To double farmers’ income, PM Modi should focus on eastern India

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The Finance Minister’s announcement of investment in agricultural infrastructure like cold storages was welcome but farmers needed a pause in loan and interest repayments, so they did not default and banks continued to lend.

In 2016, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had promised his government would strive to double farmers’ income by 2021-2022. Commentators like agricultural economist Ashok Gulati had cautioned that the goal is ambitious and impossible to achieve. But isn’t it good to have an ambition as the adage ‘if you aim for the moon, even if you miss, chances are you might land on the tree-top’ goes?

Growth in agriculture is much more poverty-reducing than growth in manufacturing and services in a country like India, though the number of people dependent on income from farming and animal husbandry is less than what it is conventionally thought to be.

The 2014 NSSO survey says 57.8 per cent of rural households were agricultural and derived nearly 60 per cent of their income from farming and animal husbandry. A 2017 survey by Nabard, the bank that refinances rural banks, said that a little less than half of the rural households were agricultural and less than a quarter (23 per cent) of their income was from farming and livestock rearing. The Nabard survey had 16 per cent more households than NSSO because it counted semi-urban areas within its ambit.

Even so, a large number of people still depend on agriculture, particularly in the eastern India. Raising agricultural GDP growth in this region would make a big dent in national poverty. So if the PM’s ambition is to be achieved, there has to be focus on the eastern states.

 Green revolution 2.0

In 2010, then finance minister Pranab Mukherjee initiated a programme called Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India (BGREI). It recognised that the green revolution of the 1960s which resulted in food self-sufficiency through the use of high-yielding varieties, chemical fertilisers and irrigation, had bypassed rain-dependent eastern India. But eastern India has a comparative advantage in rice over Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh because of the abundance of rainfall.

The aim of BGREI was to make the cultivation of rice environmentally sustainable (as the north-western states over-use groundwater) by shifting it to six eastern states – Assam, Bihar, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Odisha, West Bengal and 14 of 75 districts of Uttar Pradesh.

The aim was to increase the productivity (by an average of 0.5 tonnes per hectare) and production of rice, and promote rice-based cropping systems. The cultivation of wheat in the Rabi season or legumes (pulses and oilseeds) after rice harvest, if there was sufficient moisture in the fields, would increase cropping intensity and provide additional income to farmers, while improving soil health.

What has been the outcome over these nine years? The programme has notched some success. The country’s production of rice has increased from an average of 94.75 million tonnes in the three years ending 2010-2011 to an average of 106.65 million tonnes in the three years ending 2016-2017.  Of the 11.9 million tonne increase 74 per cent or 8.81 million tonnes have come from the seven eastern states. Their share in the country’s rice production has gone up from 51 per cent to 54 per cent during this period; that is, from nearly 52 million tonnes before BGREI to a little over 57 million tonnes now.

According to a May 2019 evaluation of the programme by scientists of the National Rice Research Institute (NRRI), Cuttack, which coordinates the programme, Bihar has seen the highest productivity increase (64 percent) between the pre-BGREI and the latest periods. Its yield has increased from 1.4 tonnes per ha to 2.3 tonnes per ha.

Chhattisgarh’s average productivity has increased to 1.6 tonnes per ha – up 45 per cent. Assam’s yield is 2.02 tonnes per ha (up 26 percent), that of the BGREI districts of UP 3.51 tonnes per ha (up 26 percent) and of West Bengal 3.25 tonnes per ha (up 23 percent). Odisha and Jharkhand are lagging with productivity increases of around 12 per cent.

But except for West Bengal, the productivity of the BGREI states is still below the national average.

Need for better MSP and procurement process

The production of rice in the eastern states would have increased with better procurement effort. If farmers are at least assured of minimum support prices they will have an incentive to grow more. This would also address the issue of poverty in these states. But only three of the seven eastern states figure in the list of major contributors of rice to the public distribution system.  The share of Odisha has increased from around 8 per cent to about 10 per cent. That of West Bengal wavers between 4.5 per cent and 6 per cent. Chhattisgarh’s share has remained flat after an increase in between.

In Bihar there is no ‘mandi’ system. Procurement is done episodically by primary agricultural cooperative societies because of uncertainty in receiving payments from the government. It was riddled with fraud when outsourced to private rice millers, says Raj Kumar Jat, who heads the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) at Pusa in Samastipur.  It is one of the organisations demonstrating direct seeded rice technique (where rice paddies are not flooded) in the districts of Purnea and Katihar under BGREI.

The market prices of rice were ruling below the minimum support price in Assam and eastern Uttar Pradesh in October-December 2017 when rice arrivals were at their peak, according to the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP). They were above MSP in Bengal because of good procurement effort and the setting up of temporary centres for procurement during harvest time.

According to Bipin Bihari Panda, principal scientist at NRRI and the nodal officer for BGREI, about a sixth of the rice area in the BGREI states has been covered by demonstrations of improved techniques and varieties. He says this should go up to a quarter to make a difference.

Challenges still loom large

The farming techniques and the seed varieties for rice differ according to the ecology: Deep lowland, lowland, upland and so on. For the lowlands that remain under water, seeds like Swarna Sub-I are recommended. This variety contains a submergence gene, which allows the crop to withstand submergence in muddy water for eight to 10 days. For the uplands, direct seeded rice (DSR) technique is recommended. Here the seeds are planted with seed drills driven by a tractor and a combination of herbicides is sprayed for weed control.

Panda says the Seed Replacement Ratio (SRR) should be 33 per cent, that is, a third of the seeds sown should be of improved varieties very year, but it is about 20 per cent now. New varieties have been introduced but the coverage is inadequate. The seed corporations of the centre and the states do not have enough staff, so quality control is poor. He says seed production must be decentralised to district-level Krishi Vigyan Kendras. Each district must produce the seed suitable for its ecology.

The availability of machines is an issue. Because of labour shortage, manual transplanting or sowing is costly.  Despite subsidy being given, farmers cannot afford the machines. There are few custom hiring centres. The distribution of machines varies widely. In Odisha 16,200 machines have been distributed in these nine years; in West Bengal 1.95 lakh.

There is also need to invest more in irrigation facilities like check dams, ponds and wells.

The expenditure for BGREI is shared between the centre and the states in the ratio of 60:40 (for Assam it is 90:10). The annual budget allocation till 2014-2015 was ₹1,000 crore. This government has reduced it substantially; it has varied between ₹630 crore in 2016-2017 and ₹315 crore last year.  The programme not only needs a substantially higher outlay in the budget, it should also be monitored, perhaps at the PMO level. Alongside there is a need to promote diversification, wherever possible, out of rice to more profitable horticulture and livestock rearing, in keeping with changing dietary habits of the country.

(The writer is a former journalist and blogs on www.smartindianagriculture.com)

(The Federal seeks to present views and opinions from all sides of the spectrum. The information, ideas or opinions in the articles are of the author and do not reflect the views of The Federal)

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