[Agriculture] Agricultural Challenges in Modern India and Solutions

Agriculture, the backbone of Indian rural economy, contributes to the overall economic growth of the country and determines the standard of life for more than 50% of the Indian population. Agriculture
contributes only about 14% to the overall GDP but its impact is felt in the manufacturing sector as well as the services sector as the rural population has become a significant consumer of goods and services in the last couple of decades. But during the same time, growing industrial sector has created its own set of problems to agriculture. (Note: Some problems are inter – related and have common solutions. Hence I have listed the solutions separately)

The ‘Intra-Sector’ Problems : 

1. Fragmented land holding
Nearly 80% of the 140 million farming families hold less than 2 acres of land[1]. Large land holdings enable the farmer to implement modern agricultural techniques and boost productivity. Besides, the number of people dependent on agriculture is also less in a large farmland as is the case in the Western economies. Small land holdings restrict the farmer to use traditional methods of farming and limit productivity. As land holdings are small, more people invariably work on the farms in the rural areas and coupled with the obsolete technology, farm incomes come down.

2. Irrigation problems
Most of the farming in India is monsoon dependent – if monsoons are good, the entire economy (and not just the agricultural sector) is upbeat and when the monsoon fails, everyone everywhere takes a hit to some extent. For a country that receives the second highest rainfall in the world and a country with a well extended river system lack of water can hardly be an excuse. The problem here is of proper management of water or the lack of it. Irrigation which consumes more than 80% of the total water use in the country needs a proper overhaul if the country has to improve agricultural output and boost the overall economy.

3. Seed problems
In the olden days, farmers had their own seed repositories from the previous crop. They used to select the best seeds from the previous generation and use them to improve the crop quality in the succeeding generations. But now, most of the farmers – especially the poor and marginal ones – are dependent on seeds sold in the market. Moreover, the HYV seeds as well as the GM seeds which promise higher yields force the farmers to buy seeds for every crop. With spurious seeds hitting the market, the farmers’ woes have exceeded all limits. Sometimes seeds do not give the stated/claimed yields and farmers run into economic troubles.

In many cases of GM and HYV seeds, farmers are forced to use high amounts of fertilisers and pesticides, provide large amounts of water (irrigation) and abide to all the other farming requirements that the companies mandate to get the proper yields. A proper regulation/legislation to hold seed companies accountable for false claims is the need of the hour as companies use legal loopholes to push the blame on to the farmers in the case of failed crops.

4. Sustainability problems
Indian agricultural productivity is very less compared to world standards due to use of obsolete farming technology. Coupled with this, lack of understanding of the need for sustainability in the poor farming community has made things worse. Companies promise higher yields by usage of their fertilisers and farmers, most of the time, exceed the prescribed limits of fertiliser use. Water usage is also unplanned with some arid areas misusing the irrigation facilities provided by planting water intensive crops. In areas where irrigation in the form of rivers and canals is not sufficiently available, ground water resources are heavily exploited.

Sustainability in agriculture is of utmost importance as many problems faced by farmers are related to this. Excess fertilizer usage not only makes the plants dependent on artificial fertilisers but also erodes the land quality, polluted ground water and in case of a surface runoff, pollutes the nearby water bodies.

Similarly, planting crops which require more water like rice on the basis of irrigation facilities extended to areas which are water deficient uses up more water than required. Besides, the excessive evaporation cause salts to accumulate on the fields making them lose their fertility quickly.
Lack of proper understanding of the need to grow crops sustainably will push farmers into a vicious circle – of debts, heavy use of fertilisers, water mismanagement, low productivity and thus more debts for the next cycle.

5. Over dependence on traditional crops like rice and wheat
Every crop requires certain climatic conditions to give the best yields. Though rice and wheat are produced in a large area in India, certain areas can readily switch to other crops to get better productivity. India is importing cooking oil from abroad though we have the necessary conditions to grow more oilseeds here[2]. Heavy dependence on traditional rice and wheat points to the lack of a proper national plan on agriculture. Excess stocks in a few crops lead to problems in the selling of the produce, storage and shortage of other essential farm output. Moreover, if the farm output is skewed towards crops like rice, irrigation and ground water facilities are misused by farmers, which leads to a host of other problems.

