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India@ 100: Of The Agrarian Distress

The institutional shift from planned to a market-driven economy has decelerated the rural economy, casting a severe blow to agriculture.

It has been a saga of unprecedented growth, followed by a terrible agrarian distress. No country in the world probably has ever seen the pendulum of agricultural growth swinging from one extreme to another. In the past 70 years, Indian agriculture has not only demonstrated what it takes to attain the pinnacle, but also how easy it is to fritter away the gains.

A right mix of policies, technology and above all, the backing of a determined political will to achieve food self-sufficiency is now part of history. First with milk, followed closely by foodgrain, the actual trigger for the two major revolutions in India’s history was set off within a span of two years: 1965-66. It is not that the first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru didn’t make any efforts. A number of community development programmes were initiated during his tenure.  Speaking from the ramparts of the Red Fort in 1955, he had said: “It is very humiliating for any country to import food. So everything else can wait, but not agriculture.”

Eventually, the country’s first Agricultural University at Pantnagar in Uttar Pradesh was inaugurated by him on Nov 17, 1960. Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana came up in 1962. Bhakra dam was dedicated to the nation in 1963. So in more than one way, it was Nehru who laid out the infrastructure for what was later called the Green Revolution.

White Revolution:It was in 1965 that the then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shashtri laid the foundation of milk cooperatives, which enabled farmers to get a higher price for milk and at the same time enabled urban consumers to get the benefit of easy availability of milk at an affordable price. Hailed as one of the world’s most successful rural development programmes, the dairy cooperatives have turned India into the world’s largest producer of milk, with production crossing 156 million tonnes. Benefitting more than 150 million dairy farmers, a majority of the beneficiaries being women, the enhanced per capita availability of milk has turned out to be one of the strong pillars of nutritional security.

Green Revolution: A year later, in 1966, by allowing the import of the miracle high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat from Mexico, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi ushered in what is popularly termed the Green Revolution. Aided and abetted by appropriate price and public procurement policies, public sector investments and food distribution to deficit regions, India became self-sufficient in food, achieving food security at the national level. Subsequently, India stopped food imports under Pl-480 coming in from North America.

The success achieved in wheat was followed quickly in rice, cotton, sugarcane, vegetables and fruits. Food self-sufficiency became the foundation for national sovereignty, a fact which is often not acknowledged. It was in 1965 that the then US President Lyndon Johnson got upset over a statement the Indian Prime Minister had made. In an interview to a US newspaper Lal Bahadur Shashtri had termed the American war in Vietnam as “an act of aggression”. But this was unacceptable. How could a hungry nation dare to call the US an aggressor? The US stopped food supplies, sending the Indian government into a tizzy. The then food minister, C. Subramaniam, later told me that there was a time when the country was left with food stocks for only seven days. There was panic all around. Shashtri had urged the nation to fast on Monday, the basic idea being to share the available food with the needy.

The Green Revolution certainly ended the era of chronic food deficiencies; enabling India to meet the challenges of hunger and deprivation. For 70 years, farmers have toiled hard to produce bumper harvests. Year after year, the records have tumbled. Public investments in agriculture declined over the years. The focus gradually began to shift away from food self-sufficiency.

Agrarian Distress: Since the Economic Reforms were initiated in 1991, the institutional shift from the planned to the market-driven economy has decelerated the rural economy, casting a severe blow to agriculture. With the World Bank in 1996 directing India to move 400 million people from the rural to the urban areas in the next 20 years, successive governments began to dismantle the planks of what is popularly called the ‘famine-avoidance’ strategy, so assiduously built over the decades.

Consequently, with each passing year, the plight of a farming family has only worsened. Successive governments have deliberately created conditions turning farming non-viable, thereby forcing an increasing number of farmers to abandon agriculture and migrate to cities. With farm gate prices remaining subdued if not static, a majority of the 600 million farmers have come under increasing levels of debt. In Punjab alone, 80 per cent of the farm families are living in debt. This is happening at a time when the focus is shifting to encouraging contract farming thereby allowing corporates to engage in agriculture. But will this work? Even while some industry projections see India emerging as an export hub for agriculture, most analysis point to India becoming a major food importer.

While food self-sufficiency is being sacrificed at the altar of international trade, food imports have soared. Already, a number of agreements are being signed to outsource food supplies, including from BRICS countries. According to Down to Earth magazine, the food import bill for 2015-16 stood at Rs 1,402,680,000,000, three times more than the annual budget for agriculture. What is not being realised is that importing food is like importing unemployment. At a time when jobless growth is the norm, destroying farm livelihoods does not make any economic sense. The dominant economic thinking is to open up the markets to allow agriculture to be globally competitive. 

The author is a writer, researcher, columnist and commentator

                                                                                        

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.




Devinder Sharma

The author is a writer, researcher, columnist and commentator

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