Resources Research

Making local sense of food, urban growth, population and energy

Posts Tagged ‘भारत

How our kisans bested drought to give 252.2 mt

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RG_2016_foodgrains3_201608Bharat has maintained a level of foodgrains production that is above 250 million tons for the year 2015-16. This is the most important signal from the Fourth Advance Estimates of agricultural production, which have just been released by the Ministry of Agriculture. The ‘advance estimates’, four in the agricultural year, mark the progression from target production for the year to actual output.

For this rapid overview I have compared the 2015-16 fourth estimates, which will with minor adjustments become the final tally, with two other kinds of production figures. One is the five-year average until 2014-15 and the second is the ten-year average until 2014-15. While a yearwise comparison is often used to show the variation in produced crops (which are affected by price changes, policies, adequacy of the monsoon and climatic conditions), it is important to compare a current year’s nearly final crop production estimate with longer term averages. Doing so allows us to dampen the effects of variations in individual years and so gauge the performance in the current year against a wider recent historical pattern.

In this way we see that for all foodgrains (rice, wheat, coarse cereals and pulses) the production for 2015-16 is about three million tons below the five-year average but about 13.5 million tons above the ten-year average. These two comparisons need to be considered against the growing conditions our kisans dealt with during 2015 and 2014, both of which were drought years. They also need to be viewed against economic and demographic conditions, which have led to migration of agriculturalists and cultivators from villages into urban settlements (hence less available hands in the field), and the incremental degradation of agro-ecological growing regions (because of both urban settlements that grow and because of increased industrialisation, and therefore industrial pollution and the contamination of soil and water).

That the total quantity of foodgrains is adequate however has been due to the production of rice and wheat (चावल, गेंहूँ) both being above the five and ten year averages. There is undoubtedly regional variation in production (the February to May months in 2016 were marked by exceedingly hot weather in several growing regions, with difficult conditions made worse by water shortages). There is likewise the effects of more transparent procurement policies and stronger commitments being followed by state governments to adhere to or better the recommendations on minimum support prices. The host of contributing factors require inquiry and study.

What requires more urgent attention are the production figures for coarse cereals and pulses. Coarse cereals (which includes jowar, bajra, maize, ragi, small millets and barley – ज्वार, बाजरा, मक्का, रागी, छोटे अनाज, जौ) at just under 40 million tons is 4.4 million tons under the five-year average and 1.4 million tons under the ten-year average. Likewise pulses (which includes tur or arhar, gram, urad, moong, other kharif and other rabi pulses – अरहर, चना, उरद, मूँग, अन्य खरीफ दालें, अन्य रबी दालें) is 1.6 million tons under the five-year average and only 0.3 million tons above the ten-year average. The low total production of these crop types, coarse cereals and pulses, have continued to be a challenge for over a generation. The surprisingly good outputs of wheat (9.3 mt above the ten-year average) and rice (5.5 mt above the ten-year average) should not be allowed to obscure the persistent problems signalled by the outputs of coarse cereals and pulses.

How we almost lost our growing tradition

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Part one, ‘Old krishi for new Bharat’ is here.

This came to be known as a ‘development paradigm’ which countries like India and civilisations like Bharat were given prescriptions for. Many of these prescriptions were and continue to be the equivalent of chemotherapy and radiation as used for the treatment of cancer – destroy in the name of curing. This is why in our regions (they are entirely ecological regions, our river valleys and plains, we saw no reason to call them anything but the old names they had been given, for words like ‘ecology’ and agro-ecology only now convey similar meaning that कृषि संस्कृति does) which grew rice, millets, barley, sorghum, wheat, pulses, seasonal fruits and vegetables, a new identity was announced.

This was done early in the ‘green revolution’, a programme that to our ‘annadaatas’ is no less devilish than the industrial revolution in western Europe was to the very fabric of those societies. The new identity was ‘high yielding variety’ and these new hybrids were in no way better than what they were given the power to replace. They neither yielded more than the current varieties, nor did they contain more nutritive elements, nor did their plant matter prove to have more uses than what they replaced, nor could they survive during inclement phases of a seasonal climate with a cheery hardiness the way our traditional varieties could. They were inferior in every way; how could they not be for they had emerged from a science whose very gears and levers were designed by the global market which ruled, paid for and determined that science.

