Farm Sector in India demands urgent attention

A new government is in place in New Delhi, with an absolute majority, which in itself, should give it enough courage to put in place reforms that will ramp up a slowing-down economy. The Prime Minister held a meeting attended by about 40 experts—economists, leaders in industry and agriculture, water resources, etc. as also the Minister for Commerce and Industry and the Minister of State for Statistics. The state of the economy has been a matter of concern, the economy growing at it’s slowest pace in the last 17 quarters (that is more than four years prior to 2018-2019). The growth percentage is down to 6.6% in the last quarter of 20181. The government also announced a third straight fall in growth to 5.8% in the first quarter of the financial year 2018-2019. This figure means that India is no longer the fastest growing economy, having ceded that place to China which grew at 6.4% in the first three months of 2019. India has thus fallen behind China for the first time in nearly two years. The data for unemployment is also not very encouraging with the statistics ministry stating that the unemployment rate was at 45-year high at 6.1%, for 2017-20182 , confirming the figure which was leaked to the Business Standard, which said it was the worst since 1972-73.

No sector beckons support as much as the farm sector does, because that is the life line of India. If rural India’s economy looks up, that acts as a strong precursor for the manufacturing sector and other allied services. Thus, one can definitely see a positive “ripple effect,” indeed, for the overall growth of India. When the agricultural economy slumps, the country’s growth engine nose dives that is the actual reality3. Nothing highlights this as much as the country-wide farmers’ agitation did, some months preceding the Lok Sabha election. Now an environmental disaster is looming large, caused by global warming. The United Nation’s Secretary General, Mr. Antonio Guterres, is convening a summit of the global heads of governments for a summit on global warming early September. In this connection, it would not be out of place to mention that my book, “Combating Global Warming: The Role of Crop Wild relatives For Food Security,” being published by Springer Global, is being launched just prior to the global summit, in New York, and all over the world. This simply speaks of the urgency of this matter. To be precise, water is at the center of this grave environmental hazard, because, rising ambient temperature will affect the water stored underground. In addition to this, the global warming could have catastrophic environmental effects. It has been estimated that nearly 1 billion people in the tropics, including India, could be affected by mosquito borne diseases like dengue and zika virus. A year round transmission in dengue can take place. India has witnessed this catastrophe, and, will witness it in the future as well, because of the unfolding global warming hazards in the country. To illustrate, the “water havoc” Kerala is an apt example. In August 2018, the State was lashed by heavy torrential rains, which was a new phenomenon for this region. The dams were full and overflowing, and, an ill-informed electricity minister ordered the dam shutters to be opened. This created a manmadedisaster rendering thousands to abandon their homes, and over 370 loss of lives. It was not that the state was caught by surprise. The Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) had provided adequate prior information of unprecedented rainfall and the issue had also been raised by the state’s Members of Parliament (MP), who had questioned in the Lok Sabha, the administration’s response measures if major flooding was to take place. It appears that the warnings were not heeded which led to inadequate response measures when Kerala was flooded. Larger issues of uncontrolled exploitation of natural resources and ignoring ecology were also raised by the MPs in Parliament4.

While unprecedented floods were seen in 2018, by mid June 2019, the delayed south west monsoon made it evident that a drinking water shortage would clearly appear. Tragically, all those “policy planners” in the government never had a clear plan to harvest the rain water and 99 per cent of the water received from the skies in August 2019, simply flowed into the Arabian sea, after causing enough havoc to human life. This brings us to the central question: is there a clear level headed water management policy in India? At the time of writing this article, India’s South West Monsoon rainfall is deficient by 43 per cent.

TABLE 1: DETAILS OF CROPPING PATTERNS


Note: Primary report on area (in lakh hectares) under kharif crops as on June 21, 2019
Important to note: The area covered under all crops is down, except for sugarcane, which is a water-guzzling crop, which will further aggravate the water crisis in India, as discussed in the article.

