Building Competitiveness in an Inter Connected World: Opportunities and Challenges in Agriculture
AbstractThe aim of this paper is to look at the current status of productivity in Indian agriculture, capturing the Productivity paradox that faces our farm sector. Further, the paper will examine the impact of trade liberalization on Indian agriculture and the additional demands that it places on our farmers. With this setting the context underlying the imperative of creating excellence, an attempt has been made to put forth suggestions for some key changes that are crucial for Indian agriculturists to embrace in their quest for survival. Having captured these, the paper attempts to highlight certain emerging opportunities in the agricultural sector in the years ahead. KeywordsAgricultural productivity, Competitiveness, Emerging opportunities, Farm Economics, India, Integrated Nutrient Management, Trade liberalization.



Building Competitiveness in an Inter Connected World: Opportunities and Challenges in Agriculture
Rahul Mirchandani, Executive Director, Aries Agro Limited

Globalization is no longer a Utopian, futuristic concept. It is real and its effects extend to all sectors in the economy. India’s agriculture is no exception. The increasing economic integration of the Indian economy with global processes has brought considerable challenges to the doors of our agricultural sector. With the recent end to the tariff regime, the farmers of India are no longer a protected species. They have no choice but to become competitive to be able to sell their produce in the inter-connected ‘market of the world’ and consequently, maintain the economic viability of their farms.

The aim of this paper is to look at the current status of productivity in Indian agriculture, capturing the Productivity paradox that faces our farm sector. Further, the paper will examine the impact of trade liberalization on Indian agriculture and the additional demands that it places on our farmers. With this setting the context underlying the imperative of creating excellence, an attempt has been made to put forth suggestions for some key changes that are crucial for Indian agriculturists to embrace in their quest for survival. Having captured these, the paper attempts to highlight certain emerging opportunities in the agricultural sector in the years ahead.

India’s farm sector - Laden with striking ironies One of the ironies of the reforms programme introduced in the beginning of the 1990s was that it failed to cast a glance the agricultural sector that supports the largest share


(60%) of the country’s workforce. An eloquent testimony of the relative neglect suffered by agriculture during the past decade is the steadily decreasing share of the sector in the country’s capital formation. Throughout the 1990s, the share of agriculture in the gross capital formation (at constant prices) has remained in single digits, which explains the slackening of its growth momentum during the past decade. This has contributed to the decline in the share of the sector in GDP from just less than a third in the early 1990s to below a fourth a decade later. Only in the past two years has this disturbing trend shown a reversal.

Moreover, Indian agriculture has always been riddled with striking contrasts. Post the green revolution, we are now a food surplus economy, but Malnourishment and poverty are on the rise. Despite being blessed with the largest cultivable landmasses on Earth, India’s agricultural productivity is one of the lowest in the world. 70% farmers have no access to credit, extension services and technology. Half of India is susceptible to soil erosion and 80% of India is drought prone. Within such an environment, HOW CAN WE MAKE A GLOBAL FARMER OUT OF THE INDIAN KISSAN? Can we compete internationally in a liberalized world with no trade borders?

The Productivity Paradox The most striking paradox in Indian agriculture is the paradox of productivity. Although productivity gains were sustained in the 1990s after the liberalization process began, the yield rates for most of the crops in India are far below comparable rates in a number of other countries.



Except for tea, coffee and citrus, India’s yields are lower than the world average. We have huge areas under rice cultivation, but the average yields in several countries are much more than ours. Egypt has over three times India’s yield rates in rice. In all major crops, India’s productivity performance seems to lag behind other nations.

