Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Thali to plough December 3, 2006

Last week’s Mittal-Walmart deal is symbolic of an India which is changing quietly. Indians now consume less cereals and more milk, vegetables and fruit. In the past 20 years, per capita consumption of vegetables has trebled in villages and doubled in towns; milk and milk products have doubled in urban and rural areas. The share of high value foods has risen in India’s agricultural output from 32 to 44 percent from 1983 to 2003. Cereal consumption has declined even among those below the poverty line, according to the economist, Ashok Gulati’s analysis.

While we have been agonising over cotton farmers’ suicides, India has become silently the world’s second largest cotton producer, crossing the United States. NCDEX has become the world’s third largest agro-commodity exchange. The cotton revolution was made possible by the much reviled Bt cotton seed, which protects against bollworm, the dreaded pest which used to destroy half the crop. Misguided activists delayed its entry into India by 5 years.

The farm, meanwhile, has been shrinking. It is now 1.4 hectares--so small that it’s difficult to make a living. The only viable farming on small holdings is vegetables, poultry, and high value crops. But growing these is riskier. Hence, contract farming is a good idea. It transfers the risk from farmers to companies. Farmers lease their land; get employment; and a guaranteed return. The contracting company invests in better seeds, scientific practices, and raises productivity. Studies show that contracted farmers earn 30 to 100 percent higher. Punjab Agro, the government’s mediating company, has 160,000 acres under contract with 25,000 farmers. Some worry that marginal farmers will be left out, but curiously small holdings can be highly competitive because the family provides free labour.

In the long run, however, people will have to leave the farm. Too many Indians (57%) are trying to eke out a living from agriculture. Peasants have faced this dilemma in all societies: Is it better to starve on an unviable plot or become the urban proletariat in Marx’s words? Everywhere they have chosen the second alternative. This is why I favour the SEZs. With all their flaws, SEZs could create millions of jobs for unemployed farm youth in construction and other non-farm areas. I disagree with Sonia Gandhi--farmers should sell their unviable plots to SEZs in exchange for urban jobs. SEZs don’t need tax breaks; they need less red tape. They could be the tipping point for our industrial revolution (unless bureaucrats again kill SEZs at birth).

President Hu’s recent visit reminded us that China’s reforms began by privatising agriculture in 1978, and delivered even better results than our green revolution. Not only did agriculture boom, but their household responsibility system generated spectacular growth of labour intensive manufacturing in rural areas. Our green revolution achieved food self-sufficiency but didn’t make manufacturing linkages because of the Licence Raj. Unlike our first green revolution, the private sector will drive changes in the rural economy this time. This is the significance of the Mittal-Walmart deal. Politicians, farmers, activists don’t realise it, but Dalal Steet does. Hence, three mutual funds, primarily with rural portfolios, began in 2006. They comprehend that India could soon be feeding the Middle East.

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