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ByRamanjaneyulu GV

Future of Indian agriculture and small farmers: Role of policy, regulation and farmer agency

The distress among small farmers in India is market-driven to a large extent in both ways — too much protection (minimum support price) or too little   NEXT BLOG ❯

By Sukhpal Singh
Published: Tuesday 02 February 2021

Farm production sector contributes only 13 per cent of the Gross Domestic Product and engages 44 per cent workforce. Photo: Vikas Choudhary

The question of future of Indian agriculture has been around for some time now since the agrarian distress and crisis in the sector. It has become important in the context of the spate of recent reforms that include permitting private wholesale markets, contract farming, direct purchase from farmers and land leasing across states both under the earlier state-level Acts, and now under the central Acts.

But before this question is answered, it is important to profile the Indian agricultural sector and its major stakeholders, that is, land operating farmers-owners, tenants or leases.

It is common knowledge that the farm production sector contributes only 13 per cent of the gross domestic product (GDP) and engages 44 per cent workforce. This presents a dismal picture of the sector as compared with other sectors, as the earnings are poor.

It is also known that 85 per cent of India’s farmers operate less than five acres of land, half of which in many parts of India may be dry / rain-fed and only a part of their income comes from farming activity now with others coming from wages, off-farm and non-farm activities.

Farmers (especially small) suffer from product and market risks and depend on non-institutional sources of credit for productive and non-productive purposes, which are interlocked with other markets like produce in states like Punjab.

Small farmers contribute 51 per cent of agricultural output with 46 per cent of operated land, and a much higher share (70 per cent) in high-value crops. However, small farmers are less literate and from marginalised communities. They are generally excluded from modern market arrangements such as contract farming or direct purchase.

Agricultural reforms

In this context, the recent reforms aim at bringing new investments in the farm sector, especially from the private corporate sector — domestic and global. It is assumed that in order to get such investments, deregulation of the sector is needed in terms of output market and farm input as well as services market and land market.

However, what is forgotten is that the scale is neither needed nor possible through the kind of reform and channels being undertaken; they have little to do with farm size, with the exception of land leasing law and the opening up of ceilings of land holdings. This may have many other contextual limitations like large landlessness and farmer attachment to land more as a sustenance or moral economy of the peasant.

Some land-related reforms may not happen that easily. But, better access to land for marginal and landless farmers and, even more crucially, equitable access to water, is a must to improve the performance of the sector.

However, most of the above assumptions are either faulty or deliberately misperceived. For example, many studies show that small farms produce as much as or higher value of output per unit area than that produced by the medium or large farms, which refutes the argument that small farms cannot be the future of Indian agriculture.

For example, income from farming per month per hectare is Rs 4,236 in Bihar and only Rs 3,448 in Punjab because Punjab is less diversified (only 11 per cent area under F&V in Punjab compared with 35 per cent in Bihar) in its cropping pattern compared with Bihar, though it does not have efficient or regulated agricultural markets.

The average size of farm in Bihar is only 0.39 hacs and in Punjab it is 3.62 hacs. Therefore, it is not the size of the farm but what a farmer does on that farm, when, how, where, why and for whom and how much, which makes it viable or not.

Given the cereals-dominated cropping pattern, farmers can only earn so much from the small farms. This is evident in the fact that a majority of the famers cultivate paddy and wheat in significant part of gross cropped area (69 per cent in Punjab and 40 per cent in Bihar). There are limits to how much they can earn as price (MSP, which drives market prices) is given and available only to a fraction of farmers (less than 10 per cent), yields are given and cost of production can’t be manipulated much.

Market risks

Even in other crops, only a very small fraction of farmers get MSP benefit in a few states where procurement happens. Further, once the farmer takes farm produce to the mandi, s/he can’t bring it back.

The market risks include absence of market, poor price realisation, high transaction cost and poor bargaining power due to small size of marketed surplus, leading to low and unstable farm incomes of producers.

It is here that the role of market becomes crucial: Even if a farmer has produced efficiently but is not able to sell it well, the story is lost. Imagine the gains for Bihar farmers if it had Agricultural Produce Market Committee (APMC) markets and other marketing channels which are being promoted now and larger procurement at MSP.

Incidentally, Bihar has not seen too many farmer suicides, unlike Punjab. Therefore, MSP culture and too much reliance on low-value land intensive crops has been the culprit in many suicide-prone areas.

The distress among small farmers in India is, therefore, market-driven to a large extent in both ways — too much protection (MSP) or too little. 

The problem of small farmer livelihood is also aggravated due to small farmers suffering from several production risks such as drought, flood, lack of adequate use of inputs, poor extension leading to large yield gap, crop failure, etc.

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The production risk coverage, being attempted though crop insurance, has not worked well. It has been made voluntary for farmers and would further reduce the insured area from already inadequate coverage of 30 per cent.

Most problematic is the farmers’ reliance on traders, commission agents and moneylenders for credit, for institutional credit reaches only 65 per cent of them and more of small and marginal farmers are excluded from this net.

This private source borrowing leads to interlocking of credit and output, input and output, and credit and input markets where there is implicit over-pricing of farm inputs and under-pricing of farm output of the farmers. They can’t access other channels even if they offer better prices, as they don’t offer credit to farmers who are tied to traders and agents.

This restricts their freedom to choose channels provided by new APMC Acts and now central Acts. Further, if smallholders and tenants belong to lower castes, their access to credit may be limited either by way of complete denial of credit to such groups / persons or costly access because of higher rate of interest charged or unfavourable terms of repayment.

This makes their farming enterprise unviable. It is important to realise that smallholders suffer from high market and price fluctuation risk as well as institutional mechanisms to deal with. The prices are still determined and driven by APMC markets, which are still not adequately regulated and, in many cases, mistreat farmers.

New market channels (like contract farming and direct purchase) may emerge, but small farmers will continue to depend on APMC markets for many commodities.

Therefore, it is important to ensure fair functioning of such markets in terms of open auction, proper unloading and storage / handling of farmer produce especially perishable, which is generally auctioned from road side and filthy grounds and stopping of commission being charged to farmer sellers even in regulated markets in some states.

APMC markets also serve as the main competitors to contract farming and direct purchase channels that discover their prices based on APMC prices. Therefore, their better functioning can improve the terms offered to contract growers and direct sellers.

The future of agriculture in India depends on many existing and missing policies and directions of policy reforms. But, it is sad to note that India does not have a policy for the same. The sector loses its policy focus as it is a state subject, but practically being run by the Centre for long time. When the sector is faced with economic, social and environmental crisis, absence of policy is the major factor in the crisis not being attended by any stakeholder.

A pessimistic approach to farm sector saying it contributes only 13 per cent of GDP and engages 44 per cent workforce and, therefore, is as a liability, is the root cause of the policy distortions. On the other hand, if agricultural sector is seen as agribusiness sector that includes all activities performed on farm-based and allied raw produce right up to the retailing stage, it still contributes almost 25 per cent of GDP.

This perspective, argued by the author since 2007 and was recently acknowledged by World Bank, can pave the way for more meaningful policy and regulation for the sector. This perspective is needed to sustain livelihoods in this sector and avoid distress diversification or movement of people away from the sector.

Looking beyond market

Therefore, solutions go beyond produce markets; recent reforms are more about regulatory changes that do not really concern a majority of Indian farmers as they do not have access to APMC markets and other modern channels such as contract farming.

But, small farmers need to collectivise into groups and FPOs to lower transaction cost for private buyers and gain bargaining power in new markets.

Warehouse receipts system needs to be extended to all crops with expansion of facility to free farmers from credit and output linkage and avoid distress sale immediately after harvest and even get out of the inter-locked market situation.

There is no need for co-operative farming given the efficiency of even small farms. What is needed is pre-production and post production aggregation to buy better and sell better or to capture higher surplus in the food and fibre value chains.

Corporate farming has not worked anywhere globally and should not be encouraged in India; contract farming and producer agency through local institutions and networks can help sector perform better. Equally important is to train farm and allied sector workers, including women workers, to enable them to participate in modern and sustainable farm production.

