Indian agriculture at a crossroads: Smart solutions towards doubling farmers’ incomes


This page in:

A few weeks ago, I felt a sense of déjà vu.  I was at a roundtable on agriculture in Delhi, in the same conference hall where, ten years ago, I participated in the consultations on the Bank’s World Development Report 2008 on Agriculture for Development
This time we were discussing how India can build a stronger agriculture sector without further harm to the environment or depletion of its natural resources.   The high-level dialogue was attended by senior representatives from India’s Niti Aayog, Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare, leaders of farmers’ associations from Punjab and Haryana, as well as by researchers, academics, and donors.

We focused on the ‘agriculture-water-energy’ nexus, achieving India’s second green revolution, making agriculture more climate resilient, as well as options to stop the burning of crop residue that is worsening air quality in much of northern India. It was heartening to see the torch bearers of India’s drive towards food security unhesitatingly debate a host of complex and sensitive issues.
Photo Credit: Alamy Stock Photo

Over the past six decades, India has come a long way from being a famine-prone country to comfortably producing food for 1.25 billion people from finite arable land.  Food security firmly in hand, the government is now targeting to double farmers’ incomes by 2022.  Today, with rapidly growing urban food markets, India is emerging as a global agricultural powerhouse.

At the same time, the comprehensive strategy put in place decades ago to usher in the Green Revolution is inadvertently fostering a “perfect storm” . India is now confronted with the deadly troika of resource degradation, as well as water and air pollution.   Given India’s high vulnerability to climate change, these conditions threaten the future sustainability of its food production, the very objective that this bold strategy sought to achieve.
The northern states of Punjab and Haryana, which spearheaded India’s food security, now face multiple environmental problems.  Their resource intensive system of rice-wheat production has led to the over-extraction of groundwater, and their imbalanced use of fertilizers has added to soil and water contamination. Recently, the widespread burning of crop residues and its contribution to severe air pollution has attracted both national and global attention. The continuing public procurement of rice and wheat, together with subsidies for fertilizer and energy, and other dis-incentives to use water efficiently - all in the face of a changing climate - have put these states in the eye of a “perfect storm”.  
Not surprisingly, all participants echoed the need for a “paradigm shift” to put Indian agriculture on a more resource efficient and resilient path.
So, what does this paradigm shift look like?

First, measures to conserve natural resources, make agriculture climate-resilient, and reduce agricultural pollution must safeguard farmer welfare and contribute to doubling farmers’ incomes.  For states such as Punjab and Haryana which are at, or near, the production frontier for cereals, the priority is to shift to high-value agriculture and value addition.  Simultaneously, to maintain the country’s food security, public procurement policy will need to be geographically reoriented to areas that are ecologically suited for the cultivation of these staples. The need for such realignment has long been recognized.  The country’s current push for “doubling farmer incomes” provides an opportunity to finally make this happen. 

Second, technical solutions for conservation and climate-resilient agriculture are readily available. But more effort must be put into making sure that they are widely adopted. Leaders of farmers’ associations reminded us that for farmers to embrace eco-friendly technologies, they need to see results on the ground quickly and, to do so, they need the right knowledge and incentives.  Thus, to see real impact, any solutions that we offer to farmers must be sensible as well as scalable.  On this, I am happy to note that the World Bank has, or is about to, initiate new agriculture projects in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Assam, and Jharkhand. These projects focus on providing locally-adapted support packages that promote diversification, make extension and knowledge transfer systems more effective, introduce ICT innovations and climate-smart technologies, as well as support enterprise-based models of value chains.

Third, the consensus around the table was that decision-makers need to revisit policies so that appropriate incentives are provided to farmers to make the right choices on what to produce and how to produce it.  To this effect, the distorting effects of water, energy and input subsidies, and price support for rice and wheat were widely acknowledged.  It was widely recognized that now is the time to consider how the support provided to farmers can be redirected to transform the vicious circle of resource degradation into a virtuous circle of rapid and sustainable income growth.  On this, India can draw upon lessons from countries that have walked this path before. In the European Union, for instance, the switch from coupled subsidies (earmarked for specific crops and distorted input prices) towards decoupled (income) support has resulted in better environmental stewardship and higher farm incomes.

Today, Indian agriculture stands at a crossroads. Inaction is not an option. The challenges are multifaceted, but at the same time, smart solutions are available that have the potential to generate triple-wins, that is, increase productivity, enhance climate resilience, and make agriculture climate-smart by reducing damaging emissions. These solutions can be deployed at scale if current farmer support programs are fully aligned with the government’s target to double farmers’ incomes.  As at the time of the Green Revolution, taking India’s food system forward will require bold decisions. Now is the time to take them.

Join the Conversation

Aditi Paul
May 10, 2018

Firstly, I would like to appreciate the style of writing. Very comprehensive and insightful article and good to learn about World Banks initiatives. I am also sure there that the leaders will soon consider the role of women in the field sustainable agriculture and therefore the need to empower them with market knowledge and financing abilities.

May 10, 2018

Any paradigm shift has to be focused and understand the needs and concerns of the small and marginal farmers along with their aspirations, or else will only be paper based paradigm shift

robert de bos
May 11, 2018

yes, deja vu
In my opinion there is no other way than the World Bank proposal of extension (as mentioned). Recruiting young agricultural graduates and undergraduates, give them training and create a structure and send out in the field with targetss. Job opportunity for hundreds of thousands of agriculturists. Some money may be required for executing the programs, if farmers fall short. Day by day; not monthly farmers' meetings.
With my company I did it for many years; visiting growers to help in cultivation.

B G Subhash
May 16, 2018

World over I feel there is a need for low cost communication methodology using smart phone with minimum data usage for each & every farmer geographically located far and wide for every crop cycle for any crop from planting to harvesting in a holistic manner. In the absence of such a user friendly communication growth strategy for 2.4 bn farmers of the world, farmers are still appears to be working at sub optimal levels barring some bright spots. From the book The coming famine by Julianne Cribb excerpts is apt! "It is some times said that the existing knowledge we have about the food production were better distributed to farmers so that they could use it we could redouble global food output-and there is undoubtedly an element of truth in it. Without going into detail, massively more can be done than we do at present to deliver knowledge to farmers, large and small, rich and poor, especially using modern low cost, innovative mass communication methods-and if this were achieved it would have a more beneficial impact on world food security than the biggest scientific breakthrough or the greatest innovation. ". We have worked on this subject since last 5 yrs and have innovated a low cost , affordable methodology which we are right now under the process of patenting. We are already in the sugar mill market in India. Will share more details later.

May 16, 2018

An excellent account of how India can usher the 'paradigm shift' in doubling farmer incomes while making agriculture sustainable and environment friendly. The 'stress' created on natural resources is making famers realized the emerging challenges of productivity - but the real question would be changing the mindsets - both of farmers and policy makers! Our work on environmental safeguards has been constantly promoting sustainable technologies for climate resilient and environmentally safe agriculture - Integrated Pest Management is one such example. It has been tested and now is the time for scaling it up. With proactive leadership from the Bank, I am certain that we can support India in making this 'paradigm shift'.

Vishal Bhavsar
August 13, 2018

Yes, As per my Opinion this Article is nice.This is very intresting for agricultural . this is very helpful for farming man.

Premlata Dhangar
September 12, 2018

I would like to draw your kind attention to literacy. So may adults are illiterate living in rural area. If they are educated they can better understand so many new method/ technologies to improve their lively hood through agriculture.
Premlata Dhangar