India is a country where agricultural growth is usually determined by counting the number of farmer suicides in a given period of time. If numbers are less, we assume that agricultural growth is satisfactory, and farmers are enjoying a prosperous and comfortable life. If numbers are more, we suddenly get to know that we are heading towards an agrarian crisis.
The fact is that nobody, except farmers, has even the slightest idea about ground realities of agriculture, day-to-day struggles, challenges and disappointments associated with this profession.
Farming is tough, indeed. From sowing seeds till selling the harvest, every stage of farming has its own set of daunting challenges. Small and marginal farmers with less than two hectares of land account for 86.2% of all farmers in India. Surprisingly, they own just 47.3% of the crop area. This clearly shows the failure of land reforms in India. Had effective land reforms been introduced in India at the right time, we would not have witnessed such a distressful and deplorable condition of agriculture.
We adopted a wrong growth model in the 1960s, disastrous results of which we are seeing today. To improve productivity, the Green Revolution particularly emphasized on high-yielding varieties, agrochemicals including fertilizers and pesticides, irrigation and mechanization.
If the only objective of a student is to get good marks in the examination by rote learning or any other method which guarantees instant results, they may get good marks in the short run, but it’s certain that his learning, understanding and cognitive depth will remain stagnant in the long run. Similarly, since the only aim of the Green Revolution was to increase productivity, and thereby farmers’ income, it resulted in exorbitantly rising input cost, degradation, erosion and infertility of soil, leaching and waterlogging, soil salinity, pollution, and so on.
Some of the long-term problems are visible already:
It is evident that the Green Revolution has made farmers heavily dependent on groundwater. As per the Fifth Minor Irrigation Census, the groundwater level in India has declined by 61% between 2007 and 2017, and 89% of the extracted water is used for irrigation purpose.
As the groundwater level is declining, farmers are deepening wells, leading to higher input cost. This is accompanied by the insensitivity of farmers who are growing water-intensive crops, primarily for higher returns, in water-scarce regions.
As far as productivity is concerned, it has decreased over time as soil fertility has been negatively affected due to mismanagement of inputs, including agrochemicals. It requires little common sense to understand that heavy pesticide use causes a decline in the level of beneficial microorganism in the earth, leading to poor soil quality in the long run. We also really need to introspect why Malwa region of Punjab, where pesticide usage is excessive, has a huge number of cancer cases.
Talking about fertilizers, the current consumption ratio of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium is 6.7:2.4:1, against the desirable ratio of 4:2:1. The situation in Punjab and Haryana is worrisome. Here NPK use ratio is 31.4:8:1 and 27.7:6.1:1, respectively. According to Down To Earth, 42% of India’s districts use 85% of its chemical fertilizers.
It’s not just about numbers. It’s about the idea. You are providing them something, about which they are ill-informed and largely unaware.
The fundamental problem with the Green Revolution is the fact that it universalized an idea without paying little heed to land profile diversity in India. The wave which started in the northern region of Punjab Uttar Pradesh and Haryana started blowing everywhere else gradually, while the fact is that huge geographical, climatic and edaphic diversity exists in the country where one size fits all approach may or may not work.
Moreover, input costs rose so high that farmers had no option but to get into the vicious cycle of a debt trap. Institutional or non-institutional, both sources of credit have their own shortcomings and challenges. While non-institutional credit bothers them with higher interest rates and subsequent exploitation in case of non-payment, institutional credit is full of systemic inefficiencies, overly technical and formal procedures, and insufficient coverage.
Also, the banking system is usually reluctant, citing poor repayment record of borrowers. Even till date, most of the small and marginal farmers are bereft of proper financial resources due to inefficient and unaffordable credit system.
Unfortunately, we haven’t learned anything from the mistakes committed in the past, and it doesn’t seem we are going to change our methodology any time soon since we have become habitual to techniques which give instant results. It is a belief, which is a myth of course, that ecologically destructive methods are essential to ensure increased farm productivity.
In India, BT cotton has been criticized for its supposed failure to reduce the need for pesticides and increase the yield. It particularly failed in containing pink bollworms. Kapil Shah, one of the pioneers of the organic farming movement, calls it “Terminator Technology” that kills the basic instinct for survival.
It is still not proved that GM crops provide affordable and sustainable solutions to agricultural challenges. Research on utilities and benefits of genetically modified crops is still going on, but our scientists and policymakers see GM crops as the only hope for solving the agrarian crisis. Needless to mention, such an approach is only going to aggravate the ongoing crisis.
Nobody denies the fact that farming is dependent on various natural factors which are outside of human capacity to control, erratic rainfall, locust attack, hailstorm, to name a few. Farmers of Rajasthan, Madhya Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Punjab are finding it hard to deal with the ongoing locust attack.
However, the majority of agrarian problems have an anthropogenic origin. Sadly, factors that are driving agriculture in India are based on failed land reforms, fragmented landholding patterns, uneconomical farm size, government apathy and associated policy paralysis, unexamined technology transfer, unregulated and unmonitored inputs usage and mismanaged marketing and payment system.
Farm loan waivers only show the failure of the approach we have adopted till now. Every crop season starts with the government announcing support prices and ends with loan waivers. This vicious cycle will persist until we look into the existing issues on the ground, introspect on policy part and come up with an agrarian overhaul which is profitable and sustainable at the same time.
Part 2 of this series is available here.