Do We Need an Agricultural Revolution?

Since independence, we have had revolutions across the entire spectrum of colors. The list starts from black revolution (petroleum), continues with grey (fertilizers), brown (leather, cocoa), blue (fish), yellow (oil seed), green (agriculture), red (meat, tomato), pink (onions, prawn), golden (overall horticulture, honey, fruit), golden fiber (jute), silver (egg), silver fiber (cotton), and ends with white (dairy, milk). Each one of these revolutions promoted awareness and spurred production level to varied degrees of success. Today, the appalling situation of an average farmer, with meager income and continued dependence on weather conditions, merits the requirement of another agricultural revolution- probably related towards mechanization. As a ray of hope, such a revolution is quietly coming around.

As summarized in a research paper, which used the agricultural census data, the average size of land holdings has decreased from 2.3 hectare in 1970-71 to 1.33 hectare by 2000-01. To add to the woes, about 81% of the operational land holdings in 2002-03 belong to the small and marginal farmers as compared to about 62% in 1960-61. These reduced land holdings inhibit the adoption of technology and have become one of the key reasons for the sorry state of affairs at a time when India’s competitors in agricultural products are increasingly focused on improving farm productivity.

So, what can be done in such a situation? The usual answers given by many include:

  • Educate the Farmers: This is one of the most commonly promoted solution. Indeed the Indian Government is working hard in this area. Its mkisan initiative to provide relevant information to the farmers through SMS is a step in the positive direction. However, in my opinion, this initiative faces two limitations. The first is that a SMS could only provide limited information at a time. Farmers may, at times, need more information than just a few hundred characters. The second issue is that many farmers, who are not tech-savvy, might find information available in a hard copy to be more easily accessible than that contained in a mobile’s memory. Here, I believe, the wide network of India Post could be utilized to address both the concerns. The Government can disseminate information related to agriculture/ healthcare/ education through post offices or Dak Sevaks to the village panchayat. The cost of providing this information could be borne by the relevant State department. What’s more, this step could serve as a bridge in moving towards a completely digital age and help the farmer make the transition easily.
  • Increase Mechanization: No one disagrees that there is a desperate need for mechanization to improve farm productivity in India. The central government had allotted INR 160 crore to states under the Sub-Mission on Agricultural Mechanization in 2016-17. In this direction, the initiatives of the Madhya Pradesh State Government are laudable. There are primarily two factors that restrict adoption of machinery. The first factor is that smaller land holdings restrict a farmer’s ability to recoup his investment. For example, a tractor needs at least 1000 hours of operation every year to recover its cost while a parcel of 1.5-2 hectare means at most 100 hours of operation. The second factor is related to training of the farmers to select an appropriate equipment. For example, Acharpura village in Madhya Pradesh had 20 tractors but the use of single box seed drills, as against the recommended double box seed drill, to plant crops like soyabeen and pulses resulted in poor productivity (courtesy: a livemint article on 15 Sep. 2016). Here, the MP government introduced Custom Hiring Centers scheme to address both the concerns. Herein, rural youth under 40 years are selected based on their application, sent for a week-long technical training, which also is a prerequisite for availing bank loans, and are required to purchase farm equipment which are then rented out to nearby farmers. The applicant has to put in an equity of INR 5 lakh and can avail a subsidy of up to 40% of the equipment cost, INR 10 lakh whichever is maximum. The balance amount is funded through bank loans. What this scheme, in conjunction with another scheme of providing information- Yantradoot, has done is that it has taken away the initial hurdles in technology adoption. The cost and benefits of technology adoption are shared and has created a hope that if such a system is replicated elsewhere, it can indeed bring the much needed relief to the farmers.

The other solutions include, but are not limited to, investment in R&D and electrification of the villages which will be discussed in detail in another post.

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