Comparison of 2004 Yields in kg/ha of Major Crops Region World India China USA Pakistan Australia Thailand Indonesia Srilanka Brazil Kenya Bangladesh UK N. Zealand Egypt Wheat 2869 2640 4203 2898 2418 1844 615 --2202 1680 1952 7889 7457 6525 Rice 3970 2927 6347 7581 3425 8231 2780 4518 3322 3579 4546 3446 --9524 Maize G’nuts 4859 2059 5154 10052 1895 4962 3779 3388 1083 3373 1533 2000 -11333 6988 1367 938 2746 3393 750 1600 1529 2065 546 2255 1765 1308 --3237 S’cane 65532 59707 70821 70670 49576 88896 60674 72353 57504 75344 81818 39660 --121000 Tea 1299 1899 870 ---295 1367 1439 2209 2071 1111 ---Citrus Pulses Coffee 14625 17845 9888 34663 7925 19317 11673 22857 2307 21871 6386 3255 -10245 17823 855 635 1587 1835 593 1459 836 963 927 753 395 782 3619 3046 2935 765 851 1313 1542 --902 701 674 1030 379 -----

Source: Food & Agriculture Organization Statistics - FAOSTAT data, last updated 20 Dec 2004.



It is this Productivity paradox that is perhaps the most severe limiting factor in India’s competitive position vis-à-vis agricultural trade.

Impact of the WTO Agenda India’s commitment to the WTO is that “quantitative restrictions on imports and exports will be phased out”. This will imbibe considerable uncertainties on the Indian agriculturalists. Two sets of problems emerge. One stems from the fact that Indian farmers have been recording a year-on-year decline in productivity growth. Secondly, there will be competition from cheap imports. It is therefore time to shape up our farm management practices.

To face the WTO challenge, productivity has to be increased. It is estimated that there is a potential to increase productivity per unit of land area by 25% by using irrigation, balanced nutrition programmes and agri-technology, including genetically modified seeds.

Moreover, to face the challenge of cheap imports, revenue per unit of land needs to be enhanced immediately along with a reduction in cost of production. This is possible by using global best practices in integrated crop management. To face the export challenge, similar economics will come into play. However, there is a further restriction placed on presence of pesticide and other chemical residues.



CONCEPTUAL FRAMEWORK : Making Indian Agriculture Globally Competitive WTO Agenda – Trade Liberalisation

Urgent need to Overcome the Productivity Paradox Cultivation of crops with reduced water requirements

Reduce Dependence on Monsoons Respond to changes in eating habits Dismantling the subsidy regime

Interlinking India’s Rivers

Adopt genetically modified, high yielding seed varieties

Integrated, Nutrient Management Adopt microirrigation systems Add value to farm output Contract farming

Reduce use of pesticides

Revamping the domestic distribution of food stocks

Food Processing Planned land allocation for individual crops

Provide access to information

Co-operative Agriculture Harnessing the power of technology Diversify and Change cropping patterns Specialization in agriculture

Increases output per unit of land area

Increases farm gate realisations

Reduces cost of production

Improve the economics of farming



Facing the Challenge of improving Farm Productivity One of the major reasons for the poor yields per unit of land area is the inefficiency in the use of fertilizers and poor cultivation practices leading to imbalanced nutrition. The use of modern farming practices on a wider scale and integrated nutrient management practices are essential if India’s farmers wish to produce crops in line with the observed global standards of quantity and quality.

A consequent increase in Productive efficiency, upon following the best practices in crop nutrition, would enhance value-added activities in agriculture through agro-processing and exports of agricultural and agro-based products. These activities in turn would increase income and employment in the industrial processing sector. Thus globalizing agriculture has the potential to transform subsistence agriculture to commercialized agriculture and to improve the living conditions of the rural community.

When addressing the need for balanced fertilization using specialty farming techniques, it must be borne in mind that the potential for increasing productivity of land already under cultivation is far greater than that for bringing more land under cultivation. The inherent limitation in this approach is that plant nutrient deficiencies in both irrigated and rain-fed farms will increase. The problem of eliminating these deficiencies is already a major problem today and it will aggravate in the future.