The sector needs to engage with fair and responsible production and trade issues on a priority basis even for domestic markets. It is important to recognise that what matters is not just physical activities of the sector but its occupants and their livelihoods that would lead to more people-centric and meaningful policies.

A combination of livelihoods and agribusiness or value chain approach can help leverage the sector for betterment of its stakeholders i.e. farmers, workers and others around it.

Therefore, there is a need for a policy at union and state levels and even more effective regulation to protect small producer interest in a globalised market context to leverage the strengths of modern and large players in the agribusiness value chains for a win-win for all stakeholders involved so that inclusive and effective sustainable agricultural development could be attempted.

Therefore, there is a need for institutional innovations besides product, process and organisational innovations in the sector to deal with existing and emerging challenges and problems of sustainability in the sector which can be converted into opportunities.

The future of Indian agribusiness, including agriculture, would be bright if it is attended with people’s institutions like co-operatives and FPCs rather than relying mostly on corporate agencies.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earthकृषि से जुड़ी सभी खबरें हिंदी में पढ़ें।Agricultural Researchfarm billssmall farmersMinimum Support …AgricultureIndiaSubscribe to Weekly Newsletter : Donate Now POST A COMMENTAGRICULTURE

The future of Indian agriculture lies with ‘atmanirbhar’ farmers

Paradigm shift needed: Policy makers must shift focus to sustainability from production


By Kapil Shah
Published: Wednesday 27 January 2021

CORRIGENDUM: This article was corrected on January 28, 2021 to change to All agro-ecological farmers need special incentives not only in lieu of subsidies on chemical fertilisers from All agro-ecological farmers need special incentives not only through subsidies on chemical fertilizers as was originally published (date). The error is regretted.

The three contentious farm laws have forced us to think about the future of agriculture in a largely agrarian country dominated by small and marginal farmers. The prevalent chemical-intensive, monocrop-based, market-purchased-input dependent model has not only failed to benefit majority of the farmers but has also proved to be an ecological, social and financial failure.

Genetically modified crops have led to increased use of agrochemicals, failed to sustain the yield gains and increased control of corporations through intellectual property rights. Promoting unregulated private trade of farm produce is a part of the same paradigm.

India’s centuries-old farm practices are based on the principles of sustainability, innovative, hard-working and entrepreneurial farmers. Agro-ecology-based farming and its large network of scientific institutions combined with political will can certainly change the direction of farming in the country.

The paradigm shift has to begin with changing the mindset of policy makers from production-centric to sustainability-focused. They have yet to gain confidence in agro-ecological model of farming.

Boost agro-science

Recent attempts by NITI Aayog are welcome but unfortunately, they are primarily based on faith rather than science and evidence. India needs a good blend of wisdom of our traditions and techniques generated through globally used sustainability-focused science.

Unlike the green revolution, technological package under agro-ecology cannot be uniform. Each farm is unique. So, farmers should be exposed to some basic principles of agro-ecology and simple techniques, and then left free to experiment, innovate and implement what suites the local conditions.

Experience of the Krishipandits of immediate post-independence period, who were getting record yields with the use of local seeds and chemical-free techniques a decade prior to the green revolution, never became a part of syllabus in agricultural universities. Great scientists like Albert Howard, who appreciated the richness of traditional Indian agriculture a century ago, are still unknown to most of our farm scientists.

It is time to correct this mistake. We need to consider implementing a programme of re-learning farm sciences with a systematic approach and with help from successful agro-ecological farmers.Regulate input dealers

Knowledge system of our immensely talented farmers is dying under the influence of agro-input dealers. It was recently found that by providing credit, thousands of farmers around Muniguda (Odisha) were tempted to cultivate illegal herbicide-tolerant cotton along with uncontrolled use of toxic pesticides, polluting pristine forest.

Does this not amount to luring them in to a debt trap? Agro-input companies need to be regulated better urgently.

While farmers must have freedom to sell their produce to anyone they wish to, it should be a level playing field. During the last decade, most states have allowed private mandis, facilitated contract farming. Encouraging farmer producer organisers (FPO) and farmer-consumer markets eased interstate and e-trading though in a regulated manner.

Unregulated free trade, however, has led to distress, especially for small farmers in other countries. There is no reason to believe that such unregulated private market will bring different outcomes in India.

Even in India, there are enough examples showing failure of free market in states like Bihar and in the sugar industry. The diverse nature of Indian agriculture and its agri-markets can be better managed by respective state governments.

‘One size fit for all’ is an ill-advised change. Priority should be given to farmer-friendly marketing approaches like farmers’ market, farm shops and value addition at farm or village level.

FPOs are also not easy to set up everywhere. Difficulties start with convincing the farmers to cooperate, registering the FPO and complying with the official requirements.

Lucrative organic farming

Generally organic farmers are better placed to sell their produce but there is an urgent need to invest in ‘ease of doing business’ for farmers and their groups by giving exemptions in taxation and regulation. Farmers cannot be left at the mercy of private companies without strengthening their bargaining power.

Private companies should be regulated through licensing, transparency, bank guarantee, technology verifications, minimum support price, farmer-friendly conflict resolution mechanisms, compulsions related to infrastructure development and capping their procurements and stockings. There is certainly no place for corporate farming in the Indian context.

With the shrinking size of land-holding, co-operative and collective approaches seem to be the most viable option. The fruit, vegetable and sugar co-operatives in south Gujarat provide good examples.

APMCs need to be better regulated and guarded from influence of political powers.

All agro-ecological farmers need special incentives not only in lieu of subsidies on chemical fertilisers, which is around Rs 4,500 per hectare per year but also for providing ecological services like higher carbon sequestration, reducing water and energy use, improving soil health, conserving rain water, conserving bio-diversity through mixed cropping, live hedges and crop rotations as well as for not polluting environment.

Why do we need multinationals to convert potatoes into chips? Agro-processing as well as production of various kinds of microbial and botanical products is not rocket science and can be easily done at farm/village level with little scientific training and investment. It can employ millions of rural youth.

Seeds bred locally are the best bets. Seed-breeding famers, especially women, who are the real inventors and conservators of our seed heritage, need encouragement.

There is a great scope to recycle nutrients and energy contained in the biomass by implementing scientific composting programmes with the help of special microbial inoculants and small machinery in villages. Urban areas should return the nutrients drained from agricultural soil. Biogas-manure plants, from farm to city levels, need special boost. Locally available agri-inputs will reduce the cost of production and farmers’ money will circulate locally.

Most crops responded positively to organic practices and produced the same or higher yield (by 4 per cent to 14 per cent) after the conversion period of 2–3 years, according to studies conducted by Indian Council of Agriculture Research on organic farming.

This confirms the experience of thousands of farmers of almost all states including heartland of chemical farming like Punjab and Haryana, where many organic farmers did not have to compromise on yields along with reduced market dependence. They also managed to stay away from debt traps.

The large-scale adoption of organic farming in government and NGO programmes in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is proof that we have the requisite institutional capabilities as well.

Agro-ecology-based farming is not a fantasy; it is a well-established profession based on progressive science and technology. India can even lead global agriculture to this path.

The current farm protests should open our eyes and this should be considered as the ‘Tamasomajyotirgamaya’ moment of Indian agriculture whose future lies in true spirit of Atmanirbharata.

ByRamanjaneyulu GV

Multilayer cropping model under NREGS in AP

AP Government has brought in multilayer cropping models under NREGS in clusters where AP Community Managed Natural Farming is implemented.

a total of Rs. 2.15 lakhs per acre would be spend over 3 years. This will help small and marginal farmers to have integrated organic horticulture models in their farms.


AgricultureLawPoliticsIndiaExplained: How Changes in Agri-Produce Trade Laws Will Turn Hunger into Profit-Making Business

And yet, it is being tom-tommed as ‘freedom’ for farmers and ‘self-reliance’ for country!

