Event ReportsPublished on Jun 15, 2016
Agricultural crisis: Developmental initiatives likely to get government priority over subsidy  routes

A brain-storming session on finding suitable solutions to the problems confronting India’s agriculture sector at Observer Research Foundation provided a peek into the new thinking of the NDA Government, headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on the agrarian crisis.

At the session titled Deepening Agrarian Crisis-The Way Forward’ on June 1, 2016 chaired by Mr. Surendra Singh, Advisor, ORF and former Union Cabinet Secretary, Prof. Ramesh Chand, NITI Ayog Member and a renowned agricultural scientist, explained how the government is likely to deal with the agrarian crisis.

Besides Prof. Chand,  Prof. Abhijit Sen (former Member, Planning Commission), Mr. Mohan Kanda (former Secretary, Agriculture, GoI) and Dr. Shivendra Bajaj (Executive Director, Association of the Biotech Led Enterprises-Agriculture Focus Group (ABLE-AG) also put forth their views.

Agriculture sector has been growing slowly and registering negative growth in 2016 due to two consecutive droughts. The growth in agriculture of around 4% is critical for the livelihood of millions of people in rural areas (53% of the population is dependent on it), but the stagnation is evident by the fact that it only contributes to 14% of India’s GDP.  The current agricultural stress has been due to low productivity, adverse weather conditions, declining water tables, environmental degradation, under-investment in agricultural infrastructure and several institutional and regulatory bottlenecks.

Prof. Chand raised the question of a quantifiable indicator of the agrarian distress. According to him, the number of farmer suicides is not a reliable indicator of the crisis in agriculture as it is a consequence of a complex set of factors and not necessarily due to their debt burden. Rather, attention should be paid to critical issues such as raising agricultural income. He further raised the issue of inadequate employment opportunities in the non-agricultural sector which puts demographic pressure on agriculture. According to him, there is an urgent need to generate more jobs in the non-agricultural sector that are better paying.

Prof. Chand said that in agriculture, developmental initiatives like Pradhan Mantri Krishi Sinchai Yojana, e-agricultural markets, garden approach should be given priority over routes such as subsidies, MSP, free water and power, which are used to counter the damages. Farmers should be made aware of the importance of health and education, and wasteful spending which ultimately leads to a debt trap should to be discouraged.

Dealing with the issue of subsidies, Prof. Chand responded by stressing the fact that there was high farmer population and low number of taxpayers in India, unlike countries like US where only 2% of the population was engaged in farming. He believed that the focus should shift from providing subsidies to improving infrastructure to make Indian agriculture more competitive.

Prof. Abhijit Sen took up the question of agricultural growth rates over the past few years. Despite all the pessimism over agriculture, he pointed out that the growth in the sector has been positive since 2005, barring the year 2014. One must remember that India has been able to manage this growth in the backdrop of two consecutive droughts in the past two years. He noted that during the years 2005-2012, there was a huge increase in the rate of growth of agriculture and agricultural incomes and a decline in the number of farmer suicides. This was a consequence of high rate of total factor productivity in agriculture and an improved seed replacement rate due to the use of quality seeds. Thus, he indicated that the condition of Indian agriculture is not as dismal as it is looks.

Mr. Mohan Kanda provided a broad-brushed picture of agrarian distress from the institutional perspective. He pointed out that in a highly complicated country like India, the centre and states have to work together and give constant attention and importance to agriculture. The existing trust deficit in the farming community towards the government needs to be dealt with and differentiated policies need to be adopted in different states, keeping in mind each state’s problems and requirements. Also, from his experience of working for the agricultural sector in Andhra Pradesh, he strongly supported the empowerment of the district level elected Zila Parishads to play a role in policy impacting the future of agriculture. Bemoaning the lack of coordination among departments dealing with agriculture and absence of a Cabinet Committee on Agriculture, Mr. Kanda sought urgent intervention to make farm sector productive and sustainable. According to Mr. Kanda, unfortunately preventive measures like increasing productivity is not electorally as glamorous as rescue operations like providing subsidies.

Dr. Shivendra Bajaj brought to the table the subject of genetically engineered agriculture and stressed that biotechnology holds a lot of promise for India’s farm sector. He pointed out that two years ago India was a net importer of cotton but with the introduction of Bt Cotton, it is now the largest producer of cotton. According to him India is amongst the few developing countries that can develop such technology on its own and India possesses some of the best researchers in biotechnology. Dr. Bajaj observed that India might be a cereal secure nation but is not a food secure nation. Also, with the onslaught of droughts in the country, drought tolerant crops have become potential alternatives. Thus, biotechnology has an essential role to play in agriculture. Other Asian countries are taking a positive stand towards GM crops and Dr. Bajaj thought that India should give biotechnology a chance. A concern pertaining to the monopoly of GM crops was raised to which he said that it could be avoided by approving and allowing more scientifically generated crops to come to the markets, thus promoting competition amongst these crops.

Given the nature of issues involved, the brainstorming brought many insightful questions to the table. The panellists were asked to address issues of farm subsidies, water crisis, climate change, dangers of genetically modified agriculture, marketing issues concerning India’s farm sector. Mr. Surendra Singh closed the brainstorming with the announcement that the discussion was part of a series of debates that ORF has planned to carry forward on multiple challenges faced by India’s farm sector.

< style="color: #163449;">This report is prepared by Nupur Anand, Research Intern, Observer Research Foundation, New Delhi.

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