April , 2024
India needs second green revolution to double farmer’s income
12:02 pm

Tushar K. Mahanti

As India enters the new fiscal year, the agricultural landscape remains at the forefront of economic concerns. Last year witnessed significant restrictions on the import and export of various agricultural commodities as the nation struggled with rising food inflation following fear of a fall in farm output due to unanticipated weather patterns. Now, as the country steps into 2024-25, policymakers are busy with the balancing exercise of supply- demand equation of foodgrains

The policymakers’ concern is reflected in the projected decline in foodgrains production last year. The second advance estimates of the agriculture and farmers’ welfare ministry, total foodgrains production in 2023-24 is counted at 309 million tonnes. This is 6.1% lower compared to about 330 million tonnes foodgrains production in 2022-23. Among other reasons, poor and uneven monsoon caused by the El Nino weather phenomenon affected agricultural production as a large acreage of the country’s crop land is still dependent on monsoon rain.

India is one of the major players in the agriculture sector worldwide and it is the primary source of livelihood for nearly three-fifths of India’s population. India has the world's largest cattle herd; the largest area planted for wheat, rice, and cotton, and is the largest producer of milk, pulses, and spices in the world. It is the second-largest producer of fruit, vegetables, tea, farmed fish, cotton, sugarcane, wheat, rice, cotton, and sugar. The agriculture sector in India holds the record for second-largest cropped land in the world generating employment for about half of the country’s population. Thus, farmers become an integral part of the sector to provide us with a means of sustenance.

With significant forward linkages, the agriculture and allied activities sector contribute significantly to the country's overall growth and development by ensuring food security. The Indian agriculture sector has been growing at an average annual growth rate of 4.6% during the last six years. It grew by three per cent in 2021-22 compared to 3.3% in 2020- 21. In recent years, India has also rapidly emerged as the net exporter of agricultural products.

Foodgrains production rises steadily

And if a projected decline in foodgrains production in 2023-24 is a cause of concern, this is unlikely to affect foodgrains availability matrix or cause any serious supply chain disruption. This is because of huge buffer stocks of foodgrains following a steady rise in foodgrains production in the country over the years. Foodgrains production in India touched a record 330.5 million tonnes in 2022-23 (3rd advance estimate) – up by nearly five percent over the production of 2021-22.

Indian agriculture is on the threshold of a major technological transformation, which is a pivotal moment after decades of growth. Emerging developments include accurate crop forecasting, sensor technology, robotics, soil testing and precise monsoon forecasting, which heralds a paradigm shift in how agriculture is practiced and managed. Several emerging trends are set to reshape the practices and management of agriculture in India in the coming years.

Technology adoption is escalating, with precision farming, drones, and IoT devices gaining prominence for improved crop monitoring, management, and resource utilization. The aim is to increase yields, save costs and improve business processes to make agriculture more efficient while increasing income. In this context, AgriTech emerges as a catalyst, bringing transformative and sustainable shifts in farming practices. The primary objective is not only to enhance the quality and quantity of crops, optimize livestock management but also to strive towards achieving a sustainable future. India's foodgrains production increased more than six and a half times in seven decades from 50.82 million tonnes in 1950-51 to 330.50 million tonnes in 2022-23. As per final estimates for 2022-23, total foodgrains production in the country was at a record high of 330.50 million tonnes. It was higher by about 15 million tonnes over the production of 315.63 million tonnes in 2021-22 and was higher by 30.87 million tonnes compared with the average annual production of the previous five years’ (2017-18 to 2021-22).

With the growth in production and rising surplus, India has now become a net exporter of foodgrains from an importer earlier. The country has steadily increased the export of its agricultural products. As per the DGCI&S data, the country’s agricultural exports touched an all time high of $ 53.10 billion last year – up nearly 40% in five years from $ 38.21 billion in 2017-18. The growth rate is significant as it was achieved despite unprecedented logistical challenges in the form of high freight rates and container shortages. Rice is the largest exported agricultural product from India and accounts for about 40% of total global trade of rice. In six years, between 2016-17 and 2022-23, rice exports have nearly doubled (94%, precisely) from $ 5.73 billion in 2016-17 to $ 11.14 billion in 2022-23.

HYV plays the multiplier role

It may appear opt repeated but the fact remains that India’s journey to higher foodgrains production owes its origin to ‘green revolution’. The introduction of high-yielding varieties (HYV) of seeds and the improved quality of fertilisers and irrigation techniques led to the increase in the production to make the country self-sufficient in food grains, thus improving agriculture in India.

The long term growth in foodgrains production was driven largely by introduction of high yielding varieties, higher uses of fertilizers and rising farm mechanization. With technological progress and improvement in agricultural sciences, that has given better knowledge of the uses of inputs mechanisation has become a big issue world over. Mechanisation improves efficiency of man power, reduces input costs, increases the net sown area by undertaking timely operation, improves output by adopting crop diversification and reduces harvesting and post-harvesting losses. According to studies by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (FAO) farm mechanisation can save inputs like seeds up to 15-20%, fertilizers by 15-20% and can increase cropping intensity by 5-20%. It increases the efficiency of farm labour and reduces the time of agricultural operation by 15-20%.

If use of fertilisers and better farm techniques helped India’s agricultural production to grow at a higher rate, the introduction of high yielding varieties of seeds revolutionised the farm sector. In fact, innovations of high yielding varieties of seeds have been the most important.  M S Swaminathan, known as the architect of Green Revolution, convinced the government to import 18,000 tonnes of Mexican dwarf seeds and the rest is history.