Subodh Varma

07 Jun 2020

Agri-Produce Trade Laws Will Turn Hunger

Silently, and in double quick time, changes in laws related to cultivation, sale, stocking and pricing of agricultural produce – food grain, vegetables, etc. – have been proposed and disposed by the Narendra Modi government. Three ordinances relating to these key dimensions were given Presidential assent late on June 5 night, and they came into force “at once”. These were put on the table only last month by the finance minister as part of the so-called stimulus and cleared by the Cabinet only a couple of days ago.

There has been much jubilation in the mainstream media over these far- reaching policy changes, while most political parties, barring the Left, have been silent. It appears as if the government’s propaganda that these will allow farmers to sell their produce “anywhere” and “get best prices”, and that this will lead to all round prosperity, has been swallowed unquestioningly by most middle class.

As far as the farmers themselves are concerned, virtually all their organisations have opposed these wholesale changes. Cunningly brought in when the COVID-19 pandemic is raging in India and people are fighting for their lives, these changes will decisively hand over agricultural production and trade to big companies and traders, and thus, present an imminent danger to food security in a country that has about 200 million hungry people.

Here is what has happened and what it will lead to:

Changes in Essential Commodities Act (ECA)

This law, passed in 1955, empowered the government to lay limits to the amount of foodgrain stocks traders or companies could keep, as also cap the prices that could be asked for. It is being argued that the law was useful when India faced a foodgrain crisis but now that we have bumper harvests and sufficient production, it is useless if not an obstacle.

So, the new ordinance has inserted a sub-section saying that only in extraordinary circumstances like war, famine, natural calamity etc. can the government “regulate the supply of such foodstuffs, including cereals, pulses, potato, onions, edible oilseeds and oil”, and price caps will be triggered only when prices rise by 100% (for horticultural produce) and 50% for other non-perishable items.

The argument is spurious and patently false. Have a look at the availability of cereals and pulses in the charts below, using data from the government’s own Economic Surveys of different years.

chart 1 agri

The availability of cereals has been up and down, being determined by monsoons, but between 1965 and 2019, the increase is only about 26 grams per person per day, or 6% of the intake. That’s not enough to feel so confident about, because one bad monsoon will bring it down.

For pulses, the situation has considerably worsened, as can be seen from the chart below. Compared with 1965, people are eating nearly 14 grams less pulses per day – that’s a dip of over 22%. Remember that the availability figures are boosted by huge imports in recent years. If that were to stop, availability would plummet further.

Chart 2 agri

So, removal of stock and price restrictions will mean that big traders (or their cartels) can hoard a lot of stock and thus create scarcity, driving up prices. This is not a far-fetched scenario – it has happened repeatedly with onions even when the ECA was in force. Its “de-fanging”, as some media outlets were gleefully describing it, would be a windfall for monopoly traders and companies who speculate on prices. Profit from hunger.

Scrapping APMC Laws

The second ordinance issued on Friday night scraps the whole existing system of selling and buying agri-produce in India. The Agricultural Produce Market Committees (APMCs) are designated areas created by state governments where various agri-produce can be sold by farmers to licensed persons or commission agents. There were 2,477 principal markets and 4,843 sub-market yards throughout the country.

The purpose of this system was to ensure that greedy and powerful traders do not fleece farmers by paying them lower prices. These markets also became nodes for government procurement of foodgrains. Over the years, considerable corruption entered the system, with agents forming cartels to manipulate prices, or taking bribes to favour selected sellers, etc. However, by doing away with this system altogether, the Modi government has thrown the baby out with the bathwater. Now any trader can approach any farmer anywhere in the country and buy the produce, at whatever price they agree upon.

Since 64% of farmers in the country have small and marginal holdings, and thus will have small quantities of produce to sell, they will hardly be in a position to transport the produce over a long distance to a market/traded which offers a better price. In fact, they will be offered a shortcut by traders who will pick up the produce from them, from the farmgate itself, say. This process will see bigger traders with deeper pockets emerge as winners, swallowing up all the small fry. In these monopolistic conditions, they will also dictate prices and other terms.

Note that APMCs come under state government jurisdiction. But the ordinance specifically over-rides the state laws. The agriculture minister, when asked about this, reportedly claimed that agricultural trade was in the Central List of the Constitution and that is why they could bring this ordinance.

This will dovetail well with the changes in the ECA: traders will be able to hold as much stocks as they want. It will also help big agro-processing companies, including foreign behemoths, to freely buy up foodgrain or even perishables, in pursuit of their own interests. For instance, a biscuit or bread producer will buy up wheat stocks at will and stock them up, disregarding any effect this may have on wheat prices, or on availability of wheat, which is a staple in many parts of the country.

Thus, with this ordinance, the whole system of agri-produce trade has been privatised. The ordinance provides for an elaborate system of legal remedies if payments are not made as per terms. But, will the small farmer take on big companies in court cases that will run for years?

Contract Farming

The third ordinance lays down how farmers can enter into agreements with ‘sponsor parties’ to undertake contract farming, that is, of cultivating and providing certain specified produce in certain quantities, at a fixed price. This system is already in practice in scattered parts of the country. On the face of it, it looks like a beneficial system to farmers because of the promise of a fixed return.

But here are some of the faultlines:

a) prices offered may fall in the future as the sponsor party (usually a big company, often involved in agri-processing) will determine prices based on its own interests;

b) companies will push farmers to produce certain kinds of crops, say, potatoes (for chips) or tomatoes (for ketchup) and any such scaling up will affect the foodgrain output of the country, opening the doors to other companies offering to import the foodgrain. In other words, the country’s food security may be jeopardised;

c) the agreement between farmers and companies will be unequal because the latter have far more resources and power. So, dispute resolution or settling of terms will be very unequal and unjust;

d) Share croppers and other tillers of the soil will get thrown out though the ordinance says they shouldn’t be. The economics will motivate land owners to increase eviction.

e) agricultural workers and their wages or other rights have no place in the new dispensation.

In short, this change also shifts the balance against farmers and towards business houses and big traders, including foreign monopolies.

Seen as a package, the three ordinances thus upturn the present system to install a much more business and trader-friendly system. Neither farmers, agricultural workers, nor the common citizens in India (consumers) stands to benefit from these changes. All these changes do is to open the door to increased profits by agri-traders and agri-processing companies, both domestic and foreign.

This decision also fits in with the Modi government’s overall thrust to privatise everything – from public sector enterprises to healthcare, from education to defence, and from natural resources to space programme. All in the name of building a “self-reliant India”!


Statewise Report Cards on Ecological Sustainability of Agriculture in India

Economic & Political Weekly EPW Published on Saturday, june 29, 2019 vol lIV nos 26 & 27
Divya Veluguri ( is a research associate, Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health. Ramanjaneyulu G V ( is executive director, Centre for Sustainable Agriculture. Lindsay Jaacks ( teaches global health at the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.