RG_krishi_series2_pic2_201607Youngsters in the India of the 1970s, whether in cities, towns or villages, knew little of these changes and what they portended. Our preoccupations were study, work and attending to the daily and seasonal chores of family. But already, the difference between us and them was being introduced into our quite impressionable lives. Cola, hamburger, popcorn, blue jeans, rock music and behavioural accessories that accompanied such produce had appeared in our midst, via many illicit routes (in those days the Coca Cola company had been expelled). Looking back, such products and behaviours seemed desirable because two important factors worked together – the impact of ‘western’ (mainly American) popular culture vehicles and in particular its motion picture industry, and the accounts of those Indians, young and old, who had left their country to become (mainly) American. It was a time when our world was still considered to be dominated by superpowers and lesser power blocs (we were neither), but the friendship India had with the Soviet Union, the USSR, at no time became manifest through food and drink, behaviours and attitudes.

Why did one influence but not the other? Years later, when working with the Ministry of Agriculture on a lengthy programme intended to strengthen our agricultural extension system, I found a part of the answer. Even in the early 1950s, what became our national agricultural research system, under the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (itself a nationalised version of the Imperial Council of the British colonial era), had been partially designed and implemented by the US Agency for International Development and facilitated by the Rockefeller Foundation. A full decade before the mechanics of the ‘green revolution’ set to work in the plains of northern India, the state agricultural universities and the specific crop institutes they cooperated with were organised along operational lines drawn up by foreign advisers (the early FAO was present too). And that early indoctrination led to one of the most invisible yet long-running collaborations between ‘formal’ crop science personnel from India and the American land grant colleges with their extensive networks of industry interests.


As a young man in my early twenties, I would often hear about the ‘brain drain’, which is the term we used to describe those students and scholars who had earned degrees from our Indian Institutes of Management or our Indian Institutes of Technology and who had made their way abroad, most of them to the USA. These were publicly funded institutes, and the apt question at the time was: why were we investing in their education only to lose them? I had been utterly unaware at the time that a similar ‘brain drain’ had taken place in the agricultural sciences, which by the first decade of the 2000s did not require the ‘drain’ aspect at all, for by then the mechanisms of globalisation, aided by the wiles of technology and finance, meant that the agendas of industrial agriculture could be followed by our national agricultural research system in situ. Of ecology, agro-ecology, environment and organic there was barely a mention, so successfully had the ‘food security’ threat begun to be spun.

It is a recent history that has taken shape while our urban and rural societies have worried themselves about how to escape monetary poverty, to escape hunger, to escape deprivations of every conceivable kind, and to pursue ‘development’ of every conceivable kind. While this has happened, the historians that we needed – I call them historians loosely, they needed only to observe and record and retell, but from the point of view of our joint families and our villages – to record such a change were very much fewer than we needed.

It may seem inconceivable that in a country of our size and population – which crossed one billion about a year before the 2001 Census – we lacked appropriate recordists but this too is a matter of selective exclusion (like the story about the hybrid seeds) for there are essays and tracts aplenty in our major languages and in regional scripts that detail the erosion of tradition because of the assaults of modern ‘development’ on our societies. But these are not in English, they are not ‘formal’, they carry no references and citations, they are published in local district towns, they are read by farmers, labourers, retired postmasters and assistant station masters but not by internationally recognised macro-economists or nationally feted captains of industry; they are not considered chronicles of social change and of the studied, deliberate, ruthless dismantling from our societies their traditions, amongst which is the growing of food.

[This article is the second part of a series of four.]

