Everything can wait, not agriculture

By Prof. Nazir Ahmad Bhat:

The first furrow on land by the plough marked the beginning of human civilization. It is the land resource that replaced man’s savagery with what we now call “settlement”. The abuse of this land resource may probably cause settlers to become savages again.

 “Agri land conversion making 60% J&K population poorer by the day” a front-page report published in Greater Kashmir on 28-04-2019 is an eye opener for all. The report reflects a genuine concern regarding loss of cultivable land for non-farm purposes, which has resulted in a decline in farm income and its contribution towards the GSDP. The situation is alarming and needs to be tackled, earlier the better. 

Crop diversification for profitability and optimum use of the land resource is no doubt scientifically recommended and very useful, however, ruthless and unplanned conversion of farmland for non-farm purposes is a suicide and a great injustice for coming generations. 

We see a concrete jungle of buildings and commercial complexes coming-up in paddy fields, a 120 m wide and 100 km long four-lane highway running from Qazigund to Tangmarg and a railway track from Banihal to Baramulla with a major portion of all occupying a large chunk of paddy land.

Moreover, a large number of farmers are converting their rice fields into orchards or commercial vegetable gardens. This scenario has gained concern and everyone is worried about the loss of paddy area to rampant constructions. But surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), the Digest of Statistics 2016-17 J&K State, depicts a regular increase in paddy area from 1955-2017. Only one of the two claims can be a fact.  

I agree that there has been a constant increase in area under paddy cultivation since 1955 till the early 1990s due to augmentation of irrigation facilities but later on, there was a plateau followed by a decline in area under rice due to the conversion of rice fields for non-agricultural purposes or being brought under more remunerative horticultural crops. Entire paddy land (Aabee Awal and Aabee Doom) continues to be under rice in revenue records and the official statistics does not take the actual ground situation into account where a significant portion of paddy land has been lost to other purposes. 

What are the consequences of this erroneous representation of data? To understand this, we need to differentiate two terms very often used while representing data on food production. These are, “production” and “productivity”. Production refers to total production of certain food commodity from the entire area brought under its cultivation in a country, state or district, etc., whereas “productivity” is the average quantity of a food commodity produced per unit area i.e. production per hectare, acre, kanal etc.

To get the exact value of productivity we ought to divide total production by the actual area from which this production has been harvested. Or otherwise, we can just get an assessment of productivity by stratified sampling method executed through crop-cuts in different ecologies. In the first case, if we consider our rice production obtained from the area which in revenue records stands under cultivation of rice but actually lies under buildings, roads, brick kilns, railway track and fruit and vegetable crops and thus compute the “productivity” it will be erroneous and very low than the actual one. That is why official statistics is static at a figure of around 2.02 mt/ha, which in my opinion is much less than half of the actual value on the ground. To present a quite guarded picture, the actual productivity in plains of valley surpasses 5 mt/ha and in higher belts, it is not less than 4 mt/ha. Both these figures are much higher than the data represented in official statistics.

Let us understand it in this way, 2.02 mt/ha means just around 1q/kanal. Please show me a farmer who does not reap at least 3 kharwars (1 Kharwar = 80 kg) of paddy per Kanal in plains of the valley and more than 2 kharwars/Kanal in higher altitudes.

This very conservative assessment works out to productivity of 5.6 and 4.0 mt/ha in case of lower and higher belts, respectively. Why then the dismal figure of 2.02 mt/ha in official statistics? Maybe because of the reason explained above or due to the casual approach adopted while computing such important data which is of prime importance for food planning. One thing that I agree is that increase in total rice production is not parallel to the increase in its productivity and this shortfall in rice production is due to the fact that area actually under paddy cultivation is squeezing owing to the reasons given above.

Escalating costs of labour and other inputs is resulting in declining farm income. As a result, agriculture becomes less remunerative and the people who are associated with food production lack interest in farming and especially the rural youth, potential farm-force, gets diverted to other sectors leaving the farm sector talent hungry.

The left-over farm force is usually less skillful and less receptive to technology leading to a deteriorating farm scenario. However, these factors cannot force us to stop food production, as it is related to our survival. Therefore, we should try to study the reasons for declining farm income and address the problems of farmers to make their efforts more remunerative for them. If the tiller of the land proceeds on strike like you and me do for a pretty demand, the entire population will starve or rather cease to exist. That is why, apart from increasing production and productivity, agriculture needs to be made more remunerative for the economic security of the largest sect of the population dependent on the farm sector.

The scientific interventions alone cannot bring about the transformation in this sector but a holistic approach needs to be adopted for reforms in the entire system. We have to find out the means to decrease the cost of inputs of cultivation and work out a policy so that the output of cultivation fetches sufficient remuneration to those who are directly associated with cultivation.

Also, popularizing farm-mechanization to overcome labour crisis and appropriate market linkage to eradicate chain of middlemen.  This is a prerequisite for prosperity of masses because masses are associated with this sector. The prosperity of the farm sector makes others also to imbibe the prosperity. I fully agree with the suggestions given in the above-quoted report especially those to prevent the conversion of farmland for non-farm purposes and to curb the land mafia by framing a healthy and extensive housing policy.

Besides these, the extension agencies involved in the dissemination of technologies need to be geared up so that the latest varieties and crop management technologies reach the areas where the farmers have not yet harnessed their benefits.

Let the authorities wake up from the slumber to save the agricultural land, and hence save the civilization and future generations.

(Author is Associate Director Research, MRCFC SKUAST-Kashmir and can be reached at nazirpathology@gmail.com)