In­dian agri­cul­ture must move to sus­tain­able crops

Agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion needs to change dras­ti­cally if we want to pre­vent ir­repara­ble dam­age to the en­vi­ron­ment

Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur) - - Comment - ROSHAN KISHORE TCA Ragha­van is a for­mer high com­mis­sioner to Pak­istan The views ex­pressed are per­sonal (In­ner Voice com­prises con­tri­bu­tions from our read­ers. The views ex­pressed are per­sonal) in­ner­voice@hin­dus­tan­

In­dia’s agri-ex­ports po­ten­tial is as high as $100 bil­lion against cur­rent ex­ports of $ 30 bil­lion”, said fi­nance min­is­ter Arun Jait­ley in this year’s bud­get speech. He also said that the govern­ment will fur­ther lib­er­alise agri­cul­tural ex­ports to achieve this po­ten­tial. Most peo­ple will wel­come such state­ments.

Ex­ports can be a big op­por­tu­nity to en­hance farm in­comes in In­dia. In­dia’s agri­cul­tural trade regime is of­ten ac­cused of hav­ing a pro-con­sumer bias. When prices in­crease, ex­port re­stric­tions and lower im­port du­ties are used to con­trol in­fla­tion. Do­mes­tic con­sumers gain but the farmer loses out on gain­ing from these cycli­cal move­ments. There is no bailout for the farmer when prices crash in do­mes­tic mar­kets.

There are good rea­sons why a lib­er­alised ex­port push in agri­cul­ture might not be an un­am­bigu­ous good. These are re­lated with is­sues of long-term sus­tain­abil­ity in agri­cul­ture and do­mes­tic food se­cu­rity con­cerns.

What is the big­gest com­po­nent of In­dia’s agri­cul­tural ex­ports? Spices, tea, cot­ton etc.all come to mind. The cor­rect an­swer, how­ever, is rice. Be­tween 2006-07 and 2016-17, rice alone ac­counted for around 17% of the to­tal value of In­dia’s agri­cul­tural ex­ports. More than half of our rice ex­ports are of the bas­mati va­ri­ety. Many farm­ers and ex­porters must have gained from the sharp rise in In­dia’s rice ex­ports.

These ex­ports, how­ever, en­tail a huge cost for the en­vi­ron­ment. Rice pro­duc­tion uses a lot of water. In a 2016 Mint ar­ti­cle, I used data from the Water Foot­print Net­work – a global net­work on water re­lated is­sues – to es­ti­mate that 10 tril­lion litres of water went into the pro­duc­tion of In­dia’s bas­mati ex­ports in 2014-15. The story also pointed out that In­dia was among the largest vir­tual ex­porters of water via agri­cul­tural ex­ports.

De­plet­ing water ta­bles due to ex­ces­sive use of ground water is a ma­jor con­cern vis-àvis the sus­tain­abil­ity of farm­ing in In­dia. knowl­edge of the area, and with a poor sense of di­rec­tion, he seemed com­pletely help­less about where to go.

Af­ter I ex­plained how he should get there, he said with grat­i­tude, “you have ren­dered a great help to me. I had tried ask­ing so many peo­ple ear­lier, but no one was even ready to lis­ten to me. It was my good luck that brought me to your of­fice.” And at one point he asked me, “Do you know what is good or bad luck?”

“Luck, is like a bank. In the bank, we de­posit money for our bad times. So treat life as a bank where our good or bad karma Ex­port­ing more and more bas­mati rice with­out think­ing of its en­vi­ron­men­tal reper­cus­sions is not go­ing to help mat­ters. It would only has­ten the de­struc­tion of agri­cul­tural ecosys­tems.

Agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion in In­dia needs to change dras­ti­cally if we want to pre­vent ir­repara­ble dam­age to our en­vi­ron­ment. A pol­icy which only looks to max­imise ex­ports would not take us very far in achiev­ing this. We need to come up with in­cen­tives which re­ward our farm­ers for shift­ing to pro­duc­ing en­vi­ron­ment-friendly crops, even if they do not get us more in ex­port earn­ings.

An en­vi­ron­ment-friendly read­just­ing of In­dia’s agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion need not nec­es­sar­ily be con­tra­dic­tory with farm in­comes. In­dia im­ports a large amount of pulses cur­rently. The lat­est avail­able data for past three years (2014-15 to 2016-17) shows that the value of In­dia’s pulse im­ports is more than half of to­tal rice ex­ports from In­dia. Why can’t we en­cour­age farm­ers to switch to pulse cul­ti­va­tion from rice? Un­like rice, pulse cul­ti­va­tion can im­prove soil health, as pulses help in in­creas­ing nitro­gen con­tent, which is a cru­cial soil nutri­ent.

In­dia’s agri­cul­tural pro­duc­tion bas­ket is ex­tremely di­verse. Given this fact, the pur­suit of self-suf­fi­ciency in agri­cul­ture is not nec­es­sar­ily a bad thing. Not only would this save us valu­able for­eign ex­change, it can also pro­tect our farm­ers from the price volatil­ity in in­ter­na­tional mar­kets. Such an ap­proach can also help us safe­guard our food se­cu­rity in­ter­ests.

The com­plete lib­er­al­i­sa­tion of agri­cul­tural trade can make do­mes­tic food pro­duc­tion vul­ner­a­ble to cheaper im­ports from sub­sidised pro­duc­tion in de­vel­oped coun­tries. In­dia’s pol­icy mak­ers are aware of this threat, which is why they are in­sist­ing for a per­ma­nent so­lu­tion on the is­sue of pub­lic stock­hold­ing and spe­cial safe­guard mech­a­nisms in the World Trade Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

There can be no dis­agree­ment about the fact that agri­cul­tural in­comes have to be in­creased in In­dia. The chal­lenge would re­main even if a sig­nif­i­cant part of agri­cul­tural work­ers move out of farm­ing. What many peo­ple do not re­alise is the fact that leav­ing ev­ery­thing to the mar­kets can be counter-pro­duc­tive in agri­cul­ture. Cur­rent farm­ing de­ci­sions and prac­tices are cru­cial for fu­ture sus­tain­abil­ity. Mar­kets, es­pe­cially in for­eign trade, are not the best way to send the right sig­nals to ad­here to these con­cerns. A smart coun­try would en­cour­age its farm­ers to cul­ti­vate en­vi­ron­men­tal­friendly crops and im­port the en­vi­ron­men­tally-dam­ag­ing ones. The farmer can­not be ex­pected to act with fore­sight in such mat­ters. This in­creases the role of fu­tur­is­tic pol­icy mak­ing even more.


(ac­tions) are de­posited. When we help oth­ers self­lessly, it all de­posits some­where in the uni­verse. These de­posited ac­tions fol­low us through­out our life. And in times of a cri­sis, it is that trea­sure of good deeds that will help us. If our neg­a­tive ac­tions out­num­ber the pos­i­tive ones, then there will be neg­a­tiv­ity in the fu­ture.” He ex­pressed his thought and walked out of my of­fice, but left a last­ing im­pres­sion on me.

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