DEVELOPMENT OF INDIAN AGRICULTURE

by K Vijayachandran

SEARCH FOR PATRIOTIC ALTERNATIVES

 

This is an essay in four parts, on the development of Indian agriculture. First part is a critical overview of the Vision 2030 document, recently presented by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research. Second part reviews the institutional responsibilities for the management of Indian agriculture, at various levels. The current status of agrarian relations and the emerging trends are briefly discussed in the third part. The fourth part quickly summarizes the search path for anti-imperialist and patriotic solutions. The paper was presented in the Asian agricultural conference held in Delhi, April 2012

  1. Vision 2030 of ICAR

The Vision 2030 document, published in last January by ICAR (Indian Council for Agricultural Research – the apex R&D organization of India and founded in 1929 as Imperial Council for Agriculture Research), had summed up the present agricultural situation in the country, following words:  “Our agriculture is dominated by small farmers, having small landholdings for cultivation. The average size of the landholding declined to 1.32 ha in 2000-01 from 2.30 ha in 1970-71, and absolute number of operational holdings increased from about 70 million to 121 million. If this trend continues, the average size of holding in India would be mere 0.68 ha in 2020, and would be further reduced to a low of 0.32 ha in 2030. This is a very complex and serious problem.”

The document elaborates on the uphill tasks facing the planners: “A large number of smallholders have to move to post- harvest and non-farm activities to augment their income. The research focus should be to evolve technologies and management options to suit needs of smallholders’ agriculture, and also to involve them in agri-supply chain through institutional innovations. ……To add to smallholders’ problem, the quality of production environment is worsening. The problem of land-and-water degradation is becoming a key constraint in augmenting agricultural production. Available estimates reveal that nearly 120.72 million ha of land in the country is degraded due to soil erosion and about 8.4 million ha has soil salinity and water-logging problems. etc etc”.

According to this ICAR estimates, nearly the entire currently cropped area in the country would be degraded by 2030 and the vision document goes on listing the other numerous problems to be tackled by S&T establishment in the country, for salvaging its dying agriculture. However, the document feels that “all these problems can be rectified by better management options….. The research and development challenge is to stop further degradation and go in for rehabilitation of degraded lands and water resources in a cost-effective manner. ”

ICAR has been “co-coordinating, guiding and managing research, education and extension services in agriculture, including horticulture, fisheries and diary production in the country. There is a vast network with 97 ICAR institutes, 46 state agricultural universities, five deemed universities and one Central Agricultural University and 589 Krishi Vijgana Kendras (KVK) spread across the country.” The vision document claims “to have played an enabling role in ushering green revolution and in the subsequent developments in agriculture in India through its research and technology development that enabled the country to increase production of food grains by 4-fold, horticultural crops by 6-fold, fish by 9-fold (marine 5-fold and inland 17-fold), milk by 6-fold, and eggs by 27-fold, since 1950-51; thus making a visible impact on national food and nutritional security.”

It is customary to give credit to ICAR for India’s green revolution, white revolution etc etc and it is also true that agricultural production in the country has been increasing steadily and in step with the population. Percapita production of food grains has been increasing, and India was free from hunger on the average, within a few decades of national independence. However, there are fears that, percapita production has already peaked some ten years ago, and there are concerns about the graph drooping further down. (Usta Patnaik.) And of course, several researchers had expressed serious doubts around the so called green revolution and the contributions made by ICAR and its all India network of institutions.  These issues need detailed study, in the specific context of Indian agriculture continuing its primitive existence, despite tall claims by scientific communities and spokesmen of the establishment.

In fact, only a minuscule of the working people engaged in Indian agriculture (260 million) belong to the organized sector (1.5 million) and they mostly work for the plantations, dominated by the private corporate sector and big farmers. Vast majority of the working people, engaged in agriculture and allied activities, the self employed farmers as well as the agricultural labor, belong to the informal or unorganized sector of the national economy. Agricultural production has increased due to the expansion of cultivated land and increased productivity of land, thanks to expansion of irrigation facilities, use of chemical fertilizers, and switch over to high yielding variety seeds. Public investments in irrigation have played a key role in increasing production: There was an increase of over 30% in gross cropped area, thanks to irrigation even though the net cropped area had increased hardly by 12 % during the past sixty years. Gross irrigated area was only 17.4 % of cropped area in 1951-52 whereas the more recent figure is around 43 %. Assured water supply with the help of canal irrigation and tube-wells powered by highly subsidized grid electricity had facilitated not only application of chemical fertilizers but also adopting HYV crops.

