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Under Sharad Pawar, Maharashtra can frame an agricultural policy that serves as a lighthouse for other states

Maharashtra’s farmers need a new deal. A task force must be set up under the NCP chief

Written by Ashok Gulati , Shyma Jose | Updated: December 9, 2019 10:03:58 am
Maharashtra farmers, Maharashtra farmers protests, sharad pawar, Maharashtra govt, indian express Ensuring better use of irrigation water is perhaps even more important than investing more in MMI schemes. (Illustration: C R Sasikumar)

From the tumultuous developments that took place in Maharashtra’s politics over the past three weeks, one thing came out clearly: Everyone swears they want to help farmers first. Devendra Fadnavis’s 80-hour government sanctioned Rs 5,830 crore from the Maharashtra Contingency Fund to give relief to farmers affected by unseasonal rains. One wonders what happened to the crop insurance scheme if the money had to finally come from the state exchequer. The Shiv Sena-NCP-Congress coalition has declared that it wants to announce something bigger for farmers very soon. But before doing that, it wants to first map and assess the various schemes linked to farmers. That’s a wise decision. And given that Sharad Pawar is the senior-most leader of the ruling alliance, it is a golden chance for Maharashtra to frame an agricultural policy that can serve as a lighthouse for many other states.

Maharashtra’s peasants have been in the news quite often for the wrong reasons: The high incidence of farmers’ suicides. While a little less than 10 per cent of India’s population resides in Maharashtra, it accounted for 41 per cent of farmers’ suicides in the country as per the latest 2016 data. Although suicides are a complex sociological phenomenon, yet it perhaps reflects the high levels of stress in agriculture. Early action is needed on two fronts. First, on the issues of irrigation and water use management, and second, building globally competitive value chains for major agri-commodties of the state, from farm to fork.

One of the key problems in Maharashtra’s agriculture is the low irrigation ratio. It stood at just 19 per cent for the triennium average ending (TE) 2014-15, as compared to 48 per cent at the all-India level (Figure 1). Ironically, during TE 2002-03 to TE 2014-15, the irrigation ratio increased only by one percentage point.

(Source: Directorate of Economics and Statistics, GOI)

As of June 2017, the irrigation potential created (IPC) by Maharashtra’s Water Resource Department (WRD) stood at 50.4 lakh hectares, while the irrigation potential utilised (IPU) was only 39.5 lakh hectares, or 78.4 per cent (Economic Survey of Maharashtra, 2018-19). Massive public investments are needed to decrease the IPC-IPU gap, but that seems like a distant goal given the high leakages in the irrigation projects. The NABARD-ICRIER study on “Getting More from Less” by Gulati and others (2019) has estimated that the capital cost of major and medium irrigation (MMI) schemes in Maharashtra was the highest in the country at Rs 13.5 lakh/hectare of IPC compared to the all-India average cost of Rs 4.5 lakh/hectare. The cost per hectare of IPU is even higher at Rs 20.4 lakh/hectare. Given the alarmingly high capital cost in public irrigation, it is important to ensure transparency and accountability before any more money is put in public irrigation, else that money will also disappear as water disappears in sand.

Ensuring better use of irrigation water is perhaps even more important than investing more in MMI schemes. Water guzzling crops like sugarcane (remember one kg of sugar needs 2,300 litres of water), which occupy less than 4 per cent of cropped area, are entirely irrigated and take away 65 per cent of the irrigation water of the state. On the other hand, cotton which occupies roughly 18 per cent of the cropped area, is just 2.7 per cent irrigated. No wonder most farmers’ suicides take place in the cotton belt. The policy direction is quite clear: Contain the area under sugarcane and bring it under drip irrigation — saving almost 50 per cent of irrigation water — and channel that to other crops, especially cotton, fruits and vegetables, where the value generated per drop of water can be very high.

Maharashtra’s cotton yield stood at 339 kg/hectare, much lower than the all India average (457 kg/hectare) and that of Gujarat (620 kg/hectare) in TE 2017-18. Gujarat’s cotton area is about 60 per cent irrigated compared to less than 3 per cent in Maharashtra, and that makes the Gujarati cotton farmer much more globally competitive than the Maharashtra farmer. Also, HTBt needs to be immediately declared legal, it is already being grown on 15-20 per cent of Maharashtra’s cotton area “illegally”, without any formal approval.

The second key issue is leveraging cropping patterns in line with emerging demand towards high-value agriculture. In Maharashtra, agriculture is quite diversified with cereals accounting for 34 per cent of the cropped area, followed by oilseeds (18.5 per cent), cotton (17.6 per cent), pulses (16.3 per cent), fruits and vegetables (6.1 per cent) and sugarcane (3.8 per cent). In terms of gross value of output, crops like cotton, fruits and vegetables account for 8 per cent and 17 per cent respectively (Figure 2).

(Source: State-wise estimates of value of output from agriculture and allied activities, CSO, various years)

Horticulture holds a good promise in Maharashtra with some very successful stories like that of grape and pomegranate exports achieved by linking farmers producer organisations (FPOs) to export markets. Onion, which is on the boil today, also deserves investment in modern storage and processing de-hydrated flakes, which can reduce wastage. Maharashtra is the largest producer of onions, with a third of India’s production.

Maharashtra has already opened up private mandis to ensure competition and fair trade, but more needs to be done for building efficient commodity-specific value-chains that connect FPOs to best markets — be it organised retailers, food processors or exporters. The state needs to embark on a special drive to promote contract farming, and the opening up of land-leasing markets.

The livestock sector also deserves more processing plants for value added products that will help farmers realise better prices for their produce. Value addition in more organised value-chains could be the mantra for the agricultural transformation of the state.

The common minimum programme worked out between the Shiv Sena, NCP and Congress has lifted hopes that the farming community in the state may get a better deal. But, to realise these hopes, one needs a good strategy that recognises constraints on the supply side (especially water) but also taps into the potential on the demand side through FPOs run specific commodity value-chains. Maybe setting up a high-level special task force under Sharad Pawar’s direction could see this potential actually realised for peasants.

This article first appeared in the print edition on December 9, 2019 under the title “From plate to plough: First Pawar test.” Gulati is Infosys chair professor for agriculture and Jose is research associate at ICRIER

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