Time to give more than the standard election-time lip service to this sector

With state elections gaining heat, the farmer community of India would again, suddenly find themselves in the thick of all attention.This pocket of population that is usually sidelined, would again find themselves at the top of all political manifestos. And why not! When farmers constitute 60 per cent of the entire population, no political party can ignore this huge vote bank. And ironically, in spite of their seasonal electoral importance, the very same people are left in the lurch post the elections. Today, this one sector employs almost 60 per cent of the entire population, yet contributes merely 17 per cent to our national income! Shamelessly, our successive governments have succeeded in keeping a majority of them marginalised, bereft of even basic amenities, which are required for day-to-day sustenance.

The fact is that till date, our agriculture sector has hardly seen any major technological breakthrough. We are still stuck in an era from where we started. A stroll through any of our villages would be enough to visualise the archaic method of agriculture that’s still being practised throughout India - as even today, cattle is mostly used to plough fields, thus reducing the per hectare productivity. Our irrigation facilities still need so much upgradation that even today we are dependent on a good rain for a good produce. A Food Agriculture Organisation (FAO) report reveals that India’s yield of rice in the period 2003-2005 was 3,034 kilograms per hectare. This is nothing when compared to China’s, which produced more than double the yield of India with 6,233 kilograms per hectare, during the same period. The same trend was seen in the productivity of other crops like wheat (India’s production being 2,688 kg/hectare while for China it was 4,155 kg/hectare) and mustard (India’s average productivity was 909 kg/hectares which was a little less than half of China’s 1,778 kg/hectare) too! In 2004, China’s aggregate rice production was 186 million tonnes – way ahead of India’s 124 million tonnes. That’s not all. In 2009, in the international market, the per-hectare crop-produce value per for India was $914, compared to China’s $2780 and Korea’s $3530. In other words, the per hectare value of crops from Korea was around 4 times that of those from India. Similarly, China was 3 times ahead of India on the same parameter.

In 2008, China employed 39.6 per cent of its people in agriculture, a fall from 40.8 per cent in the previous year. On the contrary, in India, agriculture and its allied sector have been responsible for 60 per cent of the country’s employment, even though the sector contributes only 17 per cent to its GDP. It has always been observed that conventionally, over time, nations take a natural course in their path of development – a shift of employment concentration occurs from the agriculture sector to manufacturing and finally to the tertiary sector. In this context, even though India is lagging behind China (China has a lower proportion of its work force employed in agriculture), both are almost in a similar platform. But South Korea is in a different league altogether! It employs only 7.2 per cent of its total workforce in agriculture. This is due to South Korea’s committed adherence to incredible growth and its integration with hi-tech Western economies and scientific methods since 1960s!

In spite of the humongous population involved in agriculture in India, the value addition per farmer has always been an issue of concern. As known to all, our agriculture sector suffers from huge disguised employment and wastage of manpower. A quick analysis of World Bank data (May 2011) would be sufficient to comprehend the sheer waste of manpower. An Indian agricultural worker added $400 to the sector back in 1994 which increased to $500 by the end of 2009 – an increase by just 25 per cent point. In the same period, China increased their per worker contribution to the sector by 85 per cent; currently, a single Chinese agricultural worker adds $550 to the sector. However, it is Korea that has left all these nations behind, even before the race literally started.

Korea, unlike India and China, does not enjoy a burgeoning demographic dividend nor does it enjoy a vast land area. But this is one of those nations which despite all shortcomings have successfully created high labour productivity. Back in 1994, the value added per agricultural worker in Korea was around $7000, which is now on the verge of touching $20,000 – an increase of 185 per cent! And this despite the fact that India has 158 million hectares of arable land (53.11 per cent of total land area) compared to China’s 110 million hectares of arable land (12 per cent of total land area) and Korea’s 1.60 million hectares of arable land (16 per cent of total land), which talks volumes about the productivity and land usage of these nations.

