Agriculture Can Fuel the Next Economic Revolution
Unfortunately, the farmer who provides us with food has children who are starving, and he wants to take his own life. In the last ten years, over 300,000 farmers have committed suicide. That many people did not die in all the four wars this country has fought. I hang my head in shame about this.
The Annadatha of the World
Our nation has the blessing of being able to become the “Annadatha” of the world, as we have the needed latitudinal spread of weather, soil, climatic conditions and above all a large population that has the intrinsic knowledge to perform the “Magic of Transforming Mud into Food”. We are the only nation to have these blessings. But there is no hope of the next generation going into agriculture if we do not transform this sector into a very lucrative activity. Only this will hold the population in rural India. Urbanising rural India will remain a dream if agricultural income does not multiply in the next few years.
The greatest impediment for the success of making agriculture a hugely profitable enterprise is scale – the land holdings are too small. Over thousands of years of farming and the resulting bifurcation of lands, the average land holding in India today is just over one hectare. With one hectare, anything that you invest will sink you. The two major problems that are destroying our farmers and driving them to poverty and death are investments in irrigation, and lack of negotiating power in the market. Without scale, these two vital aspects will stay out of reach.
Scaling Up Agriculture
So we are looking at how to change this by bringing farmers together into Farmer-Producer Organizations (FPO) with a minimum of 10,000 acres of land. We are working out legal structures to ensure that farmers retains control over their land and it is one hundred percent safe for them. Farmers can cultivate their land individually, but micro-irrigation and marketing of produce is taken care of for them together, by companies that have the necessary competence for it.
Otherwise, the way it is done right now is that each farmer has his own pump set, his own borewell and electrical connection. The kind of investment this needs is so high that debt is inevitable and the farmer either has to sell his land, run away from his village or hang from a tree. And after all this, when the farmer wants to sell his produce, there is no transport, storage or even an established market. Growing a crop is one thing, but when it comes to taking it to the market, it is a big circus for the farmer.
So, if private sector can establish community micro-irrigation for groups of farmers, and supply water on rent, farmers need not sink large amounts in capital costs. The government will of course have to create a proper legal structure so that investors are protected with a viable payback process. And if firms can aggregate produce from say 10,000 farmers in an FPO, they can negotiate for better market prices, the benefit of which can be shared between the farmer and the firm. If we create this support for our farmers, so that they do not have to bother about anything other than growing food, India can be the breadbasket of the world.
Reviving India’s Soils
There is an immense amount of knowledge among our farmers about growing food. Because he looks illiterate, we tend to think that there’s nothing to it, but this is something that is very complex and needs to be done meticulously. Our farmers are capable of this because it has been passed down from generation to generation.
Unfortunately, though southern India has a 12000-year history of organized agriculture, today a lot of the land is becoming unusable in one generation because of the chemicals we are putting into the soil. If our farmers are to get good yields and make a living out of agriculture, the soil does not need chemical inputs, it needs organic content. Soil will be healthy only if we have trees and animals on the land so that the leaves and animal waste can go back into the soil.
In India, we have done small-scale demonstrations of organic tree-based agriculture and seen farmers’ incomes multiply by three to eight times because their cultivation expenses reduce drastically and also there is huge demand for organic products around the world right now. Some countries like Vietnam have made this transition on a large scale, and Vietnamese experts that we interacted with have told us that farmers’ incomes there have multiplied by as much as twenty times.
If you add to this the income that can come in from value-added products, milk, fisheries and crafts, this can be a tremendous growth story in rural India. Companies should make use of this opportunity to contribute and benefit from it. There are many ways where the entire economy can function around tree-related products. For example, the global market for just timber, fruits and tourism is worth hundreds of billions of dollars.
Filth to Wealth
Another big role that corporates can play is in transforming filth into wealth. Right now, most of the sewage in our towns and cities is dumped in our rivers and ocean. This is not only a big pollution hazard, it is also a huge economic loss because there are many technologies today that can turn filth to wealth. Singapore has demonstrated this by turning their wastewater into drinking water. If we just use the 36 billion litres of sewage from India’s cities and towns, we can micro-irrigate 6 to 9 million hectares.
All these aspects cannot be effectively financed by the government. The nature of government finance is such that it may not always be timely. Especially when it comes to tree-based agriculture, where plantation has to happen at particular times, it is the corporate sector that can show the necessary agility to support farmers.
If the corporate sector invests in creating largescale demonstrations of let’s say 25,000 farmers and 100,000 hectares of land, that can be transformed into organized micro-irrigation and marketing, if people see the huge economic success this becomes, then there will be no stopping it. People will start taking to it around the country.
When we think of economy, we look at the stock market and a few other things. But sixty-five percent of our population is in rural areas. If we just double their income, our economy will go through the roof.
Today, India is sitting on the threshold of prosperity. If we do the right things in the next ten years, we can move this huge mass of people from one level of living to another. The corporate sector has the responsibility and privilege of using its expertise and capabilities to engineer this transformation. This is not charity. This is an investment with very substantial returns, both financially and in terms of providing millions of human beings with a life of dignity and prosperity.
Editor’s Note: Rally for Rivers' River Revitalization Draft Policy Recommendation is an economic plan with significant ecological impact, and includes micro-irrigation, tree-based agriculture and creation of FPOs. Be a part of this rejuvenation of rural India and the rivers of India by following Rally for Rivers on Twitter and Facebook.