The performance of Indian agriculture has improved significantly in recent years, especially in the wake of the Green Revolution. The production of food grains increased from about 89 million tonnes in 1964/65 to 271 million tonnes in 2016/17. The country, which was a net importer of food grains in the mid-60s, has been a net exporter of rice, wheat and maize for the past several years. Besides, the production of fruits, vegetables and milk has also increased significantly. However, the Green Revolution also brought in its wake the neglect of pulses and edible oil seeds, the production of which is highly deficient in the country. Further, soil degradation, the loss of biodiversity and depletion of ground water have posed severe threats to sustainability of agriculture in the long run. In fact, Indian agriculture, today, faces multiple challenges from the point of view of its sustainability. This piece analyses the nature and dimension of such challenges and suggests corrective measures.
First, India continues to have one of the lowest levels of crop yields and agricultural incomes per worker in the world. As of 2012, agriculture value added per worker was only $672 in India as against $9,290 in Malaysia, $23,882 in South Korea and $42,943 in Japan. Also, the yield of cereals was only 2,954 kg per hectare in India against 5,839 kg per hectare in China, 7,271 kg per hectare in South Korea and 3,994 kg per hectare in Malaysia. The yield-and-income gap will have to be bridged through appropriate technological, institutional and policy innovations.
Second, due to excessive and unbalanced use of chemical fertilisers, soil health has deteriorated in several places. Farmers, unaware of the nutrient status of soils in their plots, use macro as well as micro nutrients in an unbalanced manner, which reduces the productive capacity of soils. They then apply more fertilisers and incur higher cost every subsequent year to obtain the same level of output. Besides, about 25 million hectares of acidic soils and 8.5 million hectares of soils affected by alkalinity and salinity in the country have very low productivity (ICAR, 2007). These soils would need to be properly treated/reclaimed for productivity enhancement. In fact, over 120 million hectares of land have been declared degraded or problem soils in the country. Appropriate soil reclamation, along with balanced use of fertilisers and the success of ongoing organic farming mission, would hold the key in this regard.
Third, water scarcity and inefficient use of available water stand in the way of improvement in crop productivity. At present, rainfed areas constitute nearly 56 per cent of India's net cultivated area. There are some common constraints to agricultural development in rainfed areas. Aside from erratic rainfall, leading to high production risks due to either drought or flood, and low adoption of new technology, there is a serious problem of land degradation due to erosion by either water or wind, including run-off, in most areas. Besides, the poor drainage and water management system as well as low utilisation of available ground water in high rainfall areas, especially in the eastern region, and low ground water availability as well as high incidence of ground water depletion in low rainfall areas - mainly due to indiscriminate use of scarce water resources - put a premium on the adoption of new technology. Furthermore, the concentration of private investment in groundwater exploitation has resulted in over-exploitation of the resource, leading to negative externalities, especially in the arid and semi-arid areas where progressively larger areas are coming under the 'dark zone'. According to an estimate, uncontrolled depletion of ground water may well put 25 per cent of India's harvest at risk. In fact, normal rainfall in North-west India as well as the South Peninsula region is only 615 mm and 716 mm, respectively; meanwhile rapid underground depletion poses a real threat to rice-wheat cropping system in the entire Indo-Gangetic plain region.
During the last 25 years, the actual rainfall was less than normal in 11 years. The country had severe drought in 2002 and 2009, which led to a huge loss of crop production as well as human and animal lives in different parts of the country. It may be noted that the percentage of total cropped area irrigated was as low as 4.1 in Assam, 22.8 in Gujarat, 12 in Jharkhand, 20.3 in Himachal Pradesh, 17.7 in Kerala, 20.2 in Maharashtra and 28.3 in Odisha, even though the total irrigated area was about 44 per cent in the country. In fact, augmentation of water supply and their efficient and equitable utilisation are the key for sustainable food security, at both household and national levels. Improving productivity per unit of water through water-friendly cropping system and improvement in agronomic practices may help improve the situation, but farmers lack sufficient awareness in this regard. Also, the use of drip irrigation, sprinkler irrigation and so on, especially in high-value crops, would be helpful.
Fourth, climate change poses a real threat to the production system on which the livelihood of marginal and small farmers depends. Models for farm income in India as a whole suggest that a 2-3.5 C temperature increase could be associated with net revenue loss of 9-25 per cent in different areas, pushing many farmers below the poverty line. Adjustment to climate change requires new production patterns, adoption of new inputs with higher resilience to drought and floods, and wider use of intensive agro-ecologically sustainable techniques such as conservation agriculture and SRI, but small farmers in India are unable to adjust to the changing environment because of the lack of adequate human and financial resources as well as proper information. The support to agricultural practices, which promote climate change adaptation, would include designing the financial mechanism to offer incentives to small farmers for safeguarding ecosystem services such as watershed protection, carbon sequestration and protection of biodiversity. It would be essential to develop the mechanism to regulate and generate rewards for sustainable agricultural practices, including payments to farmers for ecosystem services or higher prices for agri products that meet certification.
The National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA), launched in 2008, rightly aims at transforming Indian agriculture into a climate-resilient production system through suitable adaptation and mitigation measures in the domain of crops and animal husbandry. However, the NMSA requires adequate financial and human resources to achieve its objectives. Besides, exploring opportunities for maintenance/restoration/enhancement of soil properties and use of multi-purpose-adapted livestock species and breeds in cropping systems will help in coping with climatic uncertainties. More research efforts are also required to generate information on the carbon sequestration potential of different land use systems, including opportunities offered by conservation agriculture and agroforestry.
To conclude, India's policymakers at both Centre and state levels would have to work in close coordination with each other for building the necessary technological, institutional and support system for sustainability of agriculture in the long run.
The author is an Ex-Chairman, Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, and Chairman, Special Cell on Land Policies, NITI Aayog