As per the United Nations’ population projections, (2019), India is likely to be the most populous country by 2027. By 2030, the country is projected to have almost 600 million people living in urban areas, who would be needed to be provided safe food.

Indian agriculture has an average holding size of 1.08 hectare as per the 2015-16 data, engaging 42 per cent of the country’s workforce. Cultivable land and water for agriculture are limited, and are already under severe pressure. Under these circumstances, how does one design an optimal agri-food policy, asks Ashok Gulati, an Agricultural Economist and the former Chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs & Prices (CACP).

Such a policy, he opines, must have, at least the following touchstones:

  1. It should enable production of enough food, feed and fibre for India’s large population;
  2. It should do so in a manner, that not only protects the environment, i.e., soil, water, air, and biodiversity, but also achieves higher production, with global competitiveness;
  3. It should enable seamless movement of food from farm to fork, keeping marketing costs low, save on food losses in supply chains, and provide safe and fresh food to consumers;
  4. Consumers should get safe and nutritious food at affordable prices; and,
  5. The farmer’s income should go up, with access to best technologies and best markets in the country, and abroad.

According to him, for this, on the production front, there is a need to invest in R&D for agriculture, and its extension from laboratories to farms, along with provision of irrigation facilities.

It is worth noting in this connection that, the experts advise the developing countries, to invest at least one per cent of their agri-GDP in agri-R&D and extension. India however is said to invest about half. It is obvious therefore, that India needs to double its investment from the present level, with commensurate accountability of R&D organisations, especially, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and, the State agriculture Universities to deliver on this front.

It is said, India’s critical failure has been, her inability to protect her natural resource endowments, especially water and soil. For example, free electricity for pumping groundwater, and highly subsidised fertilisers, especially urea, are reportedly damaging groundwater levels and its quality, especially in the Green Revolution states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. This region therefore needs to implement crop diversification, especially, reducing the area under rice by almost half, it is opined.

Accumulation of excessive stocks of wheat and rice with the Food Corporation of India (FCI), purchased at MSP, are putting pressure on the agency’s finances, even when, only 6% of the farmers in the country sell through the APMCs to the government. These 6% are incidentally all large farmers, primarily from the two states of Punjab & Haryana. These two states, typically account for close to 60% of wheat procurement and close to a third of rice procurement.

Comparing acreage under wheat & rice in Punjab

Punjab’s gross cropped area in 2018-19 was estimated at 78.30 lakh hectares. Out of that, 35.20 lakh hectares was sown under wheat and another 31.03 lakh hectares under paddy, adding up to 84.6% of the total area planted to all crops.

In Punjab, the real acreage share increase has taken place in paddy, from below 7% in 1970-71 to almost 40% in 2018-19, which amounts to 471.43% increase over the period, whereas, in case of wheat, the percentage increase in acreage was mere 10.86 %, i.e., increase in acreage from 40.5% in 1970-71 to 44.9% in 2018-19. As opposed to this, the acreage under pulses & oilseeds in Punjab during the said period has actually decreased. In case of pulses, it decreased from 7.3% to 0.4%, which amounts to a -94.52% decrease. In case of oilseeds, the share decreased from 5.2% to 0.5%, which amounts to -90.38% decrease.

With reports of groundwater level going down in Punjab and Haryana, considered the rice bowl of India, scientists and analysts have suggested shifting of its cultivation to eastern states, which have better water resources.

They suggest, Punjab and Haryana instead, should focus on basmati rice, which is largely exported, leaving the production of non-basmati varieties to the Eastern States for meeting the domestic demand.

Dr Swapan Kumar Dutta, former Deputy Director General (Crop Science), Indian Council of Agricultural Research, has opined:

Ideally, farmers from Punjab and Haryana should stop cultivation of rice and opt for some other crops. He says, the cultivation of rice can easily shift to states like Bihar, West Bengal, Chhattisgarh and other eastern states, which are rain-fed and are capable of producing more rice to meet the domestic requirement.

Ashok Gulati also suggests shifting of rice cultivation to eastern states like West Bengal, Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh which have good water availability.

Fixing cultivation of Paddy

It is opined, Paddy being a warm season crop, can be grown in much of the eastern, central and southern India, where water is sufficiently available. Secondly, Paddy requires not low temperatures, but water. It is pointed out, while, farmers usually irrigate wheat five times, in case of paddy, 30 or even more irrigations are given. It is noteworthy in this connection that, Punjab’s groundwater table is said to be declining by 0.5 meters per annum on an average, largely because of the cultivation of paddy, and the state’s policy of supplying free power for irrigation, which is said to have encouraged farmers to grow long-duration water-guzzling varieties like Pusa-44.

Interestingly, the three crops, rice, wheat and Sugarcane, in whose case, purchases are made at MSP/FRP by Food Corporation of India (FCA), are reportedly growing at the slowest pace, whereas, Poultry, fishery, dairy, and even horticulture, for which there is no MSP, are growing much faster, 3 to 5 times than the cereals or sugarcane.

Heeding the advice of the agricultural scientists & Agricultural Economists, the Government needs to provide incentives to the farmers, particularly from Punjab & Haryana to help them shift from cultivation of rice to alternate crops, such as pulses and oilseeds, which can obviate the necessity of importing these at higher prices.



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Disclaimer

Views expressed above are the author’s own.



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