There must be something amiss in a country that is the world's second largest producer of food, behind Brazil, but has the largest number of people ravaged by hunger and starvation. India's failure in agriculture is coming under increased scrutiny as soaring food inflation of 18.32 per cent ravages the common man and cripples household incomes.

The spiralling food bills have been driven by a 58.58 per cent rise in vegetable prices in a country whose population of 1.2 billion is largely vegetarian. People are vegetarian out of both choice and compulsion, vegetables selling traditionally cheaper than meats and poultry. While initially it was the onion's threefold price increase that struck the consumers, a tardy response from the government helped push up the cost of eggs, meat and fish by 20.83 per cent, and fruits and milk by nearly 20 per cent.

This is an alarming development, considering that the wholesale price index of foodgrains had shown only single digit growth, largely below 5 per cent, throughout the last 13 years. Even the devastating famine of 2002-03, when foodgrain production plummeted to 174.2 million tonnes from 212 million the year before, had not hurt the consumer as much, as the government had then managed to control the food prices.

It is a vicious cocktail of weak purchasing power that denies nutrition to the masses, and a systems failure in tackling supply side challenges. Per capita income is Rs.44,345 ($981), compared to the estimated $6700 of China's. So while India ranks first in world milk production, at 108.5 million tonnes, per capita availability of milk is but 258 grams per day, in contrast to the world average of 265.

Though India's economy has raced ahead at a frenetic 7.5 to 9.6 per cent, agricultural growth has foundered at 3 per cent, at times a little above that, often below, but always short of the targeted 4 per cent.
India is also the world's largest producer of cashew nuts, coconuts, tea, ginger, turmeric and black pepper, the second largest producer of wheat, rice, sugar, groundnut and inland fish, and the third largest producer of tobacco. It also has the largest cattle population, of 281 million, and accounts for a tenth of the world fruit production, while being the foremost producer of banana and sapota (chiku).

The situation is thus a paradox of plenty across a landscape of debasing malnutrition. What is worrisome is that increasing yields over the past many years, barring sporadic declines, are not rendering food progressively affordable. In 2008-09, food production scaled a record 234.47 million tonnes on the crest of a cycle of good monsoons between 2005-06 and 2008-09. While drought diminished production to 218.19 million tonnes in 2009-10, it was still enough to swell buffer stocks. Prices, however, flared by 19 per cent earlier last year.

Though India's economy has raced ahead at a frenetic 7.5 to 9.6 per cent, agricultural growth has foundered at 3 per cent, at times a little above that, often below, but always short of the targeted 4 per cent. The 1.42 per cent CAGR - compounded annual growth rate - in foodgrains has trailed behind the 1.66 per cent CAGR of the population. Oilseeds have trundled along at 1.14 per cent, with pulses, the staple for a large cross-section of the population, actually dipping 0.23 per cent.

Wide-spread calorie deprivation

It is an arduous task to expand the bread basket in a manner commensurate with the surge in numbers. It is nonetheless disturbing that despite emerging from the disgrace of food deficiency to an era of self-sufficiency and surpluses, India has around the same proportion - 24 per cent - of undernourished people as it did two decades ago.

In an unprecedented intervention last year, the Supreme Court had directed the government to release decaying wheat stocks for the hungry rather than have them rot completely. Contesting the ruling, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh contended that to implement it would hurt the interests of the farmers by denying them remuneration for their produce.

Poor handling of produce causes phenomenal post-harvest losses - of 10 per cent in foodgrains and 25 to 30 per cent in perishables - distancing gross production from net availability to the consumer. A venal administration preys upon the targeted public distribution system (TPDS) that thrives under the misnomer of "fair price shops". An estimated 58 per cent of the subsidised foodgrain issued from the Central Pool does not reach BPL - below poverty line - households because of identification errors and corrupt practices.

"The fact that calorie deprivation is increasing when the proportion of rural BPL population is claimed to be declining rapidly, highlights the increasing disconnect between official poverty estimates and calorie deprivation," says a recent report of the UN's World Food Programme (WFP). The report ranks India 94th in the Global Hunger Index of 119 countries, below even Guatemala and Equatorial Guinea. Observing that 27 per cent of the world's undernourished population lives in India, it notes that malnutrition accounts for nearly 50 per cent of child deaths in the country.

