A few years ago, a friend of mine, a technology entrepreneur who decided to sell off his businesses and rediscover his roots as a farmer, decided that he will do not only natural, organic farming but also traditional farming.

This meant that he would grow traditional crops historically grown in the area /where his farm was situated, without using artificial aids to boost output or support non-native crops. This meant he did not do any mechanised farming, nor did he have powered irrigation. He also decided that, like a traditional Indian farmer, he will keep a few cattle. But there was a catch — he wanted to rear only breeds native to that area and not hybrids.

When he went looking for more information on this, though — about which crops were native/traditional to the area, and which breeds of cattle were local, he ran into a blank wall. The district and even the State agriculture department office could supply him with no information. He was unable to meet with anyone in the government who had either researched these topics or had any information.

At the State animal husbandry department, after much persistent knocking on doors, he was eventually given an old poster — presumably printed for distribution to rural schools a few decades back — which had the names and pictures of some local breeds of cattle. He was told to locate breeders of these cattle varieties on his own though. Even an inquiry as to where he could source a gobar gas plant was met with silence — even though the State had an ongoing programme of subsidising them.

The point of this story was to show the disconnect that exists between the government and farmers at the grassroots level. When farmers rose up against the proposed farm laws, there was considerable heart-aching in government circles over this. It was widely felt that farmers were being “misled” by vested interests and forces inimical to development.

The BJP even galvanised its considerable grassroots organisational strength to try and reach out to farmers and “educate” them as to the benefits of the new laws, but to no avail. The administration — particularly those arms of which dealt with farmers and their issues — were also ordered to reach out and convince.

Growing disconnect

All to no avail. The trust deficit was simply too great to have been bridged by any last-minute outreach programme. But this was no overnight development. The connections between the government’s agriculture machinery and the actual farmer had steadily deteriorated and weakened from the heydays of the Green Revolution, where the government’s — and I principally mean the State governments here — agricultural extension services had as much a role to play in that turnaround of India’s agricultural fortunes as the development of high-yielding varieties in the research labs.

That was back then, when India had one of the largest publicly-funded agricultural research systems in the world. While the system responded to the crisis of food shortage in the 1960s, subsequently, there has been a widening divergence between what public research is focusing on and what farmers are grappling with in the field. India’s problem is no longer output-related — rather there is a problem of oversupply. The bigger challenges today are market access and remunerative reasons, dealing with climate change and rising water stress.

All this calls for a sharply stepped-up outlay on research. There is a very simple reason why countries like India, where large pools of poverty exist and where agriculture is the sole means of sustenance or livelihood for the largest segment of the population, need to substantially step up investments in agricultural research and extension — rupee for rupee, it delivers a higher return on investment than any other form of support to farmers, including subsidies.

A recent study by Timothy J Dalton from Kansas State University, which looked at USAID’s research projects on agricultural development and food security found that a total outlay of a little over $1.2 billion over the study period (between 1978 and 2012) yielded returns of over $10 billion in economic impact. The authors found agricultural research was more successful at lifting larger populations out of poverty. This is borne out by the Indian experience as well.

Marginal returns

A study by ICRIER and the Syngenta Foundation found that the marginal returns in terms of number of people brought out of income poverty or higher agri-GDP growth are 5-10 times more if the public money is spent through investments in agri-R&D, or roads, or irrigation, etc., compared to if the same money is spent as subsidies on fertilisers, power or irrigation.

The study concluded: “This clearly indicates that, at the margin, there is an urgent need to increase investments in agricultural and contain input subsidies for faster alleviation of poverty and boosting growth in agri-GDP.”

The government realises this. At the G20 Agriculture Ministers meet last year, India stressed the need to increase investment in agricultural research and development amid the challenges of climate change and expected increase in food demand by 2030.

In this year’s Economic Survey, the chapter on Agriculture noted: “Research shows that every rupee spent on agricultural research and development, yields much better returns (11.2), compared to returns on every rupee spent on fertiliser subsidy (0.88), power subsidy (0.79), education (0.97) or on roads (1.10). Increasing R&D spending on agriculture is, therefore, not only a vital necessity for ensuring food security, but also important from the socio-economic point of view.”

The talk is fine but it is high time that the government walked it. This is particularly true of State governments, whose primary responsibility is agriculture.

Over the years, they have de-emphasised research, and cut back on extension, in favour of more populistic quick fixes. This needs to change.

The writer is a senior journalist