The authors thank Joel Schwartz, Julie Lauren, Parthiba Basu and N Raghuram for their valuable insights. They would also like to acknowledge the financial support provided by the Fogarty International Center at the US National Institutes of Health, GeoHealth Hub Research and Capacity Building Program.
Agricultural productivity has increased dramatically in India over the past 50 years. Grain production has kept pace with the increasing population, with yields of rice and wheat exceeding current consumption (Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare 2017) and requirements for buffer stocks (Hussain 2018). Despite this unprecedented rise in food crop production, agriculture in India is in crisis. The past year has seen an eruption of farmers’ protests, with Gaon Bandh (Hindu 2018), Kisan Long March (Dhawale 2018) and Kisan Mukti March (Jeelani 2018) receiving widespread media coverage. Increasing input costs, decreasing returns and increasing cost of living (Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare 2017) have together led to low per capita income, high indebtedness, high poverty rate and high levels of agrarian distress as is evident in such mass protests. To address this issue, the government had set a goal of doubling farmers’ income by 2022 (Chand 2017), leading to much discussion on the economic crisis and solutions thereof.
An important and often overlooked aspect of the current crisis in India is the ecological sustainability of agriculture. Agriculture, by its very nature, is dependent on natural resources and ecosystem services. Thus, any plan for sustainable development in the agricultural sector must be cognisant of the need to preserve such natural resources as soil, arable land and water.
The United Nations (UN) Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), including, “Zero Hunger” (Goal 2), which India has committed itself to achieving, recognise the need for sustainable production practices in agriculture while “doubling the productivity and incomes of small-scale food producers,” aiming to
ensure sustainable food production systems and implement resilient agricultural practices that increase productivity and production, that help maintain ecosystems, that strengthen capacity for adaptation to climate change, extreme weather, drought, flooding and other disasters and that progressively improve land and soil quality. (SDGs 2015)
To alleviate farmers’ distress, it is crucial to manage the risks involved in production.1 A holistic approach to risk management needs to go beyond insuring for production loss, towards prevention. In recent years, there has been a fall in groundwater levels across the country, reduced crop diversity, increased incidence of pests and disease and increased soil degradation (Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare 2017), all of which contribute to an increased risk of production loss. Consecutive droughts in Maharashtra, for example, where groundwater sources have dried up in water-intensive sugar cane cultivated areas, partly due to high extraction for irrigation, have impacted not only the sustainability of agriculture in the region, but have also compounded social distress (Chitnis 2018).
Traditionally, the primary metric of success in agriculture has been crop yields. However, M S Swaminathan’s fifth and final report (2006) of the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) called for a shift away from this metric towards a new metric—net farmer income—as the primary indicator of agricultural success. We pose that it is also high time we consider the ecological dimension of farming as a preventative measure against farmer distress. It needs to be taken into account that there are natural limitations on increasing agricultural productivity, like the availability of soil, soil nutrients, water and energy for irrigation. Hence, all initiatives in agriculture—whether they be investments, incentives or regulations to encourage or discourage particular agricultural products, processes or practices—should consider dimensions of ecological sustainability, so to preserve natural resources for long-term use and promote farmer and environmental health.
Agricultural practices vary significantly across India, partly driven by eco-regional variations (Sehgal et al 1990). However, with agriculture being a state subject, state policies can have a large influence on production and sustainability. This creates a need for measuring sustainability at the state level for targeted policy action. This article is a first attempt to use existing, publicly available data reported by various departments of the Government of India to quantify, statewise, the ecological impacts of agriculture in India. Whilst we recognise that agriculture broadly encompasses crops, livestock, fisheries, aquaculture and forestry, the focus of this article will be limited to cropping systems.
Theoretical Framework
The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the UN has been tasked with measuring progress against SDG 2.4.1 (sustainable food production systems). In fulfilling this task, it has recently published a literature review, which summarises the “existing frameworks and methods for measuring and monitoring sustainable agriculture” (FAO 2017a). The FAO has compiled a list of 24 indicators of ecological sustainability, summarised in Table 1.

