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Vol. 24 No. 2 - April 2018

Indian Agriculture: Tradition in Transition

By: Dimple Khatri1, A. Arunachalam1 and K. Arunachalam2


 India is second most populous country in the world, next only to China. According to 1950 Census, population of India was 1.02 billion and as per the 2016 census, its population rose to 1.34 billion. India has 17.2% of the total world population (so one in every six people in the world is an Indian), but in terms of land area, India holds the seventh place with only 2.42% of total land area of the world, while land area of U.S.A. is about 4.8%. Nonetheless, India’s population is about three times that of U.S.A., twenty-one times that of Canada and about six times that of Japan. The population of India continues to grow rapidly and great pressure is being placed on the natural resources. Most parts of India have subsistence agriculture. This type of agriculture has been practiced in India for several hundreds of years and is being practiced even now in a large part of India in spite of the large scale change in agricultural practices after independence. Despite increase in urbanization and industrialization, about 70% of population is still directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. We had experienced a “Great Bengal Famine” due to shortage of food grains.

Indian Agriculture: from Evolution to Revolution

 In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, agricultural growth in the region was slow compared to the rates achieved in the past thirty years. The agriculture of India has moved from evolution to revolution. It is associated with unfavorable or difficult areas that are mainly rainfed, often undulating and with fragile or problem soils. Traditionally, the third category of agriculture in Asia is practiced by groups that reside in the hills and on the fringes of the deserts, at the edges of the main lowland civilizations. In South-east Asia these groups are mainly ethnic minorities; in the Indian subcontinent they are known as tribes (Wangpan et al., 2017). Some of these groups may have been the original inhabitants of the lowland areas, and may have been driven into the forested highland by more dominant civilizations. The type of cultivation associated with these areas is either rainfed or swidden cultivation that involves the clearing of new forest plots every 2-3 years when the natural fertility on the old plots, derived from the burning of the forest, is exhausted. Agriculture in Asia also falls in the above three categories. Industrial agriculture that was alien to the region emerged in the context of the political colonization by the European powers. Until World War II it was largely manifested in the region in the form of large plantations, particularly in the relatively land-rich areas of equatorial South-east Asia. Green revolution agriculture is found in well-endowed areas of the developing world and in areas that are either irrigated or receive adequate and reliable rainfall. It includes large and small farms and uses high-yielding varieties with complementary inputs. The traditional subsistence rice cultivation in the riverine lowlands of Asia could be considered to be a primitive form of Green Revolution agriculture. These systems are associated with irrigation, sometimes with local water lifting, and constitute the productive base for the indigenous civilizations. Not all the lowlands are irrigated, with the important exceptions of China and India.

