The Wonderful World Of Potatoes!
The third edition of the India International Potato Summit and exhibition was held on the sprawling lawns of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute at Pusa on December 21-22, 2012. It would be wrong to call it international, for other than discussing the export potential of potato seeds and potato products, there was little to show by way of an international engagement. However because the Government of India both in Agriculture and Commerce ministries gives a higher allocation for ‘international events’ most conferences, workshops, seminars and exhibitions have an international tag, and manage to rope in some global NGOs or business organisation to participate.
Having said that, the organisation was superb, the exhibition stalls from state governments, agribusiness organisations and farm equipment companies were impressive, and farmer friendly, and last but not least, the farmers from across the country Assam, West Bengal, Jharkhand, Bihar, UP, MP, Punjab, Haryana and HP were enthusiastic participants. This writer decided to deliver the keynote address in Hindustani which struck an immediate chord and compelled the organisers to switch to an English-Hindi format, rather than the opening speeches which had a lot of content, but in the absence of simultaneous translation, made no impact. Here is an ‘obiter dictum’ for all conference organisers. Encourage people to speak in their own language, but arrange for simultaneous translation at least to Hindustani, and the regional language. The insistence on Hindustani is deliberate. One is not looking to the Lok Sabha translators, who are ‘purist’ in their approach, one is seeking a language to connect and engage.
This writer spoke about the history of potato: its origin in the central and South Americas, its movement to Europe as the ‘poor man’s crop’, Von Gogh’s expressive painting ‘The Potato eaters’ and its references in the court proceedings of Emperor Jahangir (1615-1619). As European footprints on Indian soil increased, the cultivation of potato gained momentum, and by the early nineteenth century, potatoes were established in the hilly regions of the country, mainly as a garden vegetable, often grown during the summer months. Gradually, potato was grown in the winter months in the plains and became an important part of the winter cuisine and was used in conjunction with cauliflower, carrots, peas, beans and other greens. However, the production did not really take off till cold storage technologies made it possible to extend the shelf life of the potato, and today it is the most important horticulture crop—in terms of value, volume, employment opportunities and diversification potential. Today the country produces 42 million MT of potato from an area of 2 million hectares and has been a prime mover in accelerating growth in the agri-horti sector.
The credit for this development goes to the entrepreneurship and hard work of the Indian farmer, and the support extended to them by the Central Potato Research Institute at Shimla. CPRI has released more than fifty varieties, which are suited to the different agro climatic conditions of the country, and this has contributed to the spread of potato cultivation, and making it the ‘king of vegetables’. True the productivity is less than that in countries like France, Germany, Netherlands and the US, but we are catching up by improving the quality of our planting material. We have to make the transition to TPS (True Potato Seed), which has the potential of reducing the seed material requirement by over 50 per cent (compared to clonal seed material). Tripura’s experience with TPS has been very good. As mentioned in the column last week, the North-East is now a shining exemplar in pioneering the horticulture revolution in the country.
The conference also acknowledged and honoured the Government of Bihar for having achieved remarkable success in the production and productivity of potato in Nalanda district. Dr N Vijay Lakshmi, the Agriculture Secretary, in her acceptance speech also mentioned the Bihar government’s policy of mainstreaming ‘organic cultivation’ in the agriculture development strategy of Bihar. Over 12 lakh hectares had already been covered and this had the advantage of improving soil health, besides reducing dependence on external inputs. Thus while leveraging the funds available under the Government of India’s BGREI (Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India); Bihar was clear that greater focus would be on ‘processes’ than that on inputs!
In the first technical session Dr Bir Pal Singh, the Director of the CPRI, spoke at length about how potato had helped the farmers achieve four times higher returns than wheat or rice. He acknowledged that the current productivity levels of 20-25 tonnes per hectare were way below the potential of 50-55 tonnes per hectare, especially in the fertile Doab and the Indo-Gangetic belt. One reason was that farmers were keen to varieties with shorter gestation period (eighty days as against the conventional varieties, which took over hundred days to mature). He also mentioned that CPRI had been giving priority to processing grade potatoes and the six varieties in the Chipsona series were a testimony to these efforts. CPRI had extended support to the establishment of thirty-five Tissue Culture labs—and was willing to extend its support to other entrepreneurs as well. Dr Singh felt that India should leverage its seed production facilities to become the seed production hub for South and South East Asia as well as Central Asia. He also wanted the states to give permission to allow open field trials for GM potatoes, which had the ability to resist the ‘late blight’ disease, which played havoc with the crops just as they were reaching the state of maturity.
In the discussions that followed, there were demands for a National Potato Board, the need to connect farmers to consumers and address losses on account of post-harvest management and cold chain infrastructure. Suggestions which are quite well meaning by themselves but given the resource constraints with the agriculture and horticulture departments in both the central and state governments, and the policy logjam with regard to APMC, it appears to be a Herculean task!
So even though it’s not impossible, it will be a tough call…..
By Sanjeev Chopra
(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)