Based on this systematic review, the FAO has decided on the following individual indicators to evaluate progress on SDG 2.4.1. (FAO 2017b):
(i) In the domain of soil health: farm area affected by soil degradation.
(ii) In the domain of water conservation: inter-annual groundwater level detected over last five years.
(iii) In the domain of water conservation: nitrogen concentration in rivers and aquifers.
(iv) In the domain of biodiversity: Shannon Evenness Index2 above 0.3, average patch size lower than 2 hectare (ha) and edge density below 0.01.
Ideally, farm-level surveys will be used to collect these data and are aggregated at the country level. However, the methodological framework written for the indicator suggests that a combination of existing national data sets and remote-sensing satellite data may also be used for country-level reporting (FAO 2017b). It remains unclear how India’s SDG 2.4.1. indicators will be calculated and whether state-level calculations will be made. Moreover, these four individual indicators fail to capture key domains of ecological sustainability especially relevant to the Indian context like pest management and efficient use of inputs. Thus, we have proposed an expanded model.
Selection of Indicators
We identified data in India that matched the indicators in Table 1 and met the following criteria: (i) publicly available, (ii) state level, and (iii) periodically updated. Of the seven domains, we were able to identify suitable indicators for all but one, “Quality of Food.” We included an overarching indicator, the existence of a sustainable/natural/organic farming policy. Such a policy can be considered an important step in building a policy framework that is cognisant of agriculture’s dependence and impact on natural resources. In sum, we included 11 indicators in the state-wise report cards across six of seven domains. The rationale for each is provided in this section, whereas the source of the data is described in the following section.
In the domain of “Pest Management,” we used per hectare use of pesticides (kg/ha) as the indicator. A major limitation of our chosen indicator is that it is non-specific, and pesticides have a wide range of toxicities, mobility and persistence. Moreover, these data are self-reported at point of sale by pesticide dealers and therefore are likely to be underestimates. Nonetheless, this indicator is highly relevant to the Indian context because research suggests that environmental samples are highly contaminated with pesticides (Sharma et al 2014) and the cultivated area treated with pesticides is increasing (Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare 2016). Chemical pollution of water, land and air; the accumulation of persistent pollutants in biological systems; and loss of biodiversity are the direct ecological consequences of today’s industrialised agriculture system. Over the past 50 years, the species richness of pollinators has declined with a few pollinators even going extinct, a trend at least partially due to increased use of insecticides (Goulson et al 2015). The production of pesticides is also an energy-intensive process, having significant indirect effects on the environment through greenhouse gas emissions (Audsley et al 2009).
In the domain of “Fertiliser Use,” per hectare use of farm yard manure was used as the indicator.3 Availability of soil nutrients is a natural limiting factor of agricultural productivity, creating a dependency on synthetic fertiliser to maintain high yield. Such fertilisers are energy-intensive to produce, contributing to global warming. However, a majority of landholdings in India are small or marginal (Department of Agriculture Cooperation and Farmers Welfare 2016) and the country is home to one of the largest populations of cattle and buffaloes in the world (FAOSTAT 2016b). Together, this creates a huge potential for meeting soil nutrient requirements through efficient use of farm yard manure. Waste from cattle available on farms can be efficiently processed into biogas and slurry to be used as manure. This reduces emissions through decomposition and dependency on firewood or cooking gas while providing manure for plant growth. Although adoption of such practices is rapidly increasing, data on the extent is currently unavailable, so per hectare use of farm yard manure was chosen as an indicator. Farm yard manure has beneficial impacts on soil organic carbon (Purakayastha et al 2008) and overall soil health, and the use of farm yard manure can also reduce dependency on expensive inputs such as synthetic fertiliser with co-benefits for the environment (Schröder 2005). The Input Survey, conducted every five years by the Government of India, is a valuable source of information on the farm-level use of synthetic and organic fertilisers. We only included per hectare use of farm yard manure from the Input Survey. We did not include the use of green manure nor the use of synthetic fertilisers as indicators for this study because: (i) only 1% of total landholdings sampled across India used green manure (Agriculture Census 2016),4 and (ii) synthetic fertiliser use recommendations vary depending on the cropping pattern and specific nutrient deficiencies of any given plot of soil.
In the domain of “Soil Health,” we used two indicators:
(i) soil organic carbon and (ii) percent agricultural land undergoing desertification/degradation. As the primary source of nutrients for crops, healthy soil is an essential component of agriculture, as having healthy foods is essential for human health. The measurement of soil quality is complex and involves various chemical, physical and biological indicators. The first of our chosen indicators, soil organic carbon, is one of the most important components of soil (USDA 2009). It is a source of energy for soil microorganisms and plants and increases nutrient and moisture retention capacity of the soil (Cornell University Cooperative Extension 2016). High soil organic carbon indicates higher microbe diversity, which may improve crops’ resistance to pests and disease (USDA 2009). Moreover, soil organic carbon plays an important direct role in climate change mitigation: well-managed soil can be an important carbon sink (USDA 2001). While there are state-level data available on soil pH, soil N:P:K ratio and soil micronutrients, we chose not to include these indicators because it is difficult to interpret them without information on the cropping patterns and nutritional deficiencies of any given plot of soil.
Closely related to declines in soil organic carbon is land degradation, defined as, “the temporary or permanent decline in the productive capacity of the land and the diminution of the productive potential” (Stocking 2001). This is relevant in the Indian context because an estimated 29% (ISRO 2016) of the total land area of the country is undergoing degradation or desertification, with important implications for the sustainability of current agricultural practices. We selected the overall indicator of agricultural land classified as “degraded.” More specific data on land degradation due to soil salinity are also available at the state level, but all states had degradation due to salinity levels less than 1% of total land area, with the exception of Gujarat at 4% (ISRO 2016).
In the domain of “Water Conservation,” we used three indicators: (i) percent groundwater development, (ii) percent wells classified as “safe,” and (iii) percent districts with nitrate concentration above permissible limits. As per the 2010–11 Agriculture Census, only 46% of cultivated area in India was irrigated, with 62% of irrigated area fed by groundwater, the rest being fed mostly by canals (25%) and tanks (6%). Yet, nearly 90% of extracted groundwater in India is used for irrigation, compared to just 9% for domestic and industrial use (CGWB 2017a). The Water Resources Institute reports that 54% of groundwater sources in India have decreasing water levels (Shiao 2015). Many states provide highly subsidised or free electricity for agriculture and some also subsidise drilling for new wells. Improvements in technology like cheap and easily accessible solar panels (Gulati and Pahuja 2012) will make it more difficult for the government to regulate exploitation of groundwater resources. Hence, it is crucial to monitor year-on-year depletion of aquifers and implement an effective water management strategy.
Groundwater development is defined as the current annual groundwater draft divided by the net annual groundwater availability, expressed as a percent (CGWB 2015). Groundwater development is a year-on-year measurement and can signal changes in groundwater use. The Groundwater Board of India measures the depth of blocks/watersheds/mandals/talukas/firkas across the country. The natural recharge capacity of these units is used to determine the quantity of water that is safe for extraction during a year. Units are considered “safe” if the stage of groundwater development is no more than 90% and there has been no significant decline in pre- or post-monsoon levels over the past 10 years. “Significant” decline is defined by the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) as a decline in water level of 10–20 cm per year over a 10-year period (CGWB 2015). A lower percentage of groundwater sources being classified as “safe” indicates poor long-term performance.
The FAO-SDG measurement of sustainability considers nitrogen levels in groundwater as an indicator of water quality and sustainability. High levels of nitrogen in drinking water are harmful for human health (Ward et al 2005) and use of nitrogen fertiliser is the largest source of nitrogen in Indian watersheds (Swaney et al 2015). Existing publicly available data on nitrate contamination in groundwater at the district level were used for this indicator (CGWB 2016). However, key limitations of these data are that they do not indicate what percent of groundwater units are contaminated, nor the level of contamination. Contamination of rivers and streams with agricultural run-off is also a major cause for concern. Low use efficiency, of both synthetic fertiliser or farm yard manure means that nutrients can be leached from the soil, polluting waterbodies and damaging both freshwater and marine ecosystems. However, river basins are spread across multiple states, and state-level data on water quality of all waterbodies, along with source of contamination is currently unavailable.
In the domain of “Biodiversity,” we used the number of crops that cover half of the total cropped area as the indicator. India is one of the most agro-biodiverse regions in the world. However, the introduction of hybrid seed varieties as part of the green revolution has led to the replacement of many indigenous seeds in cultivation (Chaudhuri 2005). While this has increased yields, it has also led to decreased crop diversity and mono-cropping in many states across the country. As a simplified indicator of diversity in the cropping pattern, the number for most-cultivated crops covering 50% of total cropped area in a given year was calculated. For example, if 50% or more of total cropped land is rice paddy, then this indicator would be 1. The Directorate of Economics and Statistics reports cropped area under rice, wheat, maize, millets, pulses, oilseeds, sugar cane, fiber crops and horticulture crops. Various coarse grains (including millets), pulses and oilseeds were considered individual crops and not aggregated. For horticulture crops, fruits, vegetables and plantation crops were considered individually but cropped area under flowers, spices and aromatic and medicinal plants was aggregated. There are several limitations to this indicator, including that it fails to consider the diversity within each crop type.
In the domain of “Efficient Use of Inputs,” we used three indicators: (i) per hectare electricity use in agriculture (kWh/ha), and two proxy indicators of greenhouse gas emissions, (ii) percent area of paddy under irrigation (as a proxy of methane emissions), and (iii) per hectare use of nitrogen fertiliser (as a proxy of nitrous oxide emissions). For agriculture to be resource-efficient, it must also be energy efficient. Consumption of electricity is an important indicator for India since the country is heavily dependent on thermal power (CEA 2018), a major source of greenhouse gases and other pollutants. High use of electricity could also signal low water-use efficiency as the provision of free or subsidised electricity provides most farmers with little incentive to adopt practices to reduce energy use or increase water-use efficiency (Gulati and Pahuja 2012).
Agriculture accounted for 18.3% of national greenhouse gas emissions in India in 2015, primarily methane and nitrous oxide (MoEFCC 2015). This is an underestimate because it does not account for emissions from manufacturing of fertilisers and pesticides. We could not identify state-level agriculture sector emission data within the past 10 years. India’s agricultural emissions inventory reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change calculates emissions from five sources: enteric fermentation, manure management, rice cultivation, agricultural soils and field burning of crop residues. Emissions through enteric fermentation and manure management are dependent on livestock systems, which were not the focus of this study of cropping systems. Crop residue burning accounted for 2% of total greenhouse emissions reported from agriculture but no recent estimate of proportion of residue burned by state were available. Thus, we focused on agricultural soils and rice cultivation.
Agricultural soils are an important source of nitrous oxide. While nitrous oxide is released as part of the natural nitrogen cycle, 83% of total nitrous oxide is from direct emissions.5 The most recent estimate for India, based on 2007 data (Bhatia et al 2013), indicates that the use of synthetic fertiliser accounts for 69% of direct nitrous oxide emissions in India. As no other state-level agriculture emissions data within the past 10 years could be identified, per hectare consumption of nitrogen fertiliser was used as a proxy indicator (Patra 2017). Rice cultivation is an important source of methane due to the anaerobic conditions under which rice is grown. Rice cultivation accounts for 18% of total agricultural emissions and 44.5% of emissions from cropping systems, with irrigated, continuously flooded cultivation of rice being the predominant source (Manjunath et al 2015; MoEFCC 2012). Rice cultivated using single or multiple aerations, or under rain-fed conditions, has significantly lower emissions (MoEFCC 2012). As the recent state-level disaggregated data on rice paddy area under different water regimes is unavailable, total area under irrigated rice paddy cultivation was used for this indicator (Gupta et al 2009; Manjunath et al 2015).
Data Sources and Methodology
Table 2 (p 23) is a summary of the methodology used to calculate each indicator, along with the associated cut-points to categorise states into bins of “poor performance,” “mediocre performance” or “high performance.” Each indicator is chosen to measure performance in a broad domain. The source of data for each indicator is listed along with the publication date. The year of the data is listed in a separate column. Any calculations made by the authors are specified, along with the applicable formulas. All cut-points based on the mean of states were defined as <mean, high performance; mean +1 SD, mediocre performance; >mean +1 SD, poor performance, except for use of farm yard manure, which was defined as <mean, low performance; mean +1 SD, mediocre performance; >mean +1 SD, high performance.

State-level Report Card
A summary of the state-level values and classification (black [poor performance], grey [mediocre performance] and white [high performance]) for each of the eleven indicators is presented in Figure 1. States are organised geographically, approximately north to south, grouped together broadly based on the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s agroclimatic zones (Sehgal et al 1990). The zones represented in each state are given in the left-most column.