The Green Revolution

The introduction of high-yielding varieties of seeds and the increased use of fertilizers and irrigation under the 'Green Revolution' initiative in late 1960s resulted in rapid expansion of agricultural land and boost in agricultural production. The Green Revolution continued with the policy of expanding cultivable land. The striking feature of green revolution was the planting of two crops per year on the same agricultural land (double-cropping). The earlier practice of one crop per year was dependent on monsoon rainfall. For the second crop huge irrigation facilities such as dams were created. Dams were built to arrest large volumes of natural monsoon water which were earlier being wasted as run-off. Simple irrigation techniques as the digging of tube- wells for extracting groundwater were also adopted on a massive scale. The Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) under the Ministry of Agriculture played a crucial role in the Green Revolution era of the late 1960s. ICAR developed new strains of high yield value seeds, mainly wheat and rice, millet and corn. The most noteworthy seed was the K68 variety for wheat which pushed up food grain production significantly during the subsequent decade. The ‘Green Revolution’ resulted in a record grain output of 131 million tons during 1978-79. This established India as one of the world's biggest agricultural producers. No other country in the world which attempted the Green Revolution recorded such levels of success. India also became an exporter of food grains during the same time. Yield per unit of farmland jumped by more than 30% between 1947 -1979 when the Green Revolution was considered to have delivered its goals in the short term. However, the thrust on policy approach to agriculture since the 1990s has been to secure increased production through subsidies on inputs such as power, water and fertilizer, and by increasing the minimum support price (MSP) rather than through building new capital assets in irrigation, power and rural infrastructure. This has shifted the production base from low-cost regions to high-cost ones, causing an increase in the cost of production, regional imbalances, and an increase in the burden of storage and transport of food grains. Besides, ground water particularly in northern Indian states of Haryana and Punjab and in western Uttar Pradesh is being rapidly depleted. The situation in the state of Punjab is alarming. It has exhausted its upper layer of groundwater and farmers are now using high-horsepower pumps to get groundwater from the deeper layers. Agricultural scientists have advised against growing water intensive paddy in Punjab and Haryana. Scientists agree that Indian agriculture must move to a more sustainable way as far as water usage-based ecosystems are concerned to meet the food and non-food needs of a growing population. As agriculture is the largest user of water in India (using more than 80 per cent of usable freshwater) and a large proportion of the population derives its livelihood directly or indirectly from it, we need to build efficient irrigation systems and water conservation strategies, especially in semi-arid regions, through conjunctive use of surface and groundwater. Three decades ago, the collective response to the spectra of hunger resulted in what became known as the Green Revolution. In Green Revolution agriculture, the major change has been the improvement of irrigation systems, with upstream storages allowing the extension of cultivation into the dry season. This has enabled intensification and specialization, typified by the introduction in the 1960s of improved high-yielding varieties that require large inputs of chemical fertilizer. At their most intensive, such systems have been producing two or three crops per year, often incorporating a short duration legume between cereals. Because of the excellent resource base of the Green Revolution agriculture, smallholders who have expanded their enterprises have achieved a size of operation difficult to distinguish from industrial agriculture. The resulting expansion of food production has brought Bangladesh, Pakistan, Indonesia, India, the People’s Republic of China, the Philippines and others from the brink of starvation to the threshold of National food-grain self-sufficiency. It has stimulated industrial growth and fostered political stability. And, unlike many previous rural development efforts, the majority of the beneficiaries of the Green Revolution have been small-scale producers. The Green Revolution has been based on a package of technological inputs-fertilizers; pesticides and irrigation - that have allowed the full expression of the yield potential of new crop varieties. The Green Revolution has indeed transformed the agriculture scene and provided the impetus for agricultural development in the region. The productivity gains in Asia due to Green Revolution is obvious from the fact that between 1965 and 1990 the cereal production increased by an average of more than 3% annually in many of the high-population countries. In some it was 4% or more (e.g. Pakistan and Indonesia), whereas some traditional agricultural systems had been able to sustain only 0.5-1.0% increases in production in the past. For the most part, the high growth rates did not bring new land into production. With only a few exceptions, growth in area under agricultural production was less than 1% annually in most countries of the region. In fact land area under agricultural production actually declined in a few countries, such as People’s Republic of China and Japan. This implies that the productivity gains came from increases in yields per hectare, which is what the Green Revolution was all about. People’s Republic of China and Indonesia had yield increases averaging nearly 4% annually from the mid-1960s to 1990, and annual increases greater than 2.5% were achieved in several other countries including India, Republic of Korea, Pakistan and the Philippines (Doobs 1994). As stated above, increased land under irrigation was part of the Green Revolution story. Several large countries (India, Indonesia, and the Philippines) increased their areas under irrigation by more than 2% per year. In addition, the effectiveness of irrigation was substantially enhanced on many already irrigated tracts when tube wells were installed to augment or replace irrigation supplies from traditional dug wells, tanks and reservoir-fed canals. The real yield payoff, however, came from the combination of better irrigation facilities, improved cereal cultivars, and fertilizer use. Many countries in Asia experienced average annual growth rates in fertilizer use in excess of 10% in the last three decades. Increasing fertilizer use, often by subsidizing farm-level prices, was a major part of the agricultural development strategy in many of developing countries of Asia during the 1970s. Productivity gains associated with the Green Revolution in Asia have been greatest in wheat and rice areas with well-developed irrigation systems; productivity gains in the un-irrigated arid and semi-arid areas of Asia have been limited.

Transition in Traditional Patterns

 Population growth and economic development that have occurred in the region have brought about considerable changes in the pattern of agriculture. The first one is the industrial agriculture, which existed as enclaves at the beginning of the colonial period, has disappeared, and the spatial separation between the second and third categories of agriculture also has been eroded by the expansion of cultivation frontier into the forests.