According to a World Bank report, the prevalence of underweight children in India is among the highest in the world, and is nearly double that of Sub-Saharan Africa. It also observes that malnutrition in India is a concentrated phenomenon: five states and 50 per cent of the villages account for about 80 per cent of the malnutrition cases.

The Prime Minister has urged for reforms to strengthen the TPDS to prevent largescale leakages and diversion of foodgrains and to curb errors in identifying BPL and AAY - Antyodaya Anna Yojana - families. AAY, which literally means 'food programme for the last man in the queue', is a subsidised food supply scheme for the poorest of the poor who constitute about 15 per cent of the BPL population, itself estimated at 37.2 per cent of India's overall population.

Over 260 million of India's women, children and men are undernourished, subsisting on 260 kilocalories per day, when the minimum dietary energy requirement is for 1770 and the global average, 2240. The situation had been better two decades ago, when the daily intake had been 290 kcal per person. Besides, net per capita per day availability of foodgrain has risen only feebly from 394.9 grams in 1951 to 436 grams today, a pathetic record over 60 years. Forty-three per cent of children below five in India suffer from malnutrition, in contrast to seven per cent for China.

Simple arithmetic dictates that if in 1990, 20 years ago, an output of 176.39 million tonnes fed, or nearly did, a population of 849.75 million, the present numbers of 1.2 billion would need yields of at least 250 million tonnes. Whereas production, even in the best year, has not risen above 235 million tonnes.

The question that this malaise compels us to ask is: Has India's Agriculture failed its people?

Despite its sheen of a rampaging economy, India is a predominantly agrarian country, with 65 per cent of its population having farming as the principal source of work and income security. "Farmers are the backbone of our nation," declared the Prime Minister from the ramparts of the Red Fort on Independence Day. Many deemed this little more than lip service, as with all things political.

As one of the world's largest agrarian economies, India's farm sector accounts for 15.7 per cent of the country's GDP and contributes 10.2 per cent of total exports. Notwithstanding the fact that its share in GDP has been declining over the years - from 29.76 per cent in 1993-94 to 1995-96 and 23.15 per cent in 2001-02 to 2002-03 - its role remains critical as it provides livelihood to 52 per cent of the workforce.

Complacency in government

Ravi Shankar Prasad, a lawyer who is also general secretary of the opposition Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), says the agriculture sector is in disarray because of gross mismanagement of the food economy by not only Agrilcuture minister Sharad Pawar, but also by the Prime Minister, who is an economist by training. "How is it that a food economy of surplus under our previous BJP-led National Democratic Alliance (NDA) government is converted now into a food economy of scarcity?" he asks. "This government stands primarily for the middleman, thereby shortchanging the farmers and taxing the consumers."

One wonders what would have happened if the Green Revolution of half a century ago had not taken place.

This landmark initiative has now lost its colour and its second avatar has yet to materialise. When launched to improve productivity and benefit farmers, this integrated programme saw synergy in technology, services, public policy and farmers' entrepreneurship. The strategy intensified cropping methodologies and agro-scientists contributed by developing high yielding varieties and hybrids. Irrigation spending increased and farmers were given credit to invest in irrigation systems like tube-wells. This led to a breakthrough in the productivity and production of rice and wheat through the '70s and '80s, and India became self-sufficient in foodgrains. It was at this time that the scheme of minimum support prices was introduced to ensure a baseline guaranteed income for the farmers.

As production and inventories grew, complacency set in. Government investments in the farm sector declined steadily through the next two decades. Yields and production stagnated and foodgrain production grew at less than one per cent on an annualised basis over the last decade.

Prof. M.S. Swaminathan, the eminent agricultural scientist, believes it is now time that agriculture is run as agri-business rather than subsistence farming. He indicates that value addition to raw food material in India is a measly seven per cent, in contrast to 23, 45 and 188 per cent in China, the Philippines and the U.K. respectively. India processes less than two per cent of the fruits and vegetables it grows, as compared to 30 per cent in Thailand and 80 per cent in Malaysia.