We found strong, scientific evidence of variations in the ecological sustainability of agricultural practices across states in India. Several notable trends emerged. First, states with a higher portion of agricultural area performed worse across indicators. Punjab and Haryana (the “bread basket” of India), with the highest percentage of agricultural land, were characterised by high use of pesticides, low soil organic content, depletion of groundwater levels, a dominant rice–wheat crop cycle, high use of electricity, 100% paddy under irrigation and widespread nitrate contamination of groundwater. Telangana is performing similarly, with over 50% of total agricultural land cultivated with cotton and rice. None of the three states have a farming policy on the books outlining plans for improving the sustainability of practices.
Second, soil health is clearly one of the biggest challenges facing India’s agricultural system in terms of ecological sustainability. Nearly half (14/29; 48%) of the states were characterised by low soil organic carbon and for 38% of states, more than one-fifth of their agricultural land was degraded. Indeed, in Jharkhand, Odisha and Tripura, more than half of agricultural land is classified as degraded. This is likely a result of the terrain and meteorological conditions in these states, such as heavy rainfall concentrated in a few months of the year, characteristic of the Indian monsoon. There is a need to take up special efforts to conserve agricultural soils in these states. In order to replenish soil organic carbon and promote soil health, several sustainable options have yet to be fully explored. For example, the use of farm yard manure was low across states, with only five states using more than 2,000 kg per hectare; so untapped opportunities exist to increase the use of farm yard manure. Reducing burning and incorporation of crop residues can also help increase organic carbon in many states.
Third, states with the highest rate of energy usage and percent of paddy under irrigation (for example, Andhra Pradesh/Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Punjab and Haryana) tended to have the greatest groundwater development with the exceptions of Uttar Pradesh and Rajasthan where energy usage was relatively lower. Importantly, whilst the states of Andhra Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh had similar performance in terms of wells classified as “safe” (74%), Uttar Pradesh is drawing a larger percentage of groundwater annually (74% compared to 44% in Andhra Pradesh), indicating greater concern about the sustainability of the state’s aquifers. To address water conservation across states, increased water use efficiency, watershed management and water budgeting, supplemented with a combination of pricing policy, direct transfer to farmers or community-led management of water resources are needed (Gulati and Pahuja 2012).
Only six out of 21 states with data had more than three crops covering half of land area. With government schemes, such as “Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India,” aimed at promoting production and productivity in eastern India (Department of Agriculture and Cooperation 2015), there is a need to ensure effective strategies for crop diversification in the states targeted by the scheme, that is, West Bengal, Assam, Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, Eastern Uttar Pradesh, all of which have only one or two crops covering a majority of total cropped area (Figure 1). Several opportunities exist to support crop diversification, for example, India currently imports 60% of its oilseeds (Ghosal 2017), but these could instead be produced domestically.
Nine states had more than 61% of paddy under irrigation, a significant source of methane emissions. With the exception of Odisha and Kerala, all of these states are also seeing low or mediocre performance on groundwater indicators. A shift towards practices like SRI (System of Rice Intensification) (Uphoff 2003), with single or multiple aerations, could have a ninefold reduction in emissions and promote water conservation in these states (MoEFCC 2012). With respect to per hectare use of nitrous fertiliser, a proxy of nitrous oxide emissions, four states with highest emissions were also those with highest proxy emissions of methane: Punjab, Haryana, Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. Bihar and Uttarakhand also had notably high proxy emissions of nitrous oxide, though relatively low proxy emissions of methane.
The Government of India has been promoting organic farming through various schemes like the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, National Programme for Organic Production, National Mission for Organic Agriculture and is also implementing a mission to improve the organic value chain in the North East (ASFAC 2016). Other states have also taken steps towards sustainable practices by adopting suitable policies. For example, Kerala’s organic farming policy was adopted in 2009, and is being bolstered by the state’s organic farming scheme (Directorate of Agriculture 2016). Sikkim is the first state in India to be declared fully organic (PTI 2016). Andhra Pradesh has adopted the Zero Budget Natural Farming model of organic agriculture and aims to transition the state’s 6 million farmers into chemical-free agriculture by 2024 (United Nations Environment Programme 2018). Ten states have adopted organic farming policies, but various other states, like Arunachal Pradesh, Goa and Chhattisgarh, have declared schemes or missions to promote organic farming. Tripura and Manipur are considering following in Sikkim’s footsteps to be fully organic. However, beyond the adoption of Zero Budget Natural Farming, states also need to take note of decreasing water resources and crop diversity.
Other states like Telangana and Tamil Nadu have draft organic farming policies. Punjab has put in place a statutory body called the “Punjab State Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Commission” for the welfare of those dependent on agriculture. The draft farmers’ policy published by the commission takes clear note of the resource constraints being faced by the state, along with the ecological impact of production practices and aims to conserve resources and promote organic farming (PSFC 2018).
Gaps and Suggestions
The data used for this report card are aggregate numbers at the state level, but farm-level numbers are likely to vary substantially within a state for most of these indicators. Survey-based data collection in India is done every five years for agricultural inputs through the Input Survey, and could be expanded and used to collect farm-level data on sustainability in line with the FAO recommended methodology. Like the National Family Health Survey, data collection must become more frequent for timely management and reliable information for policymakers. Seventy-one agricultural universities are recognised across the country by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (Research ICoA 2018), and students can be deployed for more frequent data collection, with the co-benefit of providing valuable field experience. The ability to aggregate data on all sustainability indicators at the block, district and state levels will support decentralised planning and action.
In order to address limitations, particularly related to the specificity and breadth of our indicators, we propose that the following additional data could be collected:
(i) Disaggregated data on type of pesticides (including type and quantity of active ingredient) sold and used (by crop) should be available at the state level. A centrally controlled tracking system, similar to the one used for tracking of fertiliser sales, may be implemented. This would enable the calculation of an Environmental Impact Quotient (Kovach et al 1992) or similar calculation for a more accurate understanding of the health and environmental impact of various pesticides.
(ii) Farm-level estimations of soil health and fertiliser application rates must be paired with information on the recommended use of quantity by crop type. The currently published Soil Health Card data with aggregated soil quality indicators at the state level can also be used to calculate state-level deviation from recommended use of fertiliser (if made available for all crops based on existing nutrient deficiency), but will not be able to capture intra-state, farm-to-farm variability.
(iii) Data published by the CGWB should be updated annually. The most recent available data is from 2013, but the extraction of groundwater may have changed significantly in the past five years. Water Resources Information and Management System of the Andhra Pradesh Water Resources Department is an example of a positive step in this direction for the dynamic measurement and evaluation of water availability through various sources in the state. The portal currently reports changes in groundwater level with a one-year reference, but a longer-term comparison could prove useful for better planning. A similar system to report national, statewise data could prove invaluable.
(iv) As emissions from rice paddy vary based on the type of cultivation, this data must be available at the state level. Currently available data is a national estimate, that is used to calculate India’s emissions inventory reported to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC).
(v) Up-to-date disaggregated data on the cropping patterns for the eight smallest states (with total sown area under 5,00,000 ha) is not reported by the National Statistics Office. Availability of this data will allow for the calculation of the proxy indicator proposed in this article.
(vi) As India is one of the most agro-biodiverse regions in the world, a systematic effort to collect and report the diversity in cultivated crops should be taken up. While some universities and research centres across India have made an effort to collect and preserve indigenous crop varieties, cultivation of these diverse varieties could help agriculture in India become more resilient to the risks posed by climate change.
(vii) While the burning of crop residues in the north-west of the country has garnered much attention, the practice is prevalent and perhaps increasing across many other states. Estimates of crop residue burned should be reported by the agricultural departments of each state as a first step towards prevention. Existing estimates show that some amount of burning happens in all states, but is most prevalent in Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, West Bengal, Haryana, Maharashtra, Karnataka, West Bengal, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Bihar and Andhra Pradesh (Bhatia et al 2013).
(viii) There is currently no data available on practices of intercropping or mixed cropping. Calculating a diversity index at the farm level will help fill this gap in information. The Shannon evenness index proposed by the FAO may also be used if reported at the state level.
(ix) There is evidence to suggest that changing environmental conditions may decrease the nutritional quality of food (Myers et al 2015). Assessments of the nutritional values of food grown in India can be done periodically to monitor the possible impact.
Looking ahead to the future, these report cards should be updated every two years. Several studies have suggested that if states pursue unsustainable paths and continue to deplete soil quality, leading to further degradation of land and water resources, productivity will decline. The ongoing monitoring of agricultural practices through these report cards should lead to better use of on-farm resources, reductions of external inputs and greater cropping diversity, thereby promoting not only ecological sustainability and resilience, but also economic sustainability among farmers in India.
1 The Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bhima Yojana has been launched to insure farmers against such risks. However, increasingly unreliable production has driven up the cost of the premium. Insurance rates for certain crops in Rajashthan, Maharashtra and Telangana have ranged between 30% and 60% of the cost of cultivation, often times more than the profit made by the cultivating farmers.
2 Shannon evenness index is a measure of the composition of species in a given land area. It ranges between zero (indicating no evenness) and one (indicating complete evenness that is, all species counted in the area are equally abundant).
3 Farmyard manure is prepared by putting agricultural wastes in a pit for decomposition and composting.
4 Green manure refers to cultivation of a specific type of vegetation with the intention of ploughing it back into the soil when the leaves are tender and easily decomposable.
5 Calculated from use of synthetic or organic fertilisers, deposited manure, crop residues and compost. “Indirect” emissions are based on nitrogen run-off from fertilised soils.
6 As delineated in Sehgal et al (1990).
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Dimensions of Farmers’ Indebtedness: Who is Indebted?

