By Muralidhar Rao
According to statistics released by Centre for Monitoring Indian economy on July 28, 2009, crop production in India is expected to fall by 4.7 per cent in the year 2009-10. In the year 2008-09, it showed a marginal increase of 0.3 per cent. This is not the story of these two years. In the last decade agriculture sector had shown a negative growth. On an average agriculture growth has been less than two per cent per annum. This poor performance of agriculture has resulted in fast declining share of agriculture in GDP, which went down to nearly 18 per cent in 2008-09 from 45 per cent in 1970-71.


Neglect of agriculture
On the one hand, government was discouraging farmers to produce food grains; it was taking its hands off agricultural development. Government expenditure on agriculture, rural development and irrigation was reduced from 27 per cent in 1987 to only six per cent now. If we take expenditure of Central Government on purely agriculture and allied activities, we find a meagre sum of rupees 10,629 crore, which is hardly one per cent of the mega budget of 10 lakh 20 thousand crore in the propose budget for the year 2009-10. Even subsidies of various kinds were withdrawn or reduced drastically. In the year 2007-08 food subsidy was reduced by rupees 3,000 crore. Government also kept on washing its hands off from its basic duty of making procurement from the farmers at minimum support price. Even minimum support price so declared was too less to cover even the cost incurred by the farmers. Under these circumstances, totally devoid of government support farmers had to face the market forces. In search of good profits they diverted towards cash crops. Area under food grain cultivation started declining. Thanks to increasing productivity total production showed a marginal increase but per capita food grain availability declined during this period.


Then started, exploitation game by multinational corporations. Exploited by MNCs, the farmer went into severe debt. Farmers’ suicides now have become a routine affair. Farmer’s insecurity got converted into food insecurity for the nation. Prices of wheat, rice, pulses, edible oils, vegetables etc. all sky rocketed. Worst sufferer was the poor.


Cattle wealth ignored
We have to understand the basic characteristics of Indian agriculture. Traditionally our agriculture has never been dependent on remote resources, may it be fertilizers, pesticides or even the seeds. Basic factor which had ensured minimum dependence of agriculture on outside resources was the availability of robust and diverse bovine population. In maintaining soil fertility, local transport needs and also on field agriculture activity the cow and cattle wealth used to be a major stay. With the successive government policies, this relationship has got disturbed. Village commons have mostly disappeared. As a result, fodder needs could not be fulfilled and consequently both the number and quality of cattle wealth has declined. Ignoring the long term implications for the self reliance of the village economy, various governments also encouraged the establishment of large mechanised slaughter houses, in order to earn few dollars.


Low per capita availability of food items
Slow growth of agriculture sector has obviously affected the availability of foodgrains in the country. The net per capita food availability was 394 grams per day in 1971. This was just after the onset of green revolution in India. Exactly after 30 years, the net per capita foodgrains availability was 396 grams per day in 2001 – a princely rise of two grams! Currently, it is around the same figure of 400 grams per day per capita even now. In effect, for over thirty years our farm growth has merely kept pace with the population growth. This in effect sets up the debate.


Advanced countries as a norm, on a per capita basis, consume anywhere between 500 grams to 600 grams per day. In fact, such healthy consumption in these countries is a supplementary to the substantial quanity of meat, fruits, vegetables and milk. On these score too at a per capita level our consumption is far below the world average and significantly below the average of the developed countries. It would seem that, we as a nation, seem to have declared food self-sufficiency on virtually empty stomachs.


A reference to China is inescapable here. China, a country with approximately 1.2 times our population produces approximately 450 mt of foodgrains every year—more than double of India. Naturally this comparison with other countries blows the myth of self-sufficiency in India.


Situation is no better in case of other food items. Production of pulses for instance is highly insufficient and every year country has to make heavy import of pulses. Same is the situation in case of oil seeds. So this reality explode the myth of food self-sufficiency in the economy.


