As India celebrates its 69th Independence Day, it is time to pause and look back at what major challenges we faced since Independence and how they were overcome. Also, what mistakes and follies we committed, so that we don’t repeat the same and face the future with greater hope and confidence.
In 1947, undivided India had a population of 390 million. But overnight, on August 15, at the stroke of a new dawn, India was responsible for the destiny of 330 million people. The other 60 million became part of the newly-created nation of Pakistan (30 million in West Pakistan and another 30 million in East Pakistan—now Bangladesh). Majority of these 330 million Indians were rural, quite poor, illiterate, and with much shorter life expectancy than today.
MK Gandhi rightly said that India lives in villages, and feeding them well was the biggest challenge for a healthy and happy life. But we also wanted to transform our society fast, with modern industrial goods and outlook. So, after a few initial years of absorbing the shock of partition, and stabilising the society, Nehru led India on a socialist path with a mixed economy framework. Heavy industrialisation under state ownership was the darling of development and symbol of modernisation. For food, however, India relied on supplies from US under Public Law 480 (PL480) against rupee payments as India did not have much foreign exchange to buy large quantities of food in international markets. The folly of this came to surface in mid-1960s, when US suspended wheat supplies temporarily (due to some political differences) at a time when India was facing back-to-back droughts, and country was literally living from ‘ship to mouth’. But the folly of state-led heavy industrialisation and import substitution, which kept India trapped in what the late Raj Krishna called the ‘Hindu rate of growth’ of 3.5% for decades, is still being debated.
India was quick to learn from its PL480 folly and the neglect of agriculture. India realised that its political freedom can be in trouble if it does not have self-reliance in basic food supply. But India’s entire foreign exchange reserves in the mid-1960s could not buy more than 8 million tonnes (mt) of wheat in the international market, while it was importing 10 mt under PL 480. So, India did not have much of an option, other than self-sufficiency in basic staples. India imported 18,000 tonnes of high-yielding varieties (HYV) of wheat from Mexico in 1966, and ushered in the Green Revolution.
Where does India stand today, in terms of its agriculture, vis-a-vis its birth in 1947? While the population has grown from 330 million to almost 1.25 billion, i.e., by almost 3.8 times, our wheat production has gone up by almost 15 times (from about 6.5 mt in 1951 to 96 mt in 2014). Rice production is up by more than 5 times (from 20.6 mt in 1951 to touch 106.5 mt in 2014); maize production by more than 14 times (from 1.7 mt in 1951 to 24.4 mt in 2014); milk by 8 times (from 17 mt to 137 mt); fish by 12 times and potatoes by 26 times. Cotton, too, went up from 3 million bales in 1951 to 37 million bales in 2014, an increase of more than 12 times.
India is not only self sufficient in agriculture, but also a net exporter of agri-produce. In FY15, agri-exports were $38 billion against imports of less than $20 billion. During the last three years, India has exported total of 61 mt of cereals, nothing short of a wonder for a country that lived from ‘ship to mouth’ in the mid-1960s. Today, India is the largest exporter of rice in the world, and second-largest exporter of beef (buffalo meat) and cotton.
India is the largest producer of milk, and second largest producer of fruits and vegetables, rice, wheat, and sugarcane. It gives a big satisfaction and relief to policymakers, an idea of which can be gauged by looking at how just the price of onions makes them nervous today. Think what would have happened if there were all-round shortages a la mid-1960s?
Whom do we salute for such a turnaround in India’s agri-fortunes? Several stakeholders have played their role in achieving this. There have been policymakers like C Subramaniam, who steered the political debate to import HYV seeds, despite massive opposition from the Left wing parties in Parliament, and ushered in the Green Revolution. There are scientists like late Norman Borlaug who invented these seeds and MS Swaminathan and Atwal who were the first ones to adapt them to Indian conditions. But when C Subramaniam was asked whom does the credit go for Green Revolution, his reply was “to the farmers” who took the risk of adopting new technologies. He saluted the farmers.
India’s milk story is the story of the ‘milk-man’ of India, Verghese Kurien, who nurtured the cooperative movement of India and made AMUL (Anand Milk Union Limited) and made it an ‘utterly-butterly’ familiar name for every household.
There is an important lesson from this grand success of agriculture. New technologies (HYV seeds, water, fertilisers) and innovations in institutional engineering (as in milk) have been the real catalysts of change in Indian agriculture. These seeds can come from outside the country (as was the case of HYV seeds of wheat and rice) or even now of Bt cotton seeds from large private sector companies (Monsanto-Mahyco), or take birth on Indian soil (Pusa basmati), or can even be several hybrids of maize, introduced by both multinationals and domestic companies, government, etc. But it is the farmer-entrepreneur who takes the risk in adopting those seeds and technologies, puts in his/her best efforts, and the nation reaps a rich harvest to feed its citizens.
It is time to salute our farmers for this heroic accomplishments. But it is also time to ask, what is it that the country has given back to them? Are they prosperous and happy? There is no doubt that several pockets of peasantry have experienced prosperity, but overall picture, as per the latest Situation Assessment Survey, is not very rosy. So, the next challenge for all of us is to ensure a smile on their faces as well. That calls for a major re-orientation of farm policies, and it is time to ring the cowbell!
The author is Infosys chair professor for agriculture at ICRIER