With global supply chains being disrupted because of the COVID-19 crisis and the country embroiled in a border standoff with China, Prime Minister Narendra Modi has given a clarion call for “Aatma Nirbhar Bharat”.
But what does it mean for Indian agriculture?
Ashok Gulati, Infosys Chair Professor for Agriculture at ICRIER, looks at trade data, which clearly shows that India is already a net exporter of agri-produce. It has been so ever since the economic reforms began in 1991.
“The golden year of agri-trade, however, was 2013-14. That year agri-exports peaked at $43.6 billion while imports were $18.9 billion, giving a net trade surplus of $24.7 billion. That was the last year of the UPA government”.
But since the Modi government took over the reins of the economy in 2014, agri-exports have been sluggish and sliding. “In 2019-20, when the Modi government had completed six years in office, agri-exports were just $36 billion, and the net agri-trade surplus at $11.2 billion. With this lacklustre performance, talk of doubling agri-exports by 2022 looks almost impossible,” he writes in his latest column in The Indian Express.
On the agri-imports front, Gulati finds that the biggest item is edible oils — worth about $10 billion (more than 15 mt).
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“This is where there is a need to create ‘aatma nirbharta’, not by levying high import duties, but by creating a competitive advantage through augmenting productivity and increasing the recovery ratio of oil from oilseeds and in case of palm oil, from fresh fruit bunches,” he argues.
“While mustard, sunflower, groundnuts, and cottonseed have the potential to increase oil output to some extent, the maximum potential lies in oil palm. This is the only plant that can give about four tonnes of oil on a per hectare basis,” he states.
“India has about 2 million hectares that are suitable for oil palm cultivation — this can yield 8 mt of palm oil. But it needs a long term vision and strategy. If the Modi government wants “aatma nirbharta” in agriculture, oil palm is a crop to work on.
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