Infochange India

Food security

Sat 1Nov2014

You are here: Home | Food security | Analysis | Between seed and straw: When will we get agriculture right?

Between seed and straw: When will we get agriculture right?

The figures for crop production, yield and acreage are looking healthy in this quarter. But behind the triumph a crisis gathers strength, says Rahul Goswami

On a riverine island in the Ganga, a farmhand wheels away a cycleload of biomass. In the monsoon, this island in rural Kanpur district will be submerged

The first quarter of 2009 has been signally different from the quarter of a year ago. Oil and gas prices are very much lower, crop estimates are healthy in the short term and encouraging in the long term, the offtake of rice and wheat is strong and rising, and inflation is said to be under control. Administrative India considers itself well armed with the tools needed to counter the global financial and credit crisis, and while the country’s consumer goods industry looks at rural markets as the key to survival in tougher economic conditions, its agriculture and foodgrain bureaucracy is comforting itself with friendly crop production, yield and acreage data. In the country’s commodities exchanges, agriculture indices are climbing steadily (see Chart 1: NCDEX agricultural index), and the third advance estimates for 2008-09 crop production from the Department of Agriculture and Cooperation provide buoyant numbers: rice production at 99.3 million tonnes (a 10-year high), wheat at 77.6 million tonnes (just under the 78.5 million tonne 10-year high of 2007-08), and coarse cereals at 38.6 million tonnes (also just under the 2007-08 decadal high of 40.7 million tonnes) (see Table 1: Advance estimates 2008-09). So comforting is the present that in the third week of May the government lifted a two-year ban on wheat futures -- the three national commodity exchanges now have approval from the regulator, the Forward Markets Commission, to launch wheat futures contracts. 

These numbers and developments mask deep and very alarming distortions in our common understanding of the world of the cultivator, the world of non-metro India, and the ecologies of farming as they are practised by thousands of different communities. This can be puzzling, for there has arguably never been a more comprehensive understanding of the nature of community cultivation and its place in sustainable development and resource management. There has equally never been a more thorough set of assessments of -- and widespread consensus about -- the triple challenge of climate change, a failing global economic system, and the gathering food energy crisis. Yet India’s governance responses have been faltering and weak. Where there are knowledge-intensive approaches to the triple crises, it is easy to sort them into two contrasting sets. One takes a high-tech route, relying on life sciences and biotechnology to deliver increased yields, crop resilience and sustainability. The other examines whole systems rather than crops, and includes human, settlement, environment and culture as key ingredients. These two approaches differ markedly in how they seek to distribute knowledge and power.

Chart 1

Our sciences and formalised systems approach concentrates knowledge in the agricultural research and extension matrix, and in the seed and biotech companies which have become its adjuncts. In this approach, knowledge is delivered downwards to farmers who are directed to apply prescribed technologies in the field. In the ecologically integrated approach, research springs from the local context, with investments in chemicals, in synthetics and in control systems being replaced by investment in people. Both approaches can be used in times of crisis -- and we are in a long-term crisis --- but the ecologically integrated approach fosters resilience and sustainability together with environmental and social equity. 

A reading of the numbers and forecasts of this first quarter of 2009 reinforces the idea that India is triumphantly self-sufficient in foodgrain (see Chart 2: Foodgrain production). It is an idea -- says the ‘Report on the State of Food Insecurity in Rural India’, by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and the World Food Programme (WFP), December 2008 -- that is problematic. “The objectives of self-sufficiency in foodgrain production, price stability and ensuring provision of foodgrain at reasonable prices to enable universal access continue to be highly relevant to India. However, there have been significant changes in the environment in which Indian agriculture operates. Following the adoption of reform policies since 1991, Indian farmers have become exposed to deflationary macro-economic policies, volatile international prices, decreasing access to as well as more expensive institutional credit, reduction in public investment resulting in the stagnation of agricultural growth and productivity, and a near collapse of extension services. These developments pose new challenges for policies concerning food security.” 

