Madhya Pradesh Is No Longer A BIMARU State, Thanks To Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s Agriculture Revolution

Aashish Chandorkar

Oct 20, 2016, 05:19 PM | Updated 05:19 PM IST

Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (C) (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
Madhya Pradesh Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan (C) (STR/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Madhya Pradesh was recognised as one of the BIMARU states for its economic ‘sickness’ and backwardness.
  • Those days now seem far back in the past, as the state has made giant strides in improving its economic health.
  • Much of this success must be attributed to the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government, as its phenomenal work in agriculture transformed the state’s fortunes.
  • Demographer and political analyst Ashish Bose condemned the Hindi belt states of Bihar, Madhya Pradesh, Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh to the ignominy of the term BIMARU, underscoring their economic ‘sickness’ and backwardness. Three decades after the acronym stuck on as a millstone in the necks of a whole political generation, Madhya Pradesh is breaking away from the pack, already weakened by the ascendency of Rajasthan since the turn of the century.

    From the per capita net state domestic product of Rs 15,400 in 2004-05, Madhya Pradesh finally breached the Rs 50,000 mark in 2014-15 at current prices, registering a three and a half times higher growth on the key economic metric. As the Indian economy turned sluggish in 2010-11, the state clocked a nominal gross domestic product (GDP) growth of 15.5 per cent, 18.3 per cent, 19.4 per cent and 21.1 per cent, swimming against the tide of national and global economic slowdown. In fact, among the large states, the nominal GDP growth of 21.1 per cent in financial year 2014-15 was bettered only by Bihar at 25 per cent.

    This dramatic change of fortunes for Madhya Pradesh has been almost completely driven by a spurt in agricultural growth. At an estimated population of 75 million, Madhya Pradesh is still predominantly a rural state. Many Indian states have large cities, with a single city sometimes acting as the engine for economic growth, housing more than 15 per cent of the state’s population. In contrast, Indore, the fifteenth largest urban agglomeration in India, as per the 2011 census, houses barely 4 per cent of Madhya Pradesh’s population. Almost 70 per cent of the state’s population is directly or indirectly dependent on agriculture. So the growth in the sector in the last decade has come through to the per capita metric in a big way. But just 10 years ago, Madhya Pradesh was indeed sick.

    The defining election

    When the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) swept the 2003 assembly election, it is said to have prepared a 500-page dossier covering every assembly seat and elaborating their challenges. In most cases, the problems boiled down to infrastructure - bijli, sadak, paani - which became the thrust of the Uma Bharti campaign in that election. The state had seen a bad drought in 2001 and 2002, and in 2003, the election year, the monsoon was not uniformly kind across regions. There was not enough water to drink or to use for irrigation. If water was available, most farmers had no money to buy farm equipment. Where farm equipment was available, there was no power to operate them – an ongoing dispute on power supply with the newly crafted state of Chhattisgarh meant chronic power deficiency in Madhya Pradesh. And finally if farmers did manage a reasonable produce, the state road network was so poor that trading the perishables was almost a luxury.

    Uma Bharti, swept to the chief minister’s post, promised to remediate these existential problems. She began in all earnest, but as political fate would have it, Shivraj Singh Chouhan became the chief minister in 2005, two years into the assembly term.

    Shivraj Singh Chouhan’s determination

    Born into a farming family in the Sehore district, Chouhan was no mug with politics, winning his first assembly term at the relatively young age of 31. As a young chief minister – he was 46 when he took office, he was brought to quell internal party differences and stop factional bickering; he had to deliver quick results to cement his position. He turned to the agriculture sector for this dual pursuit of proving his credentials and extending his control over the party in Madhya Pradesh.

    He started to take on each of the deficiency areas which formed inputs to Madhya Pradesh’s agricultural economy. At the macro level, Chouhan established an ‘Agriculture Cabinet’, focusing especially on the financials of the sector since the Budget 2006-07. This governance structure fixed individual ministerial and bureaucratic responsibility for various initiative launched by the state government over the next few years. There’s a talk this year in New Delhi about the need for a separate national agriculture budget – now a decade-old practice in Madhya Pradesh.

