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Can smallholders make India food secure?

Feb 04, 2014

Indian agriculture needs customized solutions and DSDS-2014 provides a platform for taking this idea ahead, say Dr Alok Adholeya, Dr Reena Singh and Gautam Anand.

Smallholders are farmers with less than two hectares of cultivable land. Food security as a state of achievement is based on three pillars, food availability, food accessibility and food utility. Smallholders form 72 per cent of the total farmers in India and contribute nearly 40 per cent in the Indian food grain production (FAO, 2002) . Apart from producing staple crops these smallholders are also involved in horticulture, raising livestock and poultry etc., the products that form an essential component of our daily dietary mix. We should not forget that these smallholders are not only the producers, but also the consumers of food, and most often become net buyers of staple food items they produce. However, these smallholders have higher productivity as compared to large farmers, as they toil very hard with the family labour.

Can we bet upon these smallholders for being food secure through the “availability” component? As an action, a “pro-smallholder approach” (at all) steps of value chain of agriculture is essentially required with creating resilience for the emerging new threats out of climate change.

The problem situation

At each generation the farms in India are getting more fragmented. The total number of holdings in all categories in India increased to 129 million in 2006 from 78 million in 1970 which is 65 per cent more fragmentation within a three and half decade (Chand et al., 2011) . For the smallholders, this was almost a 100 per cent increase with in the same period. The “smallness” of smallholders propagates into all types of capital they own like human capital (skills, ability etc. except the labour availability), natural capital (soil productivity, crop biodiversity, and land size), financial capital (money flows, credit worthiness), physical capital (infrastructure related to farming), and social capital (market intelligence, connections and networks with different stakeholders in farming value chain). They represent the most vulnerable class of Indian farmers and are a forgotten saga of Indian agriculture waiting for being considered as worthy candidates.

The concern

It’s very unfortunate that the Indian beds are more fertile than the Indian farms. Thanks to this, we Indians will be rubbing our shoulders with China in 2028 for the total population, with 1.45 billion hungry Indian stomachs ready to be filled. Projections from different studies have shown that till that time we will be demanding nearly 300 million tonnes of cereals only; let’s forget about the other relatively luxurious items of diet like fruits, vegetables, pulses etc. Further, the rising middle class with fat pockets will distort the dietary mix and will demand highly nutritious food.

The concern is that, from where this amount of food will be produced and if India will be able to achieve this through its smallholder dominant system which is paralyzed at present with its own constraints? Apart from the above, a series of threat is arising in current time due to climate change. This will lead to another newer set of problem arising due to abrupt climatic shifts threatening the crop production. It should be noted that problems due to climate change will come with shorter notice periods and thus will leave lesser time to take necessary measures. Some of these issues will be addressed in 14th Delhi Sustainable Development Summit (DSDS), which is being organized by The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI) with the theme on “Attaining Energy, Water and Food Security for All” and will be held in February 6-8, 2014 at Taj Palace, New Delhi, India.

The possible solution

We need to change the lens with which we have been investigating the problem of Indian agriculture till date, which has resulted in the exclusion of smallholder from every point of view. The smallholder production system is having lower economies of scale at each ring of the agricultural value chain. One of the most desired solutions is that we must increase per acre productivity of these small farms as much as possible. We need to offer customized and affordable agricultural solution to smallholders. TERI is working on many of such technologies; mycorrhizal biofertiliser technology is one of them and it has impacted approximately 6.25 lakh of farmers.

In the middle man dominated system of agricultural trade in India, pro-smallholder market reforms are also essential keeping in view the lower profitability at the smallholders end. Even for the direct procurements at present, the commercial entities and business houses prefer to work with the large farmers which are able to offer better economies of scale for crop output. Collectivization of output of smallholders’ and co-operative marketing could be a feasible solution, though yet to be tested outside the dairy Industry. Off farm livelihood diversification will be a must for these smallholders. A household-level approach based on the livelihood frameworks is needed for raising the income of the smallholders. The employment opportunity outside of agriculture is a must for these smallholders. Yes, the smallholders can make India food secure subjected to the condition we adopt a “pro smallholder approach”. This approach must propagate into different players of the agricultural value chain along with the strong commitments from government, NGO’s, private and public entities. And to do this we hardly have 15-20 year time before we become the most populous country on the earth.

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