At the recent launch (Friday July 5)of Prof Y K Alaghs; book on “The Future of Indian Agriculture’ published by the National Book Trust, almost everyone connected with the world of agricultural economics,planning, administration, research and policy was present, and both on-stage and offstage discussions veered on understanding the structural changes in rural India . In addition to Vice President Hamid Ansari, Rural Development Minister Jairam Ramesh, Planning Commission Member Abhijit Sengupta and Secretary Agriculture Ashish Bahuguna, many ex members and chairmen of the Commission of Agriculture Costs and Prices and officials of the Planning Commission, besides professors and academics from JNU, DU and NCAER and NCAP were present. However it must be clarified that this is not a book review ‘per se’ for your columnist has not completed reading it. This is more in the nature of a ‘flavour of discussions’ with participants in the book launch event, most of who were keen observers of the Indian agricultural scenario.
Rural India was changing faster than ever before, and the rate of growth of ‘census towns’ showed that the country was witnessing an interim urbanization, which Jairam Ramesh dubbed as “suburban”. These were quite different from former President Kalam’s concept of PURA (Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) because ‘rururban’ was growing more in default, rather than as a design. It was more akin to Gurucharan Das’s description of the growth of Gurgaon – not because, but in spite of central planning! Incidentally, it must be placed on record that even though PURA is a great idea, and is being pushed by the GoI, there are few examples of a successful rollout.
Why was ururban growing? Why was employment in ‘core agriculture’, viz production of cereal stagnant, if not actually declining? Why should we have a distinction between ‘core’ and ‘non-core’ agriculture, especially as high growth sectors in agriculture were horticulture, processing, post harvest management, fisheries, dairying, research and extension. Why are we not redesigning our operating systems to acknowledge the changes that are taking place so rapidly? Why are we not following up investments in irrigation with greater push towards water use efficiency, fertigation and micro irrigation? Why are we not drawing lessons from the transformation of Kalahandi and Puruliya which have transformed their incomes and livelihoods? Why were we not paying adequate attention to a sector which accounted for 14% of our GDP, 11 % of our exports and over 50% of our employment?
Let us attempt the answers. First, ‘rururban’ was growing because of the organization of agricultural production. Farmers required agricultural inputs and services – from fertilizer and credit to aggregation, value addition and post harvest management. Many of these came from the demands of High Value Agriculture. Thus each Gram panchayat with an active co-op society, or a rural bank branch, or a fertilizer service centre of IFFCO became rururban.
Second, employment potential in ‘core agriculture’, viz cereals, oilseeds, pulses and sugarcane was not growing because of many factors : higher wage rates, mechanization, better seeds and better crop management practices. Moreover profitability of ‘core agriculture’ was limited by the MSP, and the physical presence of procurement agencies in the production region. On the contrary, realizations in High Value Agriculture were more market driven, and even organizations like Mother Dairy and NDDB had to increase the farm gate prices every three to four months in a self-correcting mechanism.
Third, it was high time the artificial divide between ‘core and non-core’ agriculture was broken. After all, it was the same farmer who performed a wide spectrum of activities, and more often than not, he performed both. Thus our farmer not only grew wheat and rice, but also had a few cows and had a plot for seasonal vegetables. However his Kisan credit card was basically catering only to his short term credit needs- and he could not purchase Murah buffaloes , or a potato digger with this card . This is where the new interventions were required. Moreover, farmer’s incomes could grow only from the noncore sectors, and this was also the sector which offered the best scope for private sector investment. Therefore we need to redesign our Kisan Credit card, as also our agri insurance policy, which in turn was linked to loans offered under KCC. These were also the sectors which showed a high demand elasticity- thereby making it more remunerative for farmers.
Prof Alagh has been dubbed as ‘irrigation fundamentalist’ in view of his strong conviction that when a farmer gets water, he will certainly break ground and get bumper harvests. However after the first round of irrigation, there was an imminent need to move to micro irrigation for improved water use efficiency. In the first round, water had not been adequately priced, or cared for, and had been treated almost like an infinite ‘public good’. This had to change, and therefore the water resources and agriculture ministry had to work in absolute tandem. Last, but not the least – have we drawn our lessons from Kalahandi and Puruliya. These districts have not only become food surplus districts – they have risen out of abject poverty and show improved health indicators. The success of agriculture in these districts is as significant as getting record yields in the Sangrur (for rice), or Raver (bananas) or Kapurthala (potato)! The answer to all these questions is that while we do know what is best for us, somewhere along the line, there is a hiatus between our intent and ability to implement. The earlier we ford this, the better it would be for all of us!