6. Supply channel bottlenecks and lack of market understanding
Supply channel bottlenecks and lack of a proper marketing channel are serious problems for a farmer who is already burdened with a host of troubles. These are issues which need to be tackled at the regional, state and national levels. Lack of a proper marketing channel forces the farmers to distress sale, makes them victims in the hands of greedy middlemen and ultimately restricts their income.
An improper marketing and storage channel also leads to storage problems in the years where productivity is good, leads to poor agricultural exports due to problems in maintaining quality and in many cases leads to gross wastage of valuable food grains and other farm output.

Food wastage[3] running into thousands of crores of rupees every year is nothing short of a crime in a country where more than 20% is below poverty line and where millions go hungry day after day. Lack of a national strategy in terms of agricultural production leads to production of some crops exceeding the requirement and to some crops well below the minimum limits. The problem is more acute in case of perishable agri output like vegetables and fruits where estimates of wastage are around 40%[4].

7. Government handling of the issue
MSP, overall agricultural strategy of the country, PDS, storage/granaries, lack of export market creation, India lacks the required number of storage facilities (granaries, warehouses, cold storage etc) which negates the advantage of having a bumper crop in years of good monsoon. Exports in agricultural sector are also not very encouraging with a share of just 10% of the total exports, for a country where more than 50% of population is dependent on agriculture. The Minimum Support Prices (MSP) offered by the Government is a double edged sword – MSPs protect farmers from being exploited by middlemen but during times of excess crop, Government runs the risk of an unnecessary fiscal deficit by buying the excess produce. Lack of proper storage facilities and lack of a proper international market linkage leads to lower exports and in many cases leads to huge amount of wastage.

Some Solutions to ‘Intra-Sector’ Problems :

1. Pooling of village lands and cooperative farming will ease the burden of fragmented land holdings. When the farmers form a consortium at the village level, the aggregate land can be farmed by using the latest technology. Banks too will be willing to lend money to a village consortium which can be utilised to boost farm productivity, employ sustainable farming methods, reduce over – dependence on fertilisers and thus solve many problems. The overall risk of a crop failure is less in this case and small farmers have a higher chance of earning a decent income at the end of the harvest season. Agricultural intensity also rises when a planned strategy adopted at the village level is implemented.

Agricultural credit and farm mechanisation for small and marginal farmers will continue to be difficult unless pooling of farm resources and/or a joint usage of farm technology are employed[5].

2. Irrigation problems can be addressed by Government – preferably at the State and National levels. Though the Government cannot force farmers to produce only the designated crops in particular areas, it can surely educate them about the alternatives. Irrigation and water mismanagement is an issue that can reach crisis proportions in the years to come if proper steps are not taken to avert it today. This can be achieved only by making farmers aware of the future problems and showing them alternative economic channels.

Farmers also will shift from the traditional crops and look for alternative crops provided Government gives them the confidence that alternative crops too are economically profitable. When proper techniques (in water management at the regional, state and national levels as well as a crop plan of what to produce and where to produce) are employed, it will be a win – win situation for both the farmers as well as the country.

Irrigation problems as well as problems due to single/traditional crop dependence can be solved by a national level plan for agricultural production. Government can encourage farmers to shift to cash crops (oil seeds etc) instead of food crops in areas where food crops are not at an advantage to reduce imports and also to boost exports.

3. Seed problems can be overcome by creating in house seed banks at the village level for traditional crops (thereby reducing farmer dependence on external seed banks), selling Government approved seeds through proper channels (to eradicate spurious seeds) and strict penalties on seed marketing companies in case  the seeds do not match the claims – germination and yield - of the companies. Terminator seeds should not be encouraged as a matter of principle as they force farmers to buy seeds for every crop.

Scientific research in this subject is to be encouraged to promote seeds which are mild on resource requirements but help the farmers in boosting the yields. Sometimes small innovations at the grass root levels can solve a host of problems specific to a particular region. District agricultural officers must make it a habit to encourage such ideas and also take part in knowledge sharing to implement the ideas at a regional level.

