Beyond cereals

| Updated on January 13, 2018 Published on March 05, 2017

Violent fluctuations in horticulture prices point to the policy need to go beyond rice and wheat

India is the second-largest producer of fruit and vegetables, but neither farmers nor consumers benefit from this. Imperfections in the market mean that it neither helps farmers get a fair price nor consumers get reliable supplies at relatively stable prices. Boom and bust cycles are the norm, as farmers have little advance information on likely price movements based on weather and soil conditions to take well-considered cropping decisions. Every boom period results in some amount of distress-selling of crops, which in turn leads to a drop in sowing in the following crop season, thus perpetuating a vicious cycle. Although the weather is often blamed for roller-coaster prices, all such movements cannot be attributed to seasonal factors. Lack of market access and storage infrastructure, middlemen, and hoarding play an important part. Such volatility does not enable more farmers to shift away from growing cereals to adopting horticulture. Many of the imperfections in the market have been caused by laws and regulations that have run their course and need to be replaced with ones that recognise the realities of the changed market as well as changed consumption patterns. Laws such as the Agriculture Produce Market Committee Act that require farmers to sell to designated mandis in the State where they produce, hinder rather than aid growers.

The Centre did realise the importance of horticulture for improving the lot of small farmers as well as to improve the availability of non-grain nutritious food over a decade ago. That led to the announcement of the National Horticulture Mission in 2005-06. Efforts made under it have paid off on the supply side — horticulture output exceeded production of cereals in most years beginning 2009-10. The mission also required establishment of cold chain linkages from farm to consumer, given the highly perishable nature of most fruits and vegetables. While the Centre did its bit to help create the cold chains — giving the sector infrastructure status from 2011-12 and central subsidy for setting up storage facilities — capacity creation, for various reasons, has been concentrated in just Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal. Infrastructure comprising integrated pack houses, cold storages, ripening chambers and refrigerated vans are needed across the country. State governments need to take the lead in reforming produce markets and improving connectivity and infrastructure on the ground.

Additionally, the Government needs to encourage increased consumption of fruits and vegetables, not just among the more affluent but all sections of society. That will happen if the scope of the Food Security Act is expanded to nutrition security. Pulses, fruit and vegetables provide proteins, vitamins and minerals necessary to bring down instances of malnourishment and undernourishment. Easier movement of food items across the country together with lower wastage can bring down their retail prices and increase consumption. A holistic and farmer-friendly horticulture policy is the need of the hour.

Published on March 05, 2017
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