Agriculture has existed in India, since the Vedic times. Rigvedic treatise describes various agricultural activities, such as, ploughing, irrigation and cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Even rice and cotton were cultivated in the Indus Valley.
Agriculture is the means of livelihood of almost two-thirds of the workforce in the country. It has always been India’s most important economic sector. Before 1947, Indian history was replete with famine, drought and food shortages. Between 1770 and 1880, as many as 27 food scarcities and famines were recorded. At least 20 million lives were lost in India in about 20 famines that had struck since 1850. Much of this loss was because of the wrong colonial policies, which aimed to derive maximum economic gain at the cost of human suffering and misery.
After the British had created a transport infrastructure in the first half of the 19th century, they began encouraging farmers to grow crops that could be exported. The boom in export and trade accompanied by rising prices forced farmers to shift to cash crops like cotton, indigo, poppy and sugarcane. The area under food grains subsequently shrank. In other words, efforts to improve agriculture in colonial India were directly linked to the needs of the British industries.
After Independence, India made rapid strides in the agricultural sector. Dependence of India on agricultural imports in the early 1960s, convinced planners that India’s growing population, as well as concerns about national independence, security and political stability, required self-sufficiency in food production. This perception led to a programme of agricultural improvement called the Green Revolution, to a public distribution system and price support system for farmers.
The growth in food grain production is a result of concentrated efforts to increase all the Green Revolution inputs needed for higher yields: better seeds, more fertilisers, improved irrigation and education of farmers. Although increased irrigation has helped to lessen year-to-year fluctuations in farm production resulting from the vagaries of the monsoons, it has not eliminated them.
Non-traditional crops of India, such as summer mung (a variety of lentil, part of the pulse family), soyabeans, peanuts and sunflowers are gradually gaining importance. Steps have been taken to ensure an increase in the supply of non-chemical fertilisers at reasonable prices.
There are 53 fertiliser quality control laboratories in the country. Though the Green Revolution increased yields greatly, it aimed at the better-endowed regions. For millions of farmers languishing in the drylands, constituting more than 70% of the cultivable lands, it continues to be a futile struggle. Despite emphasis on dryland farming during the past several decades, the scenario still remains grim.
The undulating topography and the irregular rainfall patterns have combined to aggravate the situation. Out of 141 million hectare of cultivated area, dryland area constitutes 85 million hectare i.e., 60% of the total cultivated area.
The dry lands produce about 42% of the country’s food which shows that the future of farming lies in these areas. A large quantity of many nutritious crops like wheat, ragi, pulses, fruits, oilseeds grown in the country come from these areas. The poor yields and the fluctuations in production are indications of the scant attention dry lands have received from policymakers and the planners.
The problem of increasing productivity on dry lands has serious socio-economic implications. With every passing year, the gap between the farmer’s yields in irrigated areas and in the dry farming regions is widening. One year of drought is enough to push a farmer into a deep well of poverty for another two to three years. Drought is a recurring phenomenon in arid and semi-arid areas. Fifty years after Independence, life for millions of people somehow surviving in the dry lands continues to be worse than ever before.
India’s topography, soils, rainfall and the availability of water for irrigation have been major determinants of the crop and livestock patterns characteristic of Indian agriculture. The monsoons, moreover, play a critical role in determining whether the harvest will be bountiful, average or poor in any given year. In the absence of sufficient irrigation measures, the areas receiving scanty rainfall suffer.
India is among the top global producers of staple food crops. But even then, the productivity of its fields is far below that of Brazil, US and France. This is due to small size of their landholdings, their fragmentation, high cost of technology and lack of awareness. Many agricultural lands are also being diverted for commercial exploitation.
A recent study by the Food and Agricultural Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations concludes that there has been hardly any change in the volume of exports. Tariff peaks or high import duties continue to block exports from the developing countries. Tariffs still remain very high, especially in the case of cereals, sugar and dairy products. Sanitary and phytosanitary measures, which were enforced to ensure the quality of imported products, actually continue to be a major barrier in diversifying exports in horticulture and meat products.
Realising the importance of Indian agricultural production for economic development, the Central Government has played an active role in all aspects of agricultural development. Planning is centralised and priorities, policies, and resource allocations are decided at the central level. Food and price policies also are decided by the Central Government. Thus, although agriculture in India is constitutionally the responsibility of the states rather than the Central Government, the latter plays a key role in formulating policies and providing financial resources for agriculture.
The Budget 2014 gave a new lease of life to the agricultural sector. Firstly, the budget aimed at the stabilisation of the prices of farm products. Secondly, farming markets’ growth would be encouraged. Thirdly, the operation of middlemen in the supply chain would be checked.
More number of agriculture and horticulture universities would be opened, especially in Tamil Nadu, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh. Kisan Television and rural internet network are also on the planner. Warehousing facilities would be escalated. Landless farmers would be allocated financial aid through NABARD. A rural credit fund will also be set-up within NABARD.
If declining food grain production and access to food remain the two biggest problems confronting the country, there must be something terribly wrong with the way we look at the agriculture. With more than 70% of the population still engaged in agriculture and allied activities and an equal percentage of farmers tilling an average of 0.2 hectares of land and somehow surviving against all odds, the time has come to set the balance right.
Whether we accept it or not, India is gradually moving back to the Pre-green Revolution days of a ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence, when food was largely imported to feed the hungry. It was the political maturity of the then leadership that led to self-sufficiency on the food front. Few will still question what Jawaharlal Nehru once said:
“Everything else can wait, but not agriculture.”