Old कृषि for new भारत

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For a civilisation whose agricultural traditions are some ten millennia old, ‘agro-ecology’ is but yesterday’s word, and although well-meaning, pales before the vistas of meaning that have been encoded into our cultivating practices. These are profoundly spiritual, and until a few generations ago, embodied a philosophy about nature, ‘prakruti’ (प्रकृति), that ranged far beyond the definitions that have become en vogue over the last few decades: ecological, sustainable, holistic and so on. This brief itinerary traces some of the causes that have led to the vulgarisation of agriculture (कृषि) in Bharat, and describes the means with which to find renewal.

RG_krishi_bharat_1_201606Menus at fast food restaurants and counters are today as mystifying as the ‘apps’ that are to be found crowding on the screens of young people’s mobile phones. There are now, in our bigger cities in India, ‘apps’ to buy food with (or through). These seem to be popular with a generation that is young – usually 20 to 30 years old – and which lives in shared rented flats near their places of work, which often is the info-tech industry, and is otherwise the finance, retail, services, logistics or trading industries. If there is one aspect common to where these food ‘app’, or menu ‘app’, users work then it is that they do not work in what my generation knew with some familiarity as the manufacturing or the public sectors.

This is a distressing trend, for we have always been a civilisation that counted our farmers, rivers, forests, temples and traditions. In Sanskrit there is a word used to describe the farmer. It is ‘annadaata’, which is, the giver of grain (अन्नदाता). This reverential word is found in every major language spoken and written in India today. The ‘annadaata’ fed his or her family, fed those who needed rice, gave the rice to be used for the ceremonies and religious observances in the temples, sold the rice to the dealers in grain. For many generations, the forms in which our farmers harvested the crops they cultivated were the forms in which they were bought, stored, cooked and eaten. Even during the formative decades of ‘modern’ India – that is, the years after our Independence and until the time when we began to be considered by the Western world as a country becoming a ‘market economy’ – a household rarely owned a refrigerator.

RG_krishi_bharat_2_201606We bought rice, vegetables and the occasional fish or poultry from the market, cooked them fresh at home, and ate our meals fresh. A vegetarian meal may keep overnight to serve as a breakfast for the following morning, and in north and parts of central India, so will ‘roti’ (रोटी) made out of wheat or barley. To keep food longer, it had to be processed, that is, its nature had to change so that it would not spoil in the climate. Thus, rice was commonly parboiled and stored, or parboiled and flattened to become ‘puffed’. Every rice-growing and rice-consuming region, from a single valley to a river basin, had its own methods and preferences of keeping food from spoiling, and finding ways to store that semi-prepared food. This was a kind of processing and most of it was done in our homes.

Surely it wasn’t that long ago? But memories such as these, so vivid to 50 and 60 year olds, are today seen as evoking times of hardship, want and shortage, are seen as recalling times that an agrarian country suffered ‘hunger’ before it became globalised and a ‘market’ of some kind. Such sharp experiences, for that is what the most vivid memories are made of, are considered to be uncomfortably close to the era when famines were recorded, one after another, during the 19th century especially (but also the Bengal famine of 1943-44).

Those appalling records are presented as the rationale for the set of ideas and practice (technical and economic in approach and intent) that came to be called self-sufficiency in foodgrain, which I remember first hearing as a boy, and which much later has come to be known as food security. The links were taught to us early – famine, food shortage, hunger – but what was left out was more important, and that was the policies of the colonial occupiers (the East India Company and then Great Britain, as the country used to be called) and the consequences of the Industrial Revolution in Europe and particularly in western Europe.

RG_krishi_bharat_3_201606Like the devastating famines in India of the 19th century, the Bengal famine of 1943-44 was an artificial shortage of foodgrain, for what had been harvested was shipped out instead of being sold or distributed at home. These aspects of the relatively recent famines of India, which robbed our ancestors of parents and children, were hidden until we uncovered them out of curiosity about food histories that must have been written (or retold) but were scarcely to be found.

Even today, after so much research (especially by the last generation) has become available about the effects of colonial policies on the movements and shortages of food in India, the bogey of food shortage and hunger is still dressed in the garb of technical shortcoming, that our farmers (किसान) do not know how to increase yields because their knowledge is deficient, insufficient, inefficient. It is a slander of a collective that has supported through its efforts and wisdom a civilisation (भारतवर्ष) for centuries.

