Jan 1, 2011 –

Sometimes, the obvious needs to be stated. If indeed India is staring at food insecurity, every intelligent and professionally determined measure must be taken to enhance agricultural productivity. This is hardly rocket science and certainly India’s economist Prime Minister and the distinguished Finance Minister do not need to be reminded of this. Yet, it would seem that in every Budget, whilst the government is happy to expend vast sums on subsidies, there is a determined populism when it comes to addressing the genuine causes of farm sector problems. Indeed, there seems to be a strange disregard for the fact that these are parlous times and there is no way that anyone can afford to be a spendthrift, even if for political expedience.

Thus, the subsidy issue is gaining scandalous proportions, especially the fertiliser subsidy that has been in the region of Rs 60,000 crore with a matching amount needed for food subsidy. Then there is the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act that accounts for another Rs 40,000 crore. The worry is that all these are expected to increase by at least 30 per cent in the next fiscal year. What about the more worthwhile spending of the Ministry of Agriculture? That is restricted to a meagre Rs 15,000 crore. If anything, that is a number that needs to be doubled with a stipulated increase of 10 per cent for the next 10 years and the funds spent on worthwhile projects, some of which have been listed out in the pages that follow. More to the point – never mind the impending elections and the traditional everything-for-everybody manifestos that every party publishes – what is really required in a country that is fast losing its agricultural productivity is to buckle down and do some painstaking and determined work, backed by all the science and technology at its disposal, to turn the productivity clock back for at least the next decade. Mere increase in allocations will not help.

The question of agriculture brings to the fore another critical aspect. Around 70 per cent of farmers across the world are women. In India too, every male farmer has his spouse to share his burden and there are vast numbers of women agricultural workers. In the dairy sector too, 80 per cent of the people are women and dairy is a profession that is secondary to farming. Women are one demographic segment that has to feature in the government’s much vaunted inclusive growth philosophy. Therefore, the added need to get these two sectors back on their feet.

With farming becoming increasingly unviable, it is the right time to look at transforming animal husbandry and, particularly, the dairy sector as the primary activity and to place it on a professional scale, as is the practice in globally advanced countries, without India losing its inherent strengths.

Some statistics bring home the point. Poultry is one of the fastest-growing segments of the rural/agricultural sector in India today with an eight to ten per cent annual growth, making India the world’s fifth largest egg producer and the 18th largest producer of broilers. Table eggs and broiler meat are the major end products in the poultry space. Organised poultry accounts for nearly 70 per cent of the total output, the rest coming from the unorganized sector in India. This sector picks itself out for special attention. Yet there are problems galore hounding it.

Procurement of good animal stock remains a bottleneck in India. While the country is the largest milk producer in the world, India is nowhere in a position to meet its milk demand that is high and expected to rise by another 50 per cent. Certainly this sector deserves close attention of the Finance Minister, who needs to give an incentive to modernisation and expansion with institutionalisation of professional health care for Indian livestock.

Rajasthan, for instance, subsidises purchase of cattle from other states; the Punjab government refunds the insurance premium for animals and subsidises building of sheds across the state. These are some examples of supportive government activity but across the country help is urgently required to assist the farmer to access quality livestock. Animal rearing can only be profitable if farmers are supported in adoption of scientific practices around stock, feed and upkeep.

What is often forgotten is that many a time, it is the ‘secondary’ livestock business that has helped a financially troubled farmer to keep his head above water. It is the dairy/livestock income that has provided the safety line when the impoverished, desperate farmer has been contemplating death.