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Agriculture And Food Security : Background & Perspective

By Devinder Sharma

 Pre-Independence India suffered repeated famines, drought and food shortages. But following the Green Revolution in the '60s, yields and foodstocks rose manifold. Now, 30 years later, Indian farmers have realised the follies of their tryst with intensive agriculture. Despite 70 per cent of the population being engaged in agriculture and allied activities, declining foodgrain production and access to food remain the two biggest problems confronting the country. Liberalisation has made things worse: commercial crops are eating into the fertile land tracts meant for essential foodgrains. And six years after the World Trade Organisation came into existence, the anticipated gains for India from the trade liberalisation process in agriculture are practically zero.

Sowing the seeds of the Green Revolution / Measures to avoid famine / Aiming at self-sufficiency / Decline in production / In the era of WTO

Agriculture Minister C Subramaniam sat huddled with his senior staff. There was tension in the air. Depending on imported foodgrains coming from 12,000 miles away, particularly when it came in driblets following US President Lyndon Johnson's directive to "teach India a lesson", was humiliating enough. What worried him was that food stocks had reached such a precarious low that they were only sufficient for another two weeks. Still worse, there was nothing in transit. Recalls Subramaniam, "As a last resort, I told my officials and experts to identify the nearest food-carrying ships on the ocean throughout the world. I said we would identify those carrying wheat to other countries and appeal to the US President to divert them to India if other countries could wait for another six to eight weeks."

This was in 1966-67, the critical year of drought when India imported 11 million tonnes of foodgrain. A year earlier, India had imported 10 million tonnes of foodgrain. Around this time, the Paddock brothers, often referred to as 'prophets of doom', concluded in their book, Famine 1975, that by the mid-'70s at least half of India would be led to a slaughter house. Considering that India had a long history of hunger and famine, and the subsequent failure of the government's effort to boost agricultural production in the post-Independence era, not many disagreed with the conclusive analysis drawn by William and Paul Paddock.

After all, for a country literally surviving on a 'ship-to-mouth' existence, there was little hope. Soon after Independence, India had begun to seek food aid and in fact emerged as the biggest food importer of this century. In 1951, India got ad hoc assistance of 2 million tonnes of foodgrain to tide over the crisis arising from severe drought in several parts of the country. This was the first major food security on a significant scale after Independence.

Before 1947, Indian history was replete with famine, drought and food shortages. Between 1770 and 1880, as many as 27 food scarcities and famines were recorded. At least 20 million lives were lost in India in about 20 famines that had struck since 1850. Much of this loss was because of misplaced colonial policies which aimed to derive maximum economic gain at the cost of human suffering and misery. After the British had created a transport infrastructure in the first half of the 19th century, they began encouraging farmers to grow crops that could be exported. The boom in export trade accompanied by rising prices made farmers shift to cash crops like cotton, indigo, poppy and sugarcane. The area under foodgrain subsequently shrank. In other words, efforts to improve agriculture in colonial India were directly linked to the needs of British industries.

In the first half of the 20th century, India's foreign trade showed the same colonial pattern with exports mainly comprising foodgrain and cotton, jute, oilseeds, opium and indigo. Against this, imports consisted mainly of consumer goods. Meanwhile, the cultivator's preference for commercial crops continued. As is happening now, the trend during the pre-Independence years showed that the best lands available were used for the cultivation of commercial crops. The cultivation of foodgrains was relegated, to some extent, to inferior lands, the yield of which is much less even in normal years. The result was a steady decline in foodgrain output till the Second World War. Per capita food availability from domestic production too had declined. As B M Bhatia observes in The Famines of India: "India kept the precarious balance between increasing population and declining food production partly by turning from an exporter into a net importer of foodgrains but largely by the easy, though dangerous, expedient of pushing down the already low per capita cereal consumption to still lower levels."

The big gap between minimum requirement and supply continued throughout the post-War period. Till the 1960s, Indian agriculture was not sufficiently able to meet domestic requirements and the country had to rely on foodgrain imports.

SOWING THE SEEDS OF THE GREEN REVOLUTION

Realising the disastrous consequences of the growing gap between the rates of growth of population and food production, a vigorous 'grow more food' campaign was launched. The key goal of economic planning shifted to attaining self-sufficiency. The First Five-Year Plan, following food imports in 1951, gave maximum importance to the growth of agriculture. Among the measures initiated in the '50s to stimulate foodgrain production were land reforms, irrigation, fertiliser production, strengthening of research and the organisation of a national farm extension service. Consequently, increased harvests in the mid-1950s relieved the economy.