Indian scientists took up the exercise from there to breed new seeds to suit regional, climatic and soil textures. Major emphasis was to develop new varieties/hybrids tolerant to various biotic and abiotic stresses with enhanced quality. Recognising these objectives, the National Agricultural Research System of India has produced significant results in terms of mechanisation of agriculture and development of climate resilient technologies and high yielding varieties (HYVs) of seeds, etc. For example, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) during 2020 and 2021 notified/released a total of 731 new varieties/ hybrids of field crops and 98 of horticultural crops.

The farm sector in India is undergoing major transformation to suit the changing ecological and environmental circumstances. But amid these changes the sector needs to raise its production continuously to feed the rising millions. This requires an optimal usage of available farm inputs, be it fertilizers, HYV seeds, irrigation or mechanization.

Another major achievement has been the steady increase in irrigated land that allows the spread of modern agriculture. For the first time, more than half of India’s cultivated land now has access to assured irrigation led by an expansion in micro projects, which have higher water-use efficiency, official data for 2022-23 show.

In 2022-23, of  the 141 million hectares of gross sown area in the country, nearly 73 million hectares, or 52%, had irrigation access, up from 41% in 2016, according to updated data from Niti Aayog, the state-run think-tank. Hindustan Times - your fastest source for breaking news

Agriculture’s share in GVA stagnates

However, despite a steady growth in agricultural production its share in total gross value added has declined over the years. The share hovered at around 18% during the last ten years, some fluctuations, but nosedived to 15% in 2022-23. The Rostovian take-off model, the major historical models of economic growth, suggests that with economic development, the share of the primary sector in national output declines. But in India the decline seems to have been rather sharp, especially since the share of population depending on it has not gone down proportionately.

The question is: Why has agriculture’s share in the national economy gone down so sharply? Is it because other sectors have grown at a higher rate? Or, agriculture has failed to cope with the national economic growth? The answer is both, but the main reason probably is the apathy of the policy makers.

The unremunerative prices of farm produce seem to be the major cause of low earnings. This is reflected in the steady decline in the share of agriculture in GVA. This happens despite considerable rise in agricultural production. This was partly because the GVA is calculated in monetary value and the growth in crop production is not fully reflected due to poor prices of agricultural produce.

Farmer’s income rises marginally

But while the share of agriculture in total GVA is falling, the share of people depending on it is not. This is further eroding the economic condition of the farmers, especially, the small and marginal farmers who are left to the mercy of the market forces in selling their produce. This dichotomy of deprivation amid abundance portrays the true picture of Indian agriculture. Agricultural production is growing but benefits of growth are not reaching the farmers despite repeated promises, like doubling farmers’ income. Farmers’ lobby put the blame on low prices of farm produce.

The government has promised to double the farmers’ income by 2025. It has announced a host of schemes for the development of the farm sector and has also increased the minimum support prices (MSP) of agricultural commodities at regular intervals to address farmers’ immediate problem.

Granted, the government revises the MSP upward on a regular basis but since they do not fully reflect the cost structure of farming, farmers are not benefitted much from these revisions. According to the National Sample Survey, the estimated average monthly income per agricultural household has increased from Rs. 6,426 in 2012-13 to Rs.10,218 in 2018-19. The real increase will be far less when price rise is taken into account.

But then the average monthly income figure of Rs. 10,218 itself is grossly misleading. There is a very wide disparity of income across the states. The average monthly income of a farmer’s family in Punjab is more than five times that of Odisha and Jharkhand, four times that of West Bengal and three times that of Uttar Pradesh. 

The government argues that higher prices of farm produce would raise farmers’ income but that would not give a long-term solution. Indian agriculture needs a definite strategy to develop its land, extend mechanization, manures and HYV seeds to raise yield rates. Low productivity is probably the main problem of Indian agriculture. 

Higher price realization of produce may help farmers to improve their income but such actions will have a serious impact on the prices of food commodities, which in turn will affect the small and marginal farmers. The remedy probably lies in raising the yield rate. If the same amount of land gives higher production with the same effort and input cost, the farmers’ real income will rise automatically.

The yield rate of foodgrains production during the last eleven years, between 2011-12 and 202-23, has increased by just 20% or by an average 1.6% a year. In actual terms, it has increased by 38 kg a hectare from 2,078 kg/ha to 2,500 kg/ha during this period. Yield rate of rice has increased by 41 kg per hectare annually to 2,800 kg in 2021-22 and wheat by 33 kg to 3,543 during this period.

India’s poor crop yield would look far too pitiable when compared with other countries. In 2023, the average rice yield in China was 7,137 kg /ha—two and a half times that of India. The rice yield in China has increased from an average of around 6,970 kg/ha between 2015 and 2020. Average rice yield of Indonesia was 4,600 kg/ha and that of Vietnam 6,100 kg/ha in 2023. Even the average yield rate of rice in Bangladesh was far higher at 4,700 kg/ha in 2023. The average wheat yield in China at 5,768 kg/ha at the other end, was nearly one and a half times that of India.

Post script

Imagine that India’s rice yield equals that of China, which is about two and a half times that of India right now. And if this looks too optimistic, imagine Indian rice yield to match Indonesia's yield, that is 6,100 kg/ha or 72% higher than that of India. And if it actually happens India will be able to produce 72% more rice with the same amount of land raising the farmer’s earnings instantly. That is, if India has to increase farmer’s income the yield rates of farm produce must be raised. How can this be done? The answer is: By undertaking another green revolution through innovating high yielding seeds, improved cropping patterns, efficient mechanization and better understanding of farm operations. 

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