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TN agriculture, an unedifying record

``THE STATE of agricultural development in Tamil Nadu cannot be deemed to be stagnant or slumping,'' claims Dr. K. Arulmozhi, director of agriculture (The Hindu dated July 6). The author attempted to refute the points raised by me in my article of June 20 that termed Tamil Nadu agriculture as slipping down.

The basic fact raised by me relates to Tamil Nadu slipping down from the sixth position among 10 agriculturally strong States it held at the break of the green revolution to the tenth position today.

I had also pointed to the growth rate during the years of green revolution as dismal: against the 402 per cent growth recorded over the 31 years by the leader, Punjab, Tamil Nadu's growth rate was just 50 per cent. I had pointed to States like Maharashtra focusing on horticulture to good advantage. The average annual growth rate of 1.6 per cent recorded by Tamil Nadu was barely sufficient to keep pace with the needs of the growth in population; with agriculture contributing to nearly 30 per cent of total economic growth, such low rate of growth of this sector has its impact on overall economic growth and hence on poverty alleviation and standards of living. I had pointed to the State sustaining even this level of production, through hefty subsidies, which are becoming increasingly unsustainable in the march towards market-orientation. I had suggested the State moving away from water-intensive crops like rice and sugarcane and focusing on oilseeds like groundnut and horticulture.

Dr. Arulmozhi has not referred to any of these issues raised. He has lamented over the shrinkage of area under rice in Tamil Nadu and the substantial increase in such area in Punjab. He has harped on the area under coarse cereals and rice falling steeply.

With water shortage becoming acute and with the prolonged dispute with Karnataka on sharing the waters of the Cauvery, it has been known for nearly three decades that continuous availability of water cannot be taken for granted; and that the area under the short term kuruvai crop was bound to shrink. Sadly, the measures taken to tackle with this inevitable shrinkage have been few and far between.

Dr. Arulmozhi claims, ``... It is a known fact that the State is not only first in the production of irrigated crops like paddy and sugarcane but also in the predominantly rainfed crops groundnut and ragi, at national levels...''

The average production of rice for 1965-68 and 1996-99 are given for major rice producing States in the accompanying Table.

In sugarcane, for 1998-99, production of U.P. was 116.30 million tonnes; Maharashtra 47.15 million tonnes and Tamil Nadu 46.67 million tonnes (source: Indian Sugar, January 2000 issue).

What to make of the claim of Dr. Arulmozhi that the state is first in the production of paddy and sugarcane?

The author also creates an impression that Tamil Nadu's rice production was higher than Punjab's. But the glaring fact is that the phenomenal growth in rice production in Punjab where it was virtually unknown took place during the years of green revolution.

Several developments have enabled Punjab to emerge a major producer of rice: copious availability of water, thanks to the Bakhra Nangal command area development and subsequently the Beas- Sutlej link canal. Plentiful sunlight during April-September. The fact of wheat being a winter crop enables the same fields to grow rice in summer. The system of procurement of foodgrains at assured minimum prices that took into consideration cost and reasonable profit margins. These led Punjab to take to rice production as a profitable crop that could be sold to other states or exported. Consistently, it contributes richly to the procurement efforts of Food Corporation of India and also excels in the export of finer varieties like Basmati.

The point was raised that nature was bountiful towards Punjab and that explained the phenomenal growth in food production in that state. Let us look at two other states (Andhra Pradesh and West Bengal) that perhaps bear better comparison with Tamil Nadu in the matter of rice production during the years of the green revolution.

West Bengal maintained its position as the largest producer of rice through the years of the green revolution registering a handsome increase in growth. Average annual production during 1965-68 was 49.75 lakh tonnes; the average for 1996-99 was 130.63 lakh tonnes, or an average growth of more than 5 per cent per year, which is more than double the average annual growth in Tamil Nadu.

In Andhra Pradesh, the average production grew during the same years from 44.96 lakh tonnes to 102.10 lakh tonnes. This works out to a growth rate of more than 4 per cent.

Dr. Arulmozhi makes repeated claims on Tamil Nadu's productivity of rice and sugarcane being higher than those of other States. This is no doubt commendable; but he has to relate this to the economics of production.