Table 1

Production of foodgrain: Third advance estimates 2008-09

Crop (Million tones)
1998-99 Final estimates  2003-04 Final estimates  Change in %  2008-09 3rd advance estimates Change in % over 5 years   Change in % over 10 years
Rice 86.08 88.53 2.85 99.37 12.24 15.44
Wheat 71.29 72.15 1.21 77.63 7.60 8.89
Coarse cereals 31.33 37.60 20.01 38.67 2.85 23.43
Jowar 8.41 6.68 -20.57 7.27 8.83 -13.56
Bajra 6.95 12.11 74.24 8.86 -26.84 27.48
Maize 11.15 14.98 34.35 18.48 23.36 65.74
Ragi 2.61 1.97 -24.52 2.09 6.09 -19.92
Small millets 0.67 0.56 -16.42 0.43 -23.21 -35.82
Barley 1.54 1.30 -15.58 1.55 19.23 0.65
Total cereals 188.70 198.28 5.08 215.67 8.77 14.29
Total pulses 14.91 14.91 0.00 14.18 -4.90 -4.90
Tur 2.71 2.36 -12.92 2.37 0.42 -12.55
Gram 6.80 5.72 -15.88 6.38 11.54 -6.18
Urad 1.35 1.47 8.89 0.94 -36.05 -30.37
Moong 1.16 1.71 47.41 0.9 -47.37 -22.41
Other kharif pulses 0.61 1.18 93.44 1.26 6.78 106.56
Other rabi pulses 2.28 2.47 8.33 2.32 -6.07 1.75
Total foodgrain 203.61 213.19 4.71 229.85 7.81 12.89
Source: Department of Agriculture and Cooperation Directorate of Economics and Statistics/Agricultural Statistics Division   

Food security is a need very different from the desire of the policy planner or administrator to record steadily rising graphs of tonnage and yields. Food security is bound fundamentally to community resilience, to social stability, to equity, and to deep sustainability. If our policies -- rural, agricultural, integrated child development, backward region, etc -- do not build this concept into planning DNA, our farmers’ efforts to feed us will be futile. The long-term solution to the problem of food security must necessarily be sought through sustainable livelihoods. It must also be sought by sensitively tapping our storehouse of traditional knowledge, which includes indigenous indicators to determine favourable times for each phase in crop production, land preparation and plant propagation practices, seed storage and processing, sowing and intercropping, seedling preparation and care, crop harvesting and storage, food processing and marketing and pest management and plant-protection methods. 

The ecologies of small farmers 

Your browser may not support display of this image.Since the point of liberalisation of the Indian economy -- now 18 years behind us -- the shortlist of interventions recommended by authoritative studies and reports is very clear: re-visit and revive traditional knowledge systems; raise the purchasing power of the poor through endowments of land and non-land assets; generate employment opportunities now side-by-side with long-term programmes to improve food availability and raise incomes; recognise and treat the rural sector as a zone of deep and valuable traditional knowledge and build on its strengths instead of weakening it by pushing its people citywards. The National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA) has proved to be a beta success and will need a great deal more support to deliver to its potential. 

Chart 2

Small farmers and their cultivation communities must be at the centre of any strategy to tackle poverty and increase food security and productivity. They are vital because: (a) small farms play a major social role, providing safety nets or subsistence living to the rural poor. Small farmers tend to spend their income on local goods and services, boosting local economies, and are more likely to employ people than adopt capital-intensive technologies; (b) small farms produce the bulk of India’s food. We have a large body of evidence to show that small integrated farming systems can yield more per hectare in the long term than large-scale monoculture farms; (c) small farmers are ecologically sound -- smallholders manage a large share of our water and vegetation cover, and farm far more sustainably. They reduce soil erosion, use water more efficiently, protect biodiversity, and preserve soil fertility. 

There is urgent need to re-orient the focus, for, from the time of liberalisation, the ‘development’ done in the name of the small farmer has left him worse off and hungrier than before. In the 2006 Working Group on Distressed Farmers report, its chair, Sardara Singh Johl, said so explicitly: “Mostly small and marginal farmers, as well as tenant farmers and farm labourers, bear the brunt of crop failures. Therefore, the target group for preferential treatment should consist of small and marginal farmers, as well as tenant farmers and farm labourers.” The reasons for the crisis are largely systemic, said the Working Group report. Inadequate farm income coupled with limited non-farm opportunities have led to distress conditions in most of the cases. “Other contributing factors are increasing input costs, non-availability of quality seeds, increasing pesticide usage, de-skilling, supplier-induced demand in the input market, inadequacy of institutional extension services and research, market uncertainties, declining public investments, and additional household/consumption requirements,” the report added. 

Early this April, the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPI-M) commented: “The obvious strategy to tackle hunger and malnutrition was to universalise and strengthen the public distribution system (PDS), expand the Anna Antyodaya Yojana, act firmly against hoarders and black-marketers, ban futures trading in essential items and food, etc. But the UPA government did the exact opposite through its ill-conceived neo-liberal food policy, which favoured agribusiness and private traders, belying its promises to the aam aadmi (common man).” The party categorically blamed the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance (UPA) government for four serious agricultural and food policy lapses. One, it called “shameful” the condition that government granaries hold surplus stocks 84% above buffer norms, while the “kitchens of vast sections of our people remain empty”. Two, that the government had cut allocations of foodgrain to the states by 32.5 million tonnes, or 73%, between 2006 and 2008, mainly under the APL (above the poverty line) category. Three, that there was a cut in the household quota for APL from 35 kg per family per month, to 20 kg. And four, that the targeted PDS scheme only created categories of the poor “at ridiculous destitution levels of Rs 11.80 per person per day for rural, and Rs 17.80 per person per day for urban”. 

There is data to support these charges. National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) data shows that the per capita consumption of cereals has been declining since the early-1970s. Between 1972-73 and 2004-05, the share of cereals in total consumer expenditure fell from 41% to 18% in rural areas, and 23% to 10% in urban areas. The per capita monthly consumption of cereals declined between 1993-94 and 2004-05 from 13.4 kg to 12.1 kg (9.7%) in rural areas, and from 10.6 kg to 9.9 kg (6.6%) in urban India. Close to five years ago, economist Utsa Patnaik calculated the proportion of rural development expenditure, which includes expenditure on agriculture, rural development, special areas programmes, irrigation, flood control, village industry, energy and transport. She found that, as a proportion of gross domestic product (GDP), this had declined from 11.7% in 1991-92 to 5.9% in 2000-01. 

In search of masur and moong 

The ‘State of Food Insecurity in Rural India’ report contains a detailed analysis of the public distribution system in India and in our states. Taken together with the NSSO data of declining per capita cereal consumption in rural areas, answers to tough questions about the use of the official poverty line as a targeting criterion in the PDS must be insisted upon. Again, in 2006, there was a systematic critique from Patnaik who demonstrated the increasing disconnect over time between the proportion of population below the official poverty line and the proportion unable to access the minimum calories per day. This minimum was 2,400 Kcal in rural areas and 2,100 Kcal in urban areas, per capita, set in 1973–74, which is when the poverty line was defined precisely in terms of the monthly consumer expenditure required to access specified amounts of calories. Using data from the 61st round of the NSSO, Patnaik showed that an astonishing 87% of rural India’s population in 2004–05 was unable to access the 2,400 Kcal per day that underlies the official poverty definition.

Chart 3

These have been the addressable unknowns for the last four years at least. These have been the variables that collapse when subject to critical scrutiny, and they have done so for the last decade. The most commonly used set of measurements -- the wholesale price index and the various consumer price indices -- do not reflect the purchasing realities for rural cultivator families, rural labour families and urban poor (see Chart 3: CPI of agricultural labour states). Our apex planning and advisory bodies, such as the Economic Advisory Council, have been unable to provide a plausible link between the trend of foodgrain prices in tehsil kirana shops and the overprocessed numbers that emerge from official equations. “The Council expects that the WPI inflation rate for manufactured goods is likely to fall to 4% in February and fall further by the end of March 2009,” said the Council’s ‘Review of Economy’ in January 2009. “However, inflation in primary foods is likely to remain elevated at close to 8%. CPI inflation will also fall, but the extent of the fall is unlikely to match that for WPI, considering the expected higher rate of food inflation and its larger weight in the consumer price indices.” 

Chart 4

In 16 of the National Food Security Mission’s 307 programme districts, all the three crops -- rice, wheat and pulses -- are being supported. An examination of the retail cost of food essentials in these districts shows just how heavy the burden has become for farming/agricultural labour families to feed themselves (see Chart 4: NFS Mission districts). In rural Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh -- all states that are home to the NFSM’s multi-crop programmes -- over three years, from January 2006 to January 2009, the rise in the cost of pulses has been steep. In Bihar’s Madhepura district, the cost of masur has risen 72% (from Rs 26/kg in January 2006 to Rs 32/kg in June 2007 and Rs 55/kg in January 2009). Over the same period, the price of urad in Madhepura has risen 60%, moong 72%, and arhar 52%. 

In Ballia district of Uttar Pradesh, the price of masur was Rs 25/kg in January 2006. It rose to Rs 32/kg in January 2008 and then steeply to Rs 52/kg in January 2009 -- a rise of 108%. Over the same period, the price of arhar in Ballia has risen 56% (it was Rs 50/kg in January 2009), of besan (channa flour) 43%, and of coarse rice 60%. In Madhya Pradesh’s Damoh district, the price of whole wheat flour (atta) has risen 70% from January 2006 to January 2009. Over the same period, the price of arhar rose 49%, besan 40% (it was Rs 42/kg in January 2009), and masur 100%. Though the difference between MSP (minimum support price) and wholesale price for essential commodities like moong, urad, gram and arhar, on average, was around 33%, between December 2003 and January 2008, it has now gone up beyond 60%, according to an alert from the Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) which shows that farmers and consumers -- especially rural consumers -- are hit hard by the difference. 

Quite simply, can the farming family both feed and maintain itself and its modest assets with an income from cultivation? The figures available are revealing. In 2002-03, the average return per hectare was Rs 6,756 during kharif, and Rs 9,290 during rabi. The national average for paid-out expenses -- as a percentage of value of output -- was 44% in kharif and 42% in rabi (see Table 2: Farm relative prices). There are of course wide regional variations: a study in Rajasthan’s Dungarpur district indicated that agriculture is a net user of cash, because a large part of the production was kept back for household consumption. Arrivals at the market yard were estimated to be not more than 2% of production. In areas where agriculture is a very basic subsistence activity, migration driven by the search for alternative livelihoods is common. Looking at the NSSO statistics it is apparent that the returns from agriculture for small and marginal farmers are not sufficient enough for them to earn an income that will take them above the poverty line, if agriculture is their only source of income. 

Is the commercial crop route the answer? What steps does the farming family take towards that decision? Does the decision emerge through consultation with the community or because of the family’s minimum consumption needs? These are the options that bind the farming household either to the task of contributing to community resilience or to the package of external factors over which it has little control. “When commercial crops like cotton are grown on smallholdings, there is inadequate land available for subsistence food crops,” wrote M S Sriram of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, in a chapter on agrarian distress and rural credit, in ‘State of India’s Livelihoods: The 4P Report’, 2008. “Thus the food security net that was largely within the household moves to the markets. Obviously, the farmer has to pay much more to buy this food from outside due to multiple margins of intermediaries in the value chain. This involves cash payouts and the household gets caught in debt if there is a mismatch between the timing of inflows from commercial crops and consumption necessities.” Thus, while on the one hand production needs credit due to external inputs, even consumption becomes dependent on credit. Eventually both these aspects contribute to higher levels of indebtedness. 

Table 2

Evolution of farm relative prices

Year Index of prices paid Index of prices received Input-output price ratio
1981-82 88.5 54.9 1.61
1982-83 91.1 60.3 1.51
1983-84 91 64.2 1.42
1984-85 92.3 68 1.36
1985-86 94.3 70.4 1.34
1986-87 98.7 76.7 1.29
1987-88 102.3 86 1.19
1988-89 96.9 90.3 1.07
1989-90 99.2 97.5 1.02
1990-91 104 112.3 0.93
1991-92 119.4 130.6 0.91
1992-93 139.5 138.7 1.01
1993-94 152.9 151.4 1.01
1994-95 166.1 171.1 0.97
1995-96 174.2 182.9 0.95
1996-97 181.5 190.6 0.95
1997-98 192 205.9 0.93
1998-99 197.1 220.8 0.89
1999-00 203.9 219.8 0.93
2000-01 230.4 225 1.02
2001-02 236.4 235.3 1
2002-03 253.2 247.9 1.02
2003-04 259.1 251.2 1.03
2004-05 272.1 260.1 1.05
Note: Index numbers are based on the triennium ending 1990-91=100
 
Source: Report of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, April 2007

It is useful at this point to turn to the National Commission on Farmers (Fifth Report, Vol 1) which explains the interweave of farm income, landholding and consumption expenditure. The Commission pointed out that economic access to food for farm households depends to a large extent on farm business income -- the difference between value of output produced and costs actually paid out. In the report ‘State of the Indian Farmer: A Millennium Study-Cost of Cultivation and Farm Income’, by Abhijit Sen, per hectare real farm business income had increased in every state during the 1980s, but peaked in the mid-1990s in most. In Karnataka, Maharashtra, Orissa, Bihar and Gujarat, real farm business income per hectare was lower at the end of the decade of the 1990s than at its start. The all-India rate of growth of real farm business income per hectare slowed dramatically from 3.21% annually during the 1980s to 1.02% annually during the 1990s. “Keeping in view that the number of cultivators during the 1990s grew at 1.44% per annum and the cropped area by only 0.45% per annum in the same period means that the real FBI on an all-India basis during the 1990s remained almost static (growth rate of about 0.03%  per annum),” said the Commission. 

How public budgets dodged agriculture 

The Commission relied on NSSO data in its ‘Some Aspects of Household Ownership Landholdings 1991-92’ study, to conclude: “It is doubtful that the major part of the 85.29% of rural households that are either landless (11.24%) or are sub-marginal, marginal and small farmers (74.05%) could grow enough food to provide nutritional security to themselves and their families keeping in view the productivity standards and the fact that nearly 60% of the land is unirrigated.” A quick look at one of the massive and ambitious Bharat Nirman components -- the provision of irrigation, which has been left undone -- shows that many of the conditions that compromised household nutritional security in the 1990s have survived into this decade. These surely are conditions that merit deep understanding from the State and all associated actors, and commitments from them to help bring about equity in Indian agriculture. 

Is that happening? “At a time when one would require greater inputs from the State, it seems to be withdrawing,” wrote Srijit Mishra (‘Agrarian Scenario in Post-reform India: A Story of Distress, Despair and Death’, Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, Mumbai, January 2007). “This is evident from the decline in public investment, in the reduced role of formal credit institutions and poor extension services among others. Gross fixed capital formation in agriculture as a proportion of gross domestic product declined from 3.1% during 1980-85 (the Sixth Five-Year Plan) to 1.6% during 1997-2002 (Ninth Plan) at 1993-94 prices. During the same period, gross fixed capital formation in agriculture as a proportion of total gross fixed capital formation declined from 13.1% to 7.4% and the proportion of plan expenditure towards agriculture and allied activities declined from 6.1% to 4.5%.” 

This steady slowdown in agricultural growth and development is and has been one of the key factors, a well hidden one, of India’s foodgrain story. The sharp fall in total investment is more conspicuous where public sector investment is concerned. One of the indicators of investment in agriculture is the ratio of amount spent on agricultural extension and amount spent on research, and that ratio has been falling. The slowdown of spending on extension and in public sector investment will, if allowed to continue, further widen the gap between agriculture and other sectors of the economy. Agricultural investment is needed to meet expenses on irrigation, research and extension and building up rural infrastructure: roads, electricity, water, social services. Yet, since the mid-1990s, public investment has been stagnant, as pointed out two years ago in the paper ‘Strengthening Indian Agriculture: Need for Reforms’, from the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER, April 2007) (see Chart 5: Gross capital formation). 

Chart 5

The signs have been clear even to the Ministry of Finance. “The seed-fertiliser technology seems to have exhausted its potential and is no longer cost efficient,” stated the report of its Expert Group on Agricultural Indebtedness, in July 2007. “A major reason for this is reduced public investment in agricultural research and technology. The policymakers are relying more on technology imports rather than developing indigenous technology.” The public investment story of Indian agriculture is not a heartening one. The share of gross capital formation (GCF) in Indian agriculture started to decline since the early-1980s. By 1995-96, it declined to 6.3% from 16.1% during 1980-81. There was a steep decline in the share of public sector GCF in agriculture, to 17.3% in 1999-2000 from 43.2% in 1980-81. Contrary to expectations, private investment failed to compensate for the drastic decline in public sector investment. Although private investment recorded a high growth during 1980-81 to 1999-2000, its growth rate sharply decelerated during 1999-2000 to 2004-05. The consequence was that the overall gross capital formation in agriculture as a share of total capital formation in the country declined sharply from 16.1% in 1980-81 to 9.2% by 2000-01. Simultaneously, there was a drastic reduction in the share of developmental expenditure on rural development, from 11.7% of GDP in 1991-92 to 5.9% in 2000-01. 

This drastic reduction is closely linked to the ‘collapse’ of agriculture extension in India, as P Chengal Reddy puts it, and has resulted in the indiscriminate use of fertilisers and pesticides, and of crop rotation and innovative cultural practices being ignored. Chengal Reddy is secretary general of the Consortium of Indian Farmers’ Associations (CIFA), which consulted with the Parliament Members’ Farmers Forum to outline proposals on ‘sustainable and inclusive growth in the farm sector’, following the 2008-09 national budget and as a complement to the Eleventh Five-Year Plan framework for agriculture. “Agriculture research requires additional resources,” said Chengal Reddy. “We have requested the government to increase the budget allocation to agriculture research to 1% of the total resources. Private agriculture research should be given incentives as government alone can’t meet the requirement.” 

