India has the world's largest area under rice (44 million hectares), but one of the lowest yields, just about 2 tonnes a hectare.

The Prime Minister, Dr Manmohan Singh's call at the International Rice Congress 2006 in New Delhi for a second Green Revolution in rice has not come a day too soon. Rice provides livelihood, employment, income and trade opportunities for millions of people including growers, input suppliers, processors and traders.

Rising consumption demand fuelled by income and population growth on the one hand, and unsteady output resulting from low yields, water shortage and mono-cropping on the other, have begun to stress rice availability in the country. Production data since 2000-01 show wide fluctuations and stagnant yields. Sharp regional variations in yield and production skew availability while procurement is lopsided. India is a major exporter of rice with annual volumes of 40-50 lakh tonnes, but the sluggish rate of indigenous output growth is sure to choke export supplies sooner than one can imagine. Without sounding alarmist, it must be stated that for India, rice could soon go the wheat way. We may have to not only completely stop exporting rice, but may also be forced to import if production-enhancement measures are not adopted quickly.

India has the world's largest area under rice (44 million hectares), but one of the lowest yields, just about 2 tonnes a hectare. Fragmented landholding is usually trotted out as the reason for the low yield. Even China cultivates rice in fragmented landholding, but its yields are more than double, while the world average is a third higher than in India. Given the water-intensive nature of paddy cultivation and looming water scarcity in the country, it is essential that yields are correlated to water use rather than to a unit of land, as observed by the Primer Minister. Rice exports translate to (scarce) water exports, in a manner of speaking. Reducing water intensity of rice cultivation should be the research priority.

For the country to raise yields and thereby production, policymakers have to train attention on areas long ignored. As many as 16 million hectares, or 40 per cent of the national rice area, falls in Assam, Bihar, Madhya Pradesh and Orissa where the yield is an abysmal one tonne a hectare. Raising the yield in these four States to the national average of 2 tonnes a hectare, would translate into additional 15-16 million tonnes, enough to secure the food needs for a few more years. This calls for a dispassionate reassessment of priorities and timely evaluation of financial, technological and human resource needs.

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(This article was published in the Business Line print edition dated October 17, 2006)
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