Integrated nutrient management has spin-off benefits as well. The most crucial is the improvement in the plant physiology that builds levels of resistance and reduces the



incidence of disease and pest attacks. Increasing resistance through efficient nutrition programmes can thus reduce the application of harmful (and expensive) pesticides and make farming more productive, sustainable and environmentally friendly. Sanitary and Phytosanitary standards prescribed by developed nations prescribe very low permissible levels of pesticide and chemical residues. Thus, developing resistance makes the farm produce more ‘saleable’ in world markets.

Growing usage of Genetically Modified Seeds It is commonly said that if the last decade was one of Information Technology (IT), then the next decade will be one of Bio Technology (BT). India is known as a potential future bio tech hub for the world.

Seeds constitute, on average, 60% of the Input costs for farmers. Use of genetically modified (GM) high yielding varieties of seeds has the potential to usher in the ‘Next Green Revolution’. The farmers in the USA have adopted GM seeds on a large scale leading to an estimated benefit of USD 6 billion. Our neighbour, China, similar to us in most respects, has achieved remarkable productivity increases of 30 to 40% from the use of GM seeds. However, lack of political will, myopic views of scientists on the “perceived” ill effects instead of on demonstrated bio safety risks and cumbersome procedures have worked to ensure that India has effectively missed the Genetic Revolution.



Fortunately, the pendulum has finally swung in favour of adopting GM seeds starting with non edible cash crops (like Bt cotton) and then hopefully, Indian farmers will be allowed move with caution towards food crops. Uncertainties exist now more with regard to the speed and extent of adoption of new-generation seeds.

Agri biotechnology has proved useful to farmers to increase yields, controlling pests, insects, weeds, creates drought resistance, flood resistance and allows cultivation in “stressed” soils. Genetically modified seeds promise high yields.

Facing the Challenge of reducing the dependence on the Monsoons The past few years have seen the continued effect of the El Nino phenomenon and pronounced effects of continued global warming and consequent climate change. The Met Department estimates that 80% of India today is drought prone. Growth of irrigation and water management practices are woefully inadequate. India’s agriculture is still completely at the mercy of the Rain Gods. Changing seasons are now more of a certainty. It is imperative that Indian agriculturists brace themselves to meet this ‘certain’ uncertainty.

Overcoming this rain dependence is crucial to assure markets that India can continually supply farm output at cost effective prices.

Recent campaigns by International organizations and government policy initiatives, including subsidies and extension services, have led to the slow but steady rise in



practices like drip irrigation, hydroponics and greenhouse cultivation. This reduces phenomenally the need for water in agriculture and promotes conservation of this scarce resource. It also makes farming more productive with the delivery of the right quantity of nutrients at the right time, in the least available cost, using the optimum volume of water. Moreover, rainwater harvesting projects are penetrating the hinterland.

Recently, India has seen a few remarkable examples of successful micro-irrigation projects. Kuppam in Andhra Pradesh was developed as one such show-case by the A.P. Government and leading manufacturers of such systems from Israel. Despite having rocky topography, scanty rain over the past four years and poor soil, Kuppam has farms successfully producing almost every conceivable crop using drip irrigation systems.

Agro-forestry initiatives, wasteland cultivation using hardy crops needing least quantity of water, are also underway to reduce the dependence on the monsoons, while at the same time, sustaining revenue from agricultural land.

Interlinking India’s Rivers The idea of linking India’s rivers which had been lying dormant for a long time, has acquired prominence recently with the Supreme Court having decreed that the rivers of India shall be linked within ten years. A task force has been set up to work out the modalities of this largest, most ambitious infrastructure project on Earth. The Court has also mandated the allocation of the Rs. 5,60,000 crores required for this project.



However, the uncertainty in the entire issue stems from the vociferous debate raging in “green” lobbies that have christened this project as “technological arrogance of the worst kind” while making an attempt to alter India’s geography. Other constraints include finding a source for collecting the mandated funds, environmental impact assessment, cost benefit analyses and investment feasibility.