    The Chouhan government then started focusing on the financing of the cultivation process. New schemes were launched to provide interest-free loans with liberal principal payment terms for farmers. Chouhan also extended targeted subsidies for various factors of agricultural production, like seeds, fertilisers and farm equipment. The state today has three million farmers in the credit net, which would translate to a population coverage of 15 million at the prevailing average household size – that’s almost 20 per cent of the state’s population.

    The state government worked in parallel to solve the irrigation and water availability problems to risk-proof farmers from the vagaries of monsoons. While the Digvijaya Singh government had launched the ‘pani roko’ programme in 2002-03 after two successive monsoons failed, the initiative was neither scaled nor funded, and as a consequence, local water bodies and traditional storage structures had been rendered unusable by 2006-07. Starting then, Chouhan started clearing the backlog of various stalled irrigation programmes and promoting water harvesting and conservation at the micro level.

    Madhya Pradesh today boasts of two and a half million hectares of irrigated land, a three and a half times increase in the last eight years. As against the national average of 52 per cent of un-irrigated area under farming, Madhya Pradesh has reduced this ratio to 44 per cent, starting at a very high number when Chouhan assumed the office.

    New water management techniques

    The success of the water management programmes of the state has been acknowledged widely. A recent Reuters report on the Dewas model – named after the water conservation programme launched in Dewas district of Madhya Pradesh – described how farmers from Maharashtra and Rajasthan are travelling to Dewas to understand micro-irrigation techniques better. The report described how monsoon ponds eight to 10 foot deep and one hectare wide to irrigate every eight to 10 hectares of land have resulted in output productivity increase of up to 300 per cent. The model works on farmers joining hands to give up small portions of their land holdings to create these community water storage ponds.

    When Madhya Pradesh was bifurcated to create Chhattisgarh in 2000, almost all the power generation assets of the undivided state went to Chhattisgarh. The mutual rivalry of the then chief ministers, Digvijaya Singh of Madhya Pradesh and Ajit Jogi of Chhattisgarh, resulted in the power supply commitments to Madhya Pradesh being completely reneged. Consequently, Madhya Pradesh faced long urban and rural power cuts from 2000 to 2003. Chouhan recognised that this emotive electoral issue from 2003 had to be addressed. He worked on increasing the power generation capacity within the state, tapping not just coal-based mega power plants but also commissioning hydro and renewable projects at scale.

    The state today accounts for 6 per cent of India’s installed capacity, bettered only by Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu and Rajasthan. Madhya Pradesh today is a power-surplus state, and has used this surplus in innovative ways for agriculture.

    Between 2009 and 2013, Chouhan worked on signing advance power purchase agreements to be used only for the wheat crop, which has a cycle of 110 days in the winter months. The government asked farmers to pay about 60 per cent of their cost of power, paying the rest in subsidies, but guaranteed daily availability, selling more than three million ‘winter connections’. Since farmers had the mechanisation visibility on the back of assured power, they could invest in their farming operations with certainty, and consequently, the area under wheat cultivation rose by two million hectares per year almost every year in this period. This power was also used to operate a well-developed canal network to pump water to distant villages, enabling even small-scale farmers to show increased yields.

    Excess power has been put to another interesting use in the state. While the country still grapples with the environmental impact of river linking, Madhya Pradesh has adopted a simple way to link the mighty Narmada river with Kshipra, a river which is important for the western part of the state. Narmada flows between two mountain ridges, while Kshipra originates on the other side of the northern flank of Narmada. The state government invested in laying pipelines from Narmada to the origin point of Kshipra, pumping water up the mountain and then letting Kshipra take its normal course. This arrangement is operated reliably only because power availability is not an issue in the state.

    The Chouhan government was among the earliest adopters of soil testing practices and issuing soil health cards, an area of investment also for the then Gujarat chief minister Narendra Modi. The state tied up with private parties to extend these cards to farmers, helping them control their use of chemicals and fertilisers. About a quarter of the estimated 11 million farmers in the state now have these cards. The programme is now running nationally, with the Modi government at the centre making a push for it after the programme’s success in Gujarat and Madhya Pradesh.

