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Thursday, Apr 18, 2002

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Sow seeds of diversification

AFTER TWO YEARS of poor or negative growth in agriculture, this year's farm performance is as welcome a relief as water for parched land. With an all-time high foodgrains output of 211 million tonnes and significant rebound in commercial crops such as oilseeds and cotton in 2001-02, agriculture and allied sector has helped improve incomes in the rural areas besides providing a salutary "feel good factor" to an otherwise tepid economy. Foodgrains buffer-stocks of 55 million tonnes plus are threatening to burgeon beyond 75 million tonnes in the next two months. The situation has even spawned a massive public relations exercise by the Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food and Public Distribution proclaiming that the country has started to supply grain to the world market. Who this publicity blitz is aimed at is unclear; but the irony of the situation — mountains of food stocks and millions below the poverty line — is too stark to escape attention.

Be that as it may, the growth in farm output this year is attributed by the Agriculture Ministry to the paradigm shift from the schematic approach to the macro-management mode that provided States the flexibility to implement Plan schemes as per their requirements. It is without doubt a major step towards achieving decentralisation in pursuance of restoring to States the primacy of farm development planning. Apparently, the Centre is beginning to act more as a catalyst even as the States seem to be assuming increasing responsibility for agricultural production. That is exactly how it should be and as envisaged in the Constitution. The National Conference on Agriculture for Kharif Campaign 2002, earlier this month, apart from discussing the strategy for the kharif season ahead, took note of the need to diversify. States have been advised to lay greater emphasis on larger coverage of high yielding varieties, timely supply of inputs such as seed and fertiliser, and regular surveillance of pests and diseases. Importantly, they have been asked to adopt a strategy of diversifying to high-value crops such as fruits and vegetables, and to oilseeds and pulses in which the country is deficient and resorts to large imports. One of the strategies suggested is cultivation of oilseeds and pulses as inter-crop in rainfed farming areas and as intervention in high productivity cereals-cereals sequence.

Experience of the last several years is that a shift from fine cereals to other crops, especially in irrigated areas, can happen if, and only if, a combination of two conditions is met — ensuring relatively higher profitability of other crops and no opened-ended procurement. Indeed, even without raising the minimum support price for oilseeds and pulses, as is now being done, the Government can encourage farmers to change crops by freezing the procurement price for fine cereals well ahead of the planting season and limiting the volume of procurement to what is required for the public distribution system. This policy prescription is in the Centre's domain and it must muster courage to announce a decision. The country has already lost a few seasons and cannot afford any further delay. It is time to evolve and implement policies for crop diversification.

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