Selected Essays/Agriculture in India

Agriculture has existed in India, since the Vedic times, Rigvedic treatise describes various agricultural activities, such as, ploughing, irrigation and cultivation of fruits and vegetables. Even rice and cotton were cultivated in the Valley.

Agriculture is the means of livelihood of almost two-thirds of the workforce in the country. It has always been India’s most important economic sector. Before 1947, Indian history was replete with famine, drought and food shortages. Between 1770 and 1880, as many as 27 food scarcities and famines were recorded. At least 20 million lives were lost in India in about 20 famines that had struck since 1850. Much of this loss was because of the wrong colonial policies, which aimed to derive maximum economic gain at the cost of human suffering and misery.

After the British had created a transport infrastructure in the first half of the 19th century, they began encourage in farmers to grow crops that could be exported. The boom in export and trade accompanied by rising prices forced farmers to shift to cash crops like cotton, indigo, poppy and sugarcane. The area under food grains subsequently shrank. In other words, efforts to improve agriculture in colonial India were directly linked to the needs of the British industries.

After Independence, India made rapid strides in the agricultural sector. Dependence of India on agricultural imports in the early 1960s, convinced planners that India’s growing population, as well as concern about national independence, security and political stability, required self-sufficiency in food production. This perception led to a programme of agricultural improvement called the Green Revolution, to a public distribution system and price support system for farmers.

The growth in food grain production is a result of concentrated efforts to increase all the Green Revolution inputs needed for higher yields: better seeds, more fertilisers, improved irrigation and education of farmers. Although increased irrigation has helped to lessen year-to-year fluctuations in farm production result in from the vagaries of the monsoon, it has not eliminated them.

Non- traditional crops of India, such as summer mung (a variety of lentil, part of the pulse family), soybeans, peanuts and sunflowers are gradually gaining importance. Steps have been taken to ensure an increase in the supply of non-chemical fertilisers at reasonable prices.

There are 53 fertiliser quality control laboratories in the country. Though the Green Revolution increased yields greatly, it aimed at the better-endowed regions. For millions of farmers languishing in the dry lands, constituting more than 70% of the cultivable lands, it continues to be a futile struggle. Despite emphasis on dry land farming during the past several decades, the scenario still remains grim.

The undulating topography and the irregular rainfall patterns have combined to aggravate the situation. Out of 141 million hectare of cultivated area, dry land area constitutes 85 million hectare i.e.60% of the total cultivated area.

The dry lands produce about 42% of the country’s food which shows that the future of farming lies in these areas. A large quantity of many nutritious crops like wheat, ragi, pulses, fruits, oilseeds, grown in the country come from these areas. The poor yields and the fluctuation in production are indications of the scant attention dry lands have received from policymakers and the planners.

The problem of increasing productivity on dry lands has serious socio-economic implication. With every passing year, the gap between the farmer’s yields in irrigated areas and in the dry farming regions is widening. One year of drought is enough to push a farmer into a deep well of poverty for another two to three years. Drought is a recurring phenomenon in arid and semi-arid areas. Fifty years after Independence, life for millions of people somehow surviving in the dry lands continues to be worse than ever before.

India’s topography, soils, rainfall and the availability of water for irrigation have been major determinants of the crop and livestock patterns characteristic of Indian agriculture. The monsoons, moreover, play a critical role in determining whether the harvest will be bountiful, average or poor in any given year. In the absence of sufficient irrigation measures, the areas receiving scanty rainfall suffer.

India is among the top global producer of staple food crops. But even then, the productivity of is fields is far below that of Brazil, US and France. This is due to small size of their landholdings, their fragmentation, high cost of technology and lack of awareness. Many agricultural lands are also being diverted for commercial exploitation.