It was around this time that the government adopted the US Land Grant model of agricultural research. Agricultural universities, beginning with the Gobind Ballabh Pant University of Agriculture and Technology in Pantnagar in Uttar Pradesh, were gradually set up in all the states. The Land Grant model entailed linking research with extension, and taking research from the laboratories to the farms through an extension network linked with the university. In 1961, the government launched the Intensive Agriculture District Programme (IADP) to enhance productivity in the irrigated areas. Although the aim was to introduce improved seed along with a package of agronomic practices to take advantage of the available irrigation, the programme did not come up to expectations for want of high-yielding varieties of wheat.

The tall Indian wheat varieties did not provide an economic response to the application of chemical fertilisers and irrigation water, which agricultural scientists were desperately looking for. These had a tendency to fall down or lodge when fertilisers were applied, as a result of which the yields stagnated at less than one tonne per hectare. Even though breeding for improved non-lodging wheat varieties was initiated in the '50s, it did not meet with much success.

The missing link was provided by Dr Norman Borlaug, who was then working with CIMMYT in Mexico. A few dwarf wheat strains of spring wheat that he sent to the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, looked impressive. In the next two to three years, a wide range of dwarf material was tested under the All India Wheat Research Project. In August 1964, the then Professor and Head of Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics at the IARI, Dr M S Swaminathan, who later emerged as the architect of India's Green Revolution, proposed the launching of a National Demonstration Programme in farmers' fields. This would verify the results obtained in research plots and introduce farmers to new opportunities opened up by semi-dwarf varieties for considerably improving the productivity.

Says Swaminathan, "When small farmers, who with the help of scientists organised the National Demonstration Programme, harvested over 5 tonnes of wheat per hectare, its impact on the minds of other farmers was electric. The clamour for seeds began and the area under high-yielding varieties rose from 4 hectares in 1963-64 to over 4 million hectares in 1971-72. A small government programme became a mass movement." Subsequently, the government imported 18,000 tonnes of semi-dwarf wheat from Mexico in 1966 to be distributed in time for immediate sowing by farmers in the northwestern regions.

The seeds of the Green Revolution were, therefore, truly sown in the mid-'60s. What followed next is already part of contemporary history. Wheat production rose to 17 million tonnes in 1968, an increase of 5 million tonnes over the highest of 12 million tonnes harvested in 1964. Indira Gandhi officially recorded the impressive strides in agriculture by releasing a special stamp entitled 'Wheat Revolution' in July 1968. The success of wheat was later replicated in rice. Productivity increases were also recorded in cotton, sugarcane, millets and oilseeds.

MEASURES TO AVOID FAMINE

The famine-avoidance strategy that India launched had all the necessary ingredients for a sustained effort. In 1965, the Agricultural Prices Commission was constituted, with the basic objective of assuring fair prices for farm produce. The Commission, an autonomous body, works out the cost of cultivation for 22 agricultural commodities, and suggests a price to the government that includes profit that should serve as an incentive to grow more. The administered price of wheat, for instance, was raised by 71 per cent between 1972 and 1981. Similarly, the price of rice was jacked up by 81 per cent during the same period. Later, to sustain the tempo of the rice revolution, the relative price structure was moved in its favour. In the early phase of the Green Revolution, the price policy favoured wheat, but after the mid-'70s it tilted in favour of rice. For oilseeds and pulses, the reverse was put into action. Relatively high support prices were announced in the early-'90s to make their cultivation profitable.

Perhaps the most significant aspect of the price support mechanism has been the insulation of farmers against a decline in prices. Wheat production was very high in 1971-72, as a consequence of which prices should have declined by at least 25 per cent. Since the government purchased all the wheat that was offered, farmers were actually paid 7 per cent more. Again, in 1982-83, when wheat production was 14.3 per cent higher than the previous year, the prices should have actually declined by 32.5 per cent. With the government purchasing all the wheat that flowed into the markets, however, the farmers realised 18 per cent more.

