The historic Tamil Nadu Agricultural University’s vice chancellor spoke to The Wire about the state of Indian agriculture and what Indian youth and the government can do to improve things.
Over a century old, the historic Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) in Coimbatore has seen many remarkable individuals in the position of vice chancellor. Many have come and gone in the past decades. The coveted post entails dealing with technocrats, labourers, academics and students alike. During their term, vice chancellors are the face and emblem of the university.
In the last 20-30 years, just a few vice chancellors have enjoyed two terms in office. Currently, Dr. K. Ramasamy the present vice chancellor is serving his second term. Dr. K.R., as he is known in intellectual circles, believes that being vice chancellor is more than merely sitting inside AC cabins, hosting dinners and addressing meetings. He is dynamic and pro-active, well-known among farmers for his strong support of organic farming and for the measures he has taken to ensure that youngsters join the farming sector.
Further, Ramasamy is extremely approachable; students can contact him over the phone at any time with their queries. He emphasises that the future of agriculture rests on the shoulders of India’s youth, and it is only the younger generation who can ensure a food-secure future for all. Although he may be reserved by nature, when it comes to farmers’ issues Ramasamy is more than willing to see to it that problems are solved efficiently. Those who have seen him in planning commission meetings and other discussions vouch for his quiet commitment to improving the lives of farmers and encouraging young people to join the agricultural sector.
Here are some excerpts from The Wire’s exclusive interview with Dr. K. Ramasamy.
From when have been you been reading The Wire?
Since I am mostly traveling I rarely get time to read newspapers and during those times my iPad comes to my help. I browse all important news on it and keep regularly updated on several national and international issues concerning agriculture. It was during one such browsing I happened to read the ‘Farmer’s Notebook’ and immediately started to read The Wire from then, since rarely we have media houses which throw light on farmers and agriculture. I compliment The Wire for making such a great decision to publish ‘Farmer’s Notebook’. I would be happy if more agriculture news can be published in it regularly as it will not only give a platform for several scientists and researchers to showcase their works, but also highlight our real heroes – farmers.
How do you see the present state of agriculture in India?
Undoubtedly, India’s economic security continues to be predicated upon the agriculture sector, and the situation is not likely to change in the foreseeable future. Even now, agriculture supports 58% of the population, against about 75% at the time of independence. In the same period, the contribution of agriculture, and allied sectors, to the GDP has fallen from 61 to 19%. In spite of all these downfalls, around 51% of India’s geographical area is already under cultivation as compared to 11% of the world average. The present cropping intensity of 136% has registered an increase of 25% since independence.
There is also an unprecedented degradation of land (107 million hectares) and groundwater resources, and also a fall in the rate of growth of total factor productivity. This deceleration needs to be arrested and agricultural productivity has to be doubled to meet growing demands of the population by 2050.The schemes which the central government introduced to improve the situation of rural India were promising initially, but the recent release of the socio-economic and caste census report shows a totally different story. That is why in the past several days, several farmers have committed suicide. Somewhere untimely rains and the lack of basic facilities can also be a cause of farmer suicides. The question arises: how long can poor farmers and villagers be denied rural infrastructure?
Even after spending crores of rupees in the twelfth five-year plans, villagers are forced to live in rural poverty. About 13.34 crore households, 75% of rural India, having [such] low monthly incomes that it is not even sufficient to feed their families. They feel helpless. The latest data released by the government stalked the reality of government schemes and programmes which are running for the villagers [and have been] for many years. In order to bridge the gap between the government and people, more and more people’s participation through NGOs and voluntary organisations is very important to disseminate [information] and the government schemes to the rural people. The real experience of associating with the farmers in Tamil Nadu clearly shows that the simple tinkering of ongoing schemes will definitely improve yield and profitably.
A single variety of rice, CO R51, has doubled the yield in one season. One technology (PPFM-drought protectant) [used as a] drought proofing attempt has saved four lakh acres of rice farms in the delta in 2012-13. Hence, farmers are receptive to technology and they love agriculture. They also know that urban poverty is more cruel than rural poverty. Youths have introduced and tested protected cultivation in the delta. Alternative agriculture is picking up. The future holds the key for the production of enough food from less land, less labour, less input and less water – without damaging the ecosystem.
What is the trend among youths today? Are they inclined towards farming as a full-time profession?
Agriculture as a farming business rather than development platform in India is gathering momentum. I think this is a positive perspective. Agriculture (production of crops, livestock etc) and agribusiness (value chain servicing agriculture) are rather different sectors, marked by different risk-return profiles. Agriculture is highly dependent on land, which is incredibly politicised, which in turn makes agriculture or farming unattractive especially for youth without political connections or financial capital.
