A better way to exploit our land

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THE TWIN factors of rising population and prosperity have resulted in increased overall consumption, which has pushed global food prices northwards. Pressure on land to produce more food has also increased exponentially. The causes of global conflicts have changed over the centuries — from land to gold to minerals to fishing rights and lately, oil. Water, it is now anticipated, will be the precious resource future conflicts will be all about.

It is on this pitch that India seems to have a potential edge. Practically every region of India is swathed in river basins. Much of the country is either arable land or forest area with extremely low percentages of waste land. Despite ranking seventh in terms of total land mass in the world, India has the second largest arable area after the US, with China and Russia trailing behind.

With such a sizeable land available for agricultural production, India has the potential to become one of the granaries of the world. Surely this cannot be ignored when we talk about development, GDP, industrial development and exports. If utilised, it can catapult us to the forefront of food production. India is not only the land of the future for technological and industrial production but can equally become a leader in agricultural production.

Despite the immense advantages, we have not been able to reap the rewards. Reeling under the twin problems of water scarcity and food scarcity, our agricultural production is just about being able to cope with the rising demands of our population. As more and more break the poverty line barrier and increase their purchasing power, there is an urgent need for the country to produce greater quantities of food. But where will the food come from without water? We require an overhauling of our irrigational facilities — in augmenting and extending them.

The agitations against acquisition of agricultural land should act as a wake-up call

The water map in India is forever in flux and consistently inequitable. The flood-prone districts coexist violently with the drought prone. But our planning has not been able to make near optimum use of the water resources available to us. In fact, we have not made proper use of even the available land resource.

Much of our production is based on dry-land farming. According to a 1990 report of the Parliamentary Standing Committee for Agriculture, based on figures provided by the agricultural ministry, out of a net sown area of 141.73 million hectares, only 31.8 percent was irrigated land. The situation today is not much better — total cultivated area of 141 million hectares with only 40 percent of this being irrigated.

The Green Revolution seems to have limited itself to particular areas. Even the increases in production during the height of the Revolution were limited to only about 10 percent of the districts in the country. To take the most glaring figures for the increases in production of total crops between 1970-73 to 1980-83: 14 districts accounted for 25 percent, 30 districts for another 25 and the rest of the whole country accounted for 50 percent! Special efforts towards spreading the Green Revolution to other parts of the country notwithstanding, we are looking at a few hubs of production.

In many ways, our production fares poorly compared to other major agricultural producers of the world both in terms of aggregate production as well as yields per acre. The comparative figures for cereals and rice for India, the US and China show that our yields are practically half of China, which are in any case, lower than that of the US.

Considering our inherent strength in Arable Land Resource Base, we need to urgently look at the two areas of immediate concern: water scarcity and food security. Water shortage should ideally take priority. It’s not as if there is no water, as you can see from the river basins. A large number of districts remain drought prone because water has not been not been sufficiently harnessed from the basins. Lack of watershed management has resulted in massive loss of water, unlined canals account for large amounts of loss through seepage, deforestation has resulted in major flooding downriver eventually leading to droughts upriver.

But merely investing in huge dams and irrigation projects is definitely not the answer. Various studies have shown that larger the irrigation project, higher the cost per hectare with the lowest delivery quotient. Conversely, smaller the project, lower the cost per hectare with a high delivery quotient. In the 1990s, calculations revealed that major and medium projects cost Rs 35,000 per hectare, while minor projects cost Rs 7,000 per hectare. Watershed projects: a mere Rs 4,000 per hectare.

The benefits of watershed management have been amply demonstrated by NGOsworking at the micro level in various parts of the country, the most famous being the experiment of Anna Hazare in Ralegan Siddhi. Watershed management at the local level, coupled with a huge number of minor irrigation projects ought to be the goal of the future. Incorporating this into a holistic development model would result in a multiplier effect, as seen at Tilonia village near Ajmer.

This leads us to the next priority: increases in production alongside worldwide average yields. We need to strengthen the research facilities at agricultural universities and encourage the exchange of ideas and newer seed varieties among these institutions. This will also require huge increases in investments for the improvement of technologies required right from the development of newer varieties of seeds, expansion and improvement in quality seed production to plantation techniques, from harvesting techniques to marketing, including value addition upon site and world class storage facilities. The last aspect is crucial because in our current godowns, losses due to dampness, pilferage and deterioration mount to unacceptable levels.

Harvesting potential Our yield per hectare is still abysmally lower than that of the US and China
Harvesting potential Our yield per hectare is still abysmally lower than that of the US and China
Photo: AP

Finally, we come to development of infrastructure. Electricity, roads and rail connections would be integral to any increase in production. Lack of electricity has been one of the chief causes of the perennial backwardness of the BIMARU states, especially Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. No delivery system can function in isolation without infrastructural support. It is not an accident that China has concentrated its investments in infrastructure and is now reaping the consequent benefits.

HOWEVER, WHATEVER levels of technological advancement and innovations we bring to bear upon agriculture, land is still a finite resource. The question eventually remains of the manner and the level of the use or exploitation of this finite resource.

The agitations taking place in different parts of the country against acquisition of agricultural land by the government should act as a wake-up call. Perhaps, non-agricultural development needs to be shifted to less productive areas where there is degenerated land. Merely rationalising the manner and levels of compensation is not enough. Actively seeking to preserve this finite resource will make sure it has the potential to become the lifeline of our future.

The views expressed in this article are personal and do not reflect the position of the Indian National Congress

Vishvjit Prithvijit Singh is former MP, Rajya Sabha.
vishvjit.singh@gmail.com

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