Almost half - 159 million hectares (mha), or 397 million acres - of India's territorial area of 328 mha (820 million acres) is arable, the largest after the United States' 167 mha (417.5 million acres). But while 48.5 per cent of India's land is cultivable, in the U.S. it is only 18.2 per cent, in China, 16.13 per cent, and Brazil, 7.82 per cent. Yet, the yield of paddy in India is just 3303 kg per hectare (2.5 acres) compared to China's 6422 kg, Brazil's 3826 and the world average of 4233 kg. India's wheat yields per hectare are better, being 2704 kg compared with Canada's 2322 kg, the US's 2705 kg and the world's 2829 kg. In sugarcane, Indian yields are 72,555 kg per hectare, while those in Egypt are 119,557 kg, Guatemala, 88,630 kg and globally, 69,998 kg.

Devinder Sharma, chairman of New Delhi's Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security, deems it "quite natural" to weigh the performance of Pawar, especially when agriculture is passing through a turbulent period. He nevertheless feels Pawar is not alone to be blamed. "The government as a whole is responsible for turning a blind eye to the paradox of plenty - food rotting in storage while millions go to bed hungry," he says. "Manmohan Singh's rebuff to the Supreme Court only shows how indifferent the political leadership is to ground realities."


Sharad Pawar
Agriculture Minister

How have we come to this crippling rise in food prices?

India's robust economic growth is driving the demand for foodgrains, while the cost of cultivation and production is also going up. As in the case of pulses, rising international prices too have contributed to the price spiral. Surging feed and fodder costs have raised milk prices, whereas increased Minimum Support Prices (MSPs) and rising demand have pushed up prices of rice and wheat. There were also production losses in the case of rice due to the poor monsoon the year before.

Steps are being taken to safeguard the vulnerable sections from such price escalations. Notably, the issue price of foodgrains from the Central pool has been kept constant since 2004, despite higher costs of production and procurement. Additional allocations are also being made through the public distribution system to provide relief to the poor.

How would you assess your role as Agriculture minister?

Though agriculture is a State subject, the Centre has been assisting States by formulating schemes and programmes to meet national food security and to generate livelihood for millions of farmers. My ministry's role is that of a facilitator and regulator, enunciating approaches, formulating demands, setting targets, providing guidance, developing agricultural industries, including machinery, fertilisers and seeds, and conducting research.

There have been many achievements since I assumed charge. New flagship schemes like the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY, the National Agriculture Development Programme) and the National Food Security Mission (NFSM) have been launched to stimulate investment in the sector and to enhance production and productivity. Missions for horticulture, bamboo, micro-irrigation etc. have also been launched.

We had record foodgrain production of 234.47 million tonnes in 2008-09. Notwithstanding the severe drought of 2009, where there was 23 per cent rainfall deficiency, agriculture and allied sector GDP rose 0.2 per cent in 2009-10. To make agriculture remunerative on a sustainable basis, minimum support prices of major cereals have been hiked from 49 to 78 per cent over the last five years, while that of pulses and oilseeds, by up to 83 per cent.

What is being done to resolve the predicament of the public distribution system?

With reference to leakage from the public distribution system, it must be noted that my ministry's responsibility extends to transporting foodgrains upto the district headquarters and from then on, the onus is on the respective state governments to reach out to targeted households through the fair price shops. While the Centre handles the procurement, storage, transportation and bulk allocation of foodgrains, the state governments distribute them through networks of fair price shops to families below poverty line that they need to identify and issue BPL cards to. The state governments are also responsible for issuing ration cards, weeding out ghost ration cards, supervising and monitoring the functioning of these shops, and prosecuting the errant.

To what extent have small farmers been helped?

Government initiatives in recent years to find sustainable solutions for strengthening farmer livelihood and income have included expansion of institutional credit to farmers, setting up the National Rainfed Area Authority, watershed development and micro-irrigation programmes, revitalising the cooperative sector, and developing agri-business through venture capital of the Small Farmer Agri-business Consortium.

What measures are being contemplated for an agricultural revival?

In pursuit of the call for a 'Second Green Revolution', the government has a four-pronged strategy targeting 4 per cent growth by augmenting production, reducing wastage of produce, expanding credit support to farmers and boosting the food processing sector.

The first element of the strategy is geared towards invigorating the relatively neglected farm sector in eastern India through Rs400 crore ($88.5 million) worth of funding for Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, eastern UP, West Bengal and Orissa. A further Rs300 crore ($66.4 million) has been provided to organise 60,000 "pulses and oilseed villages" in rainfed areas and for water harvesting, watershed management and soil health to enhance the productivity of dry land farming areas.