It is uncertain whether India’s rivers will be linked in as grandiose fashion as decreed by the Courts or thought of by planners. However, it is certain that limited links will be created in a definite time frame. For instance, work on the Krishna-Godavari river link within Andhra Pradesh has already begun. The benefits are obvious: water management, flood control, reduced dependence on the monsoons, growth of irrigation, drought resistance, increase in area under cultivation and employment generation.

Irrigation is undoubtedly the key to India’s economic future. The linking of rivers will assure availability of water for agriculture, guarantee crop cycles, reduce uncertainties in agriculture, unify the country and ensure prosperity for generations to come.

Change in eating habits of Indians and in the developed world India is growing in affluence. This affluence is not just restricted to cities having a middle class with ever growing purchasing power, but also covers rural areas. The Indian Market Research Bureau (IMRB) estimates that 49% of Rural India figures in the middle/upper income segments. Increased affluence has led to an increased demand for more nutritive foods, including fruits and vegetables, in addition to staple cereals and pulses.



Vegetarianism is also growing in popularity, as is the recent trend the world over. This is a trend increasing observed in the developed nations. This change in eating habits has made it feasible for farmers to diversify into horticultural crops. Horticultural crops have relatively high nutrient requirements. Moreover, they are also labour intensive to cultivate and generate rural employment.

Growing Access to information Awareness amongst India’s farming community is increasing, as a direct corollary to increasing literacy and open access to global information. 3% (1066 lakh households) are estimated to have at least 2 graduates. 16% have at least one member who is SSC/HSC+. This is equivalent to 5 times the population of Singapore, 3 times Israel and a little less than all of Australia.

A wealth of scientific knowledge about soil chemistry and physics exists, as well as extensive geo-data on the distribution of soil types. Thanks to modern technology, telecommunication and satellite television, this information is being brought directly to the farming communities and through rural tele-centres, electronic information resources and other media including video presentations. The “digital divide” remains a very real constraint, but the rapid spread of mobile phones and satellite technologies opens new vistas for extending access to relevant knowledge. In fact, the communications revolution has comprehensively networked Rural India. Apart from leapfrogging directly into the era of mobile telephony, 70% of farmers have access to televisions and an even higher



86.8% listen to the radio. This has “opened up” the farmer’s world and has ensured growing access to relevant information.

Challenge of revamping the domestic distribution of food stocks and dismantling the subsidy regime Domestic restrictions on the inter-state movement of farm products have created a situation where food grain stocks are piled up in warehouses of the government while parts of the country are starving. These food grain stocks are piled up to satisfy the fiscal orthodoxy of antiquated planning mechanisms which do not hold much ground in today’s open, integrated markets. The original reform agenda had in fact envisaged increased public investment, to be financed by input subsidy cuts which were also expected to improve input-use efficiency and discourage environmentally unsustainable practices. Since this effectively meant taxing farmers in regions with better infrastructure, resistance was sought to be muted by increasing support prices to remove `negative subsidies' in trade. In the event, subsidies have not reduced but support prices have become too high to be consistent with free international trade at present low world prices. With this option no longer available, the talk is again of freeing markets. But import controls have gone, very few restrictive orders are actually being invoked under the Essential Commodities Act, and removal of remaining export restrictions is unlikely to yield much in global market conditions. This leaves only thornier and earlier unthinkable options, such as dismantling the support price/PDS system and allowing the corporate



sector to take over trade, processing and extension. It is this possibility, and implications for income distribution, that disturbs critics most. However, it remains true that in a small farm economy such as India's, economies of scale require larger entities to provide critical inputs in technology, infrastructure, marketing and risk management. There are only three ways this can be done: by Governments, through cooperation among farmers, or by allowing corporate control. Much of the problems of the past decade stem from the fact that even as farmers have been exposed to new uncertainties from liberalization, the state has retreated from these responsibilities and left cooperatives sidelined without creating conditions for corporate entry. Rather than the current drift, many would prefer greater corporate involvement.

