Former Director General of the Indian Council of Agriculture Research and ex-secretary of the Department of Agriculture Research and Education, Mangala Rai has devoted more than 44 years to the agriculture sector. In 2008, he replaced MS Swaminathan as head of the National Academy of Agriculture Sciences (NAAS), a premier body of over 460 eminent agriculture scientists in India. Dr Rai has more than 200 publications to his credit.

As a researcher, he developed nearly a dozen linseed and salt-tolerant rice varieties. As Secretary, DARE, & DG ICAR, he launched path-breaking research initiatives in areas of critical importance and introduced bold O&M reforms to improve efficiency in the system. Dr Rai was also nominated on the Scientific Advisory Committee to the
Cabinet and was on the Scientific Advisory Council to the Prime Minister.

Ten universities including the Banaras Hindu University and G B Pant University of Agriculture & Technology, Pantnagar, have conferred on him D.Sc (Honoris Causa) degrees for his contribution in the agriculture sector. Dr Rai spoke to VIJAY THAKUR on the challenges before the agriculture sector.

Excerpts:

Q:The agriculture sector is facing several problems. What do you think are the reasons for this and
what do you think should be done to improve the lot of farmers in the country?

A: India is heading towards a serious agrarian crisis. I am saying with authority that if drastic measures are not taken in time, the crisis would be beyond our imagination as 17.78 per cent of the world’s total population lives in India, but we have only 4.2 per cent of the world’s water reservoirs, and just 2.3 per cent of the land. According to the 2019 Climate change report, on a scale of zero to 10, India is 9 in terms of vulnerability.

Our land and water resources are already under stress. One of the biggest problems is soil health of our farmlands. The government has launched an initiative to give soil health cards to all farmers, but this would hardly help until we tell farmers how to improve their soil.

It is like a patient goes to a doctor, he diagnoses the problem but does not prescribe any treatment. The same is happening with the present soil health card drive. The government is giving farmers the status of their soil, but not
advising them how to improve their soil.

Another reason would be acute water crisis in some parts of the country. It is going to worsen in the coming years. We are talking of increasing water reservoirs and linking Indian rivers, but there seems to be nothing on the ground.

Q: How do you think we can improve soil, water and other nutrients to improve our production?

A: We call our earth motherland, but we hardly care for it. There are more than 6,000 biologically active materials in our fields which help in plant growth. Unfortunately, we have almost forgotten about adding organic manure to the soil, or adding farm residue or recycling agricultural waste into the soil.

Rather we are burning agricultural waste, killing biological assets in the soil. The government is promoting biological manure and plant nutrients, but unfortunately most of them are spurious, outdated, adulterated or not available in the market.

We also do not have a proper system for the production, storage, application and transportation of biological
assets.

As a result we are not improving soil health of the farmland.

Q: Incidents of farmers’ suicides are on the rise, which indicates they are facing acute depression
and stress. They are claiming that they are not getting a price for their produce. Government has
left it mostly on demand and supply. As a result farmers’ earnings are highly erratic.What should be
done to give better price to the farmers?

A: Government of India and policy planners might be happy that the country’s foodgrain production has broken all past records and touched 273 MMT target. But the fact is our farmers are committing suicide, they are throwing their produce on the road for want of proper price. I give you one example, the production of onions has increased at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.7 from 2000 to 2013, while our population grew at 1.5 to 1.6 per cent per year during the same period.

Despite the fact that onion production grew eight times more than the population growth, onion prices fluctuated
between Rs.2 per kg to Rs.80 per kg.

Understanding why this is happening is no rocket science. Simply developing adequate infrastructure of warehouses
would have reduced the difference between low and high price.

In India we have three thumb rules for agricultural production, more production more loss, less production less loss and no production no loss. In most cases, agriculture has become a loss-making business, sometimes farmers are not even able to get return for their investment, forget their labour.

As a result, the young generation in villages is not opting for agriculture as a profession. We would see its repercussions in the coming years. That’s why I said India is heading for an agrarian crisis.

The government appears to have done little on the ground to promote the agricultural sector. There are many agriculture institutes in the country, but almost all research institutes have little or no funds for research work, most of their funds go in paying salaries. We have hardly added to our warehousing capacity, and hardly provide agricultural education to the younger generation.

We have not taught them the use of technology, or what to produce and how to store it, and how and when to get best price for their produce.

A small country like Malaysia processes 65 per cent of its agricultural produce, whereas in India it is just 5 per cent. India can create millions of jobs and business opportunities in rural areas. Agricultural produce should be treated as a raw material. Farmers will not get a good price unless we teach them how to grade, process, or do value addition to their produce.

It is an irony of our country that we are selling shoes in AC showrooms, but fruits and vegetables, which are highly perishable, are mostly sold on the streets. No business is done for loss, now the farmers are realising this and quitting it. It is high time government understands this and takes some drastic steps to reverse the trend.

Q: Do you think the government has failed in helping farmers? If so where has it failed and what should it do to double farmers’ income?

A: I do not have any doubt about the government’s intentions. It wants to help farmers and promote agriculture. But at the same time I am not seeing any change on the ground. It is not only failure of political, bureaucratic and administrative system, but also failure to understand farmers’ problems. Government is waiving farmers loans, but it is a short-term measure.

As a long-term measure, government should develop infrastructure for marketing farmers’ produce so that they get the best price for their crop. It is only in the agriculture sector that vegetables are sold for Rs.2 at one place and Rs.50 at another. All this disparity will end if we develop infrastructure for processing, packaging, storage, for proper transportation, value addition of the crop and proper marketing.

Instead of waiving loans, the same amount of money could be invested in developing infrastructure. It would turn agriculture into profit and generate more jobs in rural areas. The price disparity would come down drastically due to marketing and storage infrastructure.