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A perspective on the agricultural crisis in India (Part 1)

Fathima Athar

G.V. Ramanjaneyulu is the executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), Hyderabad. Following his PhD, he gave up a well-paying job to establish CSA, a non-profit organisation which aims to find solutions to the crisis that Indian agriculture is in today. 

He is recognised for his efforts in pioneering non-pesticidal management in agriculture. In this first instalment in a two-part interview, Ramanjaneyulu explains the causes of the agricultural crisis and the need for sustainable agriculture in our country.

G.V. Ramanjaneyulu
G.V. Ramanjaneyulu 

How did the agricultural crisis start in India? 

If I go to a doctor and tell him that I have a headache, the doctor diagnoses the cause and treats it. But unfortunately, in the past, whenever farmers reported agricultural problems, the scientific community blamed the farmers for their illiteracy and not following the instructions they were given, rather than understanding the problems. 

When water levels started getting depleted, pests developed resistance, fertiliser use efficiency decreased and factor productivity went down, mainstream agriculture never responded to the crisis. We became more technology and product-driven. We dismissed taking a scientific approach for problem diagnosis in agriculture creating the crisis.

I can give you several examples. Today, in Telangana, cotton is grown in more than 50% of the crop area, while not even 15% of the land is suitable for cotton. Crop failure is inevitable when a crop that usually grows in black soil with irrigation comes into rainfed areas with shallow red or chalka soils. As a result of farmers growing water-intensive crops, groundwater depleted. 

Often, hybrids were turned to as solutions for falling yields or failing crops. But hybrids can only perform in specific growth conditions unlike local varieties, which can withstand the existing conditions and survive better. Glyphosate (herbicide) use in India is increasing significantly even though the World Health Organisation has declared Glyphosate as a known carcinogen. Though recommended only for few crops, it is sold and used all over the country all year round.

I believe mainstream agricultural institutions entered a monoculture of ideas and failed to innovate. They copied solutions from the West and never entered a dialogue to discuss the farmers’ crises. The world has now recognised and moved on to agroecological approaches. But in India, not a single institution talks about it. We don’t innovate; we don’t learn from contemporary innovations. 

How have government policies contributed to this crisis?

The government’s functions can be understood from its two roles – (1) investing and incentivising activities or products required for the greater good; and (2) regulating activities which may have negative impacts. However, presently, it has failed in both. 

There are no long-term policies on use of natural resources like land/​water or biodiversity in our country (these three being primary resources for agriculture). Not many private companies or new technologies were in play when the 1966 Seed Act was passed. Since then, there have been no new regulations for seeds. Much later, the PVPFR (Plant Variety Protection and Farmers Rights Act), the Biodiversity Act etc., came into existence giving new rights to farmers and more responsibilities to the government, but these are not accommodated in the regulations. The new seed bill has been pending in the parliament for the last 14 years. 

The current crisis in farming is also about farmers’ incomes. 85% of farmers have low incomes (about 5000 Rs/​month/​family), which have not increased for many decades. There have been talks about moving people out of agriculture in the last 20 years but no sector has provided any gainful employment to people. 

As a result of all of these factors — the collapse of public institutions and the failure of the government in meeting the changing needs of farmers and establishing necessary support systems — farmers are caught in crisis. 

What changes are necessary within the scientific community and science policy in India to combat the agricultural crisis?

Fixing accountability at various levels and taking an integrated approach towards agriculture, livelihoods and environment is the key. Course curriculums and research priorities have to change. We looked at agriculture-focused projects taken up during the last 20 years, the crop varieties released, and the recommendations made. Among the top 100 projects in terms of financial investment in agricultural institutions, very few stand to succeed and meet the needs of the farmers. 

Knowledge about the Intellectual Property law (IPR) and biosafety implications of their work is sorely lacking in the scientific community. Innovations have become technology-oriented rather than designed to solve existing problems of the farmer community. Regulatory failures, illegal cultivation of GM crops and unlawful sale of herbicides/​agrochemicals is rampant. All of these have to be mended.

