Seldom in the post-green revolution period has the impact of technology on agricultural output been as conspicuous as in the past decade or so. The green revolution was, of course, the first manifestation of technology-driven increase in crop output. This surge was, however, also aided by the increased use of fertilisers and irrigation, and expansion of cropped area apart from the introduction of new high-yielding varieties. In contrast, the upswing in crop outturn in recent years has come about without any addition to crop land and negligible growth in irrigation and fertiliser use. Degradation of natural resources such as land, water and climate has been the additional regressive factor that agriculture had to cope with. This could not have been possible without the generation and deployment of superior technology.
Going by the estimates made by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), the average per-hectare yields of food crops have risen by 19.22 per cent between 2003 and 2013. Among different food crops, rice has witnessed a productivity jump of 14.15 per cent, wheat 15.73 per cent and coarse cereals 13.47 per cent. Maize, which has found new uses in poultry and starch manufacturing sectors, has witnessed a remarkable yield advance of over 21 per cent. The per-hectare output of even oilseeds and pulses has gone up by over nine per cent during this period.
The case of non-food crops is no different. The productivity of sugarcane has swelled by 18.4 per cent and that of jute and mesta by 13.69 per cent. Cotton, the only crop that has seen the advent of the genetically-modified Bt-hybrids, has registered a spectacular productivity rise of 60 per cent.
The availability of better technology is, indeed, the outcome of higher investment in agricultural research and development (R&D). The budgetary allocations for ICAR, the apex farm research organisation, have surged progressively from Rs 5,368 crore in the 10th plan to Rs 12,023 crore in the 11th plan, and further up to Rs 25,553 crore in the 12th plan. This amounts to nearly doubling of R&D funding in successive plans. A noteworthy offshoot of this is that the gross capital formation in the broad agriculture and allied sector, too, has almost doubled in the last 10 years, registering a compound average annual growth of 8.1 per cent.
However, despite such liberal hikes in budgetary support, the total public investment in agricultural research remains below one per cent of the agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) as compared to the ideal level of two per cent. Given that the internal rate of return on investment in agricultural research is estimated by Krishi Bhawan at over 40 per cent, it would be highly rewarding to step up such funding to at least one per cent of the agricultural GDP in the immediate future and push it up gradually to the coveted mark of two per cent. That would help meet the rapidly swelling demand for staple cereals as well as high-value food items such as pulses, milk, eggs, meat and other livestock products, that has kept the food inflation in high double digits.
Fortunately, the country has managed to put in place an extensive network of agricultural research organisations which is counted among the best in the world. It comprises nearly 100 ICAR institutes, numerous national and zonal-coordinated research projects and 637 Krishi Vigyan Kendras besides 65 agricultural universities. Interestingly, ICAR has become one of the first government departments to obtain the IS/ISO 9001:2008 quality management certification.
Access to improved technologies, coupled with fast-paced mechanisation in recent years, is expected to curb the growing trend of farmers quitting their traditional occupation. The census data indicate that the number of cultivators for whom farming is the main occupation has shrunk from 103 million in 2001 to 95.8 million in 2011. More importantly, the reduction in drudgery in farm operations thanks to the greater use of machines is expected to revive the interest of educated rural youth in farming.
However, knowledge and technology-based agriculture will be unable to deliver optimum dividends unless it is backed by vital supportive infrastructure and services, including an efficient farm extension network and adequate post-harvest storage, transportation and marketing facilities.