May , 2019
Optimisation of Indian farms for feeding growing millions
17:18 pm

Tushar K. Mahanti

When one thinks of Indian agriculture two images invariably come to mind; that of a bare-footed farmer ploughing on a dry field and of FCI warehouses overflowing with food grains. This dichotomy of deprivation amidst abundance portrays the true picture of Indian agriculture. Agricultural production is growing but benefits of that growth are not reaching the farmers despite repeated promises, like doubling farmers’ income.

Farmers’ lobby put the blame on low prices of farm produces. While the government has raised the MSP by 1.5 times of input cost, this has not helped the farmers’ cause much. As per the Shanta Kumar Committee, only 6% farmers get the benefit of MSP. If this is true, the raising of the MSP by 1.5 times of input costs has no meaning for the remaining 94% of the farmers. The food prices have remained low putting further pressure on farm income. In fact, retail food price index declined 2.17% last January. In February, it declined 0.66% compared to 4.44% rise in overall retail inflation.

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

The lower yield has been affecting the overall production leading to a steady decline in agriculture’s share in GDP. The yield rate of food grains production during the last five years, between 2011-12 and 2016-17, has increased by just 3.6% or by an average 0.7% a year. In actual terms, it has increased by 75 kg a hectare from 2,078 kg/ha to 2,153 kg/ha during this period.

Agricultural productivity is determined by suitable use of inputs such as irrigation, seeds, fertilisers, credit, machines and technology and extension services. The Green Revolution in India which had increased food grains production dramatically was driven by the use of high yielding varieties (HYVs) of seeds, intensive use of fertilisers and irrigation. Managing the inputs in appropriate combinations for specific crops can improve the productivity in agriculture without losing soil fertility and causing environmental damages. This requires better knowledge and capacity of farmers to adopt new innovations, technologies and inputs.

Farm mechanisation on the rise

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%, fertilisers 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%.

India is way below the developed nations in mechanising its farm as it has begun late, but it is catching up fast. The level of mechanisation has seen strong growth through the last decade. At about 40-45%, farm mechanisation in India is low compared to 95% of the US, 75% of Brazil, 57% of China. The farm power availability on Indian farms has grown from 1.47 kW/ha in 2005-06 to 2.02 kW/ha in 2013-14 indicating increase in the uses of mechanised inputs.

The level of farm mechanisation varies greatly from region to region. Northern states such as Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh have high level of mechanisation (70-80% overall; 80-90% for rice and wheat) due to high productive land as well as declining number of agriculture workers and also due to the support from the respective state governments.

The western and southern states of the country have a lower level of mechanisation due to the smaller and scattered land holdings. In many cases, mechanisation has been uneconomical leading to the lower development.

Average land holding size declines

But not for mechanisation alone, small land holding hinders the uses of other inputs as well. Small land holders are unable to adopt these inputs because of their poor economic condition. Sadly, these holdings are accounting for the larger part of India’s cropped area. The small and marginal holdings taken together constituted 86.21% of the total number of holdings in 2015-16 – up from 84.97% in 2010-11. On the other hand, their share in the operated area has increased from 44.31% to 47.34% in the same period.

Semi-medium and medium operational holdings in 2015-16 were only 13.22% with 43.61% operated area. The corresponding figures for 2010-11 agricultural census was 14.29% and 44.82%. The large holdings on the other hand, accounted for only 0.57% of the total number of holdings in 2015-16 and had a share of 9.04% in the total operated area as against 0.71% and 10.59% respectively as per the 2010-11 Census.

Worse, the size average land holding in India has gone down steadily over the years. According to Agriculture Census 2015-16, the average size of operational holding has declined from 1.33 hectare in 2000-01 to 1.08 hectare in 2015-16.

Low irrigation coverage – a big hindrance

The Economic Survey 2017 pointed out that agriculture in India continues to be vulnerable to the vagaries of weather because close to 52% (or 73.2 million hectares area out of 141.4 million hectares net sown area) farm fields is still unirrigated and dependant on rainfall. The all India percentage of net irrigated area to total cropped area is even lower at 34.5%.

Of all the economic sectors, agriculture is the one where water scarcity has greater relevance. Agriculture accounts for approximately 70% of the global freshwater withdrawals and approximately 90% of its consumptive use. As per FAO, irrigation and livestock segments accounted for 91% of water withdrawal in India.

Given this condition, India has of late emphasised on micro irrigation. Good thing is that micro-irrigation projects under the Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchayee Yojana (PMKSY), critical to making India drought-proof and producing “more crop per drop”, have steadily met targets since the launch of the scheme in 2015.

With usage of micro irrigation systems, conveyance loss is minimal. Evaporation, runoff and deep percolation are also reduced by using micro irrigation methods. Another water saving advantage is that water source with limited flow rates such as small water wells can be used. Micro irrigation provides significantly higher water usage efficiency due to proximity and focused application

At the national level, coverage of micro-irrigation networks beat its target for 2015-16: 572,000 hectares against a target of 500,000 hectares. In 2016-17, the coverage was 839,000 hectares against a target of 800,000 hectares.

Use of fertilisers rises

It is a common knowledge that the success of India’s Green Revolution was significantly impacted by the use of chemical fertilisers. But almost half a century later, when global agriculture has moved to bio-fertilisers, Indian farmers are still using chemical fertilisers to boost production.

The increasing use of chemical fertilisers is not only creating health hazards but is also affecting the yield rate. The parliamentary standing committee on agriculture has recommended formation of a “Pesticide Development Authority” to ensure balanced use of chemical fertilisers in the wake of declining agricultural productivity. Quoting data from the beginning of the green revolution, the committee observed that decadal growth rate of agriculture has significantly decreased, from 8.37% in 1960-70 to 2.61% last decade.

The Committee observed that the consumption of chemical fertilisers in the country has been increasing along with the level of agricultural production.  Agricultural production increased from 83 million tonnes in the 1960s to 252 million tonnes in 2014-15.  Use of chemical fertilisers (such as those containing nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium) increased from one million tonnes to 25.6 million tonnes in the same period. Besides, there are discrepancies in the use of fertilisers on the basis of chemical ratios. The current consumption ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (NPK) is 6.7:2.4:1 against their desirable ratio of 4:2:1.

Backed by a steady use in fertilisers, the fertiliser industry has grown to take care of much of India’s demand now. The production of all the fertilisers in 2017-18 was estimated at 462.20 LMT – up by more than 11% from 414.41 LMT in 2016-17.

The industry has shown tremendous growth in the last five decades and at present ranks third in the world. India is the second largest consumer of fertilisers after China. India also ranks second in the production of nitrogenous fertilisers and third in phosphatic fertilisers whereas the requirement of potash is met through imports since there are limited reserves of potash in the country.

New seeds developed

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 the Green Revolution, convinced the government to import 18000 tonnes of Mexican dwarf seeds and the rest is a 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. According to Agriculture Census 2015-16, a total of 209 varieties seeds were developed: 117 high-yielding varieties/hybrids of cereals comprising 65 of rice, 14 of wheat, 24 of maize, five of finger millet, three of pearl millet, one each of sorghum, barley, foxtail millet, kodo millet, little millet and proso millet were released for cultivation in different agro-ecological regions. The farm sector in India is undergoing major transformation to suit the changing ecological and environmental circumstances. But amidst these changes, the sector needs to raise its production continuously to feed the rising millions. This requires an optimal use of available farm inputs, be it fertilisers, HYV seeds, irrigation or mechanisation.


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