Rajasthani farmers. Photo credit: Ahbinav Rajasthan
Snapshot
  • Rajasthan is setting an example before the country as far as agricultural sector is concerned. States like Haryana and Punjab are still way ahead, but their lethargy may cost them their top places to early adopters to new technology like Rajasthan.

The global population is projected to cross nine billion in 2050 from seven billion today. That would mean feeding extra two billion mouths. Since, poverty is on decline, we will have more well off people than we do today. So, the demand for crops would rise – not just the quantity but also the quality. We will have to achieve higher yields with the constraints such as depleting water resources, uncertainties of climate change and shrinking of average land holdings. By 2050, India will have the world’s largest population. This means that the trajectory it takes in farming to feed its more than 1.5 billion people assumes importance not just for the country but for the entire world.

From horses to gunpowder to machines, we have always been behind the curve in adopting new discoveries. The same seems to be true today. Though, it seems, at least one state has realised the challenge we face today.

Rajasthan is organising an agri-tech conference in partnership with Israel. Israel’s geography somewhat resembles that of Rajasthan’s as both places are semi-arid regions. Both the modern republics of India and Israel came into existence at the same time. However, Israel today is a pioneer in agriculture and a global leader in agri-tech exports. Today, Rajasthan’s willingness to learn from its best practices speaks for itself.

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What are those lessons? Swarajya extensively reported in this post what tips the experts from Israel gave to the present bureaurcrats and politicians of Rajasthan on the first day of Global Rajasthan Agritech Meet 2016 (GRAM 2016).

The focus of three-day agri-tech meeting today (10 November) was precisely the challenges we discussed in the beginning paragraphs. How do we maximise the yields with shrinking water resources (per drop more crop) and what new ways should we adopt to reach there?

The sessions, throughout the day, discussed the adoption of plasticulture, ways to improve the judicious use of available water resources and the importance of post-harvest measures that can greatly help the farmers increase their incomes.

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As far as plasticulture is concerned, there is a lot of pushback against it. It is criticised for concerns about the pollution of environment as plastic is non-biodegradable. A lot of it is misplaced. Obviously, we must take great care and not litter, but otherwise uses of plasticulture in agriculture are immense. There are lot of possibilities. It is used extensively in drip irrigation, sprinklers, plastic films, low tunnels, etc. In fact, it wouldn’t be wrong to say that the use of plastic in agriculture is pervasive.

So, the right question is not how to reduce the use of plastic but how, through the use of plastic, we can lower the cost of farming. This is where the research and development should be concentrated. Even a small decision like reducing the height of a typical polyhouse or greenhouse can lower the cost of input for farmers, without affecting the produce.

We went to a ‘Smart’ farm at the GRAM exhibition, where we witnessed both polyhouse and greenhouse in action. One of the operators there explained to us the difference between the two. In a polyhouse, the growth of a crop is more controlled. In greenhouse, temperature is less regulated compared to a polyhouse. So, a farmer who wishes to grow, say wheat, can choose either of the two, but if he wants to grow flowers, then there is no option but to go for a polyhouse. This obviously means different costs for the both. A polyhouse in 1,000 square metre area will set you back by about Rs 9 lakh, while a greenhouse will cost you about Rs 7 lakh.

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As one can see, even for a medium farmer, the cost-benefit ratio doesn’t look very good. So, research and development in cost-reduction measures assume significant importance.

Another area of interest is quality. Researchers should find ways to improve the quality of polyhouses/greehouses, so they don’t get damaged in adverse weather conditions like heavy rains, severe winds etc.

The use of plasticulture isn’t just limited to drip irrigation and sprinklers. It has huge post-harvest value addition potential – from handling to storage to packaging and plastic sacks. Yesterday, one panellist had pointed out how in India, post-value addition per rupee is only one rupee, while the same in Europe and America is Rs 8 to 10. Today, Manish Panchal of Tata Strategic Management Group, gave China’s example where plastic mulching is widely adopted. Even companies are coming up with bio-degradable products. Again, this remains costly compared to non-degradable options. As one panellist pointed out, use of plastic materials in India is paltry 2 per cent when the global average is around 8 per cent. We have surpassed the world’s average in packaging but clearly in agriculture we have a lot of catching up to do.

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Where can we improve? Well, there is a huge potential in storage of water. If our goal is to supply water to every field, then we would need to not only store but also supply water (think plastic pipes). Supplying from water-logged areas towards water-scarce area will also help us solve the problem of water-logging, especially during peak monsoon season.

India is increasingly adopting micro-irrigation, which is all about plastics. Drip irrigation, which involves a lot of plastic use, helps promote efficient use of fertilisers as these are mixed in water and then sprinkled. A panellist talked about saving of at least 50 per cent on fertilisers without drop in produce through this practice. However, he cautioned that in the long term, farmers who use polyhouse/greenhouse face the problem of Nimotode disease in plants. But, this can be overcome by using solarisation, he informed.

