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South should focus on horticulture, high value crops...

One should compliment the Madras Institute of Development Studies (MIDS) for conducting national workshops/seminars on emerging economic issues. For a number of years in the past, MIDS, the brain child of the Malcolm S Adiseshiah, used to organise such annual conferences.

South should focus on horticulture, high value crops...

After Dr Shashanka Bhide with his national and global experience took charge as the Director of MIDS and with the lead of Chairman K L Krishna, this focus has returned: MIDS organised a conference to discuss the prospects for agriculture in the southern region.

The south accounts for a share of close to 27 per cent on the nation’s GDP. But the share of agriculture (crops plus livestock) in the gross state domestic product has been falling and has been estimated at a little over 14 per cent. Tamil Nadu with its focus on the services and manufacturing sector accounts even far less at around 7 per cent. With land prices in Tamil Nadu increasing steeply, highly fragmented land holdings (average of 2 acres in Tamil Nadu) and lack of perennial rivers, this decline has been steady and steep.

One of the MIDS papers points to Kerala accounting for 96.3 per cent as a share of marginal holdings followed by Tamil Nadu at 77.2 per cent (for 2011). For the region as a whole, the share of gross irrigated area was just 16.5 per cent of all India.

The two day workshop organised in cooperation with the FAO presented policymakers and academics from Delhi and the southern states and discussed over eleven sessions the prospects for agriculture in the southern region.

Rich volume of updated data is available with the Ministries of Agriculture and of Agricultural Research in Delhi. In line with academics in most universities and colleges, MIDS papers have also been based on obsolete data that do not reflect dynamic changes. eg. the strident growth of horticulture fruits, vegetables and flowers in Tamil Nadu.

The southern region has lost its share in all India production of food crops post the green revolution. Only Andhra Pradesh (before bifurcation) has been well-endowed with land and water resources. This was backed

by the focus on agricultural development through improved irrigational facilities.

Kerala with its smaller area and with undulated terrain has not been a large producer of foodgrains. Karnataka and Tamil Nadu have been suffering from shortage of water, especially in years of poor monsoon.

Tamil Nadu also experiences a high rate of urbanisation resulting in massive migration of rural people to cities, fragmentation of land holdings that renders farming unviable and escalating costs of land. Farming has been sustained by hefty subsidies that render the activity uncompetitive.

A higher level of literacy has helped the region focus on high-value crops – fruits, vegetables, flowers and spices. Apart from leveraging traditional strengths in plantation, Kerala continues its top position in rubber; Karnataka in coffee; Tamil Nadu and Kerala are also sizeable producers of tea and spices.


Tamil Nadu should move away from rice and sugarcane...


In a seminar at MIDS presided by Dr. Malcolm Adiseshiah held in 1987, I pointed to Tamil Nadu slipping from the position of eighth rank in food production to the eleventh between 1967 and 1987. The audience included the stalwarts of MIDS,

Dr  C T Kurien, Dr A Vaidyanathan and S Guhan among others. I pointed to the relatively poorer impact of the green revolution in Tamil Nadu. For quite some time the green revolution was a wheat revolution; it took quite some time to get sizeable increases in the production of rice. This was also impacted by the relatively smaller size of average farm holdings in the state that denied recourse to science, technology, mechanisation and management.

Tamil Nadu also suffered from the absence of perennial rivers and dependence on Karnataka, Kerala and AP to meet its water requirements; it has also been over-exploiting  ground water resources. I suggested the state taking bold to switch from water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane and focus on oilseeds, pulses and horticulture. Remember that was the time when the Rajiv Gandhi Government set up technology missions on these crops under Sam Pitroda that proved to be effective?

Sadly, 28 years later the situation has not changed overmuch. The state continues its pre-occupation with rice and sugarcane. There are a few instances of high productivity with claims of eight tonnes and more  yield per hectare and taking comfort in an odd year of large production. In states like Punjab, much higher average annual rates of growth had been recorded for several years.


Uneconomic small land holdings, rapid urbanisation...


Agriculture in Tamil Nadu suffers more from the continuous fragmentation of land holdings and the much higher rate of urbanisation. Average land holding in the state is just around two acres. This has been caused by the splitting of family properties over generations that has rendered farming unviable.

    Land ceiling laws, restrictions on leasing over long term and the difficulty of enforcing contracts come in the way of agglomeration of land holdings. Powerful politicians and local chieftains do succeed in acquiring large parcels of land that are diverted for business purposes, notably education. Tamil Nadu is unique in having close to 600 engineering colleges, each possessing large land banks.  


Women excel in agritech; but won’t work in farms!


We also have other paradoxes. The B.Tech course in agriculture offered by the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University is a popular and prized course. Aspiring women prefer this course, next to  medicine. The result: of the 400 seats offered over 300 are won by women. Have you come across women B.Tech graduates even in handful numbers working on a farm, soiling their hands?

A 2-acre farm can generate on an average around Rs 40,000 of income per annum, which is not remunerative even for the owner. Can he afford to employ an agriculture graduate with a remuneration of at least Rs 15,000

per month?