Key Emerging Opportunities in the Agricultural Sector

The emerging trends and challenges in the Agricultural sector will open up several opportunities in the years ahead.

Development of new generation irrigation systems There is a tremendous opportunity in the indigenous development of economical irrigation systems suited to local conditions. Most of the irrigation systems are currently imported from countries like Israel, Australia, Japan, etc. Few international companies specializing in the design and development of irrigation systems have set up subsidiaries in India. However a major hindrance is the high cost of installing these systems coupled



with a phase out of government subsidy schemes supporting such installations. Even in areas where micro-irrigation systems were installed on full government subsidy or using ‘soft loans’ from Rural banks, inadequate and ineffective training to farmers have caused the systems to remain largely unused. This is a huge national waste and a well structured, co-ordinated effort to develop easy-to-use, low cost systems coupled with systematic training to agriculturists and farm labour would ensure the wide adoption of this technology.

Development of new generation seeds This is an area where several Indian companies have taken the lead. Research & Development focused on the introduction of hybrids suited to Indian conditions is underway in various parts of the country. However the opportunity of increasing harvests using genetically modified, hybrid seeds can be completely exploited only with a mass awareness campaign to negate the anti-propaganda that has plagued the growth of this concept.

Diversification and change in cropping patterns Progressively reduced support prices for cereal crops have made farmers to consider the cultivation of new generation crops. The change is widely observed in agriculturally progressive states like Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra where land is being used to cultivate horticultural crops (fruits and vegetables), oilseeds and pulses. Some state governments like in Andhra Pradesh, have even resorted to quasi-coercive tactics like denying the release of canal water to farms cultivating traditional cereal crops like paddy.



Once the resistance to the change is overcome, cultivators realize a much higher realization from their land since these new crops are much more remunerative and even have export potential. Some cultivators have gone a step further and diversified into the cultivation of exotic crops including medicinal herbs and spices like turmeric and vanilla where the potential for revenue generation is enormous.

Crop diversification is a strategy that emanates from the realization that it is makes ample economic sense for India to import cereals from other countries in South East Asia (like Thailand) where the cost of production is much lower and use its land and labour resources to produce crops like edible oil, fruits and vegetables that are more expensive to import. This exploits the competitive advantage of nations to improve agriculture’s balance of trade and makes farming in India more profitable.

Increased demand for specialized, environmentally-friendly and cost-effective Integrated Nutrient Management solutions Increasing farm productivity per unit of land area using the global best practices will necessitate intensive agriculture. Harvests can be sustained in the long term with intensive use of land only if crop nutrition is balanced. Add to this the specialized and enhanced nutrient needs of genetically modified seeds. These seeds promise high yields. However, to ensure bumper harvests, these crops need higher levels of nutrition. For crop productivity to be sustained, nutrition requirements are relatively much higher for GM seeds than traditional seed varieties. Nutrition solutions recommended are almost always



specialties due to their demonstrated effectiveness the world over. Growing awareness towards using GM seeds will directly affect the demand for specialty balanced fertilizers.

Moreover, global markets expect an elimination of harmful chemical residues in farm output. This requires a reduction in the rampant over-use of pesticides. For this, the plant will need to be made healthy with balanced nutrients. This is the only way, other than biological control of pests, to decrease pesticide use through increasing resistance.

Contract farming and Co-operative agriculture Land holdings in India are extremely fragmented. This fragmentation increases with every successive generation that inherits the land. Fragmentation also makes the land uneconomic in size and scope. It severely limits the adoption of mechanization and new age farming practices. Moreover, farmers with limited output have very little bargaining power while negotiating prices for their yield.

Recognizing these problems, there is a move towards co-operative agriculture. Farmers in close proximity have started forming co-operatives, pooling their land and resources to jointly produce crops. This allows pooling of resources and gives rise to economies of scale. Moreover, it permits better utilization of land and joint efforts to improve productivity.

