Is there a pattern in Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s agriculture-related announcements in the Budget 2023-24? There is a thrust of nudging farmers towards cultivation of high value crops. This is evident from the outlay of ₹2,200 crore for making quality and disease-free planting material of horticultural crops available to them. As India prospers, it will consume more fruits and vegetables. The focus on high-value horticulture is apt.
There is a ₹6,000 crore scheme for value addition in fisheries. This is a sector that has grown by an average of 7% annually and contributes 6.7% to agricultural GVA (Gross Value Added). As people become prosperous, they consume less of cereals and more of proteins. So the thrust on fisheries meshes with the changes in consumption patterns.
Digital infra for agriculture can be force multiplier – but no allocation
The Finance Minister has also emphasised digital infrastructure for agriculture. This builds on the success of digital payments that ride on Aadhar identification, mobile internet, and the proliferation of no-frill bank accounts. Digital technologies can be a force multiplier in agriculture. They can help in dissemination of agronomic information and practices, monitoring of crop health, estimation of crop acreage and output, analysis of soil composition, agricultural marketing, and in making inputs, credit and insurance accessible. But the finance minister has made no allocation. She has promised an agriculture accelerator fund for agritech start-ups. The Economic Survey says there are more than a thousand of them. Again, no allocation has been made.
Focus on extra-long staple fibre cotton perplexing
Some announcements are quite perplexing. The Finance Minster wants to raise the productivity and output of extra-long staple fibre cotton. India is not a large producer of this variety. It’s of Egyptian origin and is susceptible to pests and diseases, C D Mayee, former Director of the Central Institute of Cotton Research, says the variety is grown in some pockets of Tamil Nadu and Telangana. In 2021-22, India imported 231,000 tonnes of raw cotton valued at $386 million, which presumably includes extra-long staple fibre cotton. But India also exported a larger quantity – 1.26 million tonnes – of raw cotton worth $2.8 billion. The cotton whose production the FM wants to promote is not a major import item.
Focus on millets (‘Shree Anna’) is welcome
Sitharaman’s focus on millets is welcome. She calls it ‘Shree Anna’. The rebranding is required because millets were called coarse grains as they are slow to digest and were the staple of the poor. But they are nutritious and have been called nutri-cereals. Since at least 2016, Karnataka has been selling them under the ‘Siri’ (meaning rich) brand. Millets are preferred by urban consumers with lifestyle diseases like diabetes. But they are an acquired taste. The FM wants to make India a global hub for millets. It is already the largest producer. Does she want production and productivity to rise substantially? For that, a big marketing thrust is needed. Innovative millet products will also have to be crafted.
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The productivity will have to be raised from an average of 2.24 tonnes per hectare. And the area under cultivation will have to expand as demand rises. India produces an average of 48 million tonnes of millets, which is a fifth of the combined production of rice and wheat. But the FM has not made any allocation for these objectives. All she has said is that the millet research institute in Hyderabad will be supported.
Millets are of course socially useful. They use less water. If the government procures them on an assured basis, it will be ensuring inclusive development because millets are grown in dryland areas by small-holder farmers.
Millets can mitigate impact of climate change
The promotion of millets is also necessary to mitigate the impact of climate change. As water becomes scarcer, we need to grow crops that are rich in nutrition but use less water. But a larger emphasis on climate smart agriculture is missing. India needs to promote technologies that avert tractor emissions with no or low-till agriculture. We need to reduce water use in rice transplanting by seeding rice directly, rather than raising the seedling in nurseries and transplanting them. Micro irrigation, crop rotation, and crop diversification are necessary.
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We also need new-age seeds that have technology embedded in them and can deliver high output while tolerating prolonged dry spells, flooding and salinity, and needing lesser inputs. We need plants that can repel insects or be toxic to them without harming humans, animals, and the environment. All this calls for increased outlay on research and development. Sadly, the FM has raised the outlay for the department of agricultural research and education by just ₹800 crore to ₹9,500 crore.
India needs sustainable intensification
Sitharaman pays ideological homage to natural farming. About 10 million farmers will be trained in natural farming, she says. We know what happened in Sri Lanka when it forsook chemical fertilisers and decided to be the first wholly-organic agri-producer in the world. Its agricultural production collapsed. Natural farming is land-intensive. It is also low- yielding. It has a niche. It is meant for fastidious consumers who can be choosy about food and pay premium prices for them. It cannot feed a country with a growing population and shrinking cultivable land. What India needs is sustainable intensification, an approach using innovations to increase productivity on existing agricultural land with positive environmental and social impact.