What sort of response can CIFA expect from the second term of the UPA government? The record is discouraging. State and regional farmers’ associations have emphasised time and again that a substantial proportion of Indian agriculture is ‘small farm’-based economic activity (see Table 3: Landholding patterns). Yet agriculture in India is being moved rapidly from a system of farmers’ own resource-based subsistence farming to purchased input-based intensive commercial farming, with its over-dependence on credit regimes, crop protection systems and seed companies. During this transition, from inside India’s agri-bureaucracy, there is simply not enough recognition that the structural adjustment process has had -- and continues to have -- far-reaching implications. Much of the Green Revolution initiated in the mid-1960s in India was built upon a system of State-supported incentives, subsidies, and substantial public investment in agricultural infrastructure. Financial reforms have adversely affected the agricultural input support system and institutions, but the support system itself has resisted change, and the impact of this resistance falls on our farming households. 

A time to focus, again 

Where the State could have stepped in decisively with realistic minimum support prices (MSPs) and a risk-bearing mechanism, it has done so weakly (in the case of MSPs) and heaped further financial pressure on farm households. It has ignored the risk-related needs of farmers. The cost of production is invariably higher than the MSP due to the steady rise in fuel and other inputs. Examining the projections of cost of cultivation for 12 foodgrain crops given by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) for crop season 2005-06, with the MSP being used in 2004-05, clearly shows that C2 cost (cost of production per quintal) is not covered by the MSP in most states. 

Since 2003-04, the MSP for the common variety of paddy was increased from Rs 550 to Rs 900 per quintal for crop year 2008-09; for wheat the increase was from Rs 630 in 2003-04 to Rs 1,080 per quintal for the year 2008-09. “The simple fact is that increases in MSP do not cover even the cost of cultivation of various crops,” said Chengal Reddy. “Cost of cultivation plus 50% (C2 plus 50%) for paddy and wheat is Rs 1,500 each. But the MSPs are only Rs 900 and Rs 1,050 for paddy and wheat. Even though there were bumper harvests of wheat and rice, exports were banned with the result that farmers were deprived of the benefit of high international prices. Farmers are paying the price for the muddled policies of the government.” So are consumers, whether urban poor, rural poor, industrial labour, agricultural labour, or foodgrain producing households. 

Table 3

Landholding patterns

  Characteristics of operational landholdings
  1960-61 1970-71 1981-82 1991-92 2003
Number of operational holdings (millions) 50.77 57.07 71.04 93.45 101.27
Area operated (million hectares) 133.48 125.68 118.57 125.1 107.65
Average area operated (hectares) 2.63 2.2 1.67 1.34 1.06
  Percentage of operated area    
  1960-61 1970-71 1981-82 1991-92 2003
Marginal 6.9 9.2 11.5 15.6 22.6
Small 12.3 14.8 16.6 18.7 20.9
Semi-medium 20.7 22.6 23.6 24.1 22.5
Medium 31.2 30.5 30.1 26.4 22.2
Large 29 23 18.2 15.2 11.8
All sizes 100 100 100 100 100
  Percentage of operational holdings  
  1960-61 1970-71 1981-82 1991-92 2003
Marginal 39.1 45.8 56 62.8 71
Small 22.6 22.4 19.3 17.8 16.6
Semi-medium 19.8 17.7 14.2 12 9.2
Medium 14 11.1 8.6 6.1 4.3
Large 4.5 3.1 1.9 1.3 0.8
All sizes 100 100 100 100 100
Land Holdings in India', Rounds (17th, 26th, 37th, 48th, 59th), in ‘Report of the Expert Group on Agricultural Indebtedness’