PP Choudhary, Minister of State for Law and Justice, Electronics and IT in the government of India, who was co-chairing the panel, made a very practical application of plastic in farming. He said that farmers make temporary canals to supply water to their fields. This can be replaced by laying a web of plastic pipes. The minister is right in suggesting so, as this will also obviate the need to employ labour every time to make temporary canals. Choudhary admitted that greenhouse involves the use of a lot of plastic. It is incumbent upon the scientific community, industrialists to go to farmers and demonstrate the cost-viability of these new technologies. He stressed that cost should be so low that farmers themselves shift to the new system of agriculture. Is this the right approach? Maybe not. It isn’t just the duty of industrialists and scientists, farmers will also have to be slightly bold in adopting new techniques. It may happen that a certain technology is cost-effective enough but farmers may not be willing to shift to it for the current system is too convenient to leave. It will require a change in mindset.

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When we talk about 'per drop more crop', we need to understand the significance of judicious use of water. Around 80 per cent of water in India is used in agriculture, rest is used for domestic and industrial purposes. So, if we can lower our use of water in agriculture or start using the available water more efficiently, this would go a long way.

What can we do? Well, for starters, we can make micro-irrigation mandatory, at least for the water-guzzling crops like rice and sugarcane. With this 69 million hectares can be brought under micro-irrigation, but in the last 10 years, we have only brought about 7 million hectares. The pace is too slow and will take us a century at this rate. The target should be set at 10 years. To achieve this, we will need to have a stable and long-term policy environment in place. As explained in yesterday’s piece on GRAM 2016, precision farming – by using automation can do wonders in saving not just water but help put fertilisers and soil to better use, in addition to reducing labour costs.

How can automation help? Well, currently without it, we over-irrigate as we cannot be sure how much water soil needs. This leads to poor quality of produce and in turn lower returns. With automation, the fields will be irrigated exactly the way they should be: with optimum use of water and fertilisers. Automation can also make night irrigation feasible which means less use of water, thus less pumping hours, hence less electricity which in turn means lower cultivation costs.

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In pulses, automation can reduce seepage losses and run off which will translate into better use of water. Farmers will save a lot of money since labour costs will come down, given the fact that irrigation and fertigation can now be done by installed system, automatically anticipating the needs of the soil and crop. Use of sensors can help farmers avoid excess irrigation in the event of rainfall. The possibilities are endless.

Pre-lunch, while the discussions centred around exploring potential of plasticulture and efficient water use, post-lunch they shifted to development of value addition and marketing strategies.

India remains a laggard when it comes to the development of supply chains. We have witnessed how thousands of villages remain cut off from the markets for weeks, if not months, particularly during monsoon. Our production market is fragmented, rural infrastructure is not up to the mark and totally absent in most places. Restrictive marketing policies have made sure that traders didn’t grow big enough to buy in large quantities from farmers. This lack of integrated value chain has hurt the agricultural sector in the economy.

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Integration of value chains is the need of the hour. We have the AMUL model, where we have managed to create a successful value chain despite the fact that dairy is very much a perishable commodity. If we look at poultry model or frozen meat export model, we find other successful attempts to create integrated value chains. If it can be done in these areas, certainly, doing so in cereals, fruits and vegetables isn’t an uphill task.

How can this be achieved?

  1. We must fix our rural infrastructure.
  2. We will have to go for services-based system which means: a) more custom hiring centres, where farmers can rent farm equipment instead of buying; b) more agri financing services, where more and more farmers get institutionalised bank credit; c) we need to create thousands of private trading centres.
  3. We need to focus on policies, which are business friendly. Rajesh Sharma of Reliance Foundation said that doing all these things can make a city like Jaipur, a logistics hub. He said it has great geographical advantage and with the goods and services and tax (GST) on the horizon, the city has the potential to become a agri-startup hub.

One cannot talk of marketing strategies and not mention the importance of commodity exchange role. Samir Shah, of NCDEX, appreciated the work done over the years on pre-harvest front but he regretted over the lack of progress on post-harvest one. He said that it’s very hard for small farmers to sell at commodity exchange due to economies of scale. Currently, only futures market is available. Shah mentioned that despite this, thousands of farmers have benefited and have seen their profits go up from 15 to 20 per cent. He also informed that another tool in the commodity exchange is coming up by the end of this financial year – Options. This, he hoped, will reach many more farmers.

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Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act remains a big hurdle in creation of integrated value chains. Some states have started delisting fruits and vegetables from their respective acts. Following the guidelines of NITI Aayog, many states have made significant amendments in their acts. While, these moves are positive, there is a need to create private parallel markets.

Storage is an important component of value chains. Amith Agarwal of StarAgri Warehousing and Collateral Management said that farmers can store their produce at StarAgri’s warehouses and get a receipt based on which they can get a loan. He encouraged farmers to think like traders and open warehouses near their villages or farms, store their produce and wait for prices to go up and then sell. He encouraged them to drop the old model of taking produce to APMC-regulated mandis and accept whatever price is given to them.

Information technology can be a great enabler in creating integrated value chains through E-NAM, wallet payment systems, E-commerce and so on.

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While these deliberations over plasticulture, efficient water use, integrated value chains, automation in farming were going on in one corner of Jaipur’s convention centre, Rajasthan government managed to ink 38 Memoranda of Understanding (MoU) worth Rs 4,400 crore. The total MoUs, worth Rs 4,400 crore, are expected to provide 19,293 direct and 27,379 indirect employment opportunities in the state.

Rajasthan is setting an example before the country as far as agriculture sector is concerned. States like Haryana and Punjab are still way ahead, but their lethargy may cost them their top places to early adopters to new technology like Rajasthan.

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