The President of India, during the inaugural session of the Parliament said that the government was aware of the farm crisis and it would invest Rs 25,000 crore to mitigate the woes of the farmers. In particular, he made a mention of the expansion of the Pradhan Mantri Kisan Samman Nidhi, an income support scheme, to all land owning farm families. Earlier, the scheme was only open to small and marginal farm families owning less than 2 hectares of land. The expansion of the scheme, in keeping with a BJP poll promise, would increase its annual allocation to Rs 90,000 crore from the previous Rs 72,000 crore. The President added that Rs 12,000 crore has already been disbursed during the last three months5. While the union government has expanded the PM-Kisan Samman Nidhi scheme to reach all farmers with great fanfare, only one in four of the intended beneficiaries have received the income support from the scheme so far, Agriculture Minister Narendra Tomar told the Rajya Sabha recently. With a long verification process delaying payments, the Centre has now announced that farmers will get benefits retrospectively from the time their names have been uploaded in the data base, rather than from the time the details are verified. This, indeed, is a relief to the poor farmers.

Reverting to the central question of water, one could look at Israel, carved out of large tracts of the desert in West Asia, where the Americans, French and British wished the Jews of Europe, principally Germany, to be settled, after the Second World War. The place was dry as dust. Look at Israel now, seven decades hence. It produces the best orange in the world, “Jaffa” and the system of drip and sprinkler irrigation was the brain child of Israel’s hydrologists. But the neighboring Arabs held tract, is still as dry as dust. The country has world’s best desalinization plant. Prime Minister Modi visited the country two years ago and, while a lot was said and written about the visit in the newspapers, no joint package in water management and desalinization project has been put in place in India. Why? The same is true of water rich Kerala. Almost a decade ago, when an LDF government was ruling the state, a delegation was sent to Israel “to study” water management. A decade later, nothing is seen on the ground.

The new government will have to face three major challenges in the long run. First and foremost would be to end the water woes of the perennially drought-prone areas. In India, agriculture, to a large extent, is still rain fed. Intensive irrigation systems are confined to only States like Punjab and Andhra Pradesh. Take the case of the Bt cotton in Maharashtra. If it has failed in the Vidharbha region, leading to thousands of suicides by the cotton farmers, it is because of failed rains, because, the Bt cotton needs copious water to produce well6. And, in the dry season, starting August-September, when cotton is sown, the land is parched, and, if the North-East monsoon fails, the cotton crop simply withers. Vidharbha can turn into a dust bowl. The Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana was formulated to enable completion of 99 projects by 2019. Yet, 93 projects remain uncompleted7. On account of assured prices for paddy and sugarcane, farmers continue to grow these water-guzzling crops, even in regions unsuitable for them. When the NDA government came to power in 2014, very disappointingly, it did not do enough to encourage farmers from switching from the perennial paddy-wheat rotation to other crops, and also, in between them to grow soil-nitrogen (fertility enhancing element) enriching legume crops, such as, sesbania, sunhemp, glyricidia etc., to replenish the degraded soils of fertility, in the “green revolution” belt of Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh. Similarly, India continues to produce more sugarcane thus more sugar than what domestic consumption requires, but, sugar price is higher here than in the global market, clearly pointing an accusing finger to the dirty politics of sugar barons and the sugar lobby. It should be noted that the World Trade Organization has questioned subsidy to sugarcane farmers.

The next challenge would be on marketing of agricultural produce. It is high time India thought of a “Common Market” for agricultural produce, like the European Common Market of the European Union. Take for example the price of an agricultural produce like grapes. When one travels from Northern Belgium to southernmost tip of Spain, the price of grape would not vary more than one Euro a kilo. On the contrary, in India, it can vary by as much as Rs. 40-50 a kilo when we move from grape producing states like Madhya Pradesh or Maharashtra to down South in Chennai or Kerala. The difference is simply gobbled up by the middlemen, and, the actual grape farmers are cheated. An “Indian Common Market” would solve all these problems. Of course Delhi and State governments will have to join hands to make the venture a success. It would be the best gift to the Indian farmer, at first, and, to the consumer, at large. More than a decade and a half have elapsed since the Model Agricultural Produce Market Committee Act came into being, but, New Delhi has failed to persuade States to adopt it. New Delhi brought forth the State/UT Agricultural Produce and Livestock Marketing (Promotion and Facilitation) Act 2017, yet, it is still in limbo.

