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Monday, January 25, 2021

Role of agriculture: Why this economic slump is different from past ones

It isn’t just the bigger decline in GVA/GDP this time that is striking. Equally significant is the fact that in each of those four previous years, the primary culprit was agriculture.

Written by Harish Damodaran | New Delhi | Updated: January 11, 2021 7:32:20 am
An Expert Explains: Issues in Indian agricultureWhile Punjab and Haryana have become the focus of the farmers’ agitation, the current scenario in agriculture is not very hopeful in other states too. (Express Archive)

The 7.2% fall in gross value added (GVA) for 2020-21, as per the National Statistical Office’s first advance estimates released on Thursday, would be the sharpest ever recorded in India.

Earlier slumps

There have been four earlier occasions when the country’s GVA — which is GDP net of all taxes and subsidies on products and, hence, a more accurate measure of economic activity — has suffered contraction.

The extent of negative growth in those years — 1979-80 (minus 5.2%), 1972-73 (minus 0.3%), 1965-66 (minus 3.7%) and 1957-58 (minus 1.2%) — was lower than the 7.2% being projected for the current fiscal.

But it isn’t just the bigger decline in GVA/GDP this time that is striking. Equally significant is the fact that in each of those four previous years, the primary culprit was agriculture. All four were drought years — and the farm sector (agriculture, forestry and fishing) registered minus 12.8% growth in 1979-80, minus 5% in 1972-73, minus 11% in 1965-66 and minus 4.5% in 1957-58. In effect, the woes of ‘Bharat’ impacted the rest of the economy.

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Different this time

This has not been the case in 2020-21.

While overall GVA is expected to shrink 7.2%, agriculture and allied activities are set to post 3.4% growth. Far from being a drag, ‘Bharat’ kept ‘India’ going during the worst phase of Covid-19 and the nationwide lockdown. Had the farm sector not grown at all, the GVA decline would have worked out to 7.7%, not 7.2%. Incidentally, in 2019-20 as well, agricultural growth at 4% surpassed the 3.9% for the economy as a whole.

Monsoon boost

Agriculture’s relatively better performance in the last two years is largely a result of consecutive years of good monsoon (and also post-monsoon) rains. Recharged groundwater tables and reservoirs getting filled to near capacity — besides farming operations being exempted from lockdown restrictions — led to increase in crop acreages and higher production.

Share in economy

If Bharat’s doing well hasn’t prevented the worst economic slump since independence, the reason is simple. In 1979-80, agriculture’s share in India’s GDP at constant prices was 33.9%; in 1957-58, it was 48.2%. A drought year in those times invariably translated into low/negative growth rates.

It is different today. The share of agriculture in real GVA was only 14.6% in 2019-20. That is estimated to go up to 16.3% this fiscal, but not enough to make a different even in a bountiful monsoon year.

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