That ‘muddled policies’ may continue to be a feature of the UPA’s second term became clear in mid-May with Ministry of Commerce officials recommending that the export ban on all agricultural commodities be lifted because surplus production has kept domestic prices in check. Such a recommendation both ignores the reality experienced in kirana shops by our rural farm households and underlines firmly how reactionary agriculture-related policy has become for New Delhi’s planners. There is a ban on overseas sales of wheat (since February 2007), non-basmati rice (since April 2008) and all pulses (excluding kabuli chana) in place. The ministry is apparently concerned about agricultural produce exporters who are seen to suffer “because money invested in developing new markets goes waste when there is an export ban”. As a result, explains the ministry, they must concede market share to competitors from other countries and domestic firms have to re-invest to recapture lost market share. Commerce Secretary G K Pillai is reported as having said that the government may lift an export ban on wheat because the group of ministers dealing with this issue had recommended this. On what basis, farmers’ associations want to know. Meanwhile, commodity exporters -- who have been demanding a removal of the export ban -- now claim they would not gain even if the ban were revoked because domestic prices, especially of wheat, are higher than international prices. And to compound the confusion and emphasise just how muddled policy has become, industry groups representing exporters are demanding a subsidy from government to promote exports.

Seedless grapes from Maharashtra, picked and packed to Euro standards and exported to Germany

What can farmers’ associations, independent civil society groups, friendly agri-bureaucracy and responsible agro-industry do? A starting first set of assessments that convincingly knits together the local and the global can be found in the International Assessment of Agriculture Science and Technology for Development (IAASTD), or Agriculture Assessment as it has come to be known. IAASTD is a wide-ranging and authoritative multi-volume assessment of how agricultural knowledge, science and technology can help reduce hunger and poverty, improve health and rural livelihoods, and facilitate equitable development that is environmentally, socially and economically sustainable. As IAASTD was designed to guide agricultural research and multilateral investments, it has documented the impacts both of the Green Revolution and the recent emphasis on biotechnology and biofuels. Lessons drawn from these impacts are essential to understand how agriculture knowledge and technology can be generated and used more effectively to meet development goals. 

“Given the focus on hunger, poverty and livelihoods, IAASTD pays special attention to the current situation, issues, and potential opportunities to redirect the current AKST (agricultural knowledge, science and technology) system to improve the situation for poor rural people, especially small-scale farmers, rural labourers and others with limited resources,” stated the ‘Global Synthesis Report’ (2009). “It addresses issues critical to formulating policy and provides information for decision-makers confronting conflicting views on contentious issues such as the environmental consequences of productivity increases, environmental and human health impacts of transgenic crops, the consequences of bio-energy development on the environment and on the long-term availability and price of food, and the implications of climate change on agricultural production.” 

A quick response to the thrust and direction of IAASTD came from the Deccan Development Society (DDS), which is based in Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh. The Society said that the IAASTD initiative to rethink food and agricultural research assumes that scientific innovations can be beneficial to small-scale producers and the rural poor. For this to occur, said the DDS response to IAASTD, scientific and technical innovations need to build on the perspectives, knowledge and priorities of farmers and other citizens, and prepare for their diverse local realities and needs. More fundamentally, this means putting hitherto marginalised farmers and citizens at the heart of the governance of research on food and agriculture. To that end, the DDS and the International Institute for Environment and Development (IIED), Britain, are piloting a citizen-centred and bottom-up process of deliberation and inclusion, one in which scientific innovations are seen as part of broader systems of governance and markets, extending from local to national and international levels. They have called the new process ‘ADARSA’ (Alliance for Democratising Agricultural Research in South Asia), and have embarked on a critical evaluation of the agricultural research done in South Asia with ADARSA partners that include networks of farmers, scientists, ecological groups from Bangladesh, Nepal and Sri Lanka, farmer organisations, scientists, civil society groups, human rights lawyers and others from India. 

There are no local leafy vegetables at this stall in Kolhapur

Wedded to the APY (area, production and yield) measure as an indicator of success, India’s agriculture planning bureaucracy still refuses to see crops as representing more than area, production and yield. This obsession -- which began in the grim years of Public Law (PL) 480 and rationing, and which gathered strength as the gains of the Green Revolution astounded a hungry country -- has not left Krishi Bhavan. Our food planners are as handicapped in recognising the value of IAASTD’s methodologies as they are in recognising the desperate need to re-orient policy in the way that ADARSA is attempting to do. India’s abundantly diverse stores of local and traditional knowledge have maintained and improved the livelihoods of farming and indigenous communities. It is these traditional knowledge systems that are the basis for decision-making, not only in agriculture but also in education, food preparation, healthcare and natural resource management. These systems are what our rural communities are built around -- they must be built into every recipe for agricultural change in India.

(Rahul Goswami is an independent journalist based in Goa)

InfoChange News & Features, June 2009