Thus, one witnesses thousands of agriculture graduates seeking jobs in cities with government, banks, labs, and consultancy firms, manufacturing industries not certainly in village farms.

The other serious factor relates to the continuous spiralling of land prices. At an average price of around Rs 6 lakh plus per acre, the return from conventional agriculture is much lower than that from the deposit in a bank. One thus sees the tendency to sell off land or to keep it fallow on expectations of price escalation.


We need to tackle the issue on several fronts:


1. Permit lease for over 15 years:

Agglomerate the land holdings to viable sizes that would lend for the application of science, technology, mechanisation and management. Punjab and Rajasthan started with amending their APMC acts that permit leasing of land over 15 years without alienating ownership. Several other states have done this. Such a step will help corporates, private institutions and other individuals to enter farming in a big way. Imagine a farm size of 100-500 acres that could work on long-term plans to invest generous amounts on technology and management that would be profitable over a period; this is not happening in small-sized farms.

I see remarkable transformation of large farms engaged in agriculture and horticulture in several Northern states. In Ludhiana, such an experiment promoted by the Mittals of the Airtel Group does farming  over  350 acres on the banks of the Sutlej River. They have set up greenhouses, shade nets and computerised application for control of water that permit farming profitably round the year. It provides employment to thousands of rural women on remunerative terms of Rs 5000 plus nearly a decade ago. Such farming can be practised over land agglomerated through leasing from hundreds  of small land owners on a large scale, providing them assured lease rentals and also remunerative wage employment; the later will also have the benefit of getting back highly productive land at the end of the lease period.


2.  Use scientific methods:


I refer to the lack of science, technology and management. This contributes to the vast differences in productivity levels in developed countries and India. The average yield of corn in mid-west USA, for instance, is around 10,000 kg per acre; in India, it is 800 kg per acre. In California, with most parts desert, with an average rainfall of 10 inches a year (in Tamil Nadu it is around 38 inches per year), tomato yields average 80 tonnes per acre; in Israel, this is as high as 200 tonnes per acre. In India, it is 5 tonnes per acre.  


3. Build a niche and be smart about crop choice and management:


 In 2014-15, the southern states produced together 29.47 million tonnes of foodgrains. These focussed on rice, horticulture and plantation crops. In pockets, farmers have achieved considerable success by moving away from the conventional foodgrains and raising high-value crops. It is thus Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu are among the five top fruit producing states; Kerala is the largest producer of rubber apart from being a sizeable producer of tea and spices. Karnataka is the biggest producer of coffee and Tamil Nadu has a sizeable plantation sector that produces tea and spices.

Of these four states, Andhra Pradesh and Kerala have been well-endowed with perennial rivers. The Krishna-Godavari basin in Andhra Pradesh has helped the state emerge as a large producer of rice. There are efforts to link these two rivers promising the spread of irrigation facilities to much vaster areas.

Tamil Nadu is estimated to have 47 per cent of its farmlands irrigated. These are roughly contributed by a third each by command area, tanks, lakes and ground water. The focus on power development, particularly the advent of Neyveli Lignite Corporation, helped the state to take power to all villages at an early stage of development. The provision of power for pump sets helped to expand agriculture in the northern districts of South Arcot, North Arcot, Chengalpattu, Thiruvallur and Kancheepuram that are not traditionally active in agriculture. In the immediate aftermath of rural electrification, the state witnessed quantum jumps in food production. In line with the rapid rate of urbanisation and escalating land prices, progressive farmers switched to high-value crops. Significantly, Tamil Nadu leads in the production of flowers, spices and a range of horticulture products. Krishnagiri provides a good example of the focus on vegetables. In cooperation with the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University, farmers in the districts have excelled in producing a vast range of plants with high productivity.

Crisis in pulses...

The country witnessed a crisis in pulses. The price of urad dhal (ulundu) more than doubled shooting up to Rs. 200 plus per kg and that of tur dhal crossed Rs. 200 per kg at the height of the festive season. These hurt the population dependent on pulses for meeting its protein requirement.

Sambar, rasam and a range of subzis require tur dhal. Idly dosa, vada and a vast variety of snacks need urad dhal. The doubling of prices of these in a short time has caused deep holes in the purses of masses.

Production of pulses has been much less than demand leading to the import of pulses, lentils and peas in increasing quantities. In fact, the foreign exchange spent on importing pulses and edible oils is more than the foreign exchange the country had spent even on crude oil and petroleum products some three decades ago! With the supply of these limited to a handful of countries, a spurt in Indian demand contributes to a massive increase in international prices.

We have done this before…

The country has demonstrated its capacity to get over shortages and create surpluses in  some commodities. C Subramaniam as the father of the green revolution did this admirably well for foodgrains by an imaginative mix of policies, well-coordinated implementation by the Central and state governments and the involvement of scientists and the academe. In just about five years India not merely became self-sufficient in foodgrains but emerged a major exporter of rice and wheat.  With an annual production of 260 million tonnes of foodgrains the country is brimming with buffer stocks that are a cause of concern to manage.

