Since Independence, India’s foodgrain production has registered an over a five-fold increase, to around 273 million tonnes in 2016-17. The country has largely attained self-sufficiency as it transformed itself from a status of ‘ship-to-mouth’ to an exporter over the past 70 years.
Despite this progress, the agriculture sector faces major challenges as yields stagnate amidst dwindling average size of landholdings and the vagaries of climate change.
The adoption of Green Revolution in the 1960s gave a major impetus to foodgrain production in the country, which then had largely depended on imports to feed the demand. The rise in irrigation cover, coupled with the adoption of improved and hybrid seeds, largely led to the increased foodgrain output.
The average yields of cereals such as rice and wheat have more than doubled since the 1970s, but are still lower than that of China or the US. The sluggish growth in yields of pulses and oilseeds still remain a concern. Cotton yields have more than doubled since 2001 with the introduction of genetically modified seeds.
The irrigation cover, which stood at around 18 per cent of the area in the early 1950s, has now inched up to over 50 per cent. Despite this, the dependency of Indian agriculture on the south-west monsoon is still high and the output is still vulnerable to any major fluctuations in the annual rainfall pattern.
The share of agriculture in the country’s gross domestic product, which stood at around 53 per cent in the early 1950s, has now come to around 15 per cent. Despite this dip, over half the population in rural India still depends on agriculture and allied sectors such as dairying and poultry among others for livelihoods.
The record food output notwithstanding, in recent years, the per capita net availability of foodgrains per day (including cereals and pulses) has been below 500 grams. As per provisional estimates for 2017, the per day per capita foodgrain availability is estimated at 485.4 grams. This is almost similar to the trend witnessed in the 1960s and 1970s. In 1961, the per day per capita food availability stood at 468.7 grams, while in 1971 it was at 468.8 grams.
The slower pace of growth in per day per capita food availability indicates a trend that production has barely kept pace with the growing population.
Though India has emerged as an exporter of food produce — mainly rice, cotton, fruits and vegetables — in recent years, the country still remains a net importer of edible oils as the oilseed production is still way below domestic demand. So is the case with pulses till recently, although production of legumes had shot up last year.
This apart, the rising cost of cultivation coupled with lack of remunerative prices has aggravated the agrarian distress and made farming unviable, at least for a large section of the small and medium farmers. Also, the issue of labour shortage and rising wages has driven Indian farmers to adopt mechanisation.
As farmers diversify from foodgrains to high-value crops such as fruits and vegetables, the adoption of technology is on the rise — be it in terms of hybrids and high-yielding varieties or the practices and techniques.
Also, there is a renewed interest in the past few years in concepts such as organic farming. This apart, the forgotten grains such as millets — considered to be nutri-rich and which require less water to grow — seem to be finding favour among farmers as well as consumers. The demand for organic and nutri-rich foods is driving the trend.
The Economic Survey 2016-17 suggests that the response to the agrarian distress needs to be addressed by increasing productivity, mainly by increasing the coverage of water saving irrigation systems like micro irrigation systems and routing inputs through direct benefit transfer mode in a crop neutral manner.
“The controversies on the adoption of high yielding varieties and genetically modified seeds need to be resolved and extended to all crops, not just mustard,” the Survey said.