4. Some sustainability solutions are proper crop management on the basis of water availability, crop rotation, deploying modern agricultural practices to boost productivity, switching over to organic farming (village pools will reduce costs), thrust on allied activities.

For organic farming, first of all, a proper awareness has to be built – among both the farmers as well as consumers. Organic farming reduces the unnecessary usage of artificial fertilisers, reduces water consumption, strikes a good balance between the local environment and the farm output, helps the land retain its fertility for a long time, reduces costs in the long run and also with the creation of a proper market in the towns and cities establishes a virtuous cycle between consumers and farmers.

5. Storage facilities can be boosted by small cold storage or granaries at village level which can be established from Panchayat funds and loans to the village society (this eliminates dumping of excess crops in the market yard). A 700 ton cold storage cum warehouse will cost around Rs. 1.5 crores[6] which is very reasonable cost for a group of villages or a large Panchayat, provided the State or Union Government funds the cost. E-Mandis will also help the farmers to correctly predict the prices and thus market them profitably.

6. At the National level an agricultural strategy or policy to improve information exchange, national level cold storage chains and logistic network (If Walmart can do, then Government of India can also do!) is the need of the hour. Proper management of PDS has to done to cut down wastes so that a reliable estimate of the food grain needs will be made. The excess (after keeping reserves for a potential draught year) can be exported provided the quality is maintained by means of proper storage. Food wastage can thus be cut down and agricultural trade balance can be improved if there is a national level plan.

Other serious issues plaguing Agriculture Sector :

Rampant urbanisationindustrialisation and infrastructural development have created their own set of problems to a sector which is already under much strain. In the past couple of decades, due to favourable economic policies in the aftermath of liberalisation, industrial growth has been phenomenal in India. Urbanisation too has seen an unprecedented increase in the same time. But for establishing an industry or for building and expanding a city, much land is required. As the land available in the country is limited, the ever increasing demand is satisfied by the already strained agricultural land.

Farmers, in many cases the poor and marginal ones, are forced to part with their land to boost industrialisation. The SEZs which are the future growth engines for industrial output have become a menace to these poor farmers as far as land acquisition is concerned. Coupled with this, a general lack of empathy towards farmers by the administrators as well as legislators has exacerbated the situation.

So, should all industrialisation and development be halted to save agriculture? There is never a yes or no answer for many problems that India faces. Growth and development in the secondary and tertiary sectors of the economy is essential if India wants to become a super power but that development should not be at the cost of agriculture. A balance is essential.

Industries and SEZs do not need fertile agricultural land to set shop. Cities too can be built on agricultural waste land. Industrial encroachment can be stopped by proper handling of land acquisition. Agricultural lands must not be used for industries unless there is absolutely no alternative. In the extreme cases where an industry or an infrastructural requirement (like a power plant) has to come up at an area where agricultural land has to be shifted to an industrial purpose, proper compensation has to be provided to the local farmers who are dependent on the land. This can done by way of reserving some jobs (on the basis of the skill set of the local population) in the industry that is to come up, having a proper rehabilitation and resettlement program, giving appropriate compensation and making sure some share of the profits of the industry go towards development – social and economic – of the area and the displaced people.

Renewable energy farms (wind and solar) must be set in agricultural lands if and only if there is absolutely no alternative. Even in that case, double usage of land can be thought of for both agriculture and the wind farm. Solar farms can be set up over large canals which provides a double benefit – less wastage of water (evaporation) and producing solar power.

Conclusion :

Agriculture is a sector that feeds millions directly, has a considerable influence on the whole economy and in a country like India well being of the agricultural sector as a whole brings a psychological advantage to a multitude of other sectors. Millions depend on the farm lands for their sustenance and thus it makes it all the more important to eradicate the problems in this field. India cannot develop in the actual sense if its farmers lead a life of dire poverty and helplessness. A careful balance of industrialization and agriculture is crucial for the overall prosperity of the nation.

Other References :

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