Perhaps no other factor is of more concern than the question of minimum support price (MSP) for agricultural produce. In principle, it has been agreed by New Delhi that the MSP would be 50 per cent more than what it costs for the farmer to produce a crop. This was effective since kharif 2018. But, procurement was so very tardy that millions of farmers were left uncovered, and, remained deprived of the benefit. A tardy procurement policy led to this dismal situation. This was one reason why farmers began to dump their produce on roads as a sign of protest. Most poor and marginal farmers felt cheated.

Before concluding this article, I would like to touch upon two aspects of Indian agriculture that is of utmost importance. First, the role of intelligent and sustainable soil management, and, second, the place of genetically modified crops in Indian agriculture. With respect to soil management, global agriculture, in particular Indian agriculture, is at a crossroads. The highly soil extractive farming, euphemistically known as the “green revolution” has run out of steam and has taken a terrible toll on our soil resources. Of the 328.73 million hectares of India’s geographical area, as much as 120.40 million hectares have now degraded soil, thanks to the mindless use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Punjab, the “cradle” of the green revolution is the best example. There are hundreds of acres there where even a blade of grass will not grow. The mindless use of chemical fertilizers, primarily urea, has degraded the soil, polluted the ground water, loading excess nitrate residues making ground water non-potable and the indiscriminate use of pesticides and weedicides has led to many environmental hazards, leading even to the large scale incidence of cancer. The Gurdaspur district is the prime example of this.

The term “green revolution” is, ironically, coined by a scientist of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) Dr William Gaud, who later became the Director of USAID (United States Aid for International Development), albeit, an American organization with a political intent to influence the developing nations on the Asian continent and poorly developed nations on the African continent. Henry Kissinger, the former United States Secretary of State and National Security Advisor under the presidential administrations of Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, often would say, “Control oil and you control nations; control food you control people”. Hence the idea behind the “green revolution” was to control food production, and, thus, indirectly Indians. India was the prime target to put in place a farming technology that was similar to the “Land Grant Pattern,”practiced in the USA. The technology centered on a high input of chemical fertilizers to boost the crop yield of both rice and wheat, where the “miracle dwarf” varieties developed overseas, at CIMMYT (Center For Maize and Wheat Research, Mexico) and IRRI (International Rice Research Institute, at Los Banos, Laguna, in The Philippines) played a major role. Both are arms of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research, (CGIAR), a primarily US funded “research” grouping with a hidden political mandate to influence the developing and poorly developed nations. In India we have the International Crops Research Institute for Semi-Arid Tropics, (ICRISAT), in Patancheru, Andhra Pradesh, which has a research mandate of its own, apart from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, New Delhi. We have such similar institutions in other parts of the developing and poorly developed regions, as well. The State of Punjab played a pivotal role in the green revolution campaign.

This author, who had an opportunity to interact with a high level delegation of Indian agricultural scientists during the World Soil Science Congress held at Hamburg, Germany, had warned that the Indian “green revolution” would no more be sustainable as the Indian soil resources were fast getting degraded. By early eighties the green revolution fell on its face, yields of both wheat and rice were fast plummeting in Punjab as there was a steep decline in soil carbon, the repository of soil fertility. Admittedly, for a short time, India produced a massive increase in grain yield, but, the environmental cost was heavy. It is in this context a revolutionary soil management technique, now globally known as “The Nutrient Buffer Power Concept” began to make a tremendous positive impact on global farming.

