Most of the world’s poor people earn their living from agriculture, so if we know the economics of agriculture, we would know much of the economics of being poor. ~ Theodore Schultz, 1979 Nobel Laureate in Economics
Agriculture plays a pivotal role in Indian society. It's forward and backward linkage effects not only contribute to overall growth of the economy but can also reduce poverty and hunger by providing livelihood and food security. Although its share in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) is about 18.2 per cent, agriculture and allied activities remain the major source of livelihood for about two-third of the population. If crops fail, it forces people to migrate and pushes them into the clutches of moneylenders. They are forced to sell their livestock ~ the only means of survival. The spiral of destitution sets in. Impoverished farmers, struggling with debts and failed crops, kill themselves. Agriculture is indeed the most inclusive growth sector. Mahatma Gandhi believed that India lives in villages and agriculture is the soul of the economy. He had very poignantly said in 1946, ‘To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves’.
Indian agriculture has come a long way since Independence, with chronic food scarcity giving way to self-sufficiency in grain despite a two-and-a-half fold increase in population. The Green Revolution was launched to achieve sufficiency in foodgrain. From 1967 to 1978, three major changes were made to the traditional agricultural practices. More land was brought under irrigation, double-cropping was introduced, and most importantly, new, high-yielding varieties of seeds were used along with fertilisers. Moreover, these changes were supplemented by institutional support to the farmers in terms of marketing their produce. Just before India’s Green and White Revolutions, the country’s wheat and milk production stood at about onethird of American’s output. By 2013-14, wheat and milk output were respectively 60 and 50 per cent higher than America’s.
For all that, the challenges faced by Indian agriculture are enormous. It has become cereal-centric and regionally biased. The input-intensive method has increased the demand for land, water, and fertiliser. There has been a sharp decline in cultivable land per person. To that can be added the impact of industrialisation and climate change. The average yield of wheat and rice are much below that of China’s ~ 46 per cent below in the case of rice and 39 per cent in the case of wheat. India’s average wheat yield in 2013 was 3075 kg/hector (ha). This is lower than the world average of 3257 kg/ha. Although both Punjab and Haryana have much higher yields amounting to 4500 kg/ha, most other Indian states have yields lower than that of Bangladesh. In case of paddy production, the yield in all states is lower than that of China and most states have yields below that of Bangladesh. Production in China is close to 6000 kg/ha whereas China’s yield is 6700 kg/ha. The central challenge of Indian agriculture is low productivity, especially in pulses and oil seeds. In pulses, India has low yields in comparison to most countries, like Brazil, Nigeria, and Myanmar. Even the key pulse producing state of Madhya Pradesh recorded a production figure 983 kg/ha ~ barely threefifth that of China’s.
Over the past few decades, major changes have taken place in the agrarian structure in our country. Land-holding is sliding downwards, with progressively greater concentration in the marginal and small-holding groups. According to the latest Agriculture Census, the total number of operational holdings in India numbered 138.35 million with an average size of 1.5 hectares. Of the total holdings, 85 per cent are marginal and small farm categories of less than 2 hectares.
The estimates indicate that small and marginal farmers may account for more than 91 per cent of farm holdings by 2030. Though small and marginal holdings have higher productivity in comparison with largesized holdings, they have low marketable surplus and profit. Therefore, the continuously declining size of the farm gives rise to concerns about sustainable livelihoods of small and marginal farmers vis-à- vis food security.
Introducing Indian farmers to innovative information and communication technologies (ICT) can enhance farm productivity. It can also acquaint the peasantry with the best practices, empower them to negotiate better prices, and thus augment their earnings. ICT initiatives can tackle key challenges in the agricultural value-chain through networking on weather alerts, the sowing period, the prices of produce. Mobile applications can help both companies and farmers make snooth transactions and also ensure quick payment from buyers. Agro application can help farmers combat disease threats and take preventing measures. Internet connectivity as well as mobile coverage is central to the success of the Digital India initiative.
However, Digital India is not just about ambitious plans and technical wizardry. Citizens should not suffer because the infrastructure ~ both physical and administrative ~ is not in place. The infrastructure that is available in rural India appears to be quite dismal. According to the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India, as on March 2016, there were only 12.8 rural internet subscribers per 100 population, in contrast to 58.28 per 100 in urban areas. Rural India’s mobile user-base is also growing marginally. It is estimated that by 2020, about 36 per cent of the country’s online population will be in rural areas. The breakthrough technologies in agriculture will perhaps come increasingly from the private sector which has the strength to reinforce technology and reach hundreds and thousands of farmers, small and big. The Government should facilitate the process. The question of ‘deficit of trust’ between government and private sectors may come in. But for building up the bridges of trust we need to innovate institutions like producers’ organisations. Even NGOs working in the rural areas at the grassroots level can be of great help. The Green Revolution that transformed the image of India as a ‘begging bowl’ to ‘bread basket’ was possible through a combination of technology, government policy and farmers’ enthusiasm. Our agriculture is enormously technology deficient. To rectify flaws and loopholes of the Green Revolution we need to make it evergreen. In the words of KR Narayanan, former President of India, ‘it can be converted into an evergreen revolution only if there is a paradigm shift in our research and development strategy, leading to a change from a purely commodity-centred approach to one based on an integrated natural resources management strategy. In this integrated strategy, people’s participation will be a crucial element’.