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Importance of India-ASEAN Agriculture Dialogue

Updated: November 16, 2013 12:42 pm

Last week was spent in Kuala Lumpur—the magnificent capital of Malaysia—with its impressive urban infrastructure—mueseums, galleries, convention centres and the iconic Petronas Twin Towers—among the tallest buildings of the world—and certainly the tallest twin tower. The occasion was India’s dialogue with ASEAN agricultural ministers, an event that is held immediately after the ASEAN agricultural and forestry minsters meeting. India, China and Japan are the three countries with which ASEAN has a regular dialogue on matters of mutual interest and possible collaboration in areas of agriculture, food and nutrition security and environmental matters—though from the tone and tenor of the conference, the focus continued to be on agriculture issues. The writer was a member of the Indian delegation, led by Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar.

What does one say about this dialogue? First and foremost, from the Indian perspective, it is a recognition of India’s place on the high table of global food security and agricultural development agenda. The fact that we are now capable of feeding over 17 per cent of the world’s population with just about 3 per cent of the world’s land is a major landmark. Secondly, this has been achieved, not by large landowners of corporates, engaged in agribusiness but by the sheer dint of hard world of 130 million farming families, a majority of whom are marginal and small land holders. Third, while several countries have established world-class research facilities, and the CGIAR also has its centres across the globe—India is unique in the sense that it has in place an administrative arrangement to ensure that the farmers get all their technical inputs, including credit, as well as for procurement and marketing. Fourth, with the legislation on food security, India will also have the largest intervention in ensuring the physical delivery of food to the eligible families. Last, but not the least, India’s agricultural research and education system, including the ICAR’s institutions, state agricultural universities and resource centres offer an excellent opportunity for training to farmers in ASEAN countries.

However, lest the readers think that this is just one way traffic, it must be clarified that ASEAN countries, both individually and collectively can teach us many good practices. Vietnam stands out as the country that sought Indian assistance in rice and spices, and has mainstreamed many of our ‘innovative’ practices. More importantly, it has encouraged its farmers to establish direct supply chains with Metro Cash and Carry and we are still struggling with this idea. The Philippines has leveraged the presence of International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) to ensure that most of the famers shift to hybrids with high-yield potentials—we are still a long way to go in this regard. True, Myanmar and PDR of Laos still need Indian assistance, but we need to pick up tips on agricultural marketing   and famers co-operatives from Malaysia and Indonesia. It is also important to mention that for several ASEAN countries, especially Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei, agriculture and farming are no longer salient, though food security remains very important. For these countries, the insistence is more on ensuring a non-restrictive trade regime so far as agricultural exports is concerned. This assumes significance as several countries in the region, especially Thailand and Japan have highly restrictive practices, and several non- tariff barriers to the export and import of food.

India’s position in the ASEAN meet was quite clear and candid, especially when it came to offering India’s extensive research and educational facilities     and administrative experience in agricultural logistics. For all the domestic critique of FCI and Nafed, it is clear that interventions made for procurement, price support and market intervention have ensured a basic guarantee for farmers, especially small holders. Farm equipment was another area, in which the potential of collaboration is very high. Other than plam oil plantations in Malaysia and Indonesia, most agriculture is small-holder agriculture, and the new generation of tools that is required, especially for vegetables and fruits opens avenues for joint experiments. China is certainly ahead of us in this, but we are better in providing hands-on training. Moreover there’s a positive feel about joint and collaborative research projects.

The ASEAN-India agriculture meeting also gave an opportunity for bilateral meetings, and the one with Myanmar was quite significant, especially in view of the long land border with India, and its emergence as an important centre for production of pulses. India’s deficit in pulses can be substantially met from enhanced and improved cultivation in Myanmar, for which India can also provide requisite finanical and technical assistance. India is also helping Myanmar establish an advance agricultural research centre with focus on rice and this will go a long way in strengthening bilateral ties. Before closing it may be mentioned that this was the third edition of the ASEAN-India ministerial-level consultations.

By Sanjeev Chopra

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

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