The biggest achievement of the Indian food policy, dependent more and more on buffer stocking and operational stock holding, has been the avoidance of famine-like conditions. It was with the basic objective of curbing consumption and ensuring an equitable distribution of available food supplies, especially in the deficit areas and among the poorer strata of society, that the Public Distribution System (PDS) was introduced. PDS supplies were also used for the 'food for work' programme as well as other anti-poverty programmes. At present, PDS covers more than 80 million families and the total foodgrains distributed through a network of 40,000 fair price shops accounts for over one-third of the total trade in foodgrain.

AIMING AT SELF-SUFFICIENCY

The Green Revolution was certainly not a stroke of luck. The resilience was the result of progressive farm policies, determination, sustained efforts of scientists and the vigour of the Indian farmers who readily adopted the improved technology. This is what the Rockefeller Foundation had to say about the magnificent strides taken: " ... The speed with which India's farmers and scientists suddenly gave their country an approach to an abundant food supply, has never been duplicated on an equal scale anywhere in the world, including the scientifically sophisticated United States."

Since the early-'70s, the country has avoided famine even during adverse weather conditions, through a carefully designed food security system involving the maintenance of both substantial grain reserves and an extensive PDS. The devastating drought of 1987, rated as the most severe of this century, affected nearly 155 million hectares. In spite of this, no starvation and hunger deaths were reported. This was essentially the result of excellent food management based on foodgrain reserves built largely from homegrown wheat and rice.

From the late-'60s, the rate of growth in food production generally exceeded the rate of growth of population. Despite the continuous growth in population, the per capita availability of foodgrain increased from 157 kg per year in 1955 to 177 kg per year in 1995, an increase of 15.7 per cent. Food production has risen roughly four times since the days of Independence, from 50 million tonnes in 1950-51 to 198 million tonnes in 1996-97. At the same time, the population has risen from 300 million to 960 million. Milk production too has risen to 68 million tonnes, the highest in the world. Food self-sufficiency was achieved in the late-'70s with the maintenance of a sizeable food buffer. Lately, India has begun to export foodgrain. About 5 million tonnes of rice and wheat were exported during the last few years. Skimmed milk powder amounting to about 5,000 tonnes has also been exported.

The increase in foodgrains was, however, disproportionate. The highest rate of growth was achieved in Punjab and Haryana, where, at a compound growth rate of 4.63 per cent, foodgrain production jumped from 7.23 million tonnes in 1964-65 to reach an all-time high of 30.33 million tonnes in 1995-96. Uttar Pradesh recorded a compound growth rate of 3.01 per cent. Production in Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and the northeastern states continues to stagger. Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, on the other hand, have recorded significant increases in rice yields, with production rising to 9.17 million tonnes and 11.58 million tonnes, respectively.

The Green Revolution was aimed at the better-endowed regions. For millions of farmers languishing in the drylands, constituting more than 70 per cent of the cultivable lands, it continues to be a futile struggle. Despite emphasis on dryland farming during the past several decades, the scenario still remains grim. The undulating topography and the irregular rainfall pattern have combined to aggravate the situation. That the drylands produce about 42 per cent of the country's food shows that the future of farming lies in these areas. Nearly 83 per cent of sorghum, 81 per cent of pulses and 90 per cent of oilseeds grown in the country come from these areas. The poor yields and the fluctuations in production are indications of the scant attention drylands have received from policymakers and planners.

The problem of increasing productivity on drylands has serious socio-economic implications. With every passing year, the gap between the farmer's yields in irrigated areas and in the dry farming region is widening. One year of drought is enough to push a farmer into a deep well of poverty for another two to three years. Drought is a recurring phenomenon in arid and semi-arid areas. Fifty years after Independence, life for millions of people somehow surviving in the drylands continues to be worse than before.

DECLINE IN PRODUCTION

Thirty years after the dawn of the Green Revolution, Indian farmers are realising that their love affair with intensive agriculture is on the decline. Despite a bountiful monsoon for the tenth year in a row, harvests are not as plentiful as expected. However, with no let-up in the ever-increasing rise in population, Indian agriculture is once again at the crossroads.

Alarm bells have been ringing for quite some time. For nearly a decade, agricultural production had stagnated. The spectacular yield growth recorded in the post-Green Revolution years in Punjab and Haryana has receded into history. Of the multiple problems confronting agriculture, rapid fragmentation of land holdings is keeping pace with increasing population. In 1976-77, the average size of the holdings was estimated at 2 hectares, while in 1980-81, it came down to 1.8 hectares. Today, it stands at a mere 0.2 hectares. The total number of land holdings in 1981 were around 89 million; today these have crossed 100 million. By the turn of the century, the average land holding will come down to 0.11 hectares. It is quite obvious that with such small land holdings, Indian agriculture cannot adopt high-tech farm practices.

Basking in the afterglow of the Green Revolution, farming and agriculture have ceased to attract serious attention. In 1995-96, foodgrain production slumped to minus 3.60 per cent. In 1997-98, it further declined to minus 3.70 per cent, the worst-ever since the heady days of the Green Revolution. Foodgrain production in the frontline agricultural states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh, comprising the country's food bowl, has decelerated. The miracle that began with wheat was replicated in rice. This is where the cost-benefit ratio has turned negative. The downward spiral in food production continues through the southern regions of the country. Tamil Nadu, another Green Revolution area, is under tremendous strain from intensive cultivation. In Karnataka, the negative trend in yield levels of all food crops, barring cotton and sugarcane, are all too apparent. Farming in Karnataka can be clearly separated in two distinct classes, the 'creamy layer' of corporate agriculture occupying the fertile and irrigated areas, and the remaining low productive tracts at the mercy of the rains, constituting the tiny and small land holdings. Kerala too, picturesque and verdant with tropical forests, is passing through its worst-ever crisis on the foodgrain front.

As if this is not enough, the number of landless in rural areas too has been multiplying over the past few decades, at an estimated rate of two million every year. The rapid expansion in the number of land holdings, with less than a hectare under plough, has meant an additional 6,00,000 farmers every five years or so. The negative terms of trade for agriculture and the declining public sector investments in farming are indices of the sluggishness in this sector.

The Economic Survey for 1996-97 has further sounded a warning. The compound growth rate in foodgrain production at 1.7 per cent between 1991 and 1996, is lower than the annual population growth of 1.9 per cent. The survey adds that even a marginal fall of three to four per cent in foodgrain output can cause the prices of essential commodities to escalate sharply, necessitating government intervention by way of resorting to imports. This happened in 1993 and again in 1996.

The philosophy of agricultural planning is changing. Gone are the days when the nation's emphasis was solely on attaining self-sufficiency in foodgrain production. Gone also are the days when farmers were newly independent India's heroes, revered for their role in keeping hunger and starvation at bay. Today, at a time when food production struggles to keep pace with the burgeoning population growth, farmers are being asked to diversify, produce crops that are suitable for export and to compete in the international market. With the promise of cheap food available off the shelf in the global market, the focus has shifted from agriculture to industry, trade and commerce, from the small and marginal farmers to the agri-processing companies, which alone can bring in investments and add value to produce.

The restructuring of the Indian economy too has put the emphasis on agri-exports. Cultivation of staple food is being replaced by cash crops, tomatoes in place of wheat, durum wheat (for bakery purposes) replacing wheat as a staple diet in Punjab and Haryana, flowers in place of rice, and so on. In the coastal areas, private enterprise is taking away the fish catch, depriving the local communities of a livelihood and their only source of nutrition. In Kerala, vast tracts of forests and paddy fields have been converted into rubber, coffee and coconut plantations. Every year, about 25,000 hectares of good paddy land are being diverted for non-paddy purposes. The structural transformation is not only peculiar to Kerala. It is happening in almost all the states. Commercial crops are eating into the fertile land tracts meant for growing essential foodgrains, thereby making the states rely more heavily on the PDS. The diversion of good agricultural land, which in any case is limited, to commercial farming and even industries, is further restricting the ability to grow enough foodgrain.

IN THE ERA OF WTO

Kerala has already been at the receiving end. Over the past few years, ever since economic liberalisation became the development mantra, the state has been flooded with cheap and highly subsidised agricultural imports, throwing its agrarian economy out of gear. Whether it is the import of palm oil or rubber or coffee, almost every aspect of the state's socio-economy has been negatively impacted.

