The chapter on agriculture and food management in the Economic Survey 2022-23 should have dwelt on the challenges posed by climate change and the shrinking of agricultural land and the labour pool. Instead, it gives the impression that all is well with this one bright spot of the economy that has grown well despite Covid-19-related disruptions.
There is a need to reorient agriculture from one based on high inputs to one that can meet the food, feed, fibre, and biofuels requirement of a growing population with lower input use. This has neither been stated as an objective, not have solutions been proposed.
The survey notes the sustained increase in food grain production year after year. This has been happening even before Narendra Modi came to power in 2014-15, though the graph in the survey gives the impression that this is a Modi achievement. But can this record be sustained?
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The survey notes that “changing climate has been impacting agriculture adversely.” It cites the early heat wave at the beginning of 2022 which affected wheat production. It also says there was a decline in paddy-sowing area during kharif 2022 because of delayed monsoons and deficient rainfall, but it was more than made up by expansion in paddy sowing during the rabi season. That was fortuitous. What if nature doesn’t play ball?
The paragraph on climate-smart farming practices says solar energy for irrigation is gaining acceptance. But how widespread is it? How does the cost of solar irrigation compare with other modes? Initiatives like crop yield prediction models based on artificial intelligence and monitoring of crop and soil health with drones are highlighted. But they are yet to attain scale and make a difference.
Agriculture is a contributor of gases that are earth warming and is affected by a warming earth. The survey is silent about emissions in agriculture and how to reduce or avert them. It should have spoken about soil as a carbon sink and carbon credits as a revenue stream for farmers. There is no mention of the criticality of soil health for food security and the use of microbes to preserve soil health and to reduce the use and wastage of chemical fertilisers. Crop diversification to reduce water use and meet the nutrition requirements of the nation, practices that reduce water use and agricultural R&D for new age seeds — these issues have been passed over.
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The truth about “chemical-free India”
The government took decisive steps last year to enable the deployment of gene-editing technologies. In March, it exempted two categories of genome-edited plants that are free of exogenously introduced DNA from the onerous regulations that govern transgenic crops. In October, it notified standard operating procedures for organisations involved in research, development, and the handling of such plants. These are meant to facilitate genome-editing work. The government’s approval in October of genetically-modified mustard for seed production is also a departure from its past stance on GM crops. But there is no mention of these policies in the survey and why they are needed to make agriculture future-ready.
Instead, the survey has a couple of paragraphs on “Chemical-free India: organic and natural farming.” It notes that India has the largest number of organic farmers in the world and has about six million hectares under organic farming. Sikkim is said to have gone organic “voluntarily.” No. The state had shut down agrochemical shops by 2009. Farmers were forced to go organic but they cannot compete with cheaper vegetables grown with chemical fertilisers coming from Siliguri in West Bengal.
In February, the New York Times published an investigation in which it reported that much of India’s organic cotton is “fake.” In 2021, the US Department of Agriculture ended an agreement with India’s agricultural export promotion Authority, Apeda, that allowed the latter to accredit certifiers to issue USDA organic certification in India. Since then, the value of quarterly US imports of organic produce from India had declined by an average of 39 per cent. “The end of the U.S.-India recognition demonstrates …the magnitude of potential fraud in the market…,” the USDA says.
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The 2016 promise
In 2016, Prime Minister Modi said the government would ensure that farmers’ income doubled by 2022-23. The year is about to end. Have farmers’ incomes doubled? The survey should have said whether this target has been achieved and if not, what the gap is. It doesn’t.
The survey notes that the investment in agriculture as a share of total investment in the economy was 9.3 percent in 2020-21 — the highest for at least 10 years. But while public investment in agriculture has doubled during this period, it is low, because much of the government expenditure is on subsidies. Farmers and private corporates have had to invest more to make up for the inadequacy. Their investment is five times more than public investment and has an 85 per cent share in total agricultural investment Private corporate investment was low and perhaps continues to be. It needs to be ramped up for better dissemination of technology, high yields, and higher farm incomes.
The survey speaks loftily about crop insurance. It says claims settled over the past six years at Rs 1.2 lakh crore are multiples of the premium that farmers have paid during this time: Rs 25,186 crore. What is fails to state is the premium that governments have paid. The centre’s share alone is Rs 75,198 crore. States contribute equally, except those in the north-east whose contribution is 10 per cent. Has the crop insurance scheme mitigated risk cost-effectively? No answers in the survey.