The claims of ICAR over the green revolution were questioned, in the past, by several researchers. The more recent Report on Conditions of Work and Promotion of Livelihoods in the Unorganized Sector (August 2007) by the National Commission for Enterprises in the Unorganized Sector, under the Chairmanship of Arjun K Dasgupta should serve as an eyeopener in this regard. Quoted below are a few selected observations from Chapter-9 of this report, supported by extensive field studies:

  • Nearly 60 percent of the farmer households have not accessed any source of information on modern technology. Among those who had accessed such information, the three main sources were other progressive farmers (16.7 %), input dealers (13.1 %) and radio (13 %).
  • Government agencies such as Krishi Vigyan Kendra, extension workers, farmer visits, or even demonstrations and fairs have come to play a negligible role in disseminating information on modern technology.
  • Both government and other sources were least accessed by the marginal and small farmers: As against 10 percent of the medium and large farmers, only around 4 percent of the sub-marginal and marginal farmers and 8 percent of the small farmers accessed information regarding improved practices and technology from extension workers.
  • Quality and reliability of extension services appeared to be a major concern.
  • Only 30 percent of the farmer households are members members of cooperative societies and of this one third did not make use of their services.
  • At all India level, only 2 per cent of the farmer households were associated with organizations while 5 percent of them had at least one as a member of Self-Help Groups (SHGs). Such memberships are comparatively high in southern states and low in other states, surprisingly including West Bengal

 

The report had pointed out that, “rising cost of cultivation, low remunerations, high risks with frequent crop failures, declining agricultural growth, and mounting debts have all led the farmer to a distress like situation.” It gives a graphic picture about the primitive nature of Indian agriculture and the hapless Indian farmer, “trapped by low literacy, lack of organization and poor connectivity with low levels of awareness regarding technology usage, institutional credit schemes and government’s support initiatives.” About 40 percent of farmer households dislike their occupation and farming, as an occupation, is looked down by the society as a whole. All these, including the rising suicide rates among farmers have, no doubt, everything to with the gross mismanagement of our agricultural sector.

  1. Management of Indian Agriculture

 An overview of the institutional responsibilities in the management of Indian agriculture, summarized as a chart, is given in the next page.  Land being the most fundamental resource for agriculture, land-use planning is a crucial tool in managing agriculture development. This is so in any civilized country, but in India land is looked upon as a commodity, despite the town and country planning act being in existence for several decades. According to the act, village panchayats and town municipalities should have their own planning departments manned by trained personnel, and supervised by land use boards constituted by their respective local self governments. For over-viewing and guiding these activities and for making state level land use plans and production of quality maps, Land Use Boards were constituted by every member state of our union republic.

Many of the State Land Use Boards are headed by junior or disgraced IAS officers and have turned totally dysfunctional with very little role clarity, and stagnating due to lack of working funds and professional manpower. Like the Kerala State Land Use Board, many of these organizations have taken up foreign consultancy assignments. Survey of India, initiated by the British, continues to be an imperial institution under the central government, and has not cared to develop state level counterparts: Its linkages with State Land Use Boards are weak. Due to all these, India is extremely backward in the art and craft of cartography and the country simply does not possess even an essential minimum of inventory of quality maps, an essential input for the management of agriculture. All talks about national cropping plans etc based on the agro climatic resources of the subcontinent, make little practical sense, considering these grass-root level realities.

Situation with regard to water management and irrigation, as well as the weather resources, are similar to that of land use and land use planning. India is noted for its traditional canal irrigation networks, based on dams and reservoir as well as wells, tanks and bunds. Irrigation departments under the state governments are highly bureaucratized, and their linkages with agricultural departments, local administration and farmer collectives are extremely weak. Corrupt regimes at the state level naturally favor the rich peasantry, in the absence of comprehensive plans for individual river basins. Lack of professionalism in water resources planning and management has affected the quality and efficiency of the age old canal irrigation systems, leading to arbitrary increases in water-rates. There has been a massive shift to pumped irrigation, as a result: Cheap electricity, provided by State Electricity Boards, had led to even over-exploitation of ground water resources, all over the country. Central Water Commission, the federal custodian of our water resources has no counterparts at the state level, and as revealed in the recent Mullaperiyar conflict between Tamilnadu and Kerala, it is not even considered a competent body to arbitrate between two state governments.

Climate and weather studies in India are considered the sole prerogative of the Central Government.   Daily, monthly and annual weather studies and forecasts by the Indian Meteorological Department (IMD) are made at regional levels and they have little relevance or use for the farming communities. In the absence of professional support from IMD, the farmers get guided by the local panchanga astrologers, or even water diviners. Our universities and research centers are engaged in climate studies related to global warming, sponsored by UNEP programs and foreign universities. They show little interest in weather and climate studies that are of relevance to local agriculture at the village or district level. Even the possibilities with our own weather satellites are not fully utilized. Rain gauges as well as weirs and notches, installed in the past for measuring surface water flows, have gone dysfunctional in many places, due to administrative neglect or lack of maintenance funds. Recently, IMD has drawn up plans for rectifying these deficiencies by strengthening itself. However, reconstitution and reorganization of IMD into a full-fledged federal body, so as to improve its coverage, quality, and efficacy, is not part of its immediate agenda.

 

MANAGEMENT OF INDIAN AGRICULTURE

Overview of institutional responsibilities

Item Central Government State Governments Local Self Governments Farmer collectives
Land use plans Low Low Nil Nil
Water management Mostly policy making High Nil Nil
Weather forecasting IMD- sole agency Nil Nil Nil
Agricultural research ICAR dominated Low Nil Nil
Warehousing, price support FCI, Central Warehousing Low Nil Nil
Agricultural production Policy making Custodian of production Nil Nil
Human resource development Nil Nil Nil Nil
Development finance Central plan +NABARD State plans Nil Na
Overall Bureaucratic regime. Resource mismatch Resource mismatch No role

 

As indicated in the Vision 230 document, 97 research institutes, 46 state agricultural universities, five deemed universities and one Central Agricultural University and 589 KVKs constitute the national network for agricultural research and extension services, presided over by ICAR. ICAR institutes cater to not only agricultural crops but also, horticulture, fisheries and animal husbandry and related technologies as well as mechanization. Like the Coconut Research Institute in my own village, their linkages with local farms and farming communities are extremely week. There is an agricultural university in each state: They are autonomous bodies under the state government, but depend on ICAR for academic guidance as well as research funds.

 

Scientists working for ICAR, inevitably, develop a split loyalty due to the pulls and pressures of international, research dominated by global finance. In the absence of any coherent patriotic program for agricultural development, they look for global opportunities. Indian agricultural research continues to be weak and hapless, despite the long years of ICAR. It does not have roots in Indian farms and farming communities: We seems to believe that, even agricultural sciences has to be learned and taught only in English and not in Indian languages. We do not have books and literature in agricultural sciences in the languages spoken by our farmers and farm workers. And, that is reason enough to campaign for the restructuring of ICAR network on genuine federal lines and democratize its administration, in order to take it closer to the farming communities and the people at large.

 

Food Corporation of India was setup in 1964, in order to provide farmers with remunerative prices, to make food grains available at reasonable prices, and to maintain buffer stocks as a measure of food security. With its four zonal offices and over 35,000 employees FCI has turned a highly bureaucratic and inefficient set-up. Like all other Central Public Sector Undertakings, FCI has also failed to build up state level counterparts or subsidiaries, with sufficient autonomy to deal with region-specific and crop-specific problems, with the involvement of state governments and local self government institutions. There is another Central Warehousing Corporation (CWC), that have promoted State Warehousing Corporations as joint ventures with the state governments (50:50) with similar or over-lapping functions. CWC with its 17 regional centers and dealing in some 200 commodities look at export as its sole priority, and have no interest in the operations and management of its state-level subsidiaries, which have turned virtual orphans, without any worthwhile policy inputs or financial support from state as well as central governments. For effectively implementing the warehousing and price support strategies the organizational set up already created need to be streamlined and modernized.

