India’s Agricultural Output Declines, can It Be Arrested?

by Gopalan on  June 22, 2008 at 10:54 AM Environmental Health
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 India’s Agricultural Output Declines, can It Be Arrested?
India's agricultural output continues to decline. Can it be arrested is the question as policymakers are battling with runaway inflation.

India's agricultural output continues to decline. Can it be arrested is the question as policymakers are battling with runaway inflation.

Green revolution seems to have run its course. Farming has become an increasingly losing proposition. Family farms have shrunk in size and quantity, and farmers are commiting suicide. Now many find it more profitable to sell their land to developers of industrial buildings.

Among farmers who stay on their land, many are experimenting with growing high-value fruits and vegetables that prosperous Indians are craving, but there are few refrigerated trucks to transport their produce to modern supermarkets.

A long and inefficient supply chain means that the average farmer receives less than a fifth of the price the consumer pays, a World Bank study found, far less than farmers in, say, Thailand or the United States.

Surinder Singh Chawla knows the system is broken. Mr. Chawla, 62, bore witness to the Green Revolution — and its demise.

Once, his family grew wheat and potatoes on 20 acres. They looked to the sky for rains. They used cow manure for fertilizer. Then came the Mexican semi-dwarf wheat seedlings that the revolution helped introduce to India. Chawla's wheat yields soared. A few years later, the same happened with new high-yield rice seeds.

Increasingly prosperous, Chawla finally bought his first tractor in 1980.

But he has since witnessed with horror the ills the revolution wrought: in a common occurrence here, the water table under his land has sunk by 100 feet over three decades as he and other farmers irrigated their fields.

By the 1980s, government investment in canals fed by rivers had tapered off, and wells became the principal source of irrigation, helped by a shortsighted government policy of free electricity to pump water.

In Punjab, more than three-fourths of the districts extract more groundwater than is replenished by nature.

Public spending on farming shrank by roughly a third, according to an analysis of government data by the Center for Policy Alternatives in New Delhi.

Today only 40 percent of Indian farms are irrigated. "When there is no water, there is nothing," Chawla said.

And he sees more trouble on the way. The summers are hotter than he remembers. The rains are more fickle. Last summer, he wanted to ease out of growing rice, a water-intensive crop.

Today, two staples of the Indian diet are imported in ever-increasing quantities because farmers cannot keep up with growing demand — pulses, like lentils and peas, and vegetable oils, the main sources of protein and calories, respectively, for most Indians.

"India could be a big actor in supplying food to the rest of the world if the existing agricultural productivity gap could be closed," said Adolfo Brizzi, manager of the South Asia agriculture program at the World Bank in Washington. "When it goes to the market to import, it typically puts pressure on international market prices, and every time India goes for export, it increases the supply and therefore mitigates the price levels."

Harmail Singh of Udhaipur points out, "The cultivable land is shrinking and government policies are not farmer friendly....Our next generation is not willing to work in agriculture. They say it is a losing proposition."

The luckiest farmers make more money selling out to land-hungry mall developers.

It may also be noted that the Peterson Institute for International Economics has predicted a catastrophic impact of global warming.

India's agriculture will suffer more than any other country's. Assuming a global temperature increase of 4.4°C over cultivated areas by 2080, India's agricultural output is projected to fall by 30-40%.

But M. S. Swaminathan, a plant geneticist who helped bring the Green Revolution to India is confident that both in rice and wheat, India has a large untapped reservoir.

"It can make a major contribution to the world food crisis," he told Somini Sengupta of New York Times.

Besides he wants to dedicate villages to sowing lentils and oilseeds, to meet demand.

Will greater demand for food and higher market prices enrich farmers, eventually, encouraging them to stay on their land? There is potential, but other conditions, like India's inefficient transportation and supply chains, would have to improve too.

How to address these challenges is a matter of debate.

Genetically modified crops with greater yields? Does future lie that way? But many dispute the proposition.

A greener Green Revolution? Perhaps.

Alexander Evans, author of a recent paper on food prices published by Chatham House, a British research institution, said: "This time around, it needs to be more efficient in its use of water, in its use of energy, in its use of fertilizer and land."

Source: Medindia

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