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Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Just like corn

Bihar desperately needs jobs and incomes. Agriculture can create plenty, both on and off farms

By: Editorial | Updated: November 5, 2020 7:51:27 am
Bihar today produces nearly a fourth of the country’s maize, with its average yields over twice the national average.

Bihar’s agricultural potential has never been in doubt. Its fertile alluvial soils and abundant water resources from the Ganga and tributary rivers — Sone, Gandak, Burhi Gandak/Bagmati, Kosi and Mahananda — have always made it the perfect destination for India’s second Green Revolution. The state hasn’t quite delivered on the promise, though glimpses of what it can do can be seen, for instance, in maize. Bihar today produces nearly a fourth of the country’s maize, with its average yields over twice the national average. Many farmers, especially in the Kosi-Seemanchal belt, harvest 50 quintals or more per acre, which is comparable to that in the US Midwest corn heartland.

Bihar’s corn revolution has been entirely a private sector-led one. The credit for it goes mainly to multinational seed companies which introduced the cultivation of single-cross maize hybrids. They, along with large trading firms and feed millers, recognised the potential of planting these during the rabi winter-spring season, when the mild temperatures with clear skies, absence of flooding and low pest/disease infestation were conducive for high yields. Moreover, this crop could be harvested during April-June, when there was no corn available from the rest of India or even South America. Bihar’s farmers took to rabi maize in a big way from the early-2000s. But it isn’t just corn. The state’s other agriculture success stories, be it litchi or makhana (fox nut), have also been largely private enterprise-scripted. And all this has done without any minimum support price-based procurement or functional APMC (agricultural produce market committee) mandis that farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Madhya Pradesh take for granted.

The government, the one taking over after the current Assembly elections, can do much more. Bihar’s rural roads (sadak) have certainly improved in the last two decades. But this is not so with bijli and paani (electricity and water). These may be available for homes, but not in farms. Without three-phase power supply, farmers use diesel pumps for irrigation, which is expensive and also leads to poor harnessing of the state’s rich groundwater aquifers. The next government should focus on affordable electricity not just for LED bulbs and fans, but also to power tube-wells, milking machines and bulk coolers. Farmers also need markets; dismantling the monopoly APMC mandis does not mean shutting them down. Bihar desperately needs jobs and incomes; agriculture can create plenty of these, both on and off the farms.

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