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Thursday, September 18, 2003

The Agricultural Connundrum

Now for a plea of ignorance. I started blogging about India for a number of reasons, most of these will become apparent as time goes by, but one fact should become apparent: I do not set out on this as an 'expert' on the Indian economy. I am here to learn. If I want to learn, well it is obvious, this is because India is one important part of the future. But as to the present, I am sorely lacking. In particular, engagement with India involves engagement with agriculture. As in the article which follows, for example. I like this article, it seems reasonable, but is it? The industrialisation of agriculture is a fine objective, but in the here and now we need practical policies. I am not at all opposed to the WTO, quite the contrary, but I am also capable of realising that what looks fine on paper, or stuck in the middle of a cute model, may well be turn out very different when applied to a complex reality. We all (or at least more or less all of us) know where we want to go, it's how we get there that's the hard bit. If you have an opinion, and would like to help me better understand, then by all means please mail me.

Last week, on a visit to the cold desert of Ladakh, I learnt to see the agricultural negotiations at the World Trade Organisation's meet in Cancun, Mexico in a light that was a little different from Commerce Minister Arun Jaitley and his team.

I learnt that what the industrialised world is doing to our agriculture, Punjab and Haryana and the Indian government combined are doing to Ladakh's agriculture. Therefore, even as our commerce minister, rightly, pitches for justice in the name of small farmers at Cancun, the agriculture minister must seriously review policies and practices at home so that agriculture in marginal and diverse environments can survive. So that the real small farmers can, indeed, thrive.

The key to survival in Ladakh is the intelligent use of water -- only 0.6 per cent of its land area is inhabited; of this, only 28 per cent is under cultivation. Crops have a short growing period, after glaciers melt and before the snow descends. Still, the harvest is rich, for people do make the best use of their environment. The water from melting glaciers is diverted in the evening into small storage tanks called zings; from here it is distributed to fields. The network is managed by a village appointed water official, churpun, so that water-sharing fights of the Cauvery-kind are avoided. These village "officials" allocate water by timings to all in the stream basin; they keep careful account of the water distributed and adjudicate disputes. Further, people grow crops -- barley, millet and wheat -- that use less water but provide nutrition and livelihoods in this heaven-on-earth region of the country.

But things could change in the coming years. Today, rice and wheat from Punjab and Haryana, or from the bulging godowns of the Food Corporation of India, is beginning to swamp the food markets and tables of this mountainous area. People are beginning to eat water-guzzling rice as against water-frugal barley. This is because this (imported) food is cheap and subsidised. The government procures rice and wheat at minimum support prices, which are often higher than international prices. Under the public distribution scheme, it then transports, again with price concessions, food across this region. I asked: how will Ladakhi agriculture compete? Will the homegrown system -- built on self-sufficiency and sustainability -- last for very long in the face of such poor public policy?

Investment is, after all, a key variable in pricing. But in areas like Ladakh, the investment of labour spent in improving productivity, through building irrigation systems and maintaining fertility in harsh and difficult lands, is never accounted for.In fact, public policy actively discounts it and destroys incentives. Here people use dry toilets to collect human excreta, which is mixed with sand and straw, thoroughly decomposed and then transported to manure fields. Clearly the system is the only sensible one for this water-starved region because it minimises water use and disposes human waste without leading to pollution and waste. But equally, it is clear that this system can only survive if policy learns to value its role and underwrites the ecological cost of production.

If the value of agriculture declines, as it is beginning to happen today, so will investment in agriculture. The point is: how do we break this vicious cycle? How do we begin to value the agriculture of these marginal lands so that it can compete in this unfair internal market? The need is to shake up a mentality and challenge a policy myth: that agriculture is only about improving productivity and moving food. We will have to change our priorities to think, not only as Mahatma Gandhi said, of the last person, but to think of the last foodgrain. We will have to re-think how we disburse public money so that we invest, not just in a slogan called food security, but in securing the local styles by which people can actually become food-secure.

And to begin to value the "good", we must discard or at least devalue the "bad". So, for instance, in Ladakh, we would begin to value investment in organic manure and water-minimising crops. Policy would provide incentives -- positive domestic support -- for local agriculture and promote a way of growing food that is both sustainable and rewarding. In other words, even as we ask the obdurate Northern countries to reduce their mind-boggling agricultural subsidies, we must begin to get our own local act together. We know -- and vociferously holler about – the callous indifference of Northern countries to poor farmers living in poor lands. Now we must come to grips with the equally callous indifference -- holler about it equally loudly, if needed -- that haunts our domestic agricultural policy. Only then can the road to the future be one on which everyone can journey, in their own ways, with full stomachs.
Source: Sunita Narain, Rediff

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