Farmers are often forced to take additional loans to service current loans. Juggling a large number of standing loans can take a toll on their overall well-being.

This is part one of a two-part series exploring the phenomenon of farmers’ indebtedness in India

Indeed, indebtedness has been at the heart of every major farmers’ movement that India has witnessed, both in colonial and post-colonial times. Whether it is the Deccan Riots of 1875 or the Telangana Struggle of 1949-51, or the more recent Kisan Long March earlier this year and the upcoming Chalo Dilli, the problem of indebtedness has been at the root of farmers’ angst, and relief from it one of their key demands.
Defining indebtedness 
So, what is farmers’ indebtedness? Who among the farmers is more likely to be indebted? These are the questions that I address in my two-part essay. I use data from the All India Debt and Investment Survey for the years 19922003, and 2013, collected by National Sample Survey Office (NSSO) to look at these dimensions of farmers’ indebtedness.
Indebtedness has been described as impoverishment by debt (Guerin, I, 2013), or as a situation where a household is caught in spiral debts (Taylor M, 2011). Taylor further described it as a situation where there are a large number of standing loans, a high rate of interest, and no real hope of clearing the principal amount.
Scholars have measured indebtedness in a wide variety of ways. Some have used a self-reported sense of being indebted, using indicators like attitudes towards earning, saving, and spending money while others have looked at the frequency of taking loans and participation in debt markets. Yet others have looked at the extent to which households sacrificed basic needs, witnessed a dilution of their economic coping strategies and an erosion in the households’ ability to live with honour.
Also read: For the Third Time in Three Months, Farmers to Protest in Delhi
The NSSO looks at indebtedness along three axes; the number of standing loans, the average amount outstanding at the time of survey, and the ratio of the total amount outstanding to the total value of assets (called debt-to-asset ratio or DAR). In this part of the essay, I focus on the standing loans.
Survey findings
How many farmer households have a standing loan or uncleared loans? According to the data from AIDIS, more than 70% of the rural population has one or more standing loans. Nearly 74% of the farmer households were in debt in 2013, as opposed to 64% of the non-farmer households. Since 1993, the percentage of farmer households in debt has increased by more than 12 percentage points. Prima facie, a higher proportion of large farmers are in debt, than those with marginal and small  landholdings; similarly, a higher proportion of farmer households in the top quintile are in debt when compared to those in the lower quintiles.
Digging deeper into the data reveals a more nuanced story. I find that caste is an important determinant of whether a household has standing loans or not. For instance, a household from the Scheduled Caste (SC) community is more likely to have a standing loan than those in the general category, as is a household belonging to the other backward caste (OBC).

Percentage of Farmers Indebted. Source: NSSO 1992, 2003 & 2013. All figures are percentages. Source: NSSO 1992, 2003, and 2013

A farmer household in 2013 is 22 percentage points more likely to have a standing loan than a farmer in 1992. Thus, the likelihood of a farmer being in debt has been increasing over the past two decades. Among the states, farmers from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Punjab, Kerala, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, and West Bengal are more likely to have a standing loan than those in other parts of the country.
Having a standing loan is only a small sliver of the story. In order to better gauge indebtedness, we need to look at the number of standing loans that a farmer household has. On an average, in 2013, a farmer household was likely to have 20 percentage points higher number of standing loans than a non-farming household. Among farmers, SC households had a higher number of standing loans than a household from the general category. More significantly, a  farming household in 2013 would have had 132 percentage points more standing loans than a farming household in 1992; a clear indication that the proclivity to borrow has increased significantly over the past two decades.
Among the states, farmers from Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Punjab, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and West Bengal are likely to have a higher number of standing loans than the farmers elsewhere. It seems to be more than a coincidence that farmers from some of these states are participating in large numbers in the various movements and struggles that we are witnessing today.

Also read: Agricultural Loans Worth Rs 59,000 Crore Went to 615 Accounts in One Year

This is a hard question to answer for it can vary from person to person. For instance, a salaried employee may be able to service two to three loans comfortably. But for a small farmer to service even two loans might be very difficult. What these numbers suggest is a higher dependence on loans among farmers.
During June-July 2018, I  visited a few villages in Sangareddy district, Telangana, and Anantapur, Andhra Pradesh to take stock for my dissertation, and had an opportunity to interact with a few farmers. What came across through those conversations was the sheer everydayness of loans in their lives. Whether it be because the bank was taking its time disbursing the loan or because someone at home got ill or because the household had to host a large number of guests and they had run out of ready cash, debt stepped in to address each of these situations, and more.

Mean number of Standing Loans. Source: NSSO 1992, 2003 & 2013

One farmer I spoke to mentioned that although he had a particularly good crop that season, because the middleman who sold his produce at the market took long to return with the proceeds, he lacked access to money for the next cropping season; and so he had to borrow. Another thing that transpired during my interactions with farmers, something that is widely acknowledged today, is how farmers are forced to take additional loans to service current loans. As one farmer in Sangareddy mentioned, if a lender gets too restive, the borrower simply takes money from another lender and repays the former.
Done repeatedly, juggling a large number of standing loans can take a toll on the overall well-being of farmer. The number of standing loans does not, however, fully explain the sense of despair due to indebtedness among farmers. In the second part of my essay, I look at the debt-to-asset ratio to understand the extent of indebtedness.

Sandeep Kandikuppa is a Doctoral student at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill.


Mahaboobnagar reeling under drought

The crisis is further aggravated by the changed cropping patterns. today has 30% area under cotton, about 30% area under orchard crops and 15% each under paddy and hybrid maize which are water guzzling.
The district which receives on average 500 mm rainfall is increasingly seeing deficit in no. of rainy days. for example in July, Amangal dist received 25% of the monthly average rainfall only in a day and rest of the days were dry.
Government should immediately focus on

  • protecting any crop which is surviving. this needs plans for protective irrigation. any tubewells in the village should be blocked for use to grow water intensive crops like paddy and be shared with other farmers to protect the crop by paying suitable compensation
  • planning short term pulse crop like greengram or horsegram in areas where sowing have not happend or where crop has already failed.
  •  completely stopping paddy cultivation in rabi season
  • discouraging organge plantations
  • provide relief in terms fodder and water to support livestock

and as a long term measure plan for

  • shift from cotton, maize and paddy to millets, pulses and oilseeds
  • insitu water harvesting at the farm level

Santakumar Committee Report on Restructuring FCI
2015 Report of the High Level Committee on Reorienting the Role and Restructuring of FCI_English_1


Major study documents benefits of organic farming

By Eric Sorensen, WSU science writerbenbrook-80
PULLMAN, Wash. – The largest study of its kind has found that organic foods and crops have a suite of advantages over their conventional counterparts, including more antioxidants and fewer, less frequent pesticide residues.
The study looked at an unprecedented 343 peer-reviewed publications comparing the nutritional quality and safety of organic and conventional plant-based foods, including fruits, vegetables and grains. The study team applied sophisticated meta-analysis techniques to quantify differences between organic and non-organic foods.


