When the country went into a total lockdown recently following the outbreak of Covid-19, it wrought severe disruption in the economy — and in people’s lives. Millions lost their livelihoods practically overnight, and with it the capacity to feed their families. But what served as a societal shock absorber of sorts was the huge foodgrain stocks held by the state-run Food Corporation of India.
An estimated 81 crore beneficiaries are being provided 5 kg of rice/wheat per person free over and above their monthly entitlement under the Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Anna Yojana.
Such largescale distribution of free foodgrains was possible only because the country had attained self-sufficiency in food production over the previous decades. That represents a remarkable journey for the country, which had at the time of Independence been living virtually “from ship to mouth”.
What made this transformation possible was the Green Revolution, which saw the introduction of input-intensive farm practices, and effective policy interventions. Today, India is among the world’s top food producers, and has become a major exporter.
Agriculture and allied sectors remain a major source of livelihood for a large section of the population — although agriculture’s share of GDP has come down from 58 per cent in the early 1950s to 16.5 per cent. About 70 per cent of rural households depend on agriculture for livelihood, and 82 per cent of farmers are small and marginal.
Access to food
While farm output has kept pace with population growth over seven decades, the country still faces food insecurity: millions do not have access to adequate and nutritious food. Moreover, farming is a challenge for a large section of those dependent on it owing to a variety of factors.
“Today, the farmer faces multiple challenges: rising cost of cultivation due to rising input prices, labour wages, labour shortage, unremunerative prices, small land holdings, changing climatic pattern and deteriorating quality of inputs. If not addressed, these will pose more problems,” says A Narayanamoorthy, former member of the Commission For Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP).
The government should look beyond wheat and rice, strengthen procurement of other commodities, and keep input prices in check, Narayanamoorthy says. In his view, income support to farmers must be enhanced from ₹6,000 per annum currently to ₹10,000.
‘Expand tank irrigation’
Further, Narayanamoorthy says, the emphasis should be on expanding surface irrigation through canals and tanks. “One of the reasons for the increased cultivation cost is the increasing dependence on groundwater. The government should promote tank irrigation: it is inexpensive, and ecologically friendly,” says Narayanamoorthy, who heads the Department of Economics and Rural Development at Alagappa University.
In addition to these challenges, factors such as stagnation of yields, pest attacks, growing land degradation and inadequate infrastructure for storage and processing weigh on farmers.
The Narendra Modi government recently initiated major reforms to address the agri-marketing challenges. A ₹1-lakh crore Agriculture Infrastructure Fund, a medium-long term debt financing facility launched last fortnight, is expected to catalyse farm infrastructure projects.
A recent FAO report projected that India is among the countries likely to face a pronounced impact of climate change on agriculture, resulting in output decline and a drop in yields.
To face the challenges of the future, there is a need for concerted and holistic approach to agriculture: this should find expression in policies that address both the economic and ecological challenges, and build up the country’s food security in the decades ahead.
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