Agrarian crisis can never be solved if we think that the only objective here is to increase or double, as targeted by the government, farmers’ income. If poisonous pesticides are getting sprayed in horticulture farms and paddy fields, which I am going to have on my plate another day, it’s not just farmers’ business. If groundwater level is declining due to excessive irrigation, it’s just not farmers’ business. It’s more about farming than farmers. It’s more about the land than landowners.
Complex problems rarely have simple solutions. When we have to make farming profitable and sustainable at the same time, an unprecedented approach is needed to make it happen. For me, the solution is in combining traditional knowledge, innovative approaches, science, experience, infrastructure, and policy, not in a hotchpotch manner but in such a way that it ensures accessibility, profitability, affordability, quality and quantity, reliability, and sustainability at the same time.
I believe, if there is one common reason behind all major problems in our country, be it poverty, unemployment, hunger, poor health and education outcomes or farming for that matter, it is the poor infrastructure. It is a universally accepted fact that we are grappling with poor infrastructure in almost every sphere of life, which hinders our growth process.
Commencement of reforms in agriculture has to start with creating the required infrastructure wherever required in the value chain. Substandard infrastructure like weak transportation networks, insufficient irrigation coverage, poor seed quality, below par cold storage infrastructure, lack of mechanization, and lack of inter-sectoral linkages and organized retail have been a causative factor behind low farm incomes. The speed of infrastructural development in agriculture has been abysmally low.
Building infrastructure requires a humongous amount of capital to be infused in the system. Therefore, the first and foremost thing to do from the government’s end is the rationalization of ongoing schemes, i.e. closing all those schemes/plans/projects that are duplicate, useless and non-performing. It only creates an additional burden on state exchequer and increases unnecessary official work.
Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman recently made an announcement for setting up of a ₹1 lakh-crore agri-infrastructure fund for farm-gate infrastructure. It’s not difficult for the government to announce an economic stimulus or package intended to create massive infrastructure, but the fact is that we are basically clueless where and how to spend it.
The underlying idea behind creating massive infrastructure is to reduce leakage and wastage, cut down operational costs, and improve logistics efficiency, ensure cost-effectiveness and create job opportunities and capital formation.
However, the thing to keep in mind here is that there has to be a categorization and classification of such infrastructural projects to ensure optimum cost-benefit ratio. For instance, storage infrastructure is the need of the hour across the board. We know that, in our country, covered storage (usage of jute bags) and cover and plinth method (CPM), in which the food grains are stored in the open with necessary precautions, is largely and primarily used.
Now, these methods have their own shortcomings and challenges when it comes to storage of food grains. These methods can be replaced by Silo bag technique, a hermetic-type storage made with a plastic bag in the shape of a tube. It can effectively protect the grains from rains, UV rays, humidity, dust, etc.
It is best suited for a short term and a high volume of grains. So, this technique is largely effective for most of the crops but not all. This is something that I call ‘selective investment’ where we have to make infrastructural changes where the technique benefits.
On the other hand, upgrading existing dry warehousing infrastructure, increasing accreditation of cold storage, building aggregation units at the village level, replacing old operational machinery with newer one, phasing out older pieces of equipment which aren’t able to provide accurate data like weighing scales, grading and standardization pieces of equipment are some other steps that have to be taken universally without fail.
Similarly, not all the crops have the same water requirements, and not all the states have the same level of water availability. There are some regions where subsurface drip irrigation can work and is efficient, like in the water-scarce regions of Maharashtra where sugarcane is grown. However, since the micro-irrigation technology is not so cheap, we don’t require huge expenditure on the same if there is some other cost-effective method to ensure water requirements of crops.
The idea is to make a need-based, demand-driven infrastructural investment model which doesn’t make input cost higher for cultivators. For instance, farm mechanization includes everything from tractors to rotors, levellers, seeders, spreaders and harvesters. Imagine how cost-effective it is for farmers, considering the small landholding size in India.
Isn’t it beneficial to think of cooperativization, land consolidation, land pooling, labour pooling, joint investment, joint water management, and joint production in such situations? It will bring down the input cost significantly.
Infrastructure is one thing that connects many spheres at the same time. Some flagship projects and schemes launched by the government for the betterment of farmers are completely dependent on infrastructure.
Take e-NAM (discussed in part 3) for example: Is it even possible to think of the success of the online commodities trading platform without creating required digital infrastructure? Is it possible to think of the success of Mega Food Parks Scheme without removing hurdles in the transportation network? Isn’t the vision of Farming 3.0 dependent on digital infrastructure?
If we want Precision Farming to be successful, we need to make sure effective implementation of National Optical Fiber Network project of the government aimed at improving internet connectivity in villages.
Schemes like Pradhan Mantri Sampada Yojana pertaining to food processing industries are dependent on how well we take care of farming. Agri-infrastructure, therefore, ensures inter-sectoral linkages which are a prerequisite for holistic development.
As I said earlier, the role of infrastructure, inter alia, is of a facilitator, primarily. When you make sure it is done as per the demands and requirements of the system, half of the work is already done. But a lot of other measures (to be discussed in coming parts) have to be taken to make sure the remaining part is done efficaciously.