    Transforming connectivity

    In the early 1990s, if one travelled from Maharashtra, Gujarat or Rajasthan to Madhya Pradesh, one would know that the state boundaries had changed as soon as the ride became bumpy. The Madhya Pradesh roads – or rather, whatever existed of them – were hardly motorable. Chouhan invested in creating a network of 80,000 km of all-weather roads across the state in the last decade. This area is still work in progress, but the state aims to connect every village with a motorable road, extending the benefit of connectivity to the rural populace.

    The results of this improvement in infrastructure was visible in 2011-12, when Madhya Pradesh replaced Punjab as the grain bowl of India, producing almost 20 million tonnes of grains. This achievement was recognised by the then United Progressive Alliance government, awarding Chouhan the ‘Krishi Karman’ award for the year. The Narmadapuram division formed in 2008, comprising the districts of Hoshangabad, Harda and Betul, is now the national hub for wheat cultivation, also benefitting from the administrative freedom it got after being recognised as a separate division.

    In the adjoining districts of Raisen and Narsingpur, the government moved farmers from the failing soybean crop to paddy, providing assistance for growing long-grain rice. The productivity of paddy growth in these districts has improved fourfold in the last decade, with several farmers supplying their produce for exports to food processing firms.

    As the basics of the agriculture economy have fallen in place, the state has shifted its focus on to new initiatives, which are more technology-intensive and complementary to the pan-Indian agriculture revamp efforts. The state has identified almost 900 clusters for promoting organic farming, with each cluster of about 20 hectares being developed as a chemical-free area for high yield crops. The state will also participate in the Electronic National Agriculture Market (e-NAM) connecting 20 mandis to the national market over the month of October 2016. The state government also plans to invest in Hindi software for the regional connectivity centres for this national market to drive adoption and usage. It is also promoting the growing of cash crops and horticulture, where small-scale farmers with relatively smaller land holdings can get good returns on their produce, backed by urban connectivity. The state is already among the top producers of fruits and vegetables in the country.

    Strong labour force

    Madhya Pradesh is also not short of farm labour. In fact, the state sees rural population migrating in search of farm jobs regularly every year. The number of these job-seekers far outstrips the number of landowners, who are looking to rent their land or employ available labour during the cultivation season.

    Over the last three years, the state government has promoted Custom Hire Centres (CHCs), which rent out farm equipment and machinery to small-scale farmers or job-seekers for a fixed duration for a small fee. These users of machinery pay a fee while they are at their jobs or farming their own small pieces of land. Large farmers or rural entrepreneurs are investing in opening these centres with financial support from the state government. This Uberisation of farm equipment has brought the benefits of mechanisation even to the small landowners or renters, who otherwise cannot make their own capital investments. The state today has 500-odd CHCs, double the number from the first year of operation in 2012-13 farming season.

    Madhya Pradesh has increased its area under cultivation by 20 per cent in the last decade, as the agriculture production grew more than 110 per cent from 21.4 million tonnes to 45 million tonnes. Agriculture share in state GDP has gone up to 27 per cent in this period. These metrics have also reaped rich rewards for Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan, who won the 2008 and 2013 elections handsomely on the back of a strong economy and farmer-friendly image.

    The turnaround Chouhan government has achieved on agriculture remains unprecedented, almost comparable to the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s. Away from the prying eyes of national media, the government has scripted a wonderful and inspiring economic success story.

    Madhya Pradesh still remains a poor state in absolute terms, but the government is now shifting its focus on to human development indices. The economic upliftment will definitely help in addressing the grave challenges of health, sanitation and education. By no means are these areas satisfactorily addressed in the state. But without the agriculture revolution of the last decade, the social crisis would have been graver.

    Madhya Pradesh is no longer sick. Anyone who lived in the state in 2005 would not have believed it would be possible to say this only a decade later. And that’s a remarkable success for the Shivraj Singh Chouhan government.

    Aashish Chandorkar is Counsellor at the Permanent Mission of India to the World Trade Organization in Geneva. He took up this role in September 2021. He writes on public policy in his personal capacity.

    Get Swarajya in your inbox.