Other agricultural produce like sugarcane, cotton, jute, tea, coffee, rubber and even potatoes also do not show any significant increase in production.


If we try to go into the details we find that area under cultivation of major crops has been either near constant or falling over time. Foodgrains, for instance, show a decline from 127.8 million hectares in 1990-91 to 123.8 million hectares in 2008-09. Pulses show a decline from 24.7 million hectares to 23 million hectares. Oil seeds show a marginal increase from 24.1 million hectares to 27.7 million hectares in the same period. Sugarcane and Cotton again show a very marginal increase. Whatever increase in production of different crops which has taken place, is due to increase in per hectare yield.


Global Scenario of food insecurity
Prices of traditional food grains like wheat, corn and rice have been rising globally. According to FAO data on food prices, cereal price index increase 121 in 2006 to 274 in June 2008. The major factor behind increasing prices of food grains is historic decline in the production of food grains all over the globe. Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) has also cautioned that world production of wheat would be only 142 million tonnes by the year 2008, which is 10 per cent less than the production in the year 2007. Situation of rising prices has been made even worse by constantly rising international price of crude oil. The price of crude oil reached up to 147 $US per barrel, which later tumbled down to about 39$US per barrel. Constantly rising prices of crude oil prompted various countries to shift their crop pattern such that the land previously been used for food grains production is now being used for bio fuel. Apart from this, food products are also being used for extracting ethanol. In the year 2006-07, US utilised 20 per cent of its corn production for extracting ethanol. It is believed that by the year 2016, US would be utilising 32 per cent of its corn production for producing ethanol. In the light of rising prices of crude oil US has set target for itself for producing 25 billion gallons of bio fuel in the next 10 years. Europe has set a target of 5.75 per cent of its diesel needs to be fulfilled from plants by the year 2010. The China is extracting ethanol not only from corn but even from wheat and rice. Experts believe that this tendency will increase further. Even UN believes that United States of America and European Union are both responsible for this sudden international food crisis, as these nations have reduced their production of food grains in order to produce more bio fuel. These countries have started shifting their land in favour of bio fuel plants.


Increase in food imports
As noted earlier, production of food grain per capita has being going down in the country in the last few years, necessitating large scale import of food grain. For instance in five years from 2002-2003 to 2007-08 India’s population increased by eight per cent, whereas food grains production could increase by merely five per cent. But more disturbing is the fact that the country had to import food grain, especially wheat at extra ordinarily exorbitant price. Whereas farmers were being paid only 850 per quintal by the government procurement agencies, later in the same year wheat was imported at effective price of rupees 1300 to 1600 per quintal. Of late, the government realised the importance of paying reasonable price to the farmers, that it could procure 230 lakh tones of wheat. As the result of sound wheat procurement, a reasonable buffer stock would be maintained, resulting in stabilisation of food prices in the country. To make available food to the masses at the reasonable prices, we need to maintain reasonable level of buffer stock, which in turn could be ensured by making sufficient procurement.


Thus, we can conclude that in view of danger of declining food grain availability at global level looming large, solution lies in protecting our agriculture in general and encouraging food grain production in the country in particular. We also need to take notice of mass scale migration to big cities, whole young population deserting the villages in search of livelihood. Remunerative agriculture can only arrest this trend. For achieving this objective we need to take bold and imaginative policy initiatives like provision of agriculture credit at three per cent. We also need to protect our farmers from private money lenders. Availability of fertilizers at cheap prices and subsidy scheme for organic fertilizers would also be helpful. Provision of cheap electricity, sufficient availability of irrigation, subsidised seeds etc. should not be taken as a matter of grace. In fact, this all should be treated as emergency measures to keep agriculture alive in this country. Even the schemes like NREGP would not be able to provide long term solution towards sustainable employment.


Rejuvenation of agriculture and agri-based rural industrialisation is the solution to address the challenges of food security and vibrant village life.


(The writer is former national convenor of Swadeshi Jagran Manch and a member of BJP National Executive.)