Can next generation of Indian farmers ensure food security?

Prof. Chander Sabharwal writes on the persisting challenges in front of India’s food security and the new schemes and programmes which can give a turnaround to the agriculture sector

Can next generation of Indian farmers ensure food security?

Prof. Chander Sabharwal writes on the persisting challenges in front of India’s food security and the new schemes and programmes which can give a turnaround to the agriculture sector

During a recent journey break in the Terai region of western Uttar Pradesh, I had an opportunity to talk to a group of farmers, all aged and wise men, perched on charpoys, outside a village hamlet. Talking in Hindi, the farmers were rueful of the fact that they were a lonely lot. “We worked hard to educate our sons, and they do not want to enter our fields, much less carry on farming for themselves and their families “. There was a chorus of agreement all round. “Yes, my son would like to open a shop in Kashipur nearby and wants money”, stated one old farmer, smoking a bidi.”  Kishan, my son has started to work in Bilaspur in a Tractor work shop”. Interjected one Sardarji”, my son too has gone to Delhi looking for work. He wants to settle there. I am thinking seriously of selling my land, now that the new Highway coming up, is making land prices go up”. 

Another middle-aged dhoti clad farmer interrupted ” my bhahu belongs to a city family and is after my son to migrate. Who will then, look after the fasal (crop), the animals and our land? He is asking me to sell off a portion of our land, not that we have more than few bighas!”. “Babu, he said to me,”  kheti to khatam hi samjho ab ” na to kuch bachta hain, na hi hamere bachoan mein dam hai kheti karne ka. Unko chaiyiye paisa jaldi se ….” There was nodding of heads – Sabko batwara karna hai zameen ka” (Agriculture is not a profitable and is disappearing and every son wants partition of the land to obtain his share of family property”! MS Swaminathan Farmers Commission report says 2000 farmers are moving away from cultivation every day, while rural  youth constitutes only about 19 percent of the farming community!

The plight
Where have all the farmers gone? Where are the farmers of tomorrow? Who will be called our Sons of the Soil? Gone to towns everyone – is the writing on the wall! Gone to explore their own destiny and find their identity? Even the girls and women are following the suit. A nationwide farm survey by CSIS reported that, 62 percent of the youth in rural areas, did not want to take up farming since it was unprofitable and, that, there were better options that would give higher earnings and improved quality of life. The 83 percent of farmers own less than 2 hectare of arable land. Even with best practices, given the vagaries of nature and monsoon, these farmers cannot subsist on crop income alone. Statistics state that small farmers earn Rs 6240.00 per month from agriculture. This is a non-sustainable business model, one of diminishing returns, with input costs going up and market prices eroded by middlemen. No wonder non-farm income is increasing, being 55 percent of total rural income, at this time. Farmers in the hilly States are even worse off. Demographic change is evident, but is there any dividend at the bottom of the Pyramid? Or are we facing a back lash?  The answers, dear readers, are blowing’ in the wind.!

In Haldwani, Uttaranchal, farmers were selling potatoes for Rs 1/kg, when in retail the consumer price is well over Rs 30/kg. Tomatoes in Maharashtra mandis, were facing a similar situation. The ‘Aartias’ and commission agents, Shroffs, wholesellers, and Mandi agents have the thick slice of the food chain, well in their grasp and control. Cold storages are full and expensive to rent, post-harvest losses are huge; marginal farmers have no staying power, rural indebtedness being a historical curse. Seeds, pesticides, fertilisers and machinery- all cost a pile. Water table is dwindling and tanks run dry! Drip fertigation is a far cry. What are the farmers to do? They are open to exploitation by middlemen, further burdened by being left alone to manage agricultural operations. And they have to repay loans, borrowed at interest rates as high as 3-4 percent per month. If they do not get surplus income, they must repay the commission agents, with their crop produce or family assets. And so, in despair, they settle in the evening after a hard days work, to drink a glass of country liquor and play cards, with village folk, resigned to their fate, and woe the reoccurring sequence of events, year, after year!

It is an understanding of the above situation, that has made Prime Minister raise the policy objective of “Doubling farmers income by 2022” accompanied by seven enablers, for stakeholders to engage with. A lofty target indeed! 

