After the intermission

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Updated: Jul 31 2007, 03:38am hrs
A new round of agroclimatic plans are afoot, a Food Security Mission, after an intermission of two decades since the first book was presented in Parliament in 1988. Thats good. Some of the soundbytes are the same, which is not good because agriculture has changed. These days, I keep warning people not to resurrect the passions of our youth. A couple of days ago, in an in absentia valedictory, I argued that the old reliable poverty line developed by a task force that Id chaired in 1978, must be junked. We no longer live from hand-to-mouth. The real problem of poverty is very focused. But on a larger plane, aspirations are naturally much higher. The idea of agroclimatic planning is great, but to repeat two-decade old solutions would be totally unacceptable to their architects, leave aside the present-day kisan. The yield-potential gap, more tubewells, credit write-offs and other mantras will push him and us over the brink.

Just revisit the terrain and note the difference. Start from the most undeveloped parts, and as you go from Aurangabad to Parbhani, you no longer find yourself asking for dryland horticulture, onions and grapes, watersheds and tubewells as in 1988. The crops are there. But as soon as onion prices rise, the government freezes exports. Tubewells are no longer possible, as these are the 100 districts the last Budget identified as ground-water stressed. The government helps you export grapes as horticulture only if you are in an official export zone. If youre in the wrong district, you need an export license.

In the drylands of Madhya Pradesh east and Malwa, again, the problem is no longer more soya in kharif and better seeds. Yields are quite high and have crossed the earlier target of one tonne per hectare. Oilseed prices are the issue, and the latest reduction in tariff protection is not helping the dryland farmer. In this region, again, forests are waiting to be discovered as the next green revolution, but there is no economic policy for forest products. The JFMs, in fact, have now a larger state component. There is hardly any sign of JFMs and producer companies linking up with exporters. From here, through to Chattisgarh, they want the market to price their special wheat varieties (the Sharbati) and rice (the Chattisgarh rice bowl is mentioned in the Puranas), but the world of minimum support prices and imports will have none of that.

To the north, in Gujarat and Rajasthan, agriculture is prospering. Sardar Sarovar has meant for Gujarat a river diverted to it, and for the first time in its historical memory, it is exultant in water adequacy, although much remains to be done to fully utilise it. Also, there have been good rains in succession, so you have agricultural growth of the kind not seen for long. The worries are about what happens when illegal Bt seeds occasionally fail. Oilseeds, meanwhile, have taken a price beating, but since there is more rice, wheat and cotton, not much is made of itapart from governments reacting to urban lobbies as elections approach.

There must be similar stories from further north and east India, although I havent been there for some time. The moral of the story is that agricultural needs are no longer what they were in the old days. Farmers are looking for income enhancement. This is why groundnut is ceding ground to cotton. The new seeds are Bt or HYVs. Sprinklers are old hat, especially as you cross Haryana. But newer water-harvesting technologies are in demand. Most middle farmers in the drylands now store their own water.

What is important are markets and access. But, again, the needs are complex. Many farmers now have farm-level storage facilities and play the market. Newer crops are emergingproducts of tree crops, of the jungle and so onwhich rake in large sums of money while the going is good. But there are risks, as seen in the experience of vanilla and other crops. The government will have to develop lean agencies which are flexible and can work in continuous interaction with farmers. The government probably cannot do much good on its own. The smart solution is to unleash private agencies that can. My generation raked in the easy pickings from the agroclimatic paradigm in moving from a favoured region/crop strategy to specialisation for the regions crop. Its tougher now.

Incidentally, isnt there a problem with a food security agroclimatic mission in conceptual and nomenclature terms In an agroclimatic regime, you grow the most profitable crop for the land, water and soil, and let the trade take care of food deficits and surpluses. Today, market signals are supposed to play a role. But so long as the intention is good, it must be alright. If we raise cereal yields with the hybrid paddies and HYV wheat varieties on the best soil, we will release a lot of land for diversification. So, go ahead, regardless of what the trade theorists say. With a mistake or two, it will work out.

The author is a former Union minister for power, planning and science, and was vice-chancellor of JNU. Write to alagh@icenet.net