The best way to devise a strategic policy agenda is to envision the future, and work backwards to ensure that the current policy mix is not only compatible with that futuristic vision but expedites converting that vision into reality. From that perspective, how does one envision Indian agriculture in 2020?
If I say that by 2020, foodgrains will account for less than 20 per cent of the value of agricultural products (including livestock and fishery), many people will find it hard to believe. And if I say further that agriculture will be largely driven by the private sector, it will be even more discomforting to many.
This is because the agriculture policy debate is dominated (almost 80 per cent) by food security concerns, and food security basically means growing more grains, especially rice and wheat. And it is here in the grains sector that government assumes a higher role, be it in the form of fixing minimum support prices, or launching National Food Security Mission, etc. However, the reality is that agriculture mix has been undergoing a silent and steady shift away from grains.
With rising incomes, this change is driven by consumers' tastes and preferences. Between 1993/94 to 2006/07, the NSS data shows that the average quantity of cereals consumed per person per month (weighted for rural and urban population corresponding to the 1991 and 2001 census results) has come down systematically from 12.7 kg to 11.1 kg. What goes up in Indian consumers' thali is fruits and vegetables, livestock (dairy, eggs, meat) and fish, the so-called high value agriculture. It is this changing complexion of the thali, which will drive the change in the fields of the farmers. Call it from plate to plough revolution in a demand driven system!
The composition of the production basket is also changing as is evident from the rising share of high value commodities (fruit, vegetables, fisheries, and livestock products). The value of output of these commodities has gone up from 40.6 per cent in Triennium Ending (TE) 1992-93 to 47.4 per cent in TE 2007-08, while the share of foodgrains has come down from 31 per cent to 24.7 per cent over the same period. This will be good for the farmers as it helps augment their incomes and achieve household food security.
But this high value segment is perishable in nature and needs very fast moving and modern logistics, linkages with processing industry and organised retailing. The wisdom of policy makers lies in making this changeover fast, by incentivising large investments in modern logistics, processing and retailing, and by removing hurdles, including on FDI. These are largely in the private sector, and hence my vision that future of agriculture will be increasingly driven by private sector entities.
If this is the future of agriculture, one often asks what will happen to India's food security? Will India be a major importer of grains by 2020? This question makes scientists and policy makers nervous and this is perhaps also why India is not making a fast move towards high value agriculture.
My own reading of 2020 is that India can easily take care of its food security if it changes policy gears to concentrate on the eastern belt (east UP, Bihar, West Bengal, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, and Assam), especially with hybrids of rice and maize, in collaboration with the private sector. This belt has ample water to support rice cultivation, and Punjab-Haryana belt should produce only high value basmati rice and wheat, conserving water, and graduate to high value agriculture; as much of western and southern India should do, given the pressures on water and land
— The witer is the Director in Asia, International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI)