Imagine, while constructing a multi-storey building the contractors discover the building foundation has begun to sink. It is scary, but wait. Now, imagine that even though the contractors know this, they simply decide to continue work rather than alter the plans. That is precisely the state of Indian agriculture today.
Overflowing granaries give us the smug satisfaction of having solved the food security problem — it is actually a momentary cereal surplus phase. It appears so only because India’s per capita consumption of protein, meat, poultry, fruit and vegetables is amongst the lowest in the world, limited by the still appallingly low purchasing capacity of the majority. When the Indian economy eventually reverses the deceleration in growth, as it will someday, our demand for such will double in less than a decade. Climate change will further complicate efforts to salvage the future as inconsistent production gives recurring shocks. Today over 50 per cent of the Indian population is being given free monthly rations. If this was extended by a year, even the illusion of a cereal surplus state would shatter like a sheet of glass.
Farmers will need to be supported in perpetuity; they can never become atmanirbhar. The question is how best to support farmers such that India may become nutrition self-reliant. Policymakers still talk of “food security” which was achieved decades ago, it’s time to plan for “nutritional self-reliance”. These objectives require diametrically different strategies. To that end, it’s time to initiate an eight-step approach to pre-empt the floor from slipping underneath our feet.
First, forecast nutrition requirement for the year 2050, for by then, the population and the economy would have stabilised. Second, draw area production plans for animal husbandry and to grow crops to try and meet India’s nutritional requirement considering agroecological zones and the changing climate. The aim should be to figure out a suitable basket of crops for each area.
Third, based on these area production plans, only incentivise the identified crops and practices in each region by designing a risk and price support strategy for such crops, while allowing farmers the freedom to grow what they want. Fourth, the present farm input (fertiliser, power etc) subsidy regime that incentivises production will need to shift to one of payment for farm eco-system services (for environmentally sustainable agriculture practices like improving soil health, rainwater harvesting, intercropping, planting trees).
Fifth, rather than constantly bickering with farmer unions about costs of crop cultivation, government must reorient to calculating the real cost of growing food, moving away from the strategy of sacrificing farmers’ interests for the sake of cheap food for consumers. Sixth, investment in a robust market intelligence system can help government manage production and price spikes. It has to be independent of the ministry of agriculture, which must, more importantly, issue regular crop advisories to farmers.
Seventh, it is time to prioritise human capital over infrastructure by doubling existing agriculture R&D expenditure and filling all vacancies. In addition to revamping of research and extension systems, and more so, to meet the expectations of traceability and quality produce, it requires stringent enforcement of regulations, collaboration with the private sector and extensive use of digital technologies.
Eighth, begin a twenty-year awareness campaign across India to instil healthier eating habits. As for unhealthy food; tax it and disallow advertisements. Emulating western processed food habits will translate into higher healthcare costs. It is said that the cost of diabetes medication in the USA outstrips its expenditure on oil.
All policies create winners and losers, it’s the government’s responsibility to ensure the losers are adequately compensated to their satisfaction. The establishment believes solutions are known and in private tosses the blame to politicians not having the will to take politically contentious decisions. This is only partly true; let aside the solutions, even the problems are not clearly recognised because the interplay of climate change, environment, biodiversity, livestock, health and big agriculture businesses is too convoluted to grasp.
Lastly, if failure is not independently documented and we continue to frame policies as before, in all probability, we will be providing subsidised food to the masses and continuing with a MGNREGA job work programme to mitigate rural poverty into the distant future.