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India’s Farm Sector, Famine & Food Security

India Globally ranks Second in the World in Agricultural Sector and eleventh and twelfth in Services and Industrial sectors respectively; but for the Farm Sector the situation in India is paradoxical, as this sector on the one hand is of utmost importance and on the other hand the country faces structural handicaps that have prevented it from rooting out famine and poverty. India is one of the most malnourished countries in the world with 212 million malnourished individuals and one third of the country’s population lives below the extreme poverty line, the majority of which represent the farm sector.  India despite being a giant in global agriculture is incapable of ensuring the food security of its own population and meeting the challenges and issues that the 21st century holds. Food security, the social equilibrium of a population hit hard by malnutrition, insufficient yields and uncertainty over climate factors are some of the most complex realities that the nation has to confront with. India must focus its resources, attention, skills and expertise on the farm sector, to ensure self-reliance in terms of future food supply.

Farmers in India continue to be trapped in a vicious circle of low growth of farm productivity and in lower income due to the cumulative impact of:

  • Declining per capita availability of arable land for food, fibre, forest, fodder and factories; over the years at a much sharper pace as compared to other countries such as Brazil and China. This fragmentation of farmland is a factor behind the limited use of mechanized farming techniques and prevents the development of a more organized and productive agricultural sector. Cooperative farming in which the farmers pool their resources and share the profit could be solution to small land holdings.
  • Productivity is substantially lower for the main food grains, such as rice and wheat.
  • Farm mechanization is almost negligible in ploughing, sowing, irrigating, thinning, pruning, weeding, harvesting and threshing; especially in case of small and marginal farmers which form the bulk of farm sector. This results in huge wastage of human labour and in low output per capita labour force. Agricultural implements and machinery are a crucial input for efficient and timely agricultural operations that facilitate multiple cropping and thereby raise production.
  • Multiple levels of intermediation in the markets that have led to a much smaller share of consumer spend reaching the farmer. In the absence of any regulated market for the sale of agriculture produce farmers have to depend on local traders and middlemen for the disposal of their farm produce which is sold at throw-away price. Government should facilitate regulated markets that introduce a system of competitive buying, help in eradicating malpractices, ensure use of standardized weights and measures and evolve suitable machinery for settlement of disputes thereby ensuring that producers are not subjected to exploitation and receive remunerative prices.
  • Farmers accumulate huge loans, which they are in no position to repay.
  • Agriculture consumes around 90% renewable freshwater of the country, a fifth of total electricity and a significant part of government subsidies. Yet, this sector contributes less than 15% to GDP. It is therefore, not surprising that the farmer’s per capita income is less than one-fifth of the country’s average.
  • Famine and poverty also impact the growth of farm productivity.
  • Industrialisation forced thousands of Indian farmers to abandon land and many farmers migrated to the cities in hopes of better days.
  • Road connectivity with markets or highways is not there in a large numbers of villages and whatsoever roads are there, cannot be utilized during rains. This affects transportation of farm produce, forcing farmers to sell it in the local market at lower prices.
  • Insufficient investment, particularly in infrastructure, is visible and has a direct effect on India’s agricultural productivity. Facilities for the storage and keeping of crops (cold chain) are lacking and lead to tremendous losses, which for produce can represent up to 40 percent of the harvest. Under such situations the farmers are compelled to sell their produce immediately so they do not get a fair price from the purchasers who are generally well-organized.
  • Irrigation systems are equipped in only 30 percent of usable farmland. A drop in public investment since the 1970s and a lack of upkeep have caused wear and tear of irrigation pipes, leading in turn to the loss of over one-third of water transported. Given the increase in non-farm related water needs due to population growth, conflicts over water usage rights are on the rise.
  • Green Revolution launched by Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru in the late 1970s boosted the agricultural sector by increasing yields, but also had the disadvantage of increasing production costs. At a time when agricultural prices were on the decline worldwide, this rise in production costs affected India’s ability to compete and led many small farmers into desperate straits. Faced with this drop in prices and rise in costs, India’s farmers took on significant debt to gain new factors of production and access to inputs, which happened to be quite costly given that they were imported.
  • Indiscriminate and widespread use of fertilizer and pesticides has degraded soils.
    The fears expressed by M S Swaminathan, father of India’s Green Revolution, in 1968 regarding the consequences of poor irrigation and excessive use of pesticides, were well founded and are now true. A portion of the country’s usable farmland has consequently been seriously degraded, with soil salinization and drops in water table height commonplace in some regions.

 

The government has to take steps to aid and enhance India’s agricultural production with proven farming technologies and agri-inputs. Fast-track clearance of investments, production proposals including innovative technologies for agri-inputs will considerably help. The Make in India initiative is a stage with great potential to recognise and champion Indian farmers, and provide the country with opportunities for a brighter future. In such a challenging scenario, the Vision enunciated by the Prime Minister to double farmer incomes by 2022 is indeed laudable and provides an unparalleled opportunity to usher in the next agricultural revolution.

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