India’s economic growth still largely depends on agriculture. Modern technologies integrated with agriculture and agro-food industry will revolutionize this sector and produce large-scale employment and thereby wealth. —  APJ Abdul Kalam

In terms of demography, agriculture  is still the largest economic sector in India, and it plays a crucial role in the overall socio-economic  and national well-being, though its share in the Gross Domestic Product (GDP) has declined over time. The country has made impressive progress  over the past 50 years, from chronic food deficits and aid dependency to become a food-surplus country, and a consistent net food exporter since the early 1990s.  The  net agricultural exports increased from $2.2 billion (bn) at the beginning of the century to over $25 bn at present. Agriculture is the backbone of the rural economy as it provides 56 per cent of the workforce in the country with a population of around 120 crore.  The critical  role played by agriculture in poverty reduction has been mentioned  in a report of the World Bank. GDP growth originating in agriculture raises the income of the poorest households by at least 2.5 times as much as growth in other sectors does. 

However,  agriculture in this country has an image problem.  Educated rural youth are reluctant to enter agriculture-related professions. There are several reasons apart  from meager income. One major reason is  structural, such as the diminishing size of land holdings, the declining soil fertility and water resources, power shortages etc.  The other is  agronomical, such as yield stagnation in major crops, lack of affordable improved seed varieties, non-availability of extension services etc. Yet another is financial — rising input costs vis-à-vis meager increase in output prices, high costs of inadequate and untimely credit etc. Not only the youth, even the elders of the rural households irrespective of their size of holdings, are loath to join  what they perceive to be a  risky profession. Around 42 per cent of them want to quit agriculture if given a choice. This is a grave symptom of the bigger malaise. No wonder, two-third of MGNREGA workers are actually land owners. This indicates  that small and marginal farmers are unable to survive on agriculture. A report from the office of the Registrar-General of India dated 1  May 2013 shows that the proportion of the farmers to the total population in the country has  declined over the last five decades.

The policies of food procurement and minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural commodities in India have never been geared to help farmers. The consistent ratcheting up of MSP for agricultural commodities has destroyed the entrepreneurial dynamism of  farmers and distorted the land-use pattern as well as the consumption of inputs. A National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) survey report released in December 2015 revealed that around half the farmers who sell their produce in the open market were unaware of  theMinimum Support Price (MSP) announced by government. In reality, MSP encourages private traders to fix the market price around MSP even if there is no over-production. Paradoxically, increased production does not guarantee increased income at the farmer’s end under the current market mechanism.

A striking feature is rural distress, marked by suicides by farmers. debt burden farmers’ suicides, etc. Mounting loans have forced farmers to commit suicide. It is reported that in India a farmer commits suicide every 12 hours. The country has lost  more then 2.5 lakh productive farmers over the past 15 years due to suicides.  

The  Union Budget for  2016-17 mentions the government’s plan to double farm income over the next five years. At present, most of the farmers are resorting to subsistence farming which hardly earns them enough even to meet the requirements of their family. Agriculture needs to be commercialized to make it profitable so that it can attract the younger generation. Marketing of agricultural produce has become important with increased commercialization.  The Agricultural Produce Marketing Committees (APMC), which functions as wholesale cartel in mandis should be abolished. Newer technologies and system, like spot exchanges may help farmers get a better deal for their produce. Opening markets will allow traders and farmers to buy and sell freely.  Processing of agricultural produce is an important aspect of commercialization. Moreover, value-addition of the agricultural produce can fetch a higher price to the producer. 

Water is the principal input in agriculture and a major issue of concern.  India uses 2-3 times the water used to produce one tonne of grain in countries like China, Brazil and the United States.  The Government has initiated the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchan Yojana, aimed at providing  water to every farmer covering around 28.5 lakh ha of land and eventually improve the use of water efficiency to get ‘Per Drop More Crop’. NITI Aayog mentions adoption of drip irrigation as one of the mechanisms for efficiency.

Agriculture is acutely vulnerable  to climate change. India has suffered droughts over the past two years. As many as ten states have declared drought this year and it is likely that more will follow in the summer months. There is  urgent need for effective climate resilient agriculture (CRA) in India. To ensure water conservation and natural resources management, Cluster Facilitation Teams (CFT) shall be organized under the MGNREGA which would not only generate income through various projects but also help in creating community assets. There is a provision for crop insurance, which can be used as one of the strategies for CRA. 

Indeed, agriculture in India is at the crossroads. On the one hand, there has been deceleration of growth in recent years, and on the other  several new opportunities and possibilities are emerging. The India landmass has been  described as highly fertile, but its productivity is quite dismal when compared with landmass productivity of other countries. Yields per hectare of foodgrain, fruits and vegetables in our country are far  below the global average. Moreover, our country is among the major mega-biodiversity regions in the world. In contrast to the richness of such genetic heritage and fertility of landmass, people living in the midst of it are poor. To express the irony,  Jawaharlal Nehru had once said: ‘We are a poor people living in a rich country.’ 

Modern science with its marvellous array of new technologies  can  devise solutions to many problems facing agriculture. The present century has been referred to as the "biological century" as well as  "knowledge and information age". We should promote appropriate technology for agriculture, blending  traditional wisdom with frontier technologies. Knowledge and skill-based technology could make agriculture attractive to the younger generation. Opportunities for young entrepreneurs in agriculture are enormous. But we have derived very little demographic dividend in agriculture so far. The National Commission on Farmers stressed the need for attaching and retaining educated and skilled youths in farming to rejuvenate  agriculture.

The writer is a retired IAS officer.