In 1998-99, Maharashtra produced 472 lakh tonnes of sugarcane and 53.37 lakh tonnes of sugar in 1 1 9 factories; the average recovery was 1 1. 1 6 per cent. Tamil Nadu produced 467 lakh tonnes of sugarcane; but only 17.30 lakh tonnes of sugar in 36 factories with a recovery of 8.83 per cent.

Maharashtra has special strengths in sugar production; its strong cooperatives ensure fuller utilisation of cane by the organised sector. In contrast, cooperative sugar mills in Tamil Nadu are weak and have been consistently in the red. A sizable portion of cane produced goes for jaggery production, which is much less efficient in recovery.

That takes me back to my contention that Tamil Nadu is not a viable producer either of rice or of sugarcane. The solution lies in Tamil Nadu selecting crops that have much higher yield potential.

The State has progressive farmers like Mr. S. Balasubramanian (of Gemini Farms) who have adopted scientific agricultural practices, attending in detail to soil testing, preparation of nurseries, selection of seeds, applying manure, tending the crop during the growth phase right up to the harvesting and marketing. These have taken the return per acre to over Rs. 3 lakhs. This is also the common experience in Punjab, which is increasingly taking to custom farming of vegetables and fruits. The Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister, Mr. N. Chandrababu Naidu, is busy bringing about a market orientation inviting corporates to set up large farms and take to scientific practices.

"Surely Dr. Arulmozhi should be familiar with the practice common in the U.S. and other developed countries, to select crops most suited to the agro-climatic endowments of particular regions. He must have been stuck by the federal states of the U.S. selecting crops most-suited to their 'geography.' Corn and wheat are concentrated in the fertile mid-western States of Illinois and Ohio. California concentrates on fruits vegetables and nuts. Hawaii is famous for its pineapple and sugarcane. New York or Arizona does not insist on growing corn or wheat, unmindful of the cost of cultivation.

It is strongly recommended that Tamil Nadu likewise move away from crops with low economic returns and these include rice and sugarcane.

The dismantling of the licensing regime has led to the collapse of a number of brick and mortar industrial units. A similar fate awaits agro industries that have thrived under State protection. They need to prepare themselves for the emerging era of total decontrol.

A Harvard University study on agriculture in Tamil Nadu has expressed concern over `volatile growth rates in foodgrain yield' and the 'declining growth rates in yield' in its principal rice crop since the mid 1980s (The Hindu, July 12). The study had referred to the severe impact of the negative growth rate in agriculture in 1995-96 pulling down Tamil Nadu's overall growth rate so low that the State could not achieve its targeted growth rate of 5.60 per cent during the Eighth Plan. This is precisely the point raised by me in my article that agriculture growth is an important factor in overall economic growth and the unflattering performance of the State in agriculture in the years of the green revolution explains the very modest impact the State has made on poverty alleviation.

The Harvard study calls for attention to geographic variables to improve productivity. For several years, the Union agriculture ministry has been laying emphasis on adapting crops to the agro- climatic conditions of the different regions. The State should select crops most suited to its agro-climatic endowments.

There are a few other major deficiencies: the poor commitment to research and the relatively modest level of activity of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research in the State. One should add to this the absence of close rapport between farmers and the agriculture university, of the type one witnesses in Punjab.

The minister of agriculture, his senior bureaucrats and the vice chancellor of the Agriculture University would do well to take progressive farmers to witness the revolution sweeping Punjab and Maharashtra. Maharashtra, in particular, has several lessons to offer in its taking recourse to technology. The fabulous work done by the National Chemical Laboratory at Pune on tissue culture has been widely adopted by progressive farmers, especially of sugarcane, in that State. The radio isotope irradiation technology well-established by the Bhabha Atomic Research Centre (BARC) has been immensely benefiting farmers in Maharashtra. Dr R Chidambaram, chairman, Atomic Energy Commission, referred to 90 per cent of the urd dhal (black gram) produced in Maharashtra was based on the irradiation technology of BARC. Mr. Chandra Babu Naidu had invited the National Chemical Laboratory to set up a tissue culture lab in Hyderabad spending Rs. 2 crores and to spread benefits of this technology for shortening reproductive cycles and in expanding yields.

Sadly, Tamil Nadu has shut itself out of such technologies made available on a platter by the Central government institutions. It has not been receptive to such new technologies sweeping across progressive States bringing along with them massive benefits to the farmers. The taste of higher yields and better economic returns alone can pull the State out of the rut of stagnation and slow growth.

S. Viswanathan

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