India is now among the top 10 agricultural produce exporters in the world. It has clocked in at the No. 9 position, selling significant volumes of rice, cotton, soya beans and meat, according to World Trade Organization (WTO) data. Others in the list include Brazil, the European Union, New Zealand, China, the U.S., Mexico, and others.
India is the largest producer of pulses in the world, and the biggest milk producer. It is also one of the largest producers of rice, wheat, sugarcane, cotton, and groundnuts, as well as the second-largest fruit and vegetable producer.
There are many reasons to rejoice in this news of India’s rise among agricultural exporters. My generation of Indians were taught—through formal and informal ways—that the best way to progress in life was to leave the farm, the hinterland, the rural community and move to metropolises. The city was where the action was, and where the good life could be attained.
One part of the reason for such logic was economic—farms grew ever smaller as the land splintered among generations, and the yield, and productivity fell, and then abysmally fell some more. This did not happen in every part of India, but it was a wide enough phenomenon that it became a cliché.
The second reason was cultural. Babasaheb Ambedkar had once countered the Gandhian vision of idyllic, self-sufficient farm life by describing the Indian village as the pit of superstition, prejudice, and every kind of social malice. He had a point. Freedom, especially freedom from draconian orthodoxy, was to be found in the relative anonymity of the big city.
But things have steadily changed. As big city life in India grows ever more stressful, polluted, and expensive, there has been a public mood shift towards a healthier, more organic lifestyle. Simultaneously, an organic farming movement has spread rapidly around the country and India today has probably more organic farmers than anywhere in the world.
As some of us predicted, the coming of the Covid-19 pandemic will lead to an ever-increasing focus on well-being—the foundation of which is clean food. The combination of all these factors, along with better farming practices, some farm consolidation, and focus on productivity has led to the jump in India’s agricultural exports.
India’s farm life is becoming smarter, more productivity oriented, digitally savvy, and often seeing the whole country, if not the world as its potential customer base. The branding of farm produce has become better, more globally attuned and with a deeper understanding of concepts of uniqueness including geo-specificity.
If once India was described, and indeed still is described, as the back office of the world, then the recent productivity leaps of its agriculture could well make it the world’s farm, in charge of delivering a large amount of the food security of the globe.
There is one thing we need to manage more effectively to make this happen—water. After all, when we export crops like rice, or sugar, or cotton, we are selling agriculture produce that costs a lot of water to grow. Some agricultural experts worry that unless managed more efficiently, this could aggravate a water crisis.
The good news is that awareness about water scarcity is growing around India. The city of Chennai, for instance, having faced an alarming depletion of its ground water, is now one of the biggest water-harvesting cities in the country.
To ensure that countries do not export vast amounts of water-intensive crops at a fraction of the total cost (including in water use) that they pay for it, new methodologies are needed to be adopted like ‘virtual water trade’ and ‘water value’ which helps ensure that countries like India save and replenish ground water while continuing to be agricultural powerhouses.
India’s role as one of the most important food producers in the world would be critical to her strategic future. It plays to the country’s natural strengths. India not only excels in, but also has a long history of, organic food, the kind that has, today, and shall, in the future, have the greatest demand.
If it can manage its water resources adeptly, this is just the beginning of a new avatar of Indian agriculture.