Likewise, Verghese Kurien brought about an equally spectacular revolution in the production of milk. From the stage of chronic shortages, the country became the largest producer of milk in the world generating strong surpluses. This was again based on the success in bringing together millions of small-sized cattle owners (who owned on an average ‘one and a half buffaloes’ in the words of Kurien).

These successes were based on science, technology and management supported by sound policies that were implemented vigorously by the Centre and the states.

Such changes have not been witnessed regarding other essential commodities like pulses and oilseeds. Their production stagnated for decades even while the population grew massively and relentlessly. Rajiv Gandhi as Prime Minister attempted the needed correction by launching technology missions led by Sam Pitroda. This effort did bring about spectacular results in quick time with the production of these registering considerable increases. There was a promise of the country becoming self-sufficient in these.

The pulses crises...

The liberalisation of the economy in 1991, agreements with WTO and  slackening of the thrust on these missions contributed to complacency and slowed down growth. The higher growth rate recorded by the economy since 2004 and adequate foreign exchange reserves led to a decline in the growth rate of pulses and oilseeds.

Presently demand for pulses is estimated around 25-27 million tonnes. Against this, the production is around 17 million tonnes. Hardly a handful of countries raises lentils and pulses needed by India; Australia, Canada, Kenya, Malawi, Myanmar, Russia, Sudan, Tanzania, Ukraine and Uzbekistan. Punjabi farmers in Canada foresaw the opportunities and stepped up cultivation of lentils. Not quite familiar with raising tur dhal, Canada built a variety of lentil named  yellow dhal and exported it to India in vast quantities!

In Tamil Nadu, pulses have been raised as a marginal, rain-fed crop. In Thanjavur, the rice bowl of the state, ulundu and payaru (urad dhal and moong dhal) are used to be raised after the rice is harvested during December/January. These short-term crops, raised over 3 to 4 months, have traditionally been considered for supplementary income. Little attention was paid to productivity through science and technology. The result: low yield of 150 – 200 kg per acre.

Six years ago at the initiative of R Gopalakrishnan, Director – Tata Sons, a more pulses programme was launched through Rallis India. In Tamil Nadu, it was launched as part of the World Bank aided IAMWARM project in the Pudukkottai district. This was extended to several other districts. This helped bring significant acreage under ulundu. Combined with supply of quality seeds and better agronomic practices, productivity increased to around 700 kg per acre.

Such efforts are seen in major pulses producing states of Maharashtra, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. But again these are primarily raised as rain-fed crops. With the comfort achieved in the production of primary foodgrains, wheat and rice and with much better prices it is possible to increase acreage under pulses by proper educational policies.

The Agriculture Consultancy Management Foundation (ACMF) promoted by Industrial Economist in 2006 has been demonstrating the potential to produce robust results in a short time. The requirements are simple and do not require rocket science. We define this as the Krishi-Shashti.

These involve application of science, technology, mechanisation and management. Applying these, ACMF demonstrated increasing production of corn from the average 800 kg to around 5000 kg per acre. The results regarding ulundu (urad) produced in close collaboration with Tata-Rallis were equally gratifying.

Over the last five decades, since the break of the green revolution, the South has lost its pre-eminence in foodgrains production, but it has endeavoured to opt for high-value agriculture products like fruits, flowers, spices… and allied activities like poultry and dairying. Such efforts should continue to build a niche for the region for such products.


Welcome thrust in fruits and vegetables


The focus on value addition in farming has brought about an increasing emphasis on horticulture. In the 1990s, Maharashtra, under Sharad Pawar, focused on agriculture. Over the last two decades, this has brought enormous benefits to the state that has emerged a large producer of mangoes, grapes, strawberries, banana and a variety of other fruits apart from maintaining its lead in sugarcane.

The area under horticulture crops in India expanded from 12.77 mn hectares in 1991-92 to 23.69 mn hectares in 2012-13. Total production during this period has been stated to have increased by nearly 2.8 times and productivity by 1.5 times. This has been brought about by a handsome increase in the plan outlay for horticulture.

These have helped in horticulture output outpacing the production of food grains for the third year in succession: in 2014-15 horticulture production has been estimated to have increased to 283.5 million tonnes from 268.8 million tonnes in 2012-13. In this period foodgrains, production has remained stagnant around 257 million tonnes. Maharashtra with a production of 13.46 million tonnes maintained its position as the largest producer of fruits; Andhra Pradesh (10.51 million tonnes) and Tamil Nadu (7.37 million tonnes) occupied the second and fourth positions.  Tamil Nadu also was the large producer of spices and also the biggest producer of loose flowers.

India is the second largest producer of fruits and vegetables in the world after China. In several horticultural crops- mango, banana, papaya, cashew nuts, potato, areca nut and ladies finger India is the leader.

This switch is welcome both for better returns to the farmers and higher nutritional value. Like the milk revolution, this has also taken place on the strength of policy thrusts and returns.

A similar change is needed regarding pulses and oilseeds as well.



Paper presented at the Workshop on ‘Prospects for Agriculture  in India’s Southern Region over the Medium Term: Setting an Agenda for Strategies to Meet Challenges’ organised by the Madras Institute of Development Studies funded by the FAO.

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