Feature

Farm technology: the forgotten story

Not just a pre-poll debt-waiver for farmers, India needs to optimize use of agriculture technology to wipe off bloodstains from its crop fields, argues Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan.

doi:10.1038/nindia.2008.178 Published online 9 April 2008

M. S. Swaminathan

The latest annual budget of the Government of India unveiled a Rs. 60,000 crore programme to rescue small and marginal farmers caught in a debt trap. This is a far reaching initiative to make nearly 40 million farmers eligible for institutional credit once again. The debt waiver is obviously the first step in a process designed to help such farmers increase their marketable surplus by improving the productivity and profitability of their farms.

However, these farm families are often unaware of the various government schemes which will help them achieve higher yield and income security. There's an urgent need for a 'Beyond the Debt Waiver' programme to help improve agricultural productivity in the forthcoming Kharif season (southwest monsoon period). This will confer double benefits – strengthen the livelihood security of the farm families in distress and at the same time contribute to national food security.

In the last decade, urban India has made great progress, both in terms of economic growth and infrastructure development. Rural India, in contrast, has been suffering due to inadequate infrastructure and adverse economic and ecological problems surrounding agriculture, its main source of livelihood. There's a general feeling that while urban India is shining, rural India is suffering. Nearly 70% of the population of India lives in villages, and hence it is important that both urban and rural areas shine. A divide in the area of human well being is not conducive to harmony and peace within the country.

The world view

Globally, an agricultural emergency is developing due to the extraordinary rise in the price of petroleum products. An important consequence of this energy crisis is the growing diversion of farm land from food to fuel production in industrialized countries. Maize is increasingly being used for ethanol production and consequently, demand for wheat as a feed grain is growing.

Across the world, food stocks are dwindling and the prices of wheat, maize, rice, oilseeds and pulses are rising to such levels that the poor, who are already undernourished, will face serious difficulties in purchasing their daily bread. Women and children are likely to suffer even more. Also, programmes such as the Public Distribution System, ICDS, School Noon-meal programme, which require steady and adequate supply of food grains, may suffer.

Globally and nationally, an agricultural emergency is developing and this may get worse with climate change. The only way to insulate our large population from unaffordable prices and acute shortage of food grains will be to empower Panchayati Raj institutions with the necessary legal, technical and financial powers to revive and revitalize our agriculture. This is also the only pathway for bridging the growing urban-rural divide, thereby ending both unsustainable lifestyles on the part of the urban population and unacceptable property on the part of rural families.

Crisis versus technology

This impending food crisis can be solved to some extent if we can turn the small and marginal farmers, now eligible for institutional credit, to science and technology based farming methods.

There are a host of government programmes aimed at helping small and marginal farmers to improve both production and income as well as their health. The following merit mention: Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana designed to bridge the gap between potential and actual yields in major farming systems; National Food Security Mission, which aims to increase the production of rice, wheat and pulses; National Horticulture Mission, designed to improve the production and quality of fruits, vegetables and flowers; National Rural Health Mission; National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme; Credit and insurance literacy; Rural Godowns and Warehousing Schemes and Trade Literacy.

The impending food crisis can be solved if we turn small and marginal farmers to technology based farming

An urgent need now is to compile an integrated database on the provisions and operational guidelines of the above programmes. If this is done, each farm family can be issued with an Entitlements Pass Book containing data on the above schemes and on methods of accessing them (including the address and telephone number of the offices concerned).

Development of an integrated database on projects designed to assist small farm families as well as the nation in the area of food and nutrition security, coupled with the issue of an Entitlements Passbook to every family affected by the agrarian distress, will be extremely important. These will be timely steps in harnessing science and technology for assisting resource poor rural families to derive full benefit for the waiver of their loans.

Hope

Fortunately, India has considerable expertise in IT technologies and gyan chaupals (village knowledge centres) and village resource centres are being established all over the country. The S&T Empowerment Initiative for Farmers in Distress is being started by the Department of Science and Technology and M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in the Vidarbha region of Maharashtra, particularly the farmer suicide hotspots of Wardha and Yuvatamal districts.

Ultimately climate change will have the maximum adverse impact on farm families and on the poor who do not have the necessary coping capacity to withstand the hardships that will arise from more frequent and more severe drought, floods and sea level rise. Therefore, at least one woman and one male member of every Panchayat should be trained as Climate Managers, who become conversant with methods of operating drought and flood codes and establishment of coastal bioshields.

If Panchayats are empowered technically, financially and legally to assume the responsibilities under agriculture and agriculture extension, they could become catalysts of accelerated agricultural progress, particularly in the areas of sustainable natural resources management and productivity enhancement.

Finally, population growth should not exceed the population supporting capacity of ecosystems. The human ecological footprint should be reduced through limiting wants and avoiding waste. Today over a billion women, men and children, of the human population are living in absolute poverty and destitution. Another one billion are leading unsustainable life styles.

Therefore, the ethical principles propagated by sustainability science should aim to curtail both poverty and unsustainable consumption of natural resources. This is the challenge before us from the point of view of ensuring the well being of both the present and future generations. Living in harmony with nature should become a non-negotiable ethic.