The most fundamental threat to Indian agriculture is that its ecological underpinnings – soil and water – are collapsing. Two-thirds of our farmland, says the 11th Five-Year Plan document, are either degraded or sick.
Intensive agriculture has leached nutrients and organic carbon from the soil. With the fertiliser ministry decontrolling everything except urea, it has ensured farmers chiefly replenish their fields with just Nitrogen.
The outcome? Large swathes of India’s farmlands are seeing multiple deficiencies. Yields are plateauing. Nutrient deficiencies are showing up in our diets.
Water is a similar mess. Today, a third of India is seeing a collapse in groundwater levels. A recent Planning Commission study says the “level of groundwater extraction is unsustainable” in Punjab, Rajasthan and Haryana; and that Tamil Nadu, Gujarat and UP are “fast approaching that stage”.
These six states accounted for half the foodgrain production in 2008-09.Apart from jeopardising food production, the falling water table is hammering farmer economics.
Take Kishore Lal Singh of Mansinghpura village in Madhya Pradesh’s Dewas district. As water levels fall, he needs a tubewell to find water – wells are too shallow. But banks do not lend for tubewells. And so, shortly before ET met him last year, he had borrowed Rs 1 lakh at 36% interest from fellow villagers. “It will take us five years to repay this loan,” his acerbic wife told ET. “Till then, we will live on mirchi roti.”
Or take dryland agriculture. These rain-dependent fields account for 60% of India’s net sown area. Farmers here used to grow pulses and coarse cereals, which handled vagaries of climate better than high-yielding varieties.
Today, they are trapped. The green revolution template is increasingly inviable as costs of inputs (like water, not to mention seeds and fertilisers) rise. At the same time, they cannot go back to the old crops. Their yields are low and the demand ever lower.
These are the objective realities. India’s soil and water situation is grim. Most farmers in India are small and marginal — less than two hectares. Most agriculture in India is done in the drylands. We need policies which factor in these conditions.
Take agricultural research. “The entire agricultural research framework, incentive structure, price support, input subsidies, extension system were designed to ‘flow’ along with irrigation,” says Ravindra working with Watershed Support Services and Activities Network (WASSAN ), a NGO coordinating the national Revitalising Rainfed Agriculture Network.
That needs to be fixed. Also needed is better extension work to ensure the breakthroughs move from labs to fields.
Then, as the instance of Kishore Singh shows, rural credit needs to be reviewed. Providing inputs and marketing produce needs to be overhauled as well. This is especially critical, says Nabard chairman Prakash Bakshi, because farm sizes are shrinking. Not only can small farmers invest little in their fields, they are also unable to wait for prices to improve before they rush to sell. Fix these. And India’s farmers will stop wondering how to leave agriculture.