Leo Tolstoy, amongst my favourite writers, wrote: “the most difficult subjects can be explained to the most slow-witted man if he has not formed any idea of them already; but the simplest thing cannot be made clear to the most intelligent man if he is firmly persuaded that he knows already, without a shadow of doubt, what is laid before him”. Nevertheless, the Russian literateur managed to bring many such people within the circle of understanding.

One is not a Tolstoy and hence one faces a wall when trying to convey some simple farming truths to the mandarins in the policy-making regime in India. Evidence presented to them may almost not be there in what seems to be hapless rigging of minds that defies reason. Some are so engrossed in debating the merits of particular actions that the principles on which the actions are based get defenestrated, leaving the intended beneficiaries short changed.

Some policy-makers in India, trying to navigate agriculture policy through a minefield of contradictions, despite their best of intensions, often without the backing of political will, capacity and the consistency, fail to meet farmer expectations. The bull run in commodities ended at the beginning of this decade and since then, food prices have generally remained subdued, instilling a sense of complacency amongst the public and those that influence policy.

Consequently, public funding for agricultural research and the subsequent deployment of funds on human resources for agriculture have been reduced substantially in real terms. This should worry even someone with limited wisdom. It is doubly worrisome because it comes at a time when scientists are loudly and justifiably beating the war drums to warn of impending challenges in food availability arising from climate change. Yet the policy-level jingoism is about the surplus in agriculture production.

The Indian population is expected to peak in 20 years and wild claims are being made that India will have a problem of 20 per cent surplus agriculture production. The possibility that the recent surge in surpluses is deceiving and too meagre to justify this sense smug satisfaction eludes them.

Yet again, there is this bewildering contradiction in the government simultaneously and constantly reminding one about the need to target increasing food production by 50 per cent by the year 2050. This has become the cornerstone of India’s national policy matrix for measuring farmer prosperity and an integral part of ongoing farming dialogues.

Starved of funds to meet the climate change challenges, the exhausted public research system (0.37 per cent of the agriculture budget) has taken the easier path of maximizing farm yields by mono-cropping. This, in turn, encourages agricultural practices that are responsible for 35 per cent of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions.

Completing the vicious circle are farming practices maximizing yield, which accelerate climate change, which then necessitate yields to be maximized. This is exactly the point that Inter-Governmental Panel on Climate Change has been making. Farmers need no convincing that climate is headed towards a dreadful scenario but poorly informed policy-makers are failing to grasp the gravity of the situation.

Most certainly, policies on food production are not reflecting the exigencies of the situation that demand a drastric change in attitude and understanding. The outcome is that millions of acres of a few cereal crops are planted, which is directly in conflict with the need to conserve biodiversity.

Agro-biodiversity (Farmers’ Forum cover story), is absolutely essential for safeguarding the global commons, which make the earth habitable for the present and future generations. Worse, higher yielding seeds are quickly adopted by farmers because of which more than 80 per cent of most crop production comes from a handful of varieties in each crop type.

Much of India’s efforts to safeguard species and genetic diversity remain limited to safeguarding a few remaining natural ecosystems like forests, while biodiversity and varietal mono-culture in cropped land areas are wilfully ignored. Growing ecologically unsuitable crops in specific ecosystems is literally killing the planet.

For decades, the establishment makes budgetary allocations on food when discussing the quantum of agriculture subsides. This is a completely unacceptable approach to food subsidies that are targeted at consumers and also keep farmers from receiving higher farm-gate prices. The focus must visibly shift to behavioural economics as demonstrated by the Swatch Bharat Abhiyan thinking.
The farming scenario too needs investment in billions in a decade-long awareness campaign to reduce the wastage and loss of food, change consumer preferences while weaning farmers on more ecologically sustainable practices and creating platforms to make all this happen. The sustained Swatch Bharat awareness campaign provides a good template.

There has been a steady but subtle shift in the narrative; from agriculture to food, from yield to sustainability, from productivity to prosperity and from quantity to quality. These changes are leading to policies being formulated where farmers are to be supported rather than agriculture production being subsidized by schemes like PM Kisan.

The alternative approaches require a major change of mindset and a paradigm shift to design a new food ecosystem based on agro-ecology principles, requiring different kinds of crop planting practices, mechanization and aggregation of commodities. A discerning shift from supporting costs of farm inputs and farm-gate prices to paying for ecosystem services is the ideal way forward. The problem is with policy-makers’ myopic outlook that discourages them from believing that it is really feasible. The added obstacle comes in the form of corporate commoditization of the food system that will not allow it.

Additionally, resources are predominantly channelled into creating infrastructure, which turned out to be a far more appealing proposition for politicians eager to showcase physical progress on the ground. Bureaucrats and retired technocrats turned consultants can justify deploying funds to create physical assets based on standard measurement metrics. This also provides them with an opportunity for receiving hefty fees. It is easy money for contractors and financers and no one is quite worried about the next generation that has to repay with interest.

Entrenched vested interests seem to have rigged the system making it easier to discuss a new approach to the food system than to implement one. This does not have to be so. Allocation of adequate funds and close monitoring of their use while implementing the policies may well change the trajectory of developments in the field of Indian agriculture. If they do not, one might face a night without end.

Regrettably, there seems to be no one with Tolstoy’s stature and communications skills to convince the country that it can choose to either have the best of time or the worst of times. The choice is for India to make.•