We need to plan and conserve natural resources for agriculture as a long-term plan. We need a land use policy in this country. We need efficiency in our ways of resource use, not just economic but also ecological efficiency. 

Coming to economic policies, for a long time, we have been asking for income security for farmers. When I say income security, it’s not guaranteed income or direct income support. It is about ensuring farmers get what is due to them. The government artificially lowers the prices in the market for consumers, to make food cheaper, but does not compensate the farmers. Costs of cultivation and costs of living are high. Regulatory failures further significantly increase tenancy costs and inputs costs for the farmers. To make matters worse farmers do not have access to productive resources and support services. Policy changes should address these issues.

To sum up, policy changes should ensure that we adopt new parameters to assess agricultural productivity and build a new agro-ecological framework and farmer’s income security framework. These two are critical. 

What is sustainable agriculture and can you comment on the current scenario of organic farming in India?

Agriculture impacts the environment and the environment impacts agriculture. The more we damage the environment, the more environment damages agriculture. A balance is necessary to be able to sustain agriculture longer. Sustainable agriculture is about renewability of resources, be it water, land or nutrients. Gains of the green revolution were realised only because of the organic matter in the soil built over the preceding years. In 20 years, we exhausted that, and from the 1980s the yields declined and crop failures increased. But we continue to use the same old model of agriculture. It is now essential to restore the organic nutrients of the soil and adopt organic farming. 

Organic farming encompasses various strategies like abolishing or reducing the use of synthetic chemicals, growing multiple crops, using cover crops for ground recovery, etc. The organic farming sector is multiplying rapidly in India, registering about 19% growth rate. A massive shift is happening towards organic farming, both in production and consumption. 

Across the country now, more than ten states have an organic farming policy in place with clear programs for implementation. States like Sikkim have become entirely organic, and Nagaland is moving in a similar direction. Andhra Pradesh is on a mission to grow completely organic by 2027. Odissa has come up with a policy on organic farming. 

However, just like the growth rate of green revolution benefitted only a small section of people- many of who were not the producers, the same is happening with organic agriculture. The growth is not helping the producers, hence not solving the crisis. 

So, first, we need to look at how farmers can engage with markets and get a better share of the consumers’ price. Second, the regulatory systems for organic farming were terrible in this country until recently. While improvisations have started, more restrictions now exist for organic farming compared to conventional chemicals-based methods. With larger vested interests entering into the organic sector, problems are cropping up. We are looking at how to resolve these issues with a farmer-centric approach. 

Nevertheless, I would say that in ten years, there will be a gradual shift to organic farming. But that shift can be sustained only if supported by proper research, extension and markets. If the public institutions do not wake up to the reality and continue to look at agriculture in the conventional yield and technology-centric way, the crisis will continue. How the agricultural research system gears itself to meet these challenges and adopt an agroecological approach is an important issue. 

A common misconception is that organic farming gives lesser yields compared to conventional agriculture. Can you comment on this?

Instead of crop yield as the only factor, we need to look at two parameters — long term sustainability of natural resources and the net income that farmers get. No production system in this world works at maximum production capacity. They are optimised so that the net incomes are met. We have proven, again and again, that just improving yields will not solve farmers’ problems. 

Even the calculations of yields are wrong; we don’t add the resulting by-products or the externalities caused or factor-in agroecological effects in the yields. Today, productivity has increased, but it is not gainful. We always compare our yields with American yields, which are different because of their climatic conditions and their soil types. The Swaminathan commission has already concluded that agricultural growth should be measured based on the increase in the income of farmers rather than yields. 

Do you have any message for the young research community?

First, India has great potential to become agroecological-approach centric. There is vast scope to expand research in this area rather simply copying something that has been tested and failed. Second, being accountable is essential. As consumers, we are all connected, and we need to connect with those who produce food for us. Like we care for our mother, we should care for our farmers.

In the second part of this interview , Ramanjaneyulu speaks about CSA’s efforts to understand farmers’ crises and make agriculture productive and ecologically sustainable.

Written By

Fathima has a PhD in Life Sciences specializing in Cell and Molecular Biology. She is a freelance writer for Science Communication.