This huge productivity coupled with extensive modern techniques of agriculture allowed Korea to maintain an undernutrition level that is a dream for many developed nations – an undernutrition level of zero per cent. Even China successfully decreased their under nutrition prevalence level from 18 per cent (in 1990-92) to 10 per cent by the end of 2007. Nowhere close to world leaders, India had an undernutrition prevalence rate of 20 per cent in 1990-92; this shamelessly increased by 1 per cent by the end 2005-07. Of course, this should not come as surprise, especially in the light of scams that are surfacing every now and then. What else can we expect from successive governments that have successfully made new records in allowing grains to rot in godowns, promoted and facilitated hoardings, sold onions at metaphorically gold-like prices, and above all, created situations where farmers had to commit suicide! What else can you expect when the interest on a loan for a tractor is more than that on a luxury car – or for that matter when a farmer has to pay a higher interest rate on agricultural loan compared to the loan meant for conspicuous consumer durables! This not only creates a dearth of capital at the farmer’s end but also keeps him alien to modern tools and scientific methods – thus lowering both per capita labour productivity and per hectare agricultural output!

What more, even the food supply per capita per day in India has been dismal. Our food supply today is merely 2333 kcal per person per day (an increase by 8 kcal per person per day since 1992) compared to 2947 kcal of China (increased by almost 400 kcal in 1992) and 3104 kcal per person per day of Korea (increased from 3003 kcal per person per day). In simple words, India has failed in a big way to address both the problems of undernutrition and food supply, thus pushing millions towards death. China’s impressive performance in agriculture is because of its government’s hefty investment in R&D leading to technological improvement, upgradation of rural infrastructure and prudent policy towards agriculture. The R&D investment increased from 4 billion yuan in 1995 to 12 billion yuan in 2006. This has allowed more than a thousand R&D centres for agriculture to come up and focus specifically on development of new plant strains. India’s stillness in agricultural patents has been quite evident. In 2002, India filed only 79 agricultural patents, compared to more than 4,500 filed by the Chinese in the same year; this Chinese figure increased to 9,300 in 2008. On the other hand, the Indian trend went downhill with 74 patents in 2003; and further down to 63 in 2004! The FDI flow in agriculture for India has been just a measly $1.42 billion between 2000 and 2011; this is quite a paltry figure compared to China’s $8.388 billion FDI inflow in the agriculture sector between 1999 and 2006!

China is renowned in the world as a manufacturing hub. Yet, agricultural reforms take no less credit for the country’s phoenix like rise as an economic power! Land distribution was carried out in the reform era in 1977 – when the commune system made way for individual families to lease land, so that all rural households could have ownership of land. The reforms also augured a steep rise in productivity, dramatic fall in poverty and improvement in food availability. One of the biggest achievements of the Chinese agricultural policy was the migration of workers from agriculture to non-farm rural industries instead of congesting of unskilled workers in urban centres. In the reform period, with time, the focus has shifted from production increase to employment and environmental issues. Further, agricultural tax has been reduced by 26.8 billion yuan and subsidy for quality seeds has been increased by 2.8 billion yuan.

South Korea on the other hand has developed various direct payment methods. The fertiliser subsidy was excluded in their agricultural policy in 2005 to be replaced by input subsidies that is less than 3 per cent of the Producer Support Estimates in 2007. Insurance was expanded in 2006 to a wide variety of crops and animals. The policies of South Korea perennially revolved around achieving self sufficiency and bridging the urban-rural income gap. Nonetheless, certain other issues like demographics, food safety, environmental factors, and income inequality are the cornerstones of their policy assimilation exercise.

Indian agriculture is one sector where one would hardly find an educated farmer. Every critical facet of agriculture – starting from productivity to food supply to technological advancement – has never found itself on the policy radar in India. India by all comparisons has been much slower and delayed in formulating and implementing a comprehensive policy for agriculture. What more can be said than the fact that our first National Agriculture Policy was announced only on July 28, 2000! Do I need to say anymore?

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