Changes in Industrial or Plantation Agriculture

 Over the years, industrial or plantation agriculture in the region has become diverse (Conway and Barbeier 2013). Today, plantation crops are the mainstay of several economies in the region, contributing substantially to their foreign exchange earnings and providing employment for a significant proportion of their population. Continued viability of these crops has been recognized as being important for sustaining the economies of these countries. However, for most countries, the existing plantings, notably of coconuts and tea, are characterized by low productivity, a consequence of the large age of the stands, their inferior varieties, the non-optimal plant density, minimal input use and poor agronomic practices. Optimization is being achieved through rehabilitation and replanting of the crop concerned, and through inter-cropping with other crops; it depends on available technological innovations, the crop’s responsiveness to improved practices and the extent to which the increased output will lead towards substantial income gains (Arunachalam, 2014). Land use considerations have played an important role in decisions to expand the cultivation of plantation crops. Many countries have areas with severe terrain constraints (steep slopes) and high rainfall, which will suffer extensive ecological damage if planted to annual crops (Ayyappan and Arunachalam, 2015). Consequently, plantation crops such as rubber, tea, coffee, cocoa, nutmeg, cloves and cardamom, which require minimal cultivation and provide continuous ground cover, have been successfully established in such areas. Expansion of certain crops has been based on their ability to overcome specific environmental constraints (Dutta et al., 2014), e.g. cashews, mangoes and cinnamon in dry and sandy areas, cardamom at high altitudes, and pineapple and coffee in organic soils (Arunachalam and Gohlani, 2013).

Changes in the Third World Agriculture

 To continue the plantation pattern in the country it has been the need of third world agriculture. Consequently, there has been movement of surplus population from such areas onto more marginal lands. Third world agriculture has figured out the swidden cultivation and rainfed farming (Arunachalam and Maithani, 1995; Arunachalam, 2011). Rainfed areas constitute over 70% of the cultivated land in the region and support nearly two-thirds of its farmers. Yield increases still depend on the subtle interaction between soil, water, seeds, and sunlight, but the process is not as well understood in rainfed conditions as it is for irrigated land. Local conditions vary so much that to find solutions is often costly, and they can seldom be replicated elsewhere. Even with the current state of knowledge, however, there is scope for growth. New methods of tilling, new crop rotations, increasing use of fertilizers and pesticides, soil conservation and drainage all have a part to play. Soil erosion and declining fertility are the main threats to rainfed agriculture in the humid and sub-humid areas (Lama et al, 2017). The tackling of these challenges has required protection of the soil by continuous crop coverage and minimum tillage, as well as by drilling seeds and controlling weeds. This has been considered to provide a systematic approach that is being promoted in most countries. Increases in yields from rainfed land will therefore be relatively slow, and concentrated in regions with better rainfall and soil, but the gains could be considerable. If rainfed land could increase its yield by 500 kg/ha, the total increase in production would exceed what could be achieved by a rise of 2 t/ha in the yield of all irrigated land. Some formidable obstacles, such as flooding, stand in the way of such achievements: in many parts of Asia, normal rains cause widespread floods. Standing water often more than 30 cm deep makes many paddy fields of Asia unsuitable for high-yielding dwarf varieties of rice. Small-scale flood protection and effective drainage have enabled modern rice technology to expand into parts of Bangladesh, Myanmar, India and Thailand.

Closer integration of Agriculture in the Overall Economy

A change of considerable importance which has gathered pace over the past two and a half decades is the increasing integration of agriculture in domestic economies and in the international economy. Farm families’ sales and purchases of their food production or requirements have steadily encroached on largely subsistence agriculture, although production for home consumption still remains a basic part of developing country agriculture (Arunachalam and Ayyappan, 2013). The importance of off-farm inputs to production has grown steadily in developing countries. Institutional credit has become more important in the financing of farm operations. Off-farm sources of income have provided a rising share of the total income of farm families, reaching some 40-50% for very small farmers and landless labourers in developing countries in the early 1980s and later. As developing country agriculture has become more monetized, its linkage with industry also has become more prominent. Rural purchases have provided a significant - often the largest part - of the market for goods produced by domestic manufacturing industries, while the processing of food and agricultural raw materials has typically been the basis of developing country industrialization (Ayyappan and Arunachalam, 2014). At the same time, the food and agricultural sector has become more closely integrated in the international economy, following the rising share of output which is traded internationally and the increased links to the monetary economy. Exchange rates, interest rates and the availability of capital are strongly affected by the international environment. The latter, therefore, influences directly or indirectly the cost of finance to the sector, the prices of imported inputs and those of the commodities exported or competing with imports in the domestic market. Economic and financial developments, especially in recent years, have thus meant that agriculture too, has become more affected by macroeconomic policies and general economic conditions, both within the country and internationally. However, the full bearing of this increasing interdependence has not been widely appreciated until recently.


1Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Krishi Bhawan, New Delhi 110001, 2School of Environment and Natural Resources, Doon University, Dehradun, Uttarakhand, E-mail - kusumdoon@gmail.com

This article has been reproduced from the archives of EnviroNews - Newsletter of ISEB India.

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