Quality of studies improves

“Science marches on,” said Charles Benbrook, a Washington State University researcher and the lone American co-author of the paper published in the British Journal of Nutrition. “Our team learned valuable lessons from earlier reviews on this topic, and we benefited from the team’s remarkable breadth of scientific skills and experience.”
Most of the publications covered in the study looked at crops grown in the same area on similar soils. This approach reduces other possible sources of variation in nutritional and safety parameters.
The research team found the quality and reliability of comparison studies has greatly improved in recent years, leading to the discovery of significant nutritional and food safety differences not detected in earlier studies. For example, the new study incorporates the results of a research project led by WSU’s John Reganold that compared the nutritional and sensory quality of organic and conventional strawberries grown in California.
Responding to the new paper’s results, Reganold said, “This is an impressive study, and its major nutritional findings are similar to those reported in our 2010 strawberry paper.”

Organic plants produce more antioxidants

The British Journal of Nutrition study was led by scientists at Newcastle University in the United Kingdom, with Benbrook helping design the study, write the paper and review the scientific literature, particularly on studies in North and South America.
In general, the team found that organic crops have several nutritional benefits that stem from the way the crops are produced. A plant on a conventionally managed field will typically have access to high levels of synthetic nitrogen and will marshal the extra resources into producing sugars and starches. As a result, the harvested portion of the plant will often contain lower concentrations of other nutrients, including health-promoting antioxidants.
Without the synthetic chemical pesticides applied on conventional crops, organic plants tend to produce more phenols and polyphenols to defend against pest attacks and related injuries. In people, phenols and polyphenols can help prevent diseases triggered or promoted by oxidative damage, like coronary heart disease, stroke and certain cancers.
Overall, organic crops had 18 to 69 percent higher concentrations of antioxidant compounds. The team concludes that consumers who switch to organic fruit, vegetables and cereals would get 20 to 40 percent more antioxidants. That’s the equivalent of about two extra portions of fruit and vegetables a day, with no increase in caloric intake.

10 to 100 times fewer pesticide residues

The researchers also found pesticide residues were three to four times more likely in conventional foods than organic ones, as organic farmers are not allowed to apply toxic, synthetic pesticides. While crops harvested from organically managed fields sometimes contain pesticide residues, the levels are usually 10-fold to 100-fold lower in organic food, compared to the corresponding, conventionally grown food.
“This study is telling a powerful story of how organic plant-based foods are nutritionally superior and deliver bona fide health benefits,” said Benbrook.
In a surprising finding, the team concluded that conventional crops had roughly twice as much cadmium, a toxic heavy metal contaminant, as organic crops. The leading explanation is that certain fertilizers approved for use only on conventional farms somehow make cadmium more available to plant roots. A doubling of cadmium from food could push some individuals over safe daily intake levels.

Team surveys more and better studies

More than half the studies in the Newcastle analysis were not available to the research team that carried out a 2009 study commissioned by the UK Food Standards Agency. Another review published by a Stanford University team in 2011 failed to identify any significant clinical health benefits from consumption of organic food, but incorporated fewer than half the number of comparisons for most health-promoting nutrients.
“We benefited from a much larger and higher quality set of studies than our colleagues who carried out earlier reviews,” said Carlo Leifert, a Newcastle University professor and the project leader.
The Newcastle study cost about $429,000 and was funded by the European Framework Programme 6, which is a research program of the European Union, and the Sheepdrove Trust, a private charity that supports research on sustainability, diversity and organic farming.
Contact: Chuck Benbrook, research professor, Washington State University, 541-828-7918,


GM case hearing Today: Read how PMO is trying to push

A 2-judge Bench in the Supreme Court has been listening to arguments in the GMOs PIL since yesterday, on field trials, on the TEC (Technical Expert Committee) recommendations. Today’s hearing is crucial.The Government and proponents have been pushing GMOs giving arguments like:
– they are needed for the country’s food security (THE FORMER MOEF HERSELF HAS WRITTEN A STRONG LETTER TO THE PM CONTESTING THE FOOD SECURITY ARGUMENTS – text of this letter attached);
– the nation’s scientists will feel demoralised if we ban GM since we have made so much investments so far (LET THE FARMERS WHO ARE DEMORALISED AND ARE COMMITTING SUICIDES WITH THE RISKINESS OF BT COTTON BE DAMNED??),
– that nothing adverse has happened in our regulation since 2007 from the time SC gave a go-ahead for field trials (ignoring that the Ministry of Agriculture’s own Sopory Committee report pointed out that contamination has happened between Bikaneri Bt cotton and Monsanto’s Bt cotton inside an agriculture university –; ignoring evidence brought out of violations in field trials in Jharkhand and other places; I ATTACH HERE SIX SOLID INSTANCES WHEN OUR REGULATORS HAVE FAILED GROSSLY; THE FACT THAT THERE IS SO MUCH ILLEGAL HERBICIDE TOLERANT COTTON ALL AROUND US IS PROOF ENOUGH.
– that we can’t learn better regulation from countries like Norway since only 2% of their population depends on agriculture – AS THOUGH LEARNING FROM THE USA IS OK, WHERE LESS THAN 2% OF POPULATION DEPENDS ON AGRICULTURE!!!;
– that Dr Paroda is very good with his views, ignoring how this man’s organisation receives funding from Mahyco and others;  and ignoring that the point in question is biosafety and five other independent, “un-conflicted” experts in the field of biosafety are having a unanimous view on what should be done now when they have in their majority TEC report etc).

“Despite my insistence that MoEF should file a separate affidavit……The elaborate comments on both reports – the 5 member TEC and Dr Paroda’s dissent note and the views of Government of INdia contained from pages 6 to page 33, are not reflective of my views or that of MoEF. These are the views of MoA. It is not known on what basis these views have been taken and whether the views of environmental scientists have been recorded with agricultural scientists. These submissions require modification and may perhaps be deleted due to time constraint in sorting out the differences”, Jayanthi Natarajan says, amongst other things. While the final affidavit may or may not be the same as the draft that she is referring to, some of us who got to see the final affidavit of the UoI submitted in the Court can see what she is objecting to.  (JN-ltr-to-PM)

The GM issue has JN-ltr-to-PM always been bewildering in terms of the pressure that comes from the top-most post, the Prime Minister, ignoring all evidence that is pointing to caution. That it is a dangerous, costly distraction from real answers elsewhere. That we should just take those to our farmers.
Who is he trying to please (coalition partners, industry, America….)? On What basis does he have such views in favour of GM that they will not first sort out fundamental issues that are being raised by various credible agencies??

We wait to hear what the Bench has to say, with fingers crossed.
Courtesy: Kavitha Kuruganti, Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture


Residential Proximity to Methyl Bromide Use and Birth Outcomes in an Agricultural Population in California

Background: Methyl bromide, a fungicide often used in strawberry cultivation, is of concern for residents who live near agricultural applications because of its toxicity and potential for drift. Little is known about the effects of methyl bromide exposure during pregnancy.
Objective: We investigated the relationship between residential proximity to methyl bromide use and birth outcomes.
Methods: Participants were from the CHAMACOS (Center for the Health Assessment of Mothers and Children of Salinas) study (n = 442), a longitudinal cohort study examining the health effects of environmental exposures on pregnant women and their children in an agricultural community in northern California. Using data from the California Pesticide Use Reporting system, we employed a geographic information system to estimate the amount of methyl bromide applied within 5 km of a woman’s residence during pregnancy. Multiple linear regression models were used to estimate associations between trimester-specific proximity to use and birth weight, length, head circumference, and gestational age.
Results: High methyl bromide use (vs. no use) within 5 km of the home during the second trimester was negatively associated with birth weight (β = –113.1 g; CI: –218.1, –8.1), birth length (β = –0.85 cm; CI: –1.44, –0.27), and head circumference (β = –0.33 cm; CI: –0.67, 0.01). These outcomes were also associated with moderate methyl bromide use during the second trimester. Negative associations with fetal growth parameters were stronger when larger (5 km and 8 km) versus smaller (1 km and 3 km) buffer zones were used to estimate exposure.
Conclusions: Residential proximity to methyl bromide use during the second trimester was associated with markers of restricted fetal growth in our study.
Key words: birth outcomes, birth weight, fumigants, methyl bromide, pesticides, residential proximity