Indian Agriculture: Going Beyond Livelihood

Suhit Anantula writes: “We need to convert Agriculture from a livelihood activity to a commercial activity. How can we provide more employment opportunity to the millions of people depended on Agriculture?” Suhit quotes from Alan Guebert was one of 10 international journalists to travel to India March 20-26. Through in-country visits and interviews set up by GMF and the Confederation of Indian Industry, the trip hoped to offer insight on the developing worlds struggle with key globalization issues such as poverty, trade and agriculture.

Gitaben Senma, 38 years old and the mother of four, earns 50 rupees per day, or about $1, for the seven hours she toils in two small plots of fodder and sorghum near Ganeshpura, a tiny farming village in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat.

Miniscule as it is, the pay is more than three times what she formerly earned, 15 rupees, working 11 hours each day as a laborer on a nearby bigger farm.

In simple terms, Gitaben and the policy makers face a question that is as easy to ask as it is impossible to answer: What will India do with its mostly poor, 600 million rural citizens and many of its 210 million farmers as biotechnology, mechanization and hoped-for international trade replace sweat, bent backs and water buffalo?

“In India,” says Dr. Suman Sinha of the Gene Campaign in India, “agriculture is not a commercial activity; it’s a livelihood. If these people can’t farm, there’s nothing for them to do.” So too in the rest of the developing world. If these people cannot farm, theres nothing else for them to do. So its crucial for farmers to have rights to their seeds. This in not about charity; this is about equality and justice. She notes that the basic work of seed development was done by farmers. Of the 100 steps to develop seed, the first 70 to 80 steps were taken by farmers; the next 20 to 30 steps by geneticists. So who has the greater claim of ownership?

Sinha, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Heidelberg and has taught at the universities of Saskatchewan and Chicago, is not given to overstatement. Indian agriculture, as rife with challenges as with people, is nearly impossible to overstate.

For example, in India:

– 570 million people are directly employed in the food sector.
– 115 million farmers own land, 95 million farmers own no land but farm under sharecrop leases.
– 78 percent of all landholdings are less than 5 acres, 59 percent are less than 2.5 acres and only 1.6 percent are “large holdings” of more than 25 acres.
– Mechanization per farm averages one-third horsepower, a nearly invisible fraction of that on Western farms.
– One-third of the annual harvest, equivalent to the yearly production of Australia, is either wasted or rots because of the lack of refrigeration, integrated markets, all-season roads and other infrastructure shortfalls.
– Of the 650,000 cities, towns and villages in India, not one has water 24 hours a day, seven days a week.
– $8 billion per year, or about $12 per citizen, is doled out in ag subsidies, many tied to irrigation and food assistance.
– India’s farmers are monsoon-dependent, yet 47 percent of all rainfall evaporates, 31 percent runs off into rivers and streams and only 22 percent is captured for home or farm use.
– $43 billion, an impossibly rich sum for India, is needed to solve the nation’s chronic farm water woes.
– 261 million of India’s 1 billion people receive some type of federal or state food assistance.

In one way or another, Gitaben can be found in every one of those statistics. She’s poor, landless and uneducated. Her key tools are her hands, water and will. But she’s three times better off today than yesterday.

Tomorrow, however, will bring contract farming, tractors, biotech seed, international market pressure and global agribusiness, and neither Gitaben nor India is ready.

Published by

Rajesh Jain

An Entrepreneur based in Mumbai, India.