Coconut prices have crashed, down from Rs 10 to Rs 2. Rubber has plummeted from Rs 60 to Rs 16 and coffee from Rs 58 in 1999 to Rs 30 per kg in 2000. Even spices have not been spared, with pepper prices falling from Rs. 2,600 to Rs. 1,300 per quintal in the consecutive period. Kerala is not alone. The fallout from the emerging global trade paradigm is being felt all over the country, though not in the same magnitude. Before we go any further however, it is important to understand how the market rules play, and then try to understand the implications for Indian agriculture.

It is now official. Six years after the World Trade Organisation (WTO) came into existence on January 1, 1995, the anticipated gains for India from the trade liberalisation process in agriculture are practically zero. The ministry of agriculture as well as the ministry of commerce have admitted that the hopes from an international regime that talked of establishing a fair and market-oriented agricultural trading system have been belied.

It is time to draw a balance sheet of the gains and losses that accrued from the implementation of the WTO's Agreement on Agriculture, which had incorporated three broad areas of commitments from member states, namely in market access, domestic support and export subsidies. The underlying objective of this was to correct and prevent restrictions and distortions in world agricultural markets. Six years later, it has been established that these measures have only protected the farmers and the farming systems of the developed countries. On the other hand, the trading regime has ensured that developing countries take time-bound initiatives to open up their domestic markets for cheap and highly subsidised imports of agricultural commodities.

Easier market access needed

A recent study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) concludes that there has been hardly any change in the volume of exports. Tariff peaks or high import duties continue to block exports from the developing countries. Tariffs still remain very high, especially in the case of cereals, sugar and dairy products. Sanitary and phytosanitary measures, which were enforced to ensure the quality of imported products, actually continue to be a major barrier in diversifying exports in horticulture and meat products. Selective reduction in tariffs by developed countries has also blocked exports from developing countries. To top it all, only 36 countries (all developed) have the right to impose special safeguards if agricultural imports distort their domestic market!

India was forced to either phase out or eliminate the quantitative restrictions (QRs) on agricultural commodities and products by April 1, 2001. India has, therefore, opened its market. Already, cheaper imports of skimmed milk powder, edible oils, sugar, tea, arecanut, apples, coconut etc have flooded the market.

Lack of domestic support

Clever manipulation of their subsidy reduction commitments has in reality increased the support to farmers in developed countries. In the United States, subsidy to just 9,00,000 farmers has increased 700 times since 1996. Between 1998-2000, the US has provided an additional US $26 billion to its farmers. In absolute terms, farm support in the OECD countries increased by 8 per cent to reach the staggering figure of US $363 billion in 1998.

In India, we are being told that since our Aggregate Measure of Support (AMS), a measure of the subsidies that are provided to agriculture, are negative, we can still raise our subsidies to farmers. In reality, India is committed to doing away with agricultural subsidies under the Structural Adjustment Programme of the World Bank and IMF. In any case, India provides only US $1 billion worth of indirect subsidies to 550 million farmers!

It was anticipated that due to reduction in domestic support in developed countries, cereal production would shift from developed countries to developing countries. Empirical evidence, however, shows that such a trend is not at all visible. Moreover, with such massive subsidies intact, and with the QRs being lifted, India faces the threat of subsidised food imports.

Export subsidies urged

The agriculture ministry acknowledges that despite the rules being defined, the expected gains have eluded the developing countries. It was expected that with the removal of trade distorting measures, agricultural exports from the developing countries would increase. This did not happen. In fact, India has seen a three-fold increase in the imports of agricultural commodities and products, from about Rs 5,000 crore in 1995 to over Rs 15,000 crore in 1999-2000. In edible oils alone, the import bill has soared to Rs. 9,000 crore. The so-called fair trading system has also not helped efficient producers in realising a higher price for their products. On the contrary, prices of most agricultural commodities are declining in the world markets.

In conclusion, if declining foodgrain production and access to food remain the two biggest problems confronting the country, there must be something terribly wrong with the way we look at agriculture. With more than 70 per cent of the population still engaged in agriculture and allied activities and an equal percentage of farmers tilling an average of 0.2 hectares of land and somehow surviving against all odds, the time has come to set the balance right. Whether we accept it or not, India is gradually moving back to the pre-Green Revolution days of a 'ship-to-mouth' existence, when food was largely imported to feed the hungry. It was the political maturity of the then leadership that led to self-sufficiency on the food front. Few will still question what Jawaharlal Nehru once said: "Everything else can wait, but not agriculture."