 

State governments are looked upon as the custodian of agriculture production, and they are expected to perform, using the inputs provided by Central Government and its numerous agencies, over which they have very little control. Even here, policy making is seen as the sole prerogative of Central Government and its Planning Commission: even the National Development Council (NDC) is hardly consulted on policy questions on agriculture. Agricultural Prices Commission finds even questions related to terms of trade difficult to handle, due to numerous regulatory complexities and diverse tax regimes. Liberalization of trade and bilateral trade agreements has brought in further complications in policy management at the state level.

Despite constitutional provisions for decentralized administration, several related sectors like social forestry, minor irrigation, local transport, small and village industries etc continue to be outside the purview of local governance. As already pointed out, Indian farmers are poorly organized as a collective and play virtually no role, or play an extremely weak role in policy making, related to land use, water resources management and irrigation, crop development, mechanization, or even  formulating development plans. Even states like West Bengal and  Kerala where land reforms and democratic decentralization of administration has registered substantive progress, farmers and their collectives play little role in the management of agriculture. A recent (January 2009) report by the West Bengal State Commission on Agriculture had lamented on the lack of participation by farmers and their collectives in the formulation and implementation of farm development programs in that state. If that is the situation in a state like West Bengal, the over all situations in the country must be far far worse.

  1. Managing uneven development
  2. Developments in agrarian relations in the country have been extremely uneven. Peasants’ struggle for land has succeeded in some measure during the six decades of national independence. Land reforms were attempted in almost all Indian states, and under influence of the left, the reforms were seriously pursued in Kerala, West Bengal and Tripura, where the democratic movement got considerably strengthened. Kerala has experienced a big shift from food crops to cash crops, typical of capitalist agriculture. Farm incomes per unit area cultivated as well as per person engaged in agriculture are nearly three times the national average, in Kerala. There are two agricultural workers per cultivator in Kerala if we go by the census counts, and the ratio is just the reverse for the country as a whole. Agriculture workers as well as the entire informal sector workers in Kerala command much higher wages and better working conditions compared to their counter parts elsewhere in the countries.
  3. The shift from sustenance agriculture based on food crops to capitalist agriculture based on cash crops is taking place all over the country, slowly but steadily, and the intervention programs designed by the Delhi bureaucracy with minimal or ineffective consultations at the lower levels, including the farmers’ collectives, have proved, by and large, ineffective. There is a crisis situation emerging, and the Central Government and its policy makers are using the opportunity to plan a total surrender of the agricultural sector to global capital. Technology developments like genetically modified crops and micro climate controlled agriculture and others are opening up totally new horizons in agriculture. And the emerging trends are uneven, unbalanced and unsustainable in the long run. They need to be carefully analyzed and clearly understood if we are to decide on a strategy for countering these new imperialist offensives.

VK Ramakrishnan, the noted agricultural economist reviewed the current status of Indian agriculture in an article published in the last issue of Marxist (Jan-June 2011): This article, based on an extensive study of several Indian villages had observed: “India is a vast and living example of the rule that capitalism penetrates agriculture and rural society in a myriad ways. If the development of capitalist relations in agriculture is clearly the major trend, it is equally clear that agrarian relations are marked by national, regional and local diversity, and by extreme unevenness in the development of capitalist relations of production and exchange……

Variations in agrarian relations are not just a matter of differences in the level of development of the productive forces  leading  to  some  regions  being  more  or  less  ‘capitalist’  than others; the crucial feature of capitalist development in agriculture is, as Lenin wrote, that ‘infinitely diverse combinations of this or that type of capitalist evolution are possible.’ If this formulation was true of old Russia (or old China), it is true too of India, where the material forces constituted by backward ideologies of hierarchy and status add immensely to the ‘peculiar and complex problems’ arising from spatial diversity……

Data from nine villages in the States mentioned above showed that 21 per cent of households (mainly poor peasants) actually had negative crop incomes. By contrast, the average agricultural income of households in the top docile was over 3.2 lakhs per household. Not only do the data show that aggregate incomes from agriculture are highly unequal across cultivator households, they also show that there are large variations in the costs of cultivation and profitability across crops, and, for a given crop, across regions. Variations in the profitability of crops across different classes are substantial….

