(AP Photo/Deepak Sharma)
(AP Photo/Deepak Sharma)

RESEARCH and development aimed at producing drought-resistant crop varieties is another direction recommended by agricultural scientists. But so far, it’s all pie in the sky.

Buried deep within the statistics and analytics of the Economic Survey 2017-18 is a Malthusian nightmare, of a population growing as its food supply shrinks. The self-sufficiency of the present is precarious, as Indian agriculture faces what appear to be insurmountable challenges: water stress, soil degradation and climate change.

At first glance, all this seems rather far-fetched. In the 200,000-year history of Homo sapiens, food has never been so relatively cheap. Consider the fact that middle-income groups in India spend a little over one-fifth of their total earnings on food. For readers of this journal, the figure is probably closer to one-tenth.

In fact, in recent years, farmers have faced a problem of over-production. In the wake of bumper harvests, cultivators have been leaving their produce by the roadside, because it wasn’t worth their while to take it to the mandi. At 20 paise a kilo for potatoes, or Re 1 for tomatoes and onions – a fraction of the production cost – farmers are in deep distress.

Across large parts of the country – in Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Odisha, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Chhattisgarh – farmers were not able to recover costs of production, as market prices fell below Minimum Support Prices (MSP). So, rather than doubling farm incomes, already at an abysmally low level (estimates vary from Rs 1,600 to Rs 6,426 per household per month), we are looking at a scenario where they fall.

In the midst of this, the Economic Survey raises the red flag of climate change, by telling us that it will impact farm incomes by as much as 25 per cent. Productivity will fall, because of water stress. The first impact will be felt by rain-dependent farmers who have no access to irrigation or drought-proofing technologies (they also do not have access to markets, guaranteed procurement and post-harvest infrastructure like cold storage or food processing units). Currently, 52 per cent of India’s net sown area is unirrigated.

To insulate these farmers, we must improve productivity and control price and income volatility. How? The ‘price deficiency payment’ scheme adopted by some state governments provides farmers some measure of insulation from market fluctuations, but does not address the productivity issue. Economists insist that people must move out of agriculture, which accounts for 16 per cent of GDP but 49 per cent of employment. Move them where? Currently, there are no answers to that question.

Eventually, even highly productive agriculture based on irrigation and technology and supported by subsidies, will feel the impact of climate change, i.e. water stress. So, despite the absence of clear-cut solutions, the Economic Survey’s categorical emphasis on water scarcity will be useful in shaping policy.

Consider the cost of our agricultural productivity. India pumps out more than twice as much groundwater as China and the US. The result is a critical depletion of groundwater. At the same time, surface water sources – lakes, ponds, tanks and small rivers – are drying up or getting so polluted as to be unusable.

In the long term, we will not be able to outrun the impact of climate change. Water scarcity will hit Indian agriculture and industry and hit them hard. In this scenario, agricultural productivity will suffer and food imports will become necessary. That’s where the Malthusian nightmare starts.

The only way out is water conservation, by adopting a disciplined approach to water use like drip irrigation, etc. As a first step, power subsidies which lead to indiscriminate pumping of groundwater, need to be reviewed. But, as the Economic Survey acknowledges, agriculture is the preserve of the state governments. Which incumbent government will risk electoral defeat by cutting power subsidies to the farm sector?

Research and development aimed at producing drought-resistant crop varieties is another direction recommended by agricultural scientists. But so far, it’s all pie in the sky. Drought-resistant farmers’ varieties existed for millennia, until they were replaced by green revolution hybrids. Now, we will have to reinvent the wheel.

A drop in farm productivity and incomes would have far-reaching social, political and economic consequences. Food prices would escalate, and medium and small farmers with limited access to capital and a large debt-burden would suffer disproportionately. This would fuel political unrest on a scale we haven’t seen in recent decades. Already, 2017 can go down in history as the year of farmers’ agitations. Starting with Madhya Pradesh, where five farmers died in police firing, the unrest manifested in Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharstra, Odisha, etc. Insurgent groups might take advantage of agrarian distress to expand their activities.

Climate change is notoriously difficult to quantify and its impacts are spread over such a long period that addressing them becomes a low priority. What is clear is that we can no longer take the farm sector and our comfortable food stocks for granted.

The author is a senior journalist with 35 years of experience in working with major newspapers and magazines. She is now an independent writer and author.

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