Between 1993 and 2015, the income of Indian farmers in nominal terms increased by over nine times. During the same period, the consumer price index, or CPI, for rural India increased by 4.5 times. This means that in real terms, a farmer’s purchasing power increased by less than two times while the national income per capita in PPP terms has gone up by about four times. Essentially, the farmer’s wealth grows at half the pace compared to the average citizen’s wealth.
We need to talk about solutions.
But the challenge is far beyond the ongoing protest by many farmers against the three agricultural laws brought in by the Narendra Modi government. In the longer run, India needs to embark on a new green revolution — where technology meets enterprises in the middle of the farm. In my project to evolve the PURA policy (Provision of Urban Amenities in Rural Areas) with former President A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, we travelled and met farmers from across India. Four points emerged.
From quality to technology
First, we need to audit the quality of farm inputs. We have over-focussed on cheap inputs and completely ignored their quality. Farmers have told me numerous times that they are unsure of what the right amount of fertiliser or pesticide to use is — because they are never sure of whether they get what they are told. Not only the quality is compromised, it is also unpredictable, often leading to overconsumption of inputs. We need a weedicide against this corruption in agri-inputs.
Second, we need to aggressively push for non-linear technologies in agriculture. Green revolution came about because we followed new science and white revolution emerged as we followed novel management. What is the next big leap in agriculture? It may be internet of things (IoT), nanotechnology, hydroponics, controlled environment farming, organic cultivation and perhaps a mix of all. This itself will be an export-worthy knowledge industry with massive financial returns. For instance, the global ‘artificial intelligence in agriculture’ market size is expected to be worth $2.9 billion by 2025. One of the most revolutionary sciences in botany is hydroponics — soil-less agriculture by using mineral nutrient solutions in a solvent. Here’s an example of its potential. A typical 1-acre farm (about 4,000 square metre) with soil can grow about 12,000 kg of tomato per year. We can grow the same amount, using hydroponics, without consuming soil, in an area of about 60 square metre. We need a compelling vision for our farms. How will India become the market leader in next generation technologies for global agriculture?
Market access, entrepreneurial support
Third, Indian farmers need access to markets. This means farmers having access to information in their language and device, healthy competition among buyers, ensuring no cartelisation of procurement companies, favourable payment terms and better role of local farmer unions to negotiate with the buyers. It also needs setting up a rapid dispute settlement mechanism and government-backed insurance in the event of market malpractice. State governments can empanel private players after due diligence so that farmers sell to reliable players. Local bodies, such as panchayats, should be empowered to give feedback on the performance and reliability of the buyer.
Fourth, we need entrepreneurs to drive India’s agricultural system. A nation with possibly the largest number of farmers in the world, India should consider creating the world’s best institutions in botany, crop science and allied agriculture. We must create local self-employment for youth in the area of upscaling and managing farm produce. They will need support in terms of training, investment and digital technologies — so that they can bring best inputs to the farmers and take the farm produce directly to the consumers, often in urban areas.
India has about 150 million farmer families, and almost 60 per cent of the nation relies on agriculture as its primary source of income. A significant reason for this huge number is that there is very little in the name of alternative employment available in rural India. Thus, small-scale farming with low incomes is also a curtain we have used for decades to hide the rampant unemployment in the villages. It is time we accept that in order to improve the state of Indian farmers, we also need to create diversity of occupations for rural India.
Srijan Pal Singh is the CEO of Dr. A.P.J. Abdul Kalam Centre. He was the Advisor for Policy and Technology to Dr. Kalam, 11th President of India, and worked with him on the PURA policy in their book Target 3 Billion. Views are personal.