Plate to Plough: The hands that feed us

Indian agriculture has made remarkable progress since 1947 and credit for this goes mainly to the farmer. Now we need to repay our debt to the agricultural community

Written by Ashok Gulati | Published:August 17, 2015 12:00 am
indian independence day, Bangladesh, socialist, Public Law 480, Green Revolution, Cotton production, Amul, Anand Milk Union Limited, india news, indian express columns Whom should we salute for such a turnaround in India’s agri-fortunes? (Illustration C R Sasikumar)

As India celebrates its 68th year of independence, it is time to pause and look back at the major challenges we have faced since Independence and how they were overcome, as well as at the mistakes and follies we committed so that we don’t repeat them.

In 1947, undivided India had a population of 390 million. But overnight, on August 15, India was responsible for the destiny of 330 million people. The other 60 million went to Pakistan — 30 million in West Pakistan and another 30 million in East Pakistan, now Bangladesh. A majority of these 330 million people were rural, quite poor, illiterate, and had a very short life expectancy.

Gandhi rightly said that India lives in its villages, and feeding people well was the biggest challenge to ensure healthy and happy lives for them. But we also wanted to transform our society fast, develop modern industrial goods and outlook. So, after a few initial years of absorbing the shock of Partition and stabilising society, Jawaharlal Nehru led India on to a socialist path with a mixed economy framework. Heavy industrialisation under state ownership was the darling of development policy and a symbol of modernisation. For food, however, India relied on supplies from the United States under Public Law 480 (PL-480) against rupee payments, as India did not have much foreign exchange to buy large quantities of food in international markets. The folly of this set-up became apparent in the mid-1960s, when the US suspended wheat supplies temporarily (due to some political differences) at a time when India was facing back-to-back droughts and the country was literally living from “ship to mouth”. But the folly of state-led heavy industrialisation and import substitution, which kept India trapped in what the late Raj Krishna called the “Hindu rate of growth” of 3.5 per cent for decades, is still being debated.

India was quick to learn from its PL-480 mistake and neglect of agriculture. It realised that its political freedom could be imperilled if it was not self-reliant in basic food production. But all of India’s foreign exchange reserves in the mid-1960s could not buy more than eight million tonnes (mt) of wheat in the international market, while it was importing 10 mt under PL-480. So, India did not have much of an option but to become self-sufficient in the production of basic staples. India imported 18,000 tonnes of high yielding varieties (HYV) of wheat from Mexico in 1966, and ushered in the Green Revolution.

Where does India stand today in terms of its agriculture? While the population has grown from 330 million in 1947 to almost 1.25 billion, that is by almost 3.8 times, our wheat production has increased by almost 15 times (from about 6.5 mt in 1951 to 96 mt in 2014). Rice production has gone up by more than five times (from 20.6 mt in 1951 to 106.5 mt in 2014), maize production by more than 14 times (from 1.7 mt to 24.4 mt), milk by eight times (from 17 mt to 137 mt), fish by 12 times, and potatoes by 26 times. Cotton production has also increased from three million bales in 1951 to 37 million bales in 2014, an increase of more than 12 times.

India is not only self-sufficient in agriculture, but also a net exporter of agri-produce. In 2014-15, agri-exports were $38 billion against imports of less than $20 billion. During the last three years, India has exported a total of 61 mt of cereal, nothing short of a wonder for a country that lived from ship to mouth in the mid-1960s. Today, India is the largest exporter of rice in the world, and the second-largest exporter of beef (buffalo meat) and cotton.

India is the largest producer of milk, and the second-largest producer of fruits and vegetables, rice, wheat and sugarcane. This is a matter of great satisfaction and relief for policymakers. An idea of the progress made can be gauged by looking at how just the price of onions makes them nervous today. Think of what would have happened if there were all-round shortages as in the mid-1960s.

Whom should we salute for such a turnaround in India’s agri-fortunes? Several stakeholders have played a role in achieving this. There have been policymakers like C. Subramaniam, who steered the political debate to import HYV seeds in the mid-1960s despite the massive opposition from left-wing parties in Parliament and ushered in the Green Revolution. There are scientists like the late Norman Borlaug, who invented these seeds, and M.S. Swaminathan and Atwal, the first ones to adapt them to Indian conditions. But when Subramaniam was asked whom the credit for the Green Revolution should go to, his reply was “to the farmers” who took the risk of adopting new technologies. He saluted the Indian farmer.

India’s milk story is the story of the Milkman of India, Verghese Kurien, who nurtured the cooperative movement in the country and made Amul (Anand Milk Union Limited), an “utterly-butterly” name in every household.

There is an important lesson from this grand success of agriculture. New technologies (HYV seeds, water, fertilisers) and innovation in institutional engineering (as in the milk sector) have been the real catalysts of change. These seeds can come from outside the country (as was the case with the HYV seeds of wheat and rice, and now with Bt cotton seeds from large private-sector companies such as Mahyco Monsanto), or take birth on Indian soil, as was the case with Pusa basmati and several hybrids of maize, introduced by both multinationals and domestic companies as well as government. But it is the farmer-entrepreneur who takes the risk in adopting these seeds and technologies, puts in his/ her best efforts, and the nation reaps a rich harvest to feed its citizens.

It is time to salute our farmers for these heroic accomplishments. But it is also time to ask, what is it that the country has given back to them? Are they prosperous and happy? There is no doubt that several pockets of peasantry have experienced prosperity, but the overall picture, as per the latest situation assessment survey, is not rosy. So, the next challenge for all of us is to ensure a smile on their faces as well. This calls for a major re-orientation of farm policies. It’s time to ring the cowbell.

The writer is Infosys chair professor for agriculture, Icrier

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