In 1955, Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, from the ramparts of the Red Fort, remarked that everything could wait but agriculture. Since then, India has come a long way in becoming self-sufficient in food production and a global agricultural powerhouse. Given the striking role that generations of farmers have played in redeeming the country from the ‘ship-to-mouth’ existence and transforming it into a food-surplus nation, agriculture has emerged as the most promising sector of the Indian economy. Its contribution to India’s overall Gross Value Added (GVA) reduced from 20.2% in 2020-21 to 18.8% in 2021-22. Still, it continues to grow in absolute terms and is the primary source of livelihood for 58% of India’s population. It survived the COVID-19 shocks and saw an above average growth of 3.9% in 2021-22, when the GVA of the overall economy shrank by 6.2%. In fact, in the wake of the pandemic, when many countries were acquiring and hoarding food grains at higher prices, India remained comfortable with public cereal stocks at 2.8 times the buffer norms, thereby forming a safety net during lockdowns.
Such record production would not have been possible without farming practises being the centre of planning by governments. From Lal Bahadur Shastri and Chaudhary Charan Singh’s tenure of the Debt Redemption Bill of 1939 and Land Holding Act of 1960 to programs and schemes by the previous governments have made strides in this sector.
In light of the target set by the Government in February 2016 on doubling farmers’ income, the government’s initiatives focus on increasing credit flow and removing indebtedness from non-institutional sources. Industries such as collateral-free loans, KCC, Agri-Business Centre Schemes, and farm credit packages have been game changers in extending agriculture credit and public and private investment. Some other schemes that play a crucial role behind record production and productivity of both agricultural and horticultural crops include:
As a matter of fact, UP and West Bengal aced the list by producing more than 23% of horticultural crops in India in 2021. Farmers have also been active in agri- allied activities, particularly animal husbandry and fish production. With operational land holding size declining gradually, livestock is emerging as an essential source of stable livelihood for small and marginal farmers and landless laborers.
Some factors that play a significant role in placing the agricultural section at its current status include:
Establishment of organizations and institutions such as NABARD, ICAR, ATMA, MANAGE, KVKs, IRRI, IFPRI, etc., and FLW models with krishi sakhis, pashu sakhis, etc. ensures and enables last mile delivery of program coverage and benefits. It facilitates knowledge creation and capacity building of farmers on various topics such as best practices, disease management, value chain development etc.
Collectivization is gaining currency in this sector. After SHGs, there has been a wave of farmer collectives, popularly known as Farmer Producer Organizations. FPOs help link farmers to the market, improving their income and strength and providing end-to-end services and support to small and marginal farmers.
Though agriculture in India has achieved grain self-sufficiency, the production remains resource intensive, focused on cereal production and geographically biased. Such practices have highlighted concerns about sustainability. Increased demand for water and risks of desertification and land degradation also warrants a realignment and rethinking of policies. These issues must be addressed while being mindful of several other contingencies, including the small and scattered landholdings, heavy dependence on rainfall for irrigation, erratic weather patterns, lack of investment capital, reliance on commission agents, and related gender and socioeconomic inequities.
The social aspects of agriculture have also been witnessing changing trends. The increased feminization of agriculture is mainly due to the increased migration of men from rural to urban areas, the increase in women-headed households, and the increase in labour-intensive cash crops. Women are seen contributing heavily to both farm and off-farm chores. Still, their involvement is treated as an extension of their household work, which adds to the baggage of household responsibilities.
As a matter of fact, women’s participation in the farmers’ protest in Delhi on repealing the three Farm Bills gave the entire movement a whole new dimension. They had brought with them their varied experiences of being landless laborers, having lost their husbands, fathers or sons to deaths by suicides, and of having to pick up the responsibilities of farming, repaying debts, and demanding compensation.
With the onset of Amritkaal, which aims to achieve macro-economic growth and improve citizen’s quality of life, we need to realize that agriculture leads to aatmanirbharta and is the way to achieve the Prime Minister’s vision of Sabka Saath, Sabka Vikas. This is the way to a new and assertive India.
Agriculture alone has the potential to revitalize the economy, support millions of livelihoods, and in the process, emerge as a frontrunner of economic growth with the right kind of policy mix and a renewed cycle of public sector investments focused more on farmers’ welfare and environmental protection. And now that the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has begun to doubt the GDP-based growth paradigm, rebuilding sustainable agriculture will be crucial to India’s development narrative.
Manmeet Kaur – Deputy Research Manager, Sambodhi