The problem of periodic cyclones in the Arabian Sea, which cause havoc to agriculture in the western coastal states, has not received adequate attention because the formation of a government in Mumbai has become the overwhelming concern today. But misery in agriculture should not be ignored. Positive employment data from the organised sector should not be used to paper over the plight of small farmers and landless labourers. Ignoring the medium and long-term needs of agriculture can prove to be very expensive in a land and water-deficit regime. We anxiously await the Niti Aayog’s efforts on the promised seven-year plan (policy) for water. In this context, I am reminded of a period in the Seventies that resonates with the current times.
In the second half of the mid-Sixties, India was going through a “ship to mouth” phase of grain shortage. There were large grain imports in the form of the PL 480 aid from the US. Indian scientists took the risk of importing the dwarf varieties of wheat from the IWRI (International Wheat Research Institute), Mexico. M S Swaminathan and other scientists of the ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) helped in replicating the seeds here. But there was still considerable pessimism about the growth potential of Indian agriculture. W Paddock and P Paddock of the conservative Hudson Institute in the US argued in Famine 1975! that “it will be beyond the US to keep famine out of India during 1970s”.
In the late Sixties, it was the received wisdom from studies — amongst others by Keith Griffin — that the Green Revolution strategy would not impact small farms. Also, that such farms would not participate in diversified agriculture. This assessment was made by a variety of institutions and experts. Think tanks like the Hudson Institute, the social scientist Francine Frankel, the Bretten Woods institutions and the development studies experts, Paul Streeten and Michael Lipton — all had a dim view of India’s agricultural prospects. Some argued that India did not even have medium-term growth prospects, since poor agriculture would lead to a wage goods constraint. The initial spurt of grain growth had petered out and the Green Revolution was seen as a misnomer. India’s grain production, after reaching 108 million tonnes in 1971, was hovering between 101 and 104 million tonnes in the early Seventies. The World Bank and, in fact, even the Indian finance ministry (led by its then chief economic adviser, Manmohan Singh) said that India would not achieve its target of 125 million tonnes of grain by 1978/79 — the estimates ranged between 118 and 120 million tonnes instead.
It was at that time that planning in India focussed on resource allocation and policy support to agriculture. Priorities were set by the then Prime Minister Indira Gandhi, who saw food security as a central issue. This was the first job I was tasked with. The PM was clear: We must produce grain to feed ourselves. As the head of the powerful perspective planning division of the Planning Commission, I insisted we make conservative estimates about land reserves and productivity so that the resource allocation for agriculture — particularly irrigation — got high priority in the budget. We argued that if this was done, we could produce 125 million tonnes of grain in 1978/79, notwithstanding the World Bank’s estimates. Indira Gandhi backed us with funds.
By 1978/79, India was producing 127 million tonnes and was a net exporter of grains. In 1979, at a seminar in Washington, I was asked by a World Bank Official how India had exceeded its target of foodgrain production. I told him that I was from Ahmedabad, where we always keep reserves.
This article first appeared in the print edition on November 8, 2019 under the title ‘Seeing a blind spot’. The writer, a former Union minister, is an economist