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Mainstream, Vol XLV No 22

Diversion of Crops and Small Farmers

Saturday 19 May 2007, by Chaturanan Mishra

There is much talk in the government circles about the diversion of crops to increase the income of farmers. The traditional growing of rice and wheat does not give high prices. If instead vegetables and fruits are grown these will fetch higher prices and these have a foreign market. It is said that in our country also people are increasingly taking more vegetables and fruits instead of grains. This statement is supported by the report of the National Sample Survey, according to which, the following has been the change in food habits between 1983 and 2000 per capita in kilos. This change is of 30 per cent of the poorest and 30 per cent of the richest people.

Food articles Low income group High income group
1983 2000 per cent 1983 2000 per cent
Rice 66.5 75.6 +13.7 94.4 85.8 -9.1
Wheat 43.6 44.9 +3.0 71 59.9 -15.6
Grains 37 11.9 -67.8 28.8 9 -68.7
Dal 7.6 6.9 -9.0 17,7 16.6 -6.5
Edible Oil 2.6 4.6 +74.8 7.3 13.7 +88.7
Vegetable 36 53.9 +49.6 65.2 90.8 +39.3
Fruits 1.6 4.2 +16.4 6.4 18.2 +184
Milk 15.7 20.5 +39 89.7 117.2 +30
Sugar 6.4 6.6 +3.2 18.7 18.8 +05
Non-Veg. 1.9 3.8 +100 4.8 10.6 +122

These figures, specially of the poor, need verification. The general experience is different.

Rich farmers in cooperation with the multinationals and corporate sector can raise their profit by such diversion of crops but small and marginal farmers, who have small landholdings and that too not in the uplands suitable for vegetable and fruit growing, cannot gain. In lowlands paddy fields remain watery as in north Bihar; so vegetables and fruits cannot be grown there. I will give one practical example. In the village Nahar of Madhubani district, a rich farmer, Shri Keshav Nath Jha, who has some 18 acres of land, tried to grow mango, jackfruit, lichee, guava and lemon in some seven acres of land. He is a retired Professor and his wife a secondary school teacher. They planned this while teaching. In the paddyland their venture failed. He then dug a pond in it and with that soil lowland was turned into upland. It cost him some five lakh rupees. It took him 15 years to grow his orchard but still all the trees are not giving fruits.

He had to build a house in this orchard where one labourer, who gets one-fourth of the income, is kept. While growing paddy in that land he was getting some Rs 10,000 annually. Now he gets Rs 50,000. He planted lichee for the following three years to earn Rs 30,000-34,000 per annum. If all the trees he has planted grow, he expects to double his income. However, the village lost foodgrains to the tune of Rs 10,000 annually.

THIS experience shows that marginal and small farmers cannot undertake such an exercise. They can try to do so in small patches of their uplands. For their additional income they have to keep cows and buffaloes for selling milk and supplement the family budget. The government will have to supply them foodgrains and the subsidy on foodgrains will increase. This will not solve the problem. In a State like Bihar and eastern UP the productivity of foodgrains is very low: some half of those of Punjab and Haryana. It is because of this that there is so much poverty in Bihar. If we want to reduce this poverty then productivity of crops must be increased and for that irrigation, high yielding seeds, fertiliser, pesticides etc. have to be arranged on a mass scales as the Bengal experience shows. And also there has to be some supplementary source of income.

America has no small farmers nor such small plots and holdings as we have. They have no experience of such farming as we have and they cannot be of much help in this respect. They are coming to exploit the big consumers market that we have and also to use the numerous varieties of plants in India for research.

The multinationals and corporate sector are rushing to our villages as there is much scope for higher profits there. One-third of vegetables and fruits are wasted as there is no cold storage and airconditioned transport facilities which they canorganise and reduce wastage and thus have higher savings. There is a high scope for this. Our rich farmers also stand to gain from this.

However, in States like Punjab and Haryana where the water level has gone down diversion of crops requiring less water is necessary. At the same time if largescale diversion of crops takes place in Punjab and Haryana then we will have to import more wheat unless improvement in wheat production takes place in other States.

Despite the fact that we have some two hundred agricultural colleges which turn out 14,000 graduates and 7800 post-graduates every year under different universities, in many parts of the country like Bihar and UP agriculture is very backward, productivity is very low. The grains are not nutritious. The slogan ‘lab to land’ has not succeeded in large parts of the country. Our agriculture graduates don’t want to go to agriculture. They want government jobs and to become officers. Hence there is an urgent need to reform our agriculture education.

The US-India agriculture agreement speaks of many things; but four items in it are important: agriculture education, food processing and marketing, biotechnology and water management. America is much advanced in science than us. If they really help Indian agriculture both countries can benefit a lot. When I was the Union Agriculture Minister, I took the initiative in having an agreement with Texas University and after signing the agreement I told them that India and the USA both need drought resistant seeds and scientists of both countries should work on this. This is still due and the Board of Agriculture Knowledge Institute should work for it. Similarly serious efforts are needed to increase the nutritional value of Indian foodgrains to fight malnutrition which we face so severely; but in the name of nutritional food GM foods should not be thrust upon us. In the Board of Agriculture Knowledge Institute, formed under the US-India agriculture agreement, when people see the names of Monsanto and Walmart they have genuine doubts that not only high priced seeds but also dangerous weeds and GM foods will come and destroy Indian agriculture. One reason why cotton farmers are committing suicides in Maharashtra has been the high price of and sometimes defective cotton seeds supplied by Monsanto. It is for our Indian agriculture scientists to keep a watch on this. In the past weeds in American wheat have caused trouble for our farmers. All these necessitate high caution in implementing the US-India agriculture agreement.

The author, a former Union Minister for Agriculture (1996-98), is a prominent figure in the Leftist movement in the country having wide experience as a trade union and kisan leader. He also headed the AITUC for sometime.

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