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It's time to recognise the 'de-growth' imperative for agriculture

What use is 'growth' in agriculture? In drought years - such as 2012 - and also non-drought years, what does growth in agriculture mean - is it an increase in the tonnage of foodgrains harvested, is it an increase in the area recorded as being used for cultivation, is it the rise in value of the crops in the 'mandis' and marketplaces, is it the rise in the incomes of farmers and cultivators? Usually, what we understand from government announcements and statements, it is none of these. It is a calculation of several factors including the 'capital' employed and 'assets' used in the vast sector we call agriculture. Should we be using these methods of measurement? What others could we be using instead, especially in this age, where we confront the consequences of climate change every months, struggle with the rise in food prices every month (never mind that the central consumer price index tells us otherwise), battle against the homogenisation of diets country-wide?

I will explore some of these shortly, but before dealing with any of these arguments, it is the nature of 'growth' in agriculture that we ought to revisit, as critically as possible in order to consign it to the dustbin as soon as possible. The events of 2012 - especially the early indications that the monsoon would be deficient and the familiar, woefully late response - have once again, as happened in 2009, told us that 'growth' as applied to the agriculture and crop sector is of no use without a deep and studied understanding of agrarian distress and the food price burden that falls on the consumer. Most volubly from the Tenth Five-Year Plan period (2002-07) onwards and more aggressively during the Eleventh Plan (2007-12), the notion that 'growth' needed to become the central feature of Indian agriculture became emplaced, as good as set in stone, not to be even mildly questioned let alone challenged. A figure was employed as a target and as a benchmark and this figure became 4% per year. Why 4% and not one lower or higher? Perhaps this 4% was seen as modest against the background of the last 20 years, perhaps it was seen as calculated given the promise of the further opening up of the Indian economy to new investment (especially FDI, and in the food and agriculture sectors).

That is why, in the run-up to the Twelfth Five-Year Plan consultations and drafting, we have heard from central and state agencies, about how the 'crop sector' must remain in the centre of public measures like institutional reforms, infrastructure creation, generation and dissemination of improved technology, price and trade policy, spreading (and deepening) the use of modern inputs, increasing credit, and enhancing irrigation facilities. The word 'reforms' has unfortunately come to mean much that promotes inequity, which ruins ecosystems and which deepens poverty. Yet we have seen 'reforms' become part of the government vocabulary, and because it has passed into common use in official statements, it has gained a legitimacy it should never have come close to. Infrastructure - its provisioning, budgeting and building - has become a crucial contributor to the 4% growth fantasy, together with its partner 'improved technology' (by which is usually meant bio-technology and genetic engineering, of food crops, commercial crops, livestock and fisheries). These are exceedingly risky notions because of their impacts on cultivating households and the land they till.

They are riskier still when viewed against the situation at this time, early September 2012. At this time in India, there are 339 districts in which talukas, tehsils or blocks are affected by drought. Lining up the states in the order of districts for which drought contingency plans are being applied, these are: in Maharashtra there are 33 drought-affected districts out of a total of 35 districts in the state, in Tamil Nadu it is 31 out of 32, in Odisha it is 30 out of 30, Rajasthan 30 out of 33, Karnataka 29 out of 30, Gujarat 25 out of 26, Madhya Pradesh 23 out of 50, Andhra Pradesh 22 out of 23, Assam 21 out of 27, Haryana 19 out of 21, Punjab 19 out of 20, West Bengal 19 out of 19, Kerala 14 out of 14, Jammu and Kashmir 12 out of 22, Uttar Pradesh 10 out of 71, Himachal Pradesh 1 out of 12 and Jharkhand 1 out of 24. Thus we see that in 15 states - these are all the states which have large populations and large rural populations - there are 10 or more districts which are affected by drought in 2012.

Still the official view is that The Eleventh Five Year Plan focused on methods to ensure 4% growth in agriculture which, as a recent Planning Commission document (one among the several concerning agriculture for the Twelfth Plan) has said, "was considered vital not only for improving food and nutrient security, but also for inclusive growth and checking rural urban divide". And still the impacts of climate change and of urbanisation in India, as also the industrialisation of our agriculture, is not being recognised or addressed. The response has instead been articulated in terms of programme and continuing campaign. From the Eleventh Plan period we have inherited the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) and the National Food Security Mission (NFSM). These 'flagship' programmes are assisted, to a limited extent, by an altered MGNREGA in which agriculture work will now find more representation. These are accompanied by a range of programmes, some of which are: Central Agriculture Infrastructure and Establishment Scheme, National Agriculture Infrastructure and Information Development Scheme; Mission on Seeds and Planting Material, Oilseeds and Oil-palm Mission, National Horticulture Mission, Water Efficiency and Productivity Mission, Mission on Farm Mechanisation and Energy and Farmers Income Security Scheme.

Do any of these correspond with each other in any meaningful way? Let's consider the question of weather data, which is vital every day to the farmer and which is that much more vital during a deficient monsoon. Extraordinary as it seems, there is still no standardisation and integration of automatic weather stations (the Indian Institute of Tropical Meteorology is only now attempting to do this). There are several organisations involved in automatic weather stations installation, maintenance, data transmission and sharing - but there till today exists no national framework or agency which integrates the outputs of existing automatic weather stations and installs new ones with the required sensors, carries out maintenance, delivers quality uninterrupted data. Why, in 2012, does this still not exist for each and every taluka, tehsil and block in each of Bharat's 640 districts? That is the question that the agriculture 'growth' advocates ought to be able to answer if they want to be taken seriously by the 'kisan'.

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Please note that this is the opinion of the author and is Not Certified by ICAR or any of its authorised agents.