You are here: Home » Opinion » Editorial » Editorials
Business Standard

Rural distress intensifies

Unless irrigation expands, agriculture will not be drought-proof

Business Standard Editorial Comment  |  New Delhi 

Even as India celebrates the golden jubilee of the Green Revolution, the National Sample Survey Organisation (NSSO) has come out with data indicating that nearly 70 per cent of farmers subsist on economically unviable farm holdings of less than a hectare in size. Over one-fifth of farm households report salaried employment, and not farming, as the prime source of their income. Around 44 per cent others have to seek work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme to supplement their income. Little wonder that the owners of such tiny farms have a strong urge to migrate to urban areas. Farmer distress is particularly acute at present since 18 of the 29 states are facing drought in one part or the other for the second year in a row. This is only the fourth occasion of a back-to-back drought in over 100 years - the last one being in 1986 and 1987.

The Green Revolution, which undeniably ended the country's "ship-to-mouth" existence and transformed it into an exporter of rice and wheat, has also led to lopsided growth in agriculture, causing regional and other disparities. It has remained confined to a few crops - wheat, rice, sugarcane and, of late, cotton and maize - and to a few states in the northwest and south with well-developed irrigation facilities. The growth of these crops has been supported also by assured marketing at fixed prices (minimum support prices or MSP) through open-ended procurement. Eastern India, which is well endowed with water resources and other prerequisites for agricultural growth, including cheap labour, remained agriculturally backward till recently, when the attention shifted to it for ushering in the "second green revolution". Equally neglected has been the rain-dependent farming practised on over 55 per cent of the country's arable land. Many essential commodities, including pulses and oilseeds, are grown largely by small and marginal farmers on lands that are not irrigated. These have gained little from the latest farm technologies which relied on improved seeds, water and fertilisers to show results. The imports of these commodities have, consequently, been surging steadily and are expected to hit new highs this year.

While it is true that new technologies and agronomic practices have tended to impart a degree of drought-resilience to farming - as reflected in farm output during every drought year being higher than the previous one - the same cannot be said for the drought-proofing of agriculture through development of irrigation. The total area irrigated from surface water resources has more or less stagnated, as no new major or medium irrigation project has been taken up for decades. Unless irrigation facilities expand, it is futile to expect the drought-proofing of agriculture.

Nor have much-needed agriculture sector reforms made any headway. Little has been done in vital areas like land consolidation, making land leasing legal, reforming farm marketing and improving sustainability of agriculture. Job and income generation opportunities in the rural non-farm sector, to absorb those who want - or, indeed, need - to quit farming, are also few. The need, therefore, is to push through critical reforms in the farm sector, to make the Green Revolution relatively more broad-based, and to create productive employment avenues in rural areas to deal with sustained rural distress.

First Published: Wed, December 09 2015. 21:41 IST
RECOMMENDED FOR YOU