30 August 2018

Indian agriculture needs another revolution

The crisis in Indian agriculture, which has been persisting for nearly two decades now, adversely affects farmers and farms and depicts a scenario of poison-to- mouth. This crisis of today has a greater predicament than the ship-to-mouth crisis of the 1960s. To address this, India has to invest substantially on agro-ecological approaches.

The Peasant at Risk
There is an Indian peasant saying: "Abundance of water, destroys life; scarcity of water, destroys life." In spite of these vagaries from the weather-gods, peasants have shown grit and resilience in adapting to the adversities. Their capability to resist is compromised because they have to increasingly address market shocks and withstand climate change.

Indian agriculture, for nearly two decades now, has been in a state of crisis. This crisis has twin dimensions - the agrarian and the agricultural. The agrarian crisis being the adverse impact on the livelihood of the people dependent on it - a symptom of this being the more than three hundred thousand reported farmers suicides in the last two decades. The agricultural crisis stems from the inappropriate designing and inadequate interventions - a reflection of this has been an insistence on increasing production of certain crops through an input-intensive agriculture that may not be in sync with the underlying agro-ecological considerations and thereby adding to the risks and vulnerability.

Ship-to-Mouth and Green Revolution
One ought to acknowledge that the input-intensive cultivation itself was a response to an earlier crisis of the 1960s. At that time, large masses of the population had to depend on grain grants from the United States, under Public Law 480 - India lived from ship to mouth. While, in principle, this was a grant. In the complex world of international relations, particularly during the cold war era, it would have had its unwritten demands.

It was at the time of ship to mouth that there was a debate going on whether India should or should not adopt the high yielding varieties (wheat from Mexico and rice from Philippines) that required investment in seeds, irrigation, fertilisers, research and extension, public procurement through support prices, and distribution of procured grains through fair price shops. The unwritten demands that came with Public Law 480 along with food shortages (particularly, in urban India where decision-makers lived) tilted the balance in favour of input-intensive cultivation or the green revolution. Thus, an emergency like situation that required an immediate solution ended with a permanent solution.

Recourse to green revolution was perhaps the need of the hour then, but it created a structure where the technique associated with input-intensive cultivation came down from scientists to farmers, from lab to farms, from a controlled and certain environment to an open and uncertain environment. This has resulted in monoculture production systems that has led to overuse of inputs (water, fertilisers, pesticides, and credit among others) and dependence on a technique where the rate of increase in costs happens to be higher than the rate of increase in output. This increases net returns when the situation is close to lab-controlled conditions, but added to risks when there is deviation from those conditions. And, thereby, making agriculture unsustainable and credit non-serviceable.

Production or GDP Fetish and Poison-to-Mouth
What is more, it is this overuse and dependence that, unknown to the farmer, has adversely affected soil health and water quality. Along with these, to increase shelf-life and saleability, chemicals are added at the storage and distribution stage. So much so that all these has poisoned the food that one eats. A recent study by National Institute of Nutrition finds that food intake by children in Hyderabad has ten-to-forty times more pesticides than that in Europe or North America. The Central Institute of Fisheries Technology has issued a guidance note to guard against use of formalin in fish. All these are driven by a production or income or Gross Domestic Product (GDP) fetish.

As against these, inter-cropping or crop rotation practices that add to soil health and provide micronutrients to the plants from the soil do not add to GDP. Activities that stop the production, sale and use of harmful chemicals and pesticides will not only have adverse implications on GDP but will also have an uphill task against powerful economic interests.

The GDP accounting is such that expenses incurred towards treatment of patient's travelling in the  cancer train from India's green-revolution belt in Bhatinda, Punjab to Bikaner, Rajasthan will add to GDP. At the same time, relatively lower health-related expense because of a better health status among residents of Enabavi, the first organic village of India that also contributes to ecosystems, does not augur well for GDP.

In spite of the importance of ecosystems, a 100 year old tree that has enormous value from the perspective of ecosystem services will have no contribution to GDP. However, if the tree is cut and sold as wood it will add to GDP.

The irony in GDP accounting, the poison on our plates, and the unsustainable agriculture imply that the crisis in India's agriculture today has many facets. Poison to mouth of today seems to point to a greater predicament than the ship to mouth of yore. Hence, any intention to address this requires a commitment to invest. 

Call to Agro-ecology and Knowledge Systems
There is no alternative (TINA) reflects a poverty of reason because if the powers that be will and facilitate appropriate investments in knowledge systems and agro-ecological approaches for location-specific resilience then many alternatives exist (MAE). In other words, MAE makes TINA redundant. Some notable recent initiatives are zero-budget natural farming of Andhra Pradesh and revival of millets in Odisha. The University of Cambridge led consortium to Transform India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies (TIGR2ESS) also holds promise.  But, more needs to be done.

ZBNF field, Ramjogi, Dharmavaram, Srikakulam, Andhra Pradesh
To do away with poison on our plates and to keep income fetish aside we have to think afresh. India needs to overhaul her agriculture. More of the same cannot be an option. India needs to invest in knowledge systems and agro-ecological approaches that recognises location-specific resilience that nature provides.

[The views expressed are those of the author and not of the organisations that he is associated with.

Srijit Mishra researches and teaches development-related issues. He is Director, Nabakrushna Choudhury Centre for Development Studies (NCDS), an Indian Council of Social Science Research (ICSSR) institute in collaboration with Government of Odisha and Professor (on leave), Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research (IGIDR). He is the co-editor of Agrarian Crisis in India (OUP), has recently co-authored A MANUSH or HUMANS Characterisation of the Human Development Index and has been involved in the action research intervention of Odisha Millets Misson (OMM).]

1 comment:

  1. If in mid-sixties, green revolution technologies were essential, how these can be optional now when population has increased many fold and if now there are better alternatives to green revolution paradigm now, it implies, it was not essential even then. Seldom, there are one option situations. Usually, there are multiple options and social choices are made based on social balance of forces. So, was the situation in mid-sixties. Intensive area development programme was introduced in place of comprehensive and spread out all over the country community development programme and thus a better option was closed down. We are partially going back to it when we are now looking at rain-fed areas. Green revolution technologies are wrong choices today, and these were wrong choices, then.