The ‘new crop’ problem

Grown on small plots,yes; grown by small farmers,no

Written by Yoginder K. Alagh | Published:March 3, 2009 11:33 pm

Progress in most big villages — those where the soil is good,there is water and a bazaar — during the last few years has been truly remarkable. The area under grains is going down in spite of some year-to-year variation depending on the rice/ wheat support price or market price. Grain yields are definitely going up: yields of three tonnes in a hectare are now common. There is much larger area going to horticulture and tree crops; vegetables,fruits,newer oilseeds like castor are spreading. Then there is hybrid cotton spreading out of western India. With all of this comes prosperity and a savviness for the new farmer. He may wear Western clothes. He follows prices either through the vernacular newspaper,or through the electronic media. In many villages a few farmers (at least one or two) will also read an English newspaper. I was zonked in Saurashtra recently,trying to find my way around a village,asking for directions in my version of Saurashtra Gujarati when I was given directions in response,in fairly decent English.

Such farmers know the importance of import policies and the news of the export incentive structure put into place for cotton spread very fast. Chengal Reddy’s Consortium of Farmers Organisations,following in the old Rabi Ray-Chokha Rao tradition,decided to make a political/ electoral issue out of the government not accepting the Alagh Committee’s recommendations on price policies. I have in the past talked of the friendly ghost of the Alagh Committee returning again and again. It seems that a not-so-friendly Banquo is once again already there. 

The old Green Revolution was largely in grains and spread from Punjab,Harayana and western UP to the East,and from Andhra and Tanjore to the rest of the irrigated South. There was one characteristic of it at the time which continues to this day,namely that once a new technology is introduced,it tends to spread fast. In self-pollinated crops getting the seeds was not a problem; they originated largely from the universities and the ICAR.

G.S. Bhalla documented that in the north-west the technology spreaders and adopters were “more equal” than the non-adopters. Vijay Vyas was to follow in the West. In the ’70s,the Bhalla-Vyas thesis was heresy. Now it is

accepted as fact. 

So the lack of scale effects is generally accepted for the central crops of the old green revolution — the older crops. For newer crops,this is not quite so obvious. It is not that such crops — mostly what are called high-value crops — are not grown on small plots. In fact they are largely grown on small plots and the farmer invariably still grows a cereal,as well as a fodder crop,for his own needs on the rest of his land. Small plots,yes; but small farmers,no: small farmers

invariably don’t grow high-value crops,particularly newer ones or those with new technologies,like the hybrids and GMCs. The switch-over from a cereal or conventional oilseed to a high-value crop now costs money. First there is the seed,which is expensive,even the pirated ones. Invariably the crop has specific water needs in a stress period — and if it is not available the loss in yield is high; this is a problem for those without their own water source,which the smaller man is more likely to lack. Plus,his risk-taking capacity is still low. The idea that banks give loans to very small farmers prospers only in the plan and policy documents. So if you have the cash — preferably from your bapu — you grow cash crops on a part of your land and get more cash. If not,then you don’t.

Still,it is silly to argue that this newfound prosperity does not have ripple effects. In any case,around two-fifths of the land is cultivated by middle peasants. Also,the others get wage income — both in cultivation as well as in first-stage processing and marketing. Also,there is the NREGA which,as this column has consistently pointed out,is really making waves.

And yet it would be unwise to ignore the fact that inequality in our villages is rising in a big way for the first time. We need to think it through for this rise comes on top of an extremely unequal social structure.

The writer,a former Union

minister,is chairman,Institute of Rural Management,Anand

express@expressindia.com

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