A large part of investment in agriculture in past decades has gone to irrigation. Yet, there hardly is any increase in the net irrigated area.
The flow of institutional credit to agriculture has more than tripled in a decade or so. But the number of borrowers has not increased much. The bulk of the farmers’ credit needs are still met through informal sources, including usurious moneylenders.
Production of foodgrains, milk, horticultural products and fish has been surging consistently. Yet, India continues to score poorly on global hunger index. It ranked 100th among 119 in the 2017 index, slipping three positions from 97th in 2016. About one-fourth of the world’s undernourished and hungry people live in India.
The government supplies heavily subsidised grains to nearly two-thirds of the population under the National Food Security Act. Yet, malnutrition is rampant, manifested in poor health and stunted growth of children.
Minimum support prices (MSPs) of crops are hiked generously every year. Yet, the farmers’ income is not rising. Worse still, the gap between farm and non-farm incomes is widening.
Payback from investment in agricultural research and development is reckoned to be higher than that from most other technology-dependent sectors. Yet, not even one per cent of the agriculture sector’s gross domestic product (agri-GDP) is spent on farm research. A sizable part of the technology generated by agricultural research centres, too, does not reach the farmers.
The share of agriculture and allied activities in gross capital formation, which was 18 per cent in the early 1980s, has plunged to between six and eight per cent in recent years.
Over 2,000 farmers are, on average, exiting farming daily for last 20 years. Going by the Census data, the total count of farmers (depending solely on agricultural income) declined from 110 million in 1991 to 103 million in 2001 and to mere 95.8 million in 2011.
These are grim pointers to what went wrong with agriculture and why. Clearly, the policies and programmes for agricultural development have neither been formulated judiciously nor executed meticulously. Sadly, the fault lines are continuing unabated till today.
Agriculture is treated virtually as a means to meet the growing and changing consumer demands for farm goods with an eye on managing inflation. Hardly has any attempt been made to safeguard the interests of the producers vis-à-vis those of the consumers.
Economic and structural reforms that began in 1991 have also bypassed this sector for all practical purposes. The signs of farmers’ discontent, marked by their suicides, have been visible since the early 2000s. But these were, by and large, ignored till the rural unrest spilled over in the form of farmers’ agitations.
“How long will the farm sector (farming and farmers) be neglected and denied social growth?” This pointed question is posed by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences (NAAS) in a policy paper issued recently. The Academy maintains that sustained growth with social justice, and not just growth, should be the basis to determine priorities, programmes and resource allocation for economic development. It has called for bridging rural-urban divide to forestall massive out-migration from villages.
The NAAS paper, entitled “Mismatch between policies and development priorities in agriculture”, also offers some other worth-considering suggestions to mitigate the farm sector’s woes. A significant one among these is to target unirrigated, ecologically marginal and agriculturally backward areas — the worst victims of neglect till now — for disseminating improved technology and developing market infrastructure. This would help raise production, boost farm income and reduce regional disparities.
Revival of rural youth’s interest in agriculture and its allied fields is imperative to ensure sustained growth of scientific agriculture. They need conveniently usable technologies which can ensure higher productivity and income at reduced costs. Also needed is a massive skill development programme with emphasis on income generation in non-farm rural sector to help farmers supplement their earnings. Otherwise, the farmers’ distress and the farm sector’s plight may continue to worsen.