial year 2023-24 (FY24) is just 1.4%. This has been attributed to the erratic monsoon last year, mainly on account of the El Nino effect.

Amritsar: Farm labourers plant seedlings in a field during sunset on the outskirts of Amritsar, Sunday, June 23, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI06_23_2024_000239B)(PTI) PREMIUM
Amritsar: Farm labourers plant seedlings in a field during sunset on the outskirts of Amritsar, Sunday, June 23, 2024. (PTI Photo)(PTI06_23_2024_000239B)(PTI)

Against this backdrop, the appointment of Shivraj Singh Chauhan as the new minister for agriculture has been widely welcomed: The reason is that the agriculture Gross Domestic Product (GDP) of Madhya Pradesh, during his tenure as chief minister of the state from 2005-06 to 2022-23, witnessed an average annual growth rate of 7% against the all-India showing of 3.8%. Since agriculture is predominantly a state subject, the new agriculture minister will have to take the states along if much-needed reforms in the sector are to materialise. The agriculture sector needs to grow consistently at an annual 4%.

The ministry he presides over does not include the department of animal husbandry and dairying and department of fisheries. So, the fastest-growing and most promising sectors of the farm economy are not in his domain. However, he has the experience to influence the running of these two departments too.

As per the Situation Assessment of Agricultural Households and Land and Holdings of Households in Rural India, 2019, agri-households earned only 37% of their income from cultivation while 15% came from livestock activities and 40% from wages and salaries. So, the real challenge before the new agriculture minister will be increasing income from cultivation. The good news for him is that the monsoon this year is predicted to be normal. So, his first year in office may bring good tidings. There are three major areas in which his experience in Madhya Pradesh may prove useful.

There are numerous recommendations made by expert committees, including the Ashok Dalwai Committee, on doubling farmer income. Here are three important areas that Chauhan can focus on.

The first is to bring more area under irrigation. In 2015-16, the government led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi launched the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY) to expand the cultivable area under assured irrigation and use water more efficiently by following sustainable water conservation practices, among other goals. By December 2023, out of the 99 priority projects identified under the PMKSY-Accelerated Irrigation Benefits Programme in 2016, only 54 projects had been completed. Another 21 projects had recorded progress of more than 90%, while 13 others had recorded 80-90% progress. Chauhan has direct experience in pushing irrigation projects in his home state. It will be a significant contribution to Indian agriculture if he can work with the states and get the unfinished projects completed. An independent evaluation of all 99 projects may also help in ascertaining whether the command area in the completed projects has actually received water. This is necessary as the benefits to agriculture come only when irrigation water reaches the farms. For this, the completion of canal works is critical.

Micro-irrigation has largely remained confined to Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka. Chauhan must enhance the use of micro-irrigation techniques in central and north Indian states as well. This would not only help in the prudent management of precious water resources that can result in productivity gains.

For Punjab and Haryana, diversification from paddy to other less water-consuming crops has been under discussion for decades. If the new agriculture minister can convince the finance minister to support Punjab and Haryana’s crop diversification incentive plan so that the area under non-basmati paddy is strategically reduced, it would be a landmark contribution to the country’s agriculture sector. Business as usual in Punjab and Haryana may be highly detrimental to the future of India’s food security.

The second area of importance is horticulture. Since the launch of the National Horticulture Mission (NHM) in 2005, India’s horticulture production has gone up from 170.8 million tonnes to 352.23 million tonnes. Madhya Pradesh has been a beneficiary of, and contributor to, the horticulture revolution in India. To illustrate, in 2004-05, it produced 0.535 million tonnes of onion which rose to 5.1 million tonnes by 2022-23. The state is the second-largest producer of onion after Maharashtra. Due to a crash in prices, MP experimented with a price deficiency payment scheme in 2018, which didn’t prove successful. The biggest challenge in horticulture is the high fluctuation in prices and supply-chain losses. If these problems can be addressed, the consumption of fruits and vegetables can go up, and India’s exports in these agri-commodities can be more reliable. Farmers, too, can earn more than they do from cereals. The need for a robust cold chain network for perishable produce is well understood. But private investment in creating pre-cooling facilities is not adequate. This must be sufficiently incentivised.

The third area that Chauhan must make a priority is the threat from the climate crisis, which can lead to lower yields in several crops. To address this challenge, investment in research and development to generate climate-resistant varieties needs to be drastically raised, and farmers need to be made aware of the need to shift to these varieties. India spends just about 0.6% of agri-GDP on research. Investment in agri R&D under the Indian Council of Agriculture Research (ICAR) system boosted the country’s capacity in rice, sugar, grapes, pomegranates and onion. If self-reliance and food security are to be achieved for 1.6 billion Indians, higher investment in R&D, both by the government and the private sector, is a must.

Siraj Hussain is a former Union agriculture secretary, and Shweta Saini is an economist. The views expressed are personal

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