With that being said, I think agriculture has enormous potential for eradicating poverty, needs youthful energy and passionate team players. In addition to the opportunities you have raised, I think we should expand the conversation to some of the challenges that make it unattractive so that we can seek solutions and build on the momentum that’s gathering.
Young people need to see live examples of other youth who made it in agriculture before they believe what they can do [in the field]. Youth need to own this; it is one thing to convince them agriculture is not a risky sector to venture into, and it is another thing for them to believe it themselves. As young people, they need to own and believe that within them lie many possibilities, and the future is in their hands to own.
The Indian government is making lots of efforts in bringing youth participation to agriculture. In this line, a recent scheme, Attracting Rural Youth in Agriculture (ARYA), has to be promoted jointly by all the state governments in coordination with the central government to promote the evergreen revolution in the country. The scheme will not only attract rural youth to agriculture by making them skilled but also make the state self-dependent in agriculture. Under the scheme, Agriculture Technology Management and Training (ATMA), the programme will provide training to rural youth. From each village, two youths will be selected and trained on how to make proper use of barren and uncultivated land and grow pulses.
There is also a special programme for rural youths which is aimed at benefitting the entire rural area in terms of carrying out farm operations and services at reasonable costs. Some of the activities to be linked with the ARYA scheme include identifying barren land in villages under the guidance of the Agriculture-Science Center, promoting suitable crops, encouraging the growth of different crops after harvesting paddy, inspiring farmers to use fertilisers as per the Soil Health Card, registering farmers on the Farmer Portal, providing new technology and constituting farmer groups.
In spite of the fact that so many schemes are available, many farmers are unable to access or have any knowledge of schemes which may help them. What do you think of this issue?
There are state-sponsored schemes and centrally-sponsored schemes that are implemented by the concerned state governments through departments of agriculture, horticulture and veterinary and animal sciences. The extension functionaries working in the department are disseminating the information through mass media, which includes text messaging . Moreover, a farmers’ call centre is also functioning in order to help the farmers on various technical information, package of practices and schemes available then and there for the farmers.
Above all, Agriportal, a website maintained by the university, provides all the information about the day to day developments of agriculture for the benefit of farmers. More importantly, NGOs and VOs active participation is highly encouraged by both central and state governments in order to deliver various benefits to the rural people.
If you look into the reasons why many farmers are still unaware of the welfare schemes implemented, they include corruption, lack of education, and mismanagement. For example, India has the largest public food distribution system for the poor in the world. Yet, 21% of adults and half of India’s children under five are malnourished. The leading source of corruption in India is entitlement programmes and social spending schemes that are meant for the welfare of our society. For example, the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MNREGA), is a $9 billion program planned to offer 100 days of employment annually for the rural poor. But MNREGA failed because of corruption and mismanagement. Just like MNREGA, the National Rural Livelihood Mission met the same fate. Though the government is making efforts towards inclusive growth, corruption is playing its role. So, all such programs designed for poor and needy fail to impress or help them.
Instead, the poor are even denied of their basic rights. Corruption is just like an epidemic in India. It leads to social inequalities and strikes the economy of our nation. Poverty is further worsened by administrative corruption. Even the simplest of tasks is not performed without a bribe. Corruption also delays and diverts the economic growth. Further, the rural youth is mostly not well educated, lack skill and are not interested in farming. Also, much of the funds allocated to the schemes are consumed in administrative costs. So, the entire chain that is formed to help the farmer does not allow this to happen. Government should come up with plans to make villages self-reliant. India must have a clear economic vision and a great system in place to execute this.
Do you think that three to four acre farming is still feasible in India, given that a majority of small-time farmers are losing interest?
Yes. For sure. Natural resources and agricultural land is limited. We could not increase it but we can enhance productivity and quality by use of Science & Technology. To overcome challenges, polyhouse farming, terrace farming and precision farming are alternative, new techniques in agriculture that are gaining a foothold in rural India. They reduce dependency on rainfall and make optimum use of land and water resources.
Potentially, polyhouse farming can help the farmer to generate income around the year by growing multiple crops and fetching premium pricing for off-season vegetables.
Government provides good amount as subsidy for polyhouse farming. A person having 20 cents of land can start hi-tech farming where the polyhouse will come up in 10 cents of land and the rest of the land for supporting the cultivation.
Let us learn from Taiwan, which excels in food production and exports to 25 countries through small farmer co-operatives and value addition. Small size is not a difficulty, but it should be taken as a resource wherein the family labour is assured for success.
Has the present government been proactive?
To give stagnant agricultural growth a boost, a shift must be made from concentrating on the country’s food security to focusing on the farmers’ income security. The green revolution, which is characterised by the introduction of high-yielding variety of seeds and fertilisers, undoubtedly increased the productivity of land considerably. But the growth in the productivity has been stagnant in recent years, resulting in a significant decline in the income of farmers. There have also been negative environmental effects in the form of depleting water table, emission of greenhouse gases, and the contamination of surface and groundwater.
