So, are India's farmlands booming or distressed? And what really is the breakthrough opportunity there?
This question is almost always buried in endless polemic about the agriculture in India with its age-old imagery of eternal poverty coupled with the tragedy of farmer suicides. There is no doubt that parts of Indian agriculture are still mired in tremendous challenges and farmer suicides remain one of the foremost humanitarian crises that face the modern Indian state.
But it would be unfair to suggest that this is the only picture of Indian agriculture which is in the process of a slow, almost silent but vigorous transformation. This is not just about tractor sales which ended the last fiscal year with a growth of 22% on the back of a good monsoon and strong rural demand. An expanding road network has boosted tractor sales in remote parts of Jharkhand, Telangana, Haryana and other states, and the tapering of the demonetisation effect has led to swifter consumption. The Bloomberg Indian rural economy indices show a steady climb in rural output growth. Two-wheeler sales, another good marker, have jumped in recent months.
Naysayers point out that despite such good news, wage growth for both agricultural and non-agricultural labourers is negligible. And while there have been government loan waivers, the debt crisis, especially for farmers with land holdings of about an acre or less, continues.
In all this what is lost is the silent story of innovation in Indian agriculture. With one of the biggest agrarian economies in the world, India has more arable land than even China, but the Chinese beat Indian agriculture in productivity by a wide margin. This comparison might not change anytime soon but there are undisputed signs that Indian farmlands are upping their game.
Take organic agriculture, for instance. India has around 30% of the world’s organic farmers – the highest in the world. This has happened in a serendipitous way.
Several Indian farmers did not have the money to buy expensive chemical fertilisers for a long time and then the impact of men like Subhash Palekar at home and winds of change bringing news that customers were willing to pay exponentially higher prices for organic food has created strong enthusiasm for organic agriculture. Palekar, a farmer in Maharashtra, who preaches ‘zero budget spiritual farming’, or farming using only natural and low-cost fertilisers and techniques, became the first farmer ever to win a Padma Shri, one of India’s highest civilian awards, in 2016. His work has had an impact on around 400,000 farmers in Maharashtra and adjoining states. He told me that “no farmer who uses zero budget spiritual farming commits suicide”. While this has not been statistically verified, there is no denying his impact or the growing enthusiasm for both organic and traditional food in India.
Top Indian restaurants and chefs now promote black rice and brown rice (and many other kinds and colours of rice and other grains like amaranth, buckwheat and many kinds of millets) grown in India which means the business of Fortune 40 under 40 companies like Original Indian Table has soared as more and more queue up for a taste of the hinterlands. India once used to have more than 100,000 varieties of rice grown in the country and while many fell to disuse, several are being brought back, packaged for a new, well-paying customer.
Sikkim just beat entries from more than 50 countries, including agricultural innovation hubs like Denmark, to win a major United Nations awards for its status as an organic food-only destination. Note the connection between a better kind of agriculture and other social benefits—a healthier, more socially conscious, more prosperous population in Sikkim has also meant that the state was among the first to become open defecation free and ban plastic use.
One of the top milk producing countries in the world, India has a bona fide innovation hit in the success of Milk Mantra, the multimillion dollar diary startup, which has brought Odisha onto the map of startup hubs.
In fact, so large is now the number of Indian agri-tech startups that they have their own expo pushing everything from new pumping techniques, to soil testing and management systems, and raw food supply chain breakthroughs.
Why don’t we hear more about the innovation in Indian agriculture though? It is because no one thinks of innovation, start-ups and agriculture in the same breath. It is a problem of language, of idioms—but thankfully that is starting to change.