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Yesterday's harvest

Surinder Sud 

Yoginder K Alagh
National Book Trust

220 pages; Rs 90

In a field like agriculture, it is often unrewarding to project the future by taking cues purely from the past. Yet, most agricultural economists tend to do just that. Yoginder K Alagh, a leading farm economist and a prolific author, has done much the same in this book, even though he has quoted several instances where such prognoses by various scholars - including himself - have proved tenuous. To be fair, he has not disregarded current realities that could have a bearing on Indian in the near future, but he has not fully capitalised on them, either, to paint a clear picture of tomorrow's farm sector.

A major problem with trend-based projections for the future is the dearth of up-to-date and their poor quality and low credibility. Most of the statistics, including those from official sources, are usually available with a considerable time lag. Unsurprisingly, therefore, the numbers presented in this book and used for drawing conclusions in many cases are fairly outdated.

Thus, unlike most other insightful works of Dr Alagh, this book does not really leave readers any the wiser about what the future holds for Indian The book has, of course, managed to bring out some historic slip-ups that have got in the way of steering farm development in the desired direction, and it draws some useful lessons in terms of policy and planning. The broad picture outlined here is that, in the next two decades, the sector will diversify briskly even as it meets the food security needs of the country's growing population. Besides, rural labour will tend to shift from villages to village-linked small towns and from crop production to value-added activities. The author has, however, attached a caveat to this thesis. Such a shift can only be sustained if appropriate signals are forthcoming from the institutional set-up and if adequate assistance is available by way of technology, pricing and supportive infrastructure. The author regrets that this aspect has not received due attention from the Planning Commission or policymakers.

Dr Alagh also lays great emphasis on demand-driven growth of agriculture and devotes a considerable part of the book to analysing changing demand patterns. Though, prima facie, this is a sensible hypothesis, the recent developments in the farm sector do not fully conform to the general economic principle of production responding to demand. The output of staple cereals like rice and wheat, for instance, has risen much faster than the growth in their effective demand, which has resulted in the accumulation of surplus stocks. On the other hand, the output of other foods, especially high-value, nutritious and protein-rich items, such as vegetables, fruit, edible oilseeds, pulses, milk and meat, has failed to match the rapidly growing demand, which has resulted in high prices. This is a clear indication that, apart from demand, several other factors - such as the government's price support policies and market inefficiencies - also play a role in determining the pattern of farm production.

All the same, the book has managed to bring out some aspects of Indian agriculture that, though not entirely unknown, merit attention. Significant among these is the deteriorating state of natural resources, such as land and water, that are fundamental for agriculture to thrive. Dr Alagh candidly acknowledges that he and many others were mistaken in projecting that land under cultivation, after expanding continuously in the past, albeit at a progressively declining rate, would become static at around 141 million hectares. The fact is that the cropped area stopped increasing in the 1990s and has since tended to shrink. This shrinkage makes it necessary to change agricultural development strategies. The analysis in this book has, however, not adequately dealt with the effect of the steady decline in the size of individual farm holdings and their fragmentation into smaller plots.

In the case of water, the book makes a significant point that the area under irrigation has stopped expanding. More importantly, the area commanded by canal irrigation seems to have declined of late. The author points out that farmers now want control over the availability of irrigation water to time it with crops' needs. This is possible through the individually owned and controlled groundwater irrigation, but not through canal irrigation in which outmoded models of water delivery are still in vogue. The Sardar Sarovar project is now using a new, vastly improved computerised water delivery system in its command areas.

On the whole, the book reads more like a research dissertation than a general account for the common man. It presents a detailed review of past literature and analyses copious data with the help of sophisticated statistical tools. Nevertheless, it is a useful addition to the literature on the trends in agricultural development in India.

First Published: Tue, December 17 2013. 21:25 IST