Needless to say, the agriculture sector is in a state of distress, which is severely affecting peasants and marginal farmers, and urgent policy interventions are required to protect their interests. The government has responded to the problem by constituting a panel which will recommend ways to double the income of farmers by 2022. While this may be an overtly ambitious target, if we want to boost stagnated agricultural growth a shift has to be made. However, there are many hurdles that have to be crossed if we want to achieve this objective to double the food production and treble the farmers’ income.
Despite so many technical advancements, agriculture in india is largely dependant on annual monsoon. If monsoon fails, it spells doom for the farmer. Is there any accurate mechanism which can correctly predict whether there will be rains or not?
Seasonal climate forecast helps in making strategic farm decisions like land configuration, cropping patterns, and crop varieties. Medium range weather forecast helps in making tactical farm decision like land preparation, weather based crop sensitive operations such as sowing, irrigation scheduling, intercultural operations, fertiliser application and spraying of chemicals.
District level seasonal climate forecast is given before the beginning of rainy season by last week of May for the southwest monsoon, and in the last week of September for the northeast monsoon, with an accuracy level around 60%. The maximum possible level of seasonal climate forecast accuracy is around 70% only, since our country is situated very close to the equatorial region, where the climate variability is high. The accuracy of seasonal forecast could be increased by developing hybrid weather forecast, which is a combination of different forecast methods using probability (past weather), numerical model (present weather) and astrometeorology (future movement of planet). Agro Climate Research Centre is already start working on it and the fine-tuned hybrid forecast method will be released by 2018 to improve seasonal climate forecasts. District level medium range weather forecast by India Meteorological Department is given on every Tuesday and Friday with a lead time of next five days with 70-75% accuracy. Tamil Nadu Agricultural University gives medium range weather forecast using Weather and Research Forecasting (WRF) model at block level on every day with a lead time of next six days with 75-85% accuracy.
The level of accuracy of this forecast could be improved by providing still more high spatial resolution in the model at village level. Now, Agro Climate Research Centre has completed development of village level forecast, and is working on the front end to display the same. The village level forecast will increase the rainfall accuracy further the more to 80-85%. This village level forecast will come into force in the ensuing rainy season. Medium Range Weather Forecast accuracy level could be improved up to 85% while seasonal climate forecast accuracy could be improved up to 70%.
At the national level, the meteorological department has five regional forecasting centres in India which issue weather bulletins daily for farmers. The bulletin is ready by noon, but it is broadcast by the All India Radio in the evening so villagers can listen to it. The director of agricultural meteorology receives reports from government farms comparing the forecasts with the weather actually experienced. A periodical assessment of these returns shows that the forecasts have a very high degree of accuracy. Steps have been taken to ascertain how these forecasts can be used to secure better timing of agricultural operations.
Compared to a decade back, the number of villages both in the state and India engaged in organic cultivation have increased. Yet, there are bottlenecks when it comes to marketing, leaving farmers frustrated. What is the solution to this?
The marketing support for organically grown produce is a policy decision and draft on organic farming policy has been already submitted to the government of Tamil Nadu with much emphasis on creating marketing linkages. The key suggestions made in the policy draft were to promote organic farming companies, set organic marketing outlets at different levels, create Organic Certification, and establish premium price for produces.
Fortunately, as consumer demand increases for these popular products, so will sales opportunities for farmers growing specialty organic products. Niche marketing to ethnic populations, gourmet restaurants and retailers, developing value-added products, community-supported agriculture and participation in tailgate markets are a few ways to reach organic consumers locally and globally. Farmers approach direct marketing in a variety of ways using single or multiple channels. The goal generally is to develop a strategy to sell all their produce. This can be through one marketing channel or several. Farms may also add additional direct market channels as the business grows. For instance, many farmers begin with selling through a farmers’ market or a roadside stand. As the business grows, they can add other direct channels such as a grocery or restaurant sales. Direct sales channels for specific crops or a segment of a crop may be combined with wholesale channels. The options are nearly endless. Farmers’ markets also provide the opportunity to build a customer base.
Another concept to be thought of is agritourism. Agritourism appeals to customers who have a desire to visit a farm and experience its activities. As Indians lose family ties with agriculture, many are interested in maintaining some sort of contact with farming, especially for their children. This is a theme with most types of direct marketing but is a key feature of agritourism. The internet also provides a convenient method to advertise the farm business, sell products and communicate with customers. Most households have access to the internet in their homes. This is a potentially large market for specialty farm products.
How can a steady price be fixed for tomatoes, onions and other vegetables so that farmers do not throw their produce on the roads for not getting a good price?
