Wednesday, 1 April 2020

Man, Machine And Agriculture

Updated: March 9, 2015 2:22 pm

Over the last week, this writer has been to institutions in Maharashtra, Rajasthan and UP (Greater Noida) engaged in hi-tech agriculture: tissue culture labs, hi tech plantations, poly-houses with fertigation and seen commercially hydroponics equipment which can certainly be used for raising greens for cattle, and later for other vegetables and crops. Like all cutting edge technologies, the costs are coming down with every passing year both on account of economies of scale, and the levels of indigenisation. All this means that technology will play an ever increasing role in the discourse on agriculture and allied sectors, and that ownership of ‘land’ will not be the only determinant factor.

Let’s first take a look at what our current understanding on the subject is. In conventional thinking, access to land as an owner, tenant or confirmed lessee was the passport to livelihood and income security, as well as status. Of course the quality of soil and proximity to a water source were also important. However as the state started investing in irrigation projects, and extended support to the tube well programme, the productivity of land became part of the political economy of development. Regions with visionary leadership and political clout could get irrigation projects, which transformed the entire economic profile of the hinterland as subsistence farming gave way to commercial agriculture. The process is still under way in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh where the Sardar Sarovar is helping these states to record phenomenal increases in production be it of cotton, or sugarcane or wheat or paddy.

What becomes clear is that state intervention is critical: however the kind of intervention is a subject of intense debate. Views range from calling for a freeze on the sale of agricultural land to simpler arrangements for contract farming and leasing to ensure economies of scale and scope. Simplistic options like ‘co-operative farming’ are also offered—but usually by those who have never understood the complexity of a farming operation.

However, the propositions I bring to the table this week are as follows. One, that there is more than enough land and water in our country , which if properly harnessed can ensure not just food security for the entire country, but also help us leverage global opportunities in food export. However, this calls for a new kind of public investment, or support to private investors to ensure a quantum jump in the production of fruits, vegetables and dairy products.

Let us start with dairy and milk products as the demand is growing exponentially, and the demand supply gap is being met by synthetic milk, and other non-healthy substitutes. The biggest constraint to supply is not cattle, but fodder, because the same land can also be used to grow high value strawberry or papaya or vegetables. The village commons on which the cattle used to graze are under great pressure, and have virtually disappeared, and therefore even when incentives are announced for fodder development, land costs make it prohibitive. This is where hydroponics comes in as an innovative and cost effective option which virtually eliminates the requirement of land for fodder, or grazing besides cutting down water requirements substantially. Some working models which were on display in Pune at a cost of less than Rs 2 lakh have the same potential as a one hectare plot of land.

Besides the life cycle of the fodder greens comes down from six weeks to two weeks. One was just amazed at the potential of hydroponics to transform dairying sector in the country. This can work in conjunction with financial models in which larger aggregators extend financial support to dairy producers for purchase of additional cattle and hydroponics equipment to address the issues of fodder as well. This is where the real challenge comes. We need to scale this on an extensive scale: can all KVKs take this up for frontline demonstration over the next two years. The costs involved will not be very high—but adequate contingencies must be available at the local level to ensure that the idea gets a fair trial!

Entrepreneurs in Rajasthan are also working on a similar model with foreign collaboration, and the costs are slightly higher. But as this column believes, the more the merrier. The farmer must have a choice. The next intervention is in the case of hi-tech nurseries which can cost anywhere between five ten crore depending on the range of planting material required. These hi-tech nurseries (also called centres of excellence) have already been established in Pune, Karnal and Jaipur, and are underway in several other states.

Farmers can get ‘speedlings’ from these centres which can be directly planted both in open and protected cultivation conditions. This has the potential of changing incomes of farmers, especially small farmers as the returns are higher, and more importantly assured. This is especially true for protected cultivation which insulates the farmer from weather and to an extent market fluctuations as well. Who will set up these hi-tech nurseries, and how should they be funded?

In addition to being supported under NHM, state governments, zilla panchayats, seed corporations, fertiliser co-operatives and state marketing federations and agribusiness organisations which have a long-term perspective should take the lead as these projects may be difficult for individual farmers in the first few years. Many of them are coming up under the bilateral co-operation projects: with Israeli and Holland—but we need many more before it makes sense for marginal and small farmers to take up protected cultivation in a big way!

By Sanjeev Chopra

(An IAS Officer, the author is Joint Secretary & Mission Director, National Horticulture Mission, Government of India. The views expressed are personal.)

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