…..Data shows differences in gross output and net annual incomes from agriculture per acre of operational holding across villages and between cultivators operating smallest twenty and largest twenty land holdings. The data show that, given the concentration  of land and other means of production in their hands, landlords and rich peasants are able to keep  production  costs  lower than  middle  and  poor  peasants. In contrast, the poor peasants are forced to buy inputs at a higher unit price than the rich, and to pay rents for land and machinery. With more efficient input use, and better access to markets, landlords, big capitalist farmers and rich peasants also receive a higher income per unit of production than middle and poor peasants.”

True, India is a subcontinent of diverse cultures and subcultures, supported by vastly different agro-climatic conditions. Politically, we are a conglomeration of numerous developing nationalities and call ourselves a multinational country. The process of nationality development in the sub-continent was frozen by the British in their imperial interests, and the ruling classes, that inherited political power from the colonial rulers, were in no mood to complete the unfinished tasks of national liberation. Even the re-organization of Indian states on linguistic or cultural lines, a legitimate dream of Indian independence movement, was resisted by them. Indian big bourgeoisie and our ruling elites sustain their hegemony over the Indian people with the help of neocolonialists, and by blocking and suppressing their struggles for cultural and material development.

Our elite classes have even invented jargons like Unity in Diversity, for seeking moral justifications for the oppressive development policies, pursued by the Indian State. Culture is not generated in a vacuum: It springs from the material life of people. It is sustained by science and technology, and culture is the product of autonomous development of a society, with its own personality, history and geography. The abstract universal man is pure invention by the intellectual classes and doe not exist for the vast majority of the working people of our century. We have seen, in the earlier sections, the bogus character and hollow claims of the inefficient agricultural development programs followed by the Indian state, with little or no involvement of our farmers and their collectives, as well as the people at large. Vision 2030 of ICAR is a sure recipe for the further alienation of our working people from the Indian State, that rules over them. It will end up as an even bigger failure than the earlier development program, which has virtually pushed Indian agriculture into the present chaotic situation. And it could be salvaged only through the prolonged political struggles of the working people, and vast majority of them belong to agriculture.

  1. In conclusion:

Indian agriculture continues to be primitive in terms of technology and organization, even after six decades of intervention by the Indian state under the leadership ICAR. However, it has already entered the capitalist phase of development which is uneven, unstable and unsustainable.  Vision 2030 document prepared by ICAR is incompetent to address the emerging crisis. Central Government and the elite classes that rule the country are getting ready to hand over the agriculture sector to foreign monopoly capital under the pretext of solving an impending crisis.

The big capitalist farmers and rich peasants are sure to join hands with the foreign monopolists in this process of takeover, as part of the ongoing globalization process. This will be at the cost of the rest of the farming community, consisting of small and marginal farmers, agricultural workers and other sections of our rural proletarians.

This process is sure to be prolonged and protracted. The big capital is equipped with modern farming technologies and agricultural research organized by imperialist states. A well planned strategy and effective intervention by the Indian state are absolutely necessary for protecting the interest of the farming communities and the country at large. ICAR and other central government organizations need to be strengthened by developing their state level counterparts and then transforming them into genuine federal institutions, capable of defending national interests.

Rural proletarians of India’s informal sector, including the agricultural workers need to be unionized for fighting for their basic human rights, such as minimum wages, reasonable working conditions, and social security. The report on unorganized sector by Arjun Sengupta committee on the unorganized sector of the national economy has highlighted the need as well as the possibilities for regulating the labor market in the informal sector.

In fact, Arjun Sengupta report is the byproduct and legacy of decades long struggles waged by the informal sector workers, in several parts of the country, under the leadership of working class parties which has by now acquired adequate strength and expertise to formulate and campaign for an alternative agriculture development program that is truly patriotic and anti-imperialist.

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