Space would not permit to explain the science behind the concept, for which the foundation was laid while author held the prestigious Senior Fellowship of the world renowned Alexander von Humboldt Research Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany, and affiliated to the very prestigious Institute of Plant Nutrition, Giessen, at the Justus von Liebig University, named after Justus von Liebig, the father of modern soil science. The author received a further scientific impetus to test his concept when in 1982 he was named as Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium. He could further examine the validity of the concept when he was selected as Professor and Head of the Department of Agriculture and Soil Sciences at The University Centre, The Republic of Cameroon, further buttressed when late Nelson Mandela invited him as Senior Professor to build a Faculty of Agriculture at the University of Fort Hare, Alice, his alma mater in The Republic of South Africa, from where the great Statesman launched his anti-apartheid struggle. The above invitations gave the author an opportunity to test the validity of his concept in different crops, such as, wheat, maize, rye, white clover etc., in different parts of the world. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research invited the author as Distinguished Visiting scientist to be located at the Indian Institute Spices Research (IISR) in Calicut, Kerala State, where he could successfully test the validity of his concept on Black pepper and Cardamom. Thus the author could test the validity of the concept in a string of crops in Europe, Africa and Asia (both South India and Central Turkey). He has been invited to many countries, all over the world, to present his concept in international conferences, workshops and symposia. Currently he has been nominated for the prestigious 2019 Norman Borlaug Award for Excellence in Crop Nutrition Research instituted by the International Association for Fertilizer Industry. It is this author’s conviction that exclusive organic farming will not be the right answer to sustain Indian agriculture. Chemical fertilizers will be needed to be used, but how much and how best to use, to augment the native nutrient supplying power of the soil so that appropriate fertilizer recommendations can be made, can be found in the concept, which has resulted in this author receiving a string of international awards, including the Swadeshi Sastra Puraskar, of the Swadeshi Science Movement of the Government of India, for developing this revolutionary soil management concept.

The second aspect in this article is about the relevance of genetically modified crops for Indian agriculture. It is the author’s deep conviction that the GM crops are loaded with many inherent risks and problems and totally unsuited to Indian Farming. There are inherent problems like the glyphosate toxicity—a great health hazard. Glyphosate has been banned in many countries8 and is found in chemical herbicidal sprays used in the cultivation of “Herbicide Tolerant” crops like Bt brinjal, which has been clandestinely cultivated in India – the recent example of what happened in Haryana9.

The Bt cotton is a total failure. As early as 2002, when the Genetic Engineering Approval (then Approval now Appraisal) Committee (GEAC) okayed the first Bt cotton, this author had vehemently opposed it. But, he was over ruled. The recent farmer experience in Punjab, Haryana and Vidharbha region is ample testimony to this10. In sum, I would conclude, Modi government has its hands full, and, it must start urgently with agriculture, lest five years hence, Indians, again complain that the promises during the election were not honored

Prof KP Nair is an internationally acclaimed agricultural scientist, formerly Professor, National Science Foundation, The Royal Society, Belgium & Senior Fellow, Alexander von Humboldt Research Foundation, The Federal Republic of Germany. He can be reached at drkppnair@gmail.com

References:

1https://www.businesstoday.in/current/economy-politics/indias-gdp-grows-at-66pct-in-q3-retains-fastest-growing-economy-tag/story/323275.html
2https://economictimes.indiatimes.com/jobs/indias-unemployment-rate-hit-6-1-in-2017-18/articleshow/69598640.cms?from=mdr
3Dash, LN, World Bank and Economic Development of India, APH Publishing Corporation, New Delhi, p128.
4Jha, Ramanath, Lessons from Kerala Floods, ORF Online, available at https://www.orfonline.org/expert-speak/43550-lessons-from-kerala-floods/
5https://presidentofindia.nic.in/speeches-detail.htm?683
6Venkat, Vidya, “Bt Cotton responsible for suicides in rain-fed areas, says study”, available at https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/bt-cotton-responsible-for-suicides-in-rainfed-areas-says-study/article7337684.ece
7 https://www.dnaindia.com/india/report-8214-irrigation-projects-remain-incomplete-parliamentary-panel-2639369
8 https://www.baumhedlundlaw.com/toxic-tort-law/monsanto-roundup-lawsuit/where-is-glyphosate-banned/
9Aga, Aniket, Serious concerns over Bt brinjal, available at https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/serious-concerns-over-bt-brinjal/article28022577.ece
10A report submitted to Department of Agriculture & Cooperation, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, Global Agri System (Katra Group) may be read to consider the relative merits and demerits of impact of use of Bt cotton. The report is available at http://re.indiaenvironmentportal.org.in/files/file/Final%20Report%20%20-%20BT%20Cotton.pdf

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