As it was with the colonial era, so it is with the pervasive apparatus of trade and finance which finds its theatre in globalisation, or the integrated world economy. One of its first tasks was to denigrate and run down a complex and extremely rich tradition of agricultural knowledge – but even to call it ‘agricultural knowledge’ is misleading, for its diverse strands of knowledge, awareness and practice encompassed our relationship with nature and natural forces, and our duties towards state, for faith and religion, towards society – while simultaneously promoting a ‘scientific’ approach that could derive its authority only by first asserting that what it was replacing was not science.

[This article is the first part of a series of four. Part two, ‘How we almost lost our growing tradition’, is here.]

How a district employs land and crop

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A plotting of the cropland size categories with the number of holdings for the district of Hingoli in Maharashtra. The central group of rectangles displays the distribution, relative to each other, of the size categories of holdings (in hectares, ha.). The blue squares, also relative to each other, displays the number of holdings for each farm size category. The data source is the Agricultural Census 2010-11.

A plotting of the cropland size categories with the number of holdings for the district of Hingoli in Maharashtra. The central group of rectangles displays the distribution, relative to each other, of the size categories of holdings (in hectares, ha.). The blue squares, also relative to each other, displays the number of holdings for each farm size category. The data source is the Agricultural Census 2010-11.

In the district of Hingoli, Maharashtra, the allocation of cultivated land between food crops and non-food crops is somewhat in favour of non-food crops. That is, for every hectare planted with a food crop 1.3 hectares is planted with a non-food crop. The broad categories we have under food crops are: cereals, pulses, vegetables and fruit. Under non-food crops there are: oilseeds, sugarcane, fibres, spices and fodder.

Where Hingoli district is in Maharashtra state.

Where Hingoli district is in Maharashtra state.

The Agricultural Census 2010-11 detailed data for Hingoli shows that at the time of the survey 493,927 hectares were under cultivation for all kinds of crops, both food and non-food. As this is a count of how much land was under cultivation by crop, the total land under cultivation for all crops taken together is more than the total land under cultivation when measured according to land use. This is so because of crop rotation during the same agricultural year, inter-cropping and mixed cropping – for a plot, the same land may raise two kinds of crops in a year.

Size categories of farm holdings, with number of holdings and total area under each category for Hingoli district, Maharashtra.

Size categories of farm holdings, with number of holdings and total area under each category for Hingoli district, Maharashtra.

The 493,927 hectares under cultivation in Hingoli are divided under 213,286 hectares for food crops and 280,640 hectares under non-food crops. This gives us the overall picture that the farming households of Hingoli choose to give more land for crop types under the ‘non-food’ category. As the settlement pattern of Hingoli is very largely rural – that means, few towns and these are the district headquarters and two more taluka centres – do the farming households of Hingoli grow enough to feed themselves comfortably? Do the farming households have the labour needed to continue cultivating so that they can feed themselves and their village communities? How are choices relating to land use and crop made?

Using the publicly available information from a variety of government sources, we are able to find parts of answers. The Agricultural Census 2010-11 is one such source, the Census of India 2011 is another, so are the tables provided by the Department of Economics and Statistics of the Ministry of Agriculture. The graphical representation I have prepared here helps provide the land use basis upon which to layer the district information from other sources.

Where the farmers are in Bharat

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The Census 2011 helps us understand where the great farming populations are: Nashik, Paschim Medinipur, Ahmadnagar, Guntur, Mahbubnagar, Purba Champaran, Belgaum, Kurnool, Madhubani, Jalgaon and 90 other districts are found in this chart, which shows the relationship between the populations of farmers and the total working populations of these districts.

Many of the districts in this chart, represented by the circles (click for full resolution version), lie between the population markers of 750,000 and 1.1 million. They also lie within the percentage band of 60% to about 85%. This shows how important agriculture is – and will continue to be as long as annual budgets and five-year plans support it – for the districts that give us our staple foods.