Technological Advancements
Thus, a change in thinking at all levels, is needed for the redefining of agricultural practice. Future rural plans must create new employment opportunities, and PPP should implement new Agribusiness models, that foster and enable inclusive growth with farming and rural communities. Understanding and adopting modern new technologies for farming is the future driver of rural growth. These include vertical farms, aeroponics, aquaponics, sensors, use of satellites and drones for information and crop mapping and futuristic mechanisation in farming, animal husbandry, poultry, fisheries, aquaculture, and dairy farming. Water management continues to be the priority, as does drip irrigation, fertigation, use of hybrid seeds, and GM nonfood crops. Market linkages with e-NAM and e-Mandi platforms based on fast internet connectivity ensured by efficient service providers, is the future central hub of communication and supply chain.

Government would need to revisit the current situation regarding subsidies and minimum support pricing policies, for crops. The revamping of warehousing and cold storage infrastructure, using new technologies, is already a national objective. The support of agribusiness clusters would provide necessary boost to investment, employment and development of small towns. These activities would result in integrated and connected Agriculture – the future deliverable for rural India. 

A careful reading of the foregoing will reveal that agribusiness entrepreneurship can be the initiative, that can attract the next generation of farmers, who are technology driven, and can be trained to make agricultural operations profitable. Many pilot projects and schemes to promote entrepreneurship are already implemented by the government. 

Agri entrepreneurship 
National Agriculture Innovation Fund (NAIF), Agri-clinic and Agri Business Center Scheme (ACABC), are GOI, initiatives to build entrepreneurship. 22 Agri-tech incubators were set up under the scheme. This scheme needs a shot in the arm through continued World Bank support. NAIP scheme supports projects picked up by the entrepreneurs for commercialisation.

NASSCOM Center-of-Excellence – is a Karnataka Government’s foray leveraging Internet of Things. The Center can incubate about 50 start ups in Agriculture per year. Many university led private incubators under IIMs and IITs are functioning as well. NABARD is playing a pivotal role by providing funding and marketing support. Ministry of MSME and Ministry of Labour have various schemes to foster Agri entrepreneurship. A new breed of farmers must, therefore, emerge and evolve into Agri entrepreneurs. National Skill Building programmes should aim to align their programmes to deliver required inputs. Smart cities and towns need to integrate with digital and precision farming business models. 

To overcome the drag of fragmented land holdings, Farmer Production Organisations infrastructure, now about 868 in numbers, may be expanded to be the fulcrum of farm services, such as soil health, insurance and rural credit, through e-governance channels. Member farmers remain owners of their land, but may avail benefits of modern Agri services through the FPO. The new generation of farmers, need to be convinced to join FPO, undergo training in skill building and adopt new technology based on Agribusiness management. e-Markets must pitch in to bridge gaps in food supply chain, so that by reduction of middlemen, the margins thus saved, can accrue to the farming business.

We must change the way we look at future agriculture. We must work to make this sector profitable and alluring to the emerging rural youth. We must through public and private partnerships, create a critical minimum mass of change through technology adoption, such that a multiplier effect results. Our Prime Minister has tried to “Bell the Cat!”. But compliance mode of actions will not make any substantial impact. The solution lies in crafting innovative ways to make Agriculture profitable through implementation of New Business Models, well supported at various levels, by Institutions, Banks and Research bodies. Rural youth must look at Agribusiness as a favoured choice and entrepreneurship as the preferred roadmap! 

(The author is the director of Crop Health Products Ltd, and senior professor of Rural Marketing. The views are author’s own)

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Prof. Chander Sabharwal is the Managing Director, ISK Biosciences India, a Japanese MNC in agriculture science. Prof.Sabharwal holds over a 5-decade long professional journey in the agrochemical industry; from molecularisation to product development to bringing into the farmers’ fields. With having deep inroads in India’s rural markets, Prof. Sabharwal has also been teaching the young minds and future marketeers at Institute of Management Technology, Ghaziabad and Amity Business School. He has been on the boards of many public sector banks, financial institutions and corporate houses.
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