Price fluctuations for vegetables like tomatoes, onions and other vegetables occur when there is a glut in the market for one or two months in a year. The fall in the prices of these perishable commodities does not occur regularly and the magnitude of price fall also varies. These price variations can be reduced by adopting certain strategies. First, when there is a glut of vegetables in the market, arrangements may be made to procure vegetables at the price equal to the average cost of cultivation with a margin of 50% of the cost of cultivation (Rs 10 per kg for tomatoes and Rs 15 per kg for onions) and they can be kept in cold storages established in the nearest regulated markets.
However, these prices need to be revised according to the rise in the average cost of cultivation of these crops. Second, these vegetables can be sold through pasumai vegetable stalls; they can also be supplied to kitchens operated by the education department operated through the noon meal scheme at schools throughout the state.
What is your take on present day agriculture – is it dwindling or is it going up?
Over centuries, the growth of agriculture contributed to the rise of civilisations. Agriculture kept formerly nomadic people near their fields and led to the development of permanent villages. These became linked through trade. New economies were so successful in some areas that cities grew and civilisations developed.
Food production must keep pace with population growth and distribution methods. This is an enormous agricultural and political challenge. The challenge is not food shortages, but unequal distribution of the world’s food supply. The ratio of population to farmable land has favoured some countries more than others. Some experts believe government policies in developed and developing countries have hindered equal food distribution. Droughts, floods and other disasters continue to cause local food shortages. Overpopulation also contributes to unequal distribution of food resources. Much of the population increase over the next 100 years will occur in developing countries where hunger is already a serious problem.
Exporting food or agricultural technology from countries with surpluses to those with shortages will not solve the problem of world hunger. Poor countries do not have the money to buy all the food they need and do not want to permanently rely on other countries. Many developing countries also regard biodiversity as an important resource and do not want to threaten it with genetically modified crops. Experts believe that the hunger problem will be solved in two ways. First, the citizens of all countries need to have the ability to grow or purchase their own food. Second, citizens of all countries need to have responsible diets and spending habits.
What about addressing the problem of overpopulation?
Agricultural science will help countries adjust to healthier methods of food production. Scientists are developing new high-yield varieties of crops that require fewer fertilisers or pesticides. Such crops reduce the need for using costly chemicals and trade. The challenges of feeding the hungry cannot be met unless the world’s land and water are safeguarded. Agricultural practices in developed and developing countries have led to a severe loss of valuable topsoil, water and other resources.
Many countries need better programmes for replanting forests. Overpopulation has pushed a growing number of farmers onto lands too fragile to sustain cultivation. Demand for food has led to increased irrigation worldwide. In some areas, irrigation has caused water tables to drop, rivers to run dry and wells to go empty.
Agricultural chemicals that increase production often contaminate soil and groundwater and disrupt food chains. Agriculture does not have to harm the environment. By protecting the land, water, and air, and by sharing knowledge and resources, people may yet find solutions for the problem of world hunger.
Under your dynamic leadership, in what ways is the university ready to increase production and encourage youngsters (those from other vocations) to try their hand at farming? What is your advice to them? Is it remunerative feasible?
TNAU has been nurtured by eminent agriculturists, and it imparts training to youngsters on technical skills for a variety of agricultural enterprises such as nursery techniques, value addition in baking, mushroom cultivation, beekeeping and more.
Entrepreneurs involved in business incubation are also encouraged to have their business units and the required technical advice is given to them to upscale marketing of their products. Farm technologies are continuously disseminated through radio, fairs, KVKs, exhibitions and technology parks and skill development centres. Farmers are also encouraged to pursue a B.F.Tech. programme in Open and Distance Learning mode. Many of the enterprises are paying remunerative returns to them. For example cultivation of pulses (green/black gram) pays a net return of Rs. 75000 per acre in 75 days. Similarly, the maize production pays a net return of Rs 30,000 per acre in 100 days. Protected cultivation of vegetables under a polyhouse will pay a return of Rs 1.81 lakhs in a unit of 1,000 square meters (25 cents). They can repay the investment in three years.
Agriculture technology park and ecotourism are programmed at the Agricultural College and Research Institute in Killikulam to demonstrate state of the art technologies in agriculture including horticulture, forestry, food processing, animal husbandry, fisheries etc. It will attract youngsters.
Skill development centres at the Agricultural Engineering College and Research Institute in Kumulur is offering training in repair and maintenance of agricultural machinery and implements, nursery seedlings production technology and commercial horticulture technologies.
Further, exclusive women development centre at the Horticultural College and Research Institute for Women offers training to women in horticulture and agricultural technologies, food processing and value addition. It helps women become entrepreneurs and earn incomes. These activities are being upscaled in order to encourage youngsters in participating farming.
Lastly, I am sure the future lies definitely in the hands of our youth for increasing food production.
Dr. K. Ramasamy can be reached at [email protected]