The Real Revolution In Agriculture

A vendor holds burning incense as he prays inside his fruit shop at a market in Kolkata, India, August 12, 2016. REUTERS/Rupak De Chowdhuri
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The phenomenal growth in horticulture, dairy and poultry farming has deep implications on the diet of the ordinary Indians, and the debate about persistent malnutrition

Two contentious issues always crop whenever there is an attempt to discuss the state of the Indian economy. The first is about the crisis confronting Indian agriculture. The more impassioned liberals point out how thousands upon thousands of farmer suicides reveal the rot within and how the benefits of liberal economic policies have never reached farmers. The more reasoned economists talk of low productivity, lack of market access and low returns hurting Indian farmers. The second contentious point is about the poor getting a raw deal. Much data is bandied about to “prove” how malnutrition is actually rising amongst the poor. Falling per capita availability of food grains and pulses is shown as decisive proof of this scourge. There is a bit of truth in all this. But there is also a lot that presents a slightly contrarian view.

For the fourth consecutive year, production of horticulture outstripped production of food grains in the country in 2015-16: 280 plus million tons compared to 250 plus million tons. The message is very simple: farmers seem to be growing more fruits and vegetables and possibly using better technology that has improved yields. Of course, the problem of access to markets remains as intractable. Lack of cold storages and a direct interface with urban consumers means farmers rarely get the returns they should via horticulture. Two other “agricultural activities-dairy and poultry farming- too have registered phenomenal growth rates in the 21st century. Dairy farming is a testimony to the success of the cooperative movement in India while the growth in poultry is due to the increased appetite of ordinary Indians to eat chicken and eggs. Without a shadow of doubt, this represents a quiet revolution in Indian agriculture that is not often talked about or debated. The Indian farmer has been smart enough to both expand and diversify his sources of income. It is the state that has failed the farmer by not providing the right infrastructure and market access.

This phenomenal growth in horticulture, dairy and poultry farming also has deep implications on the diet of the ordinary Indians, and the debate about persistent malnutrition. If you go by per capita consumption of food grains and pulses, it would be easy to reach a conclusion that poor Indians are suffering from more malnutrition than before. But that is simply not true. It is just that rising incomes ha e helped even poor families to change their diets and perhaps imbibe more nutrition than before.

Look at horticulture. Between 1991 and 2014, the population of India grew by more than 30%. Horticulture output in the same period grew by more than 200%. Surely it would be physically impossible for only rich and middle class Indians to consume so much more of vegetables and fruits? The fact is, poor families have been moving from almost pure food grains diet to a more varied one that includes vegetables and fruits. Not to forget milk, chicken and eggs. Per capita availability of milk has increased by more than 100% in the last two decades. Per capita consumption of eggs has grown from 5 a year in the early 1950s to about 60 a year now. Something similar has happened with broiler chicken.

Unless you are a die hard pessimist, it is difficult to ignore this revolution in agriculture as well as diets of ordinary Indians. Of course, despite their willingness to experiment, expand and diversify, farmers in India continue to be let down by governments.

Source : Business World

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