An additional Rs.200 crores has been allocated for sustaining the gains already made in the green revolution areas through conservation farming involving concurrent attention to soil health, water conservation and preservation of biodiversity.

The third element of the strategy relates to improving farm credit availability by raising agriculture credit target for banks to Rs.375,000 crores. The additional one per cent interest subvention that had been provided as an incentive for timely repayment of crop loans was raised to two per cent, rendering the effective rate of interest for such farmers at five per cent per annum.

The fourth element of the strategy, which seeks to stimulate the food processing sector by providing streamlined infrastructure, proposes five more mega food park projects in addition to the 10 already set up. As part of the 'farm-to-market' initiative, External Commercial Borrowings are now permissible for cold storage or cold room facilities, including for farm level pre-cooling.

Despite so many agriculture universities and research centres, why are our farm yields so low?

It is not correct to say that Indian agricultural yields are universally very low. In fact, Indian yields for wheat and rice in several states are quite comparable to the best in the world. Similar is the case with yields for fruits and vegetables in many states. However, since a large part of the country is still rainfed, average yields in many crops tend to be lower.

Why are our farmers so vulnerable?

This is on account of two primary factors. One relates to their small holdings that tie them in a low income trap, restraining any credible investment of their income or surplus in land productivity. Secondly, 60 per cent of agriculture is still dependent on the rains. If the rains fail or there are unfavourable variations in rain or other climatic factors, then crops suffer.

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Siraj Hussain
Chairman and MD of Food Corporation of India

Food Corporation of India (FCI) CMD Siraj Hussain says that every farmer is assured that whatever quantities of foodgrain he wishes to sell to the government at the notified minimum support price (MSP) will be purchased by the FCI and state government agencies, provided his produce meets the quality specifications.

"This is in consonance with the policy on foodgrain procurement and management that aims at providing an assured market to farmers with remunerative support prices and at enabling access to affordable food, particularly to poor consumers," he mentions. "Inadequate returns or disinclination to purchase by government procurement agencies will disincentivise farmers from sowing these crops in future." This may cause a substantial shift to non-foodgrain crops, drastically affecting the food security of the nation. This policy intervention has shown very positive results over the last five to six years. While the rise in MSP was only 15 per cent between 1999 and 2004, it soared 75 per cent from 2004 to 2010.

This policy also led to wheat yields increasing from 69.4 million tonnes in 2005-06 to 80.71 million tonnes by 2009-10, with wheat procurement too rising from 9.2 million to 22.5 million tonnes. In contrast, wheat production had slumped from 72.8 million to 69.4 million tonnes and procurement, from 19 million to 9.2 million tonnes, between 2001 and 2005.

Similarly, rice production grew from 71.8 million tonnes in 2002-03 to 99.2 million in 2008-09, while procurement reached an all-time high at 33.6 million tonnes in 2008-09 from 16.4 million tonnes in 2002-03. Total foodgrain procurement at present is 53.5 million tonnes.

Since 2004-05, the area under wheat has increased from 26.5 million to 27.8 million hectares and that under paddy, from 41.9 million to 45.5 million has. The trend had been negative during the previous BJP-led NDA regime, with the area under wheat shrinking from 27.5 million to 26.4 million has and for rice, from 45.2 million to 41.9 million has.

"It must be asserted that only our sound procurement policy based on incentivising farmers will lead to food security for the country," notes Hussain. "The policy has spurred record procurements, from 51.62 million to 60.44 million tonnes over the past two years, leading to significant build-ups of central pool stocks."

Steps are also being taken to reduce wastages in storage as well as in the operations of the existing food supply chains in the country, he says. Wastage of grain procured for buffer stocks and PDS occurs due to shortage of storage capacity in the FCI. This shortfall is being met through an ongoing scheme for private sector participation where the FCI has been hiring godowns from private parties for a guaranteed period of five years. This period is now being extended to seven years.


S Ayyappan
Director General of ICAR

Dr S. Ayyappan, Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), credits India.s record in expanding its food base. "When one harks back to the green revolution of the .60s, it must be borne in mind that the starting base was very narrow at the time," he mentions. "In fact, a former agriculture minister had coined the term .rainbow revolution. that would characterise the strides made in recent years in almost all farm sectors, be it cereals, pulses, vegetables, fruits, sugarcane, cotton, eggs, milk, livestock and fish."