In certain areas, companies have stepped in to organize farmers to adopt contract farming as a model to improve the economics of farming. Companies enter into forward contracts



with the farmers, undertaking to lift the entire output of a specified quality and quantity at a price which is set well in advance. This effectively assures the farmers of a set price for their yields and effectively hedges them against price fluctuations. In turn, the companies are assured of their inputs of raw materials at fixed prices. In several cases, the companies provide all the inputs (seeds, fertilizers, pesticides, credit, technology, etc.) to the farmers to ensure the quality of the harvests in line with their specifications. This has gone a long way in reducing some of the risks associated with agriculture and effectively improving productivity.

Planned allocation of land to cultivation of crops and specialization A common tendency of Indian farmers is to blindly produce that crop which has been most remunerative in the previous season, with little or no consideration for future demand patterns. If a certain crop has been comparatively more remunerative to a farmer in the area, most farmers who become aware of this windfall change their own cropping pattern due to the “herd mentality”. This consequently leads to a glut in the market with over-supply of a particular crop in the following season, causing a crash in prices of that commodity.

An opportunity exists to use effective demand forecasting techniques for various crops to allocate land most effectively to avoid peaks and valleys in farm output. This will keep farm gate prices relatively stable as supply will remain ‘managed’ in line with demand forecasts. Developed nations like the USA effectively use such a system of planned allocation of land to create pockets of excellence for producing certain crops in certain



parts of the country. This creates regional specialization and increases efficiency in agriculture.

Harnessing the power of technology to improve the economics of farming The spread of technology into the hinterland can be very effectively used to disseminate real time information to agriculturists on ruling international and domestic prices for various crops, forward prices in commodity exchanges, world demand forecasts, weather information, crop management practices, etc. ITC’s e-Choupal initiative is an experiment to harness the power of technology to link India’s farmers using an Infotech network. Farm productivity can be enhanced by using the information available to make structured, meaningful and rational choices. There are unlimited opportunities for similar initiatives to harness the power of technology which will go a long way in improving the economics of farming. In an inter-connected world, such information will certainly prove invaluable to the farmers.

Food processing Food processing is an opportunity for Indian agriculturists to move a step up in the value chain. It allows the farm sector to effectively overcome the ‘commodity syndrome’ and add value to their output by processing the output as per the requirements of the market prior to sale. This could entail packaging, branding, processing into higher value products (like potatoes into packaged chips, tomatoes into ketchup or ready-to-eat soup, etc.) that permit much better realizations. Food processing is also an industry that can provide employment opportunities.



Conclusion It is certainly not impossible to overcome the challenge of overcoming the Productivity Paradox that has characterized Indian agriculture in the decades since Independence. Improving the economics of farming will permit India’s farmers to lower costs and increase output in both quantity and quality. International benchmarking can also be an effective way of aligning farm management practices with the global best practices. The new generation of Indian farmers who are more aware and progressive in their thinking supported by constructive government and private extension efforts can together usher in an Ever-Green revolution in Indian agriculture in the not too distant future.



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Rahul Mirchandani is Executive Director, Aries Agro Limited, Mumbai He is a Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) and has a Masters Degree in Business Administration (MBA) from the University of Canberra, Australia. He has been a lecturer in Marketing and Organisational Behaviour in Australia and teaches Rural Marketing, Consumer Behaviour, Marketing Research Methods and Marketing Concepts & Environment at Narsee Monjee Institute of Management Studies, Deemed University, Mumbai. He has written articles for the Hindu Survey of Indian Agriculture, FICCI Rural Marketing Summit, RuralScan, Chemical Weekly, Meat International (Netherlands), Agriculture Online (USA) and has been invited for guest sessions in Rural Marketing and Concept Selling at several Management Institutes in India, including the IIM-A. He currently chairs Youth Affairs at the Confederation of Indian Industry – Young Indians Mumbai Chapter. His research for the Ph.D. programme focuses on the demand for specialty plant nutrition solutions in India’s rural markets.