Acting with determination and firm action, it should be possible for India to step up its agricultural growth rate to 10 per cent.

The 11th Five Year Plan seeks to achieve 4 per cent growth rate in agriculture by the end of the Plan period. The Planning Commission is working towards an overall 9 per cent to 10 per cent growth rate.

But the target of 4 per cent growth rate is too low. If specific efforts are made to step up the rate by aiding the farming community, India can attain at least 10 per cent growth in the agriculture sector alone. The 11th Five Year Plan period will soon come to an end and the Planning Commission has already started the exercise of the 12th Five Year Plan.

Since the start of the 11th Five Year Plan, the growth rate in agriculture has virtually remained stagnant. Recently, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh appealed to the farming community to work to achieve 4 per cent growth.

Yet, the government has not introduced positive measures to attain even 4 per cent agricultural growth. It will need to initiate firm measures, encourage the farming community to produce more for its own prosperity and that of the country. Towards this end, the Vanarai Trust, as also other organisations, have proposed certain steps.

One of these is the provision of easy credit for everything from purchase of seeds to harvesting, marketing and other operations at 4 per cent or lower rate of interest. The committee constituted by the Central government under the chairmanship of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan also suggested that the rate of interest should not exceed 4 per cent.

As the needed loans are not always available from the nationalised, commercial or cooperative banks, farmers are often forced to approach moneylenders. The rates of interest they typically charge vary from 25 per cent to 100 per cent, or even more. It is advisable to waive all loans, including private loans, availed by farmers who have holdings up to 4 hectares in rain-fed areas. Even loans availed by those who have less than a hectare of irrigated land should be waived.

The government should arrange to supply quality seeds and seedlings of high-yielding varieties taking into account the edaphic factors. It should also supply fertilizers and pesticides, laying emphasis on organic manures. Chemical fertilizers and pesticides have done great harm to the soil texture. It has been revealed that more than 20 million ha of land under perennial irrigation has lost its producing capacity following the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides and excessive amounts of water. This has made such land saline or water-logged.

Some 65 per cent to 68 per cent of the cultivable land area in India is in rain-fed areas. There is no assured water supply. Because of the vagaries of nature, often crops dry up and the producers, among others, suffer. It has, therefore, become imperative to protect farmers against such losses. If such an assurance is not given to farmers, they may give up farming and turn to some other vocation or employment. India's growing population requires more and more foodgrains, and farmers need to be dissuaded from giving up farming.

About 20 per cent of foodgrains and 30 per cent of perishable crops are lost during transit from production centres to marketing points. This calls for proper arrangements to store produce in godowns or cold storages in the respective centres. The losses are not only of individual farmers but also of the country as a whole. If due care is taken to save crops, India's foodgrain output may reach 250 million tonnes.

Transport services to carry agricultural produce are inadequate. It is necessary to arrange to transport produce easily from fields to marketing centres, and help avoid losses in transit.

Support prices to particular crops are often announced after sowing operations are over. The government should announce support prices ahead of the sowing season. If there is any delay in announcing the support price, it should be ensured that support prices extended during the earlier year are offered in the current year along with additional cost of inputs. This will give the farming community the confidence to produce crops.

Instead of merely providing verbal assurances, the government should activate the public distribution system (PDS) uniformly. With a view to providing remunerative prices to producers and ensuring reasonable prices to consumers, it is essential to do away with middlemen. This calls for strengthening the PDS by creating a network across the country. The PDS is not only meant to distribute articles. A scientific PDS as suggested by the Report of the Dharia Committee constituted by the Planning Commission in 1974 comprises five basic main components. The first of these is production. Then follow procurement, storage, transport and distribution. If such a system is introduced for essential commodities and articles, it will become possible to control and maintain the price line. It is the middleman who purchases agricultural produce soon after harvesting who raises prices by creating artificial scarcity. Without the middleman, producers and consumers will get justice.

It is necessary to introduce a price index system for agricultural produce on the basis of inputs required by farmers. The government has a system of paying dearness allowance to government employees and others on the basis of the index of prices. Similarly, prices of industrial products are fixed on the basis of the cost of inputs. Such a system is all the more essential for the farming community, which comprises nearly 65 per cent of the population.

Out of India's geographical area of 329 million ha, nearly half is degraded or waste land — rather, wasted land. By means of a scientific micro-watershed management programme in all the six lakh villages, it is possible to conserve every drop of water wherever and whenever it rains, prevent soil erosion and bring most of the land under grasses, tree crops, foodgrains, pulses, oilseeds, vegetables, fruits and so on. Approximately 65 per cent of Indians live in the rural areas. Their long-term survival will depend on the introduction of a scientific micro-watershed management.

Along with the production of foodgrains, fruits, vegetables and so on, it is possible to produce quality grasses on private and forest lands. The availability of such fodder can enhance the production of milk, meat, wool and so on. This will add to the agricultural growth rate. A missionary approach and the involvement of farmers are necessary to attain 10 per cent growth rate in the agriculture sector. This is no dream. China attained 10 per cent growth rate in the initial stages, prior to its focus on industrial development.

Systematic and scientific planting of various species, such as teakwood, sandalwood, bamboo and red sanders, which have commercial value, could be undertaken on large tracts of land. Different crops could be raised depending on the rotation cycle of particular species. This can yield a lot of revenue, create employment opportunities and expand the green cover in the rural areas.

In order to fulfil the need for fuel in every village, energy plantation should be undertaken. Such plantations will prevent indiscriminate cutting of trees from forest land for domestic use. In a vast country like India with six lakh villages, diversification of energy sources will help effect huge savings and protect the environment.

A shoreline of more than 7,000 km and water reservoirs are great natural assets. These should be fully utilised to produce more fish and marine products. Mangroves help fish to breed. They require protection both from people and the government. Five-star culture and lavish lifestyles have done great damage to mangroves and the environment. If not simple living, it is possible to adopt moderate living and high thinking to save nature and the environment.

Fields surrounded by ‘windscreens' of trees help increase crop production. This method adopted by some countries should be used in India to attain higher growth rate in agriculture.

In order to attain a growth rate of 10 per cent in the agricultural sector, it is essential to introduce a compact package of all such measures. If the government introduces and implements such a package deal, the farming community can show better-than-expected results. It should not be forgotten that nearly 70 per cent of the MPs and MLAs get elected from rural areas. Their voice is often choked owing to the language barrier. Instead of making empty verbal appeals to farmers to step up crop production, the best way is to take into consideration the agonies and difficulties of farmers and meet them with determination and a missionary approach.

(Dr. Mohan Dharia is president of the Pune-based Vanarai Trust.)

More In: Lead | Opinion