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Economic Survey Calls for More-From-Less Agriculture; Clear Pathway for GM Crops

The Economic Survey, which is regarded as the Chief Economic Adviser’s prescription for the economy (seldom heeded), calls for sustainable agriculture driven by technology, not tradition, with a focus on low-resource-using and soil-enriching pulses that have a fit with Indian diets biased towards proteins. Vivian Fernandes summarizes the chapter on agriculture into easily-digestible pap.

  • ‘More from less’ should be the aim of agriculture because rapid industrialization and climate change have raised the scarcity value of land and water.
  • Indian agriculture is the victim of the Green Revolution’s success. It has become cereal-centric, regionally-biased and resource-intensive.
  • A rainbow revolution must follow the green and white revolutions.
  • The emphasis must be on productivity. Wheat and rice are grown on fertile, irrigated lands and get the biggest chunk of subsidies but average yields are 46 percent and 39 percent less than China’s, respectively. Wheat and paddy yields of most Indian states are lower than that of Bangladesh.
  • Genetically modified crop technologies have ‘significant net benefits.’ Evolved regulation is needed to allay public fears so they can be deployed.
  • Pulses and oilseeds must be supported with procurement and support prices that reflect their social contribution – less water use and enrichment of soil with atmospheric nitrogen.
  • For the above reasons, social returns of pulses are higher than returns based on market prices. For chickpea or chana, they were Rs 2,662 per ha higher. In percentage terms, chickpea had the highest (positive) difference (for the three years ending 2010-11) between social and market-based returns (101 percent) followed by blackgram or urad (95 percent) and lentil or masur (20 percent). In case of wheat, ordinary rice, basmati and cane, the social returns were negative.
  • Focus on pulses is needed as diets are shifting to proteins. The productivity of a key producing state like Madhya Pradesh (938 kg/ha) is less than 60 percent of the yield of China’s basket of pulses (1,550 kg/ha). If all states were to attain even Bihar’s level of pulses productivity, national output would increase by 41 percent.
  • India has less water per person than Brazil but uses 90 percent of its renewable freshwater compared to Brazil’s 60 percent.
  • A shift from flood irrigation to drip or sprinkler irrigation is needed. Subsidies on power must end to curb water wastage. Cheap power makes India a net exporter of water through commodities like cotton, sugar and soybean, while China is a net importer of water through soybean, cotton, meat and grains. India’s export of water is equal to the demand of 13 million people.
  • A government study in 64 districts of 13 states showed 45 percent increase in wheat yield, 20 percent in gram and 40 percent in soybean with micro-irrigation. It is ‘feasible’ for rice and wheat as well.
  • Fragmented markets (because of poor roads or restrictions on sale) result in farmers getting less share of the wholesale or retail value. A national sample survey shows the median farmer’s annual income after deducting production costs is Rs 20,000 in 17 states. This includes produce saved and valued at local market prices. Given the difference between retail and farm-gate prices, this might be an underestimate, but it is still low.
  • The difference between farm-gate and wholesale prices is highest for potatoes, onions and groundnuts. The ‘wedges’ between retail and wholesale prices are highest for perishables like onions and less for cereals and pulses.
  • Agricultural research has the biggest impact on yield and profitability but it is weak in states where agriculture is relatively more important (eastern and northern states, except Punjab and Haryana).
  • While expenditure must be increased, with the centre playing a bigger role, public sector scientists must sweat more. Research productivity for 63.5 percent of them is ‘low to very low’. Performance measurement is vital.
  • The private sector must be enticed into pulses research (which it has shunned) by offering a ‘disproportionately large enough award’ to the winner for innovating in desirable traits, but the intellectual property rights must vest with the government. There should be equal treatment of the private, public and citizen sectors in this respect.
  • Current seed replacement ratio for pulses ranges between 19 percent and 34 percent. Private sector innovation can step this up for productivity gains.
  • There is need for a national market for agricultural commodities. ‘Nearly seventy years after Independence, India is still far from being one nation in agriculture,’ the Economic Survey says.

(Top photo: Chief Economic Adviser Arvind Subramanian urging a point at a press conference in New Delhi after the Economic Survey is placed in parliament. Press Information Bureau photo). 





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