Established as the Imperial Council of Agricultural Research in 1929, ICAR now comes under the Department of Agricultural Research and Education (DARE) and manages four deemed universities, 45 institutes, 17 national research centres, six national bureaus and 25 directorates and project directorates. Ayyappan believes that if some institutes are converted into centres of excellence, with institutional support, better infrastructure and faculty development they can well emerge at international levels.

According to the Director General, much of our advances in agri-sciences get diluted on account of the soaring population, compounded by unpredictable weather. Changing temperatures may hamper yields or at times the rains may fail and precipitate a drought. Productivity has largely been satisfactory, but post-harvest losses, especially of perishables, are a concern on account of a weak infrastructure and poor storage and handling. He sees land degradation as another problem, with nearly 2 million hectares of cultivated land becoming acidic or alkaline and being lost to farming as a result. Increasing urbanisation too is levying a toll on farmland.

Gross cropped area in India totals about 195 million hectares, of which the gross irrigated area is around 86 million hectares. Besides, consumption of fertiliser in India is among the lowest, with 117 kg of NPK applied per hectare per year. Ayyappan also indicates that much of the agricultural activity takes place in the western part of the country where water is relatively scarce, whereas cultivation is rudimentary in eastern India that is endowed with a bountiful water resource.

"Yet, our population is well sustained as our farmers manage two, and at times three, crops a year," he notes. "Thankfully, we have food to eat and there are no food riots."

Infusing entrepreneurship

Terming India's food situation as 'real bad', Dr. Lux Lakshmanan, Director of the California Agriculture Consulting Service, of Davis, California, regrets it is unlikely to improve in the foreseeable future. "All indications are that it is going to get worse, considering the primitive farming methods used by the farmers and the still more primitive farming methods that are being introduced and promoted," he notes.

A scientist and a consultant in crop production to California farmers, Lakshmanan points out that during his annual trips to India, he endeavours to transfer technology to Indian farming practices in an effort to elevate them to some decent level. "I have been quite successful in this, judging from the fact that several of my trainees are helping farmers improve their crop yields 300 to 500 per cent within a short time," he says.

A centre set up by him in Chennai trains educated younth to become agriculture entrepreneurs who will use modern crop production technologies and tools. "The goal is to transfer crop production to those trained to make money out of the land and create industrial jobs for farmers through value addition," he mentions. "This three-year phased programme is now in the second year, quite on course."

At its conclusion, he expects each entrepreneur will farm up to 40 leased hectares (100 leased acres), generating an annual net income of over Rs1.3 crore and three different value addition factories providing industrial jobs to all the farmers who leased land to him. As of now, 39 entrepreneurs from five Indian states are trained and are in various phases of the programme. Lakshmanan says this programme is also designed to achieve food security for the country and rid it of the undesirable PDS system.

Raising the yields

India's agriculture will need to evolve in a manner that meets the requirements of the officially projected population boom, to 1.33 billion by 2020 and to 1.4 billion by 2026. But there is no silver bullet, no single solution for the problem. At the same time, it is clear that the country cannot continue to be beset with low productivity and growth.

Though irrigation is critical to sustaining food security, it has not fared too well. Only 35.8 per cent of India's cropland is irrigated, the remaining two-third relying on rain. The growth rate of land being brought under irrigation was 4.23 per cent in the '70s, but this slowed to 2.27 per cent between 1981 and 1991 and further to 1.15 per cent thereafter. Increased application of fertiliser is often touted as a solution for increasing yields. India is third only behind China and the US in fertiliser production and consumption, but its average per hectare use of 85 kg per hectare is among the lowest in Asia.

There is also the view that 'exploitative agriculture' - one that uses maximum chemical pesticides and mineral fertilisers - offers little chance for conservation farming that lays stress on the sustainable management of soil and water and involves soil health enhancement. There are pitfalls in intensive cultivation of land without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure. Irrigation without arrangement for drainage results in soils getting alkaline or saline. Indiscriminate use of pesticides, fungicides and herbicides causes adverse changes in the biological balance and increases chances of disease through toxic residues. A balanced approach is thus crucial to sustain yields.