Sale of produce in APMC-run regulated markets hardly provides solace even though commodity prices are determined as per the forces of demand and supply in these.
By Seema Bathla
& Anjani Kumar
Overemphasis on Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) to reduce cost of production and double farmer incomes must be analysed critically and holistically. The adoption of high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds along with irrigation, chemical fertilisers, associated package of practices and strong policy support (credit, MSP, etc) ushered in Green Revolution during the 1960s. Consequently, Indian agriculture transformed from low-investment subsistence natural farming to high-investment modern and commercial farming. This enabled India to achieve not only self-sufficiency in foodgrains for the growing population, but also to emerge as a net exporter of agricultural commodities.
The country boasted of elimination of hunger and be at top position in the world in the production of wheat, rice, pulses, milk and various horticultural crops. Since then, capital along with labour have been viewed as key drivers of agricultural growth, which is in consonance with the economic theory.
After 60 years of reaping the benefits of technology, a dramatic policy shift towards ZBNF as announced in the Budget is perplexing, though the coexistence of alternative options and technologies are always rewarding.
ZBNF is done using natural ingredients that reduce cost of production on inputs. In other words, farmers go back to a system followed by their parents during pre-Green Revolution period. Such practices adopt jiwamrita, bijamrita and acchadana (natural mulching) based on cow urine, earthworms and other biological functions. Not only such practices lessen the input cost, they also contribute to sustainable practices in terms of health of soil and the environment.
The questions, however, are: Will ZBNF reduce the cost of production and raise farmers’ net returns from cultivation? How much output per hectare this practice yields in comparison to chemical farming under varied agro-ecological conditions across states? Are farmers equipped with appropriate training and availability of livestock for urine and dung? How can farmers be encouraged to adopt ZBNF and what would be its scalability over time? Will ZBNF be appropriate for high-value commodities, the demand of which is increasing by the day? There are no concrete answers, as little research has been done on these so far. The successful cases of ZBNF are too less to make it a policy mandate.
There are bigger issues that inflict Indian agriculture and should have been taken up in the Budget. First, 50% of net sown area is rain-fed. Farmers cannot remain dependent on rain, which is becoming erratic owing to climatic variations. Public investment in irrigation is a must. We witnessed massive increase in investments during the last decade in the major-medium-minor irrigation systems across states, with much greater share of investment in rain-fed and eastern states. But these have not led to a commensurate increase in the net irrigated area by canals, whose share in total irrigated area continues to hover at 17%. Apparently, the failure of the government to provide adequate irrigation has led to a sizeable increase in private investment (mainly by farmers) in tube wells and other sources, and hence a much higher share in net irrigated area. It may imply that the government expenditure is more on the operation and maintenance of 5,264 dams operational in the country and considerably less towards capital intensity. Thus, it is important that the government encourages private investment through provision of subsidised credit and subsidy on capital.
Second, farmers are usually oblivious to tech interventions and newer farming practices. The NSSO 70th round (2012-13) noted that government extension programmes have not been able to reach most farmers. Third, production of agricultural commodities is intertwined with their marketing, which has hardly progressed. Farmers receive a small share of the consumer rupee due to a long chain of intermediaries in marketing. Sale of produce in APMC-run regulated markets hardly provides solace even though commodity prices are determined as per the forces of demand and supply in these. The survey divulges that a majority of farmers prefer to sell their produce to village traders and also they receive prices below MSP for wheat and rice in most states.
Even if the idea of ZBNF is accepted through aggressive extension and training programmes, and bridging knowledge gaps, these challenges call for immediate attention. The organically produced commodities under ZBNF will also face marketing problems unless the government extends price support and comes to their rescue when prices fall. The government should increase public investment in irrigation and agriculture markets, which can propel farmers to make investments and achieve higher incomes from farming.
Bathla and Kumar are agricultural economists at Jawaharlal Nehru University and International Food Policy Research Institute, Delhi, respectively