Igniting change in Indian agriculture

3 March 2021


Reported by Samuel Ward, CSaP Policy Intern.

How do you bring change to the largest agricultural system in the world? For the third in our series of roundtables co-hosted by CSaP and the IIT Delhi School of Public Policy, Vijay Kumar, international CSaP fellow sponsored by the TIGR2ESS programme, tackled the questions surrounding the introduction of new technologies and ways of thinking to India's expansive and complex agricultural sector.

Today in India, neither farmer nor nature are benefitting from the agricultural systems in place, reported Mr. Kumar: “today we have serious distress of farmers in the country and, at the same time, the current land management systems are undermining the water table and soil health”. The Green Revolution of the 1960s created an agricultural boom, boosted food production and fed many millions of people. However, this shift in agricultural practices centered around the increased use of external-input farming practices, such as pesticides and fertilisers. Some now think that the higher calorie foods cultivated as a result of the Green Revolution are not nutritionally balanced and may be contributing to nutritional deficiencies. These are big, complex challenges for a nation whose largest employer is agriculture.

Mr. Kumar outlined how existing low-input, sustainable farming practices might improve nutritional content, farmer productivity, soil health, incomes, food security and flood and drought resilience without reducing crop yield. How might India adopt these methods at the national scale? And why have they not been adopted already?

Approximately 85% of farming in India is by small to medium enterprises, with farmers spread through many regions and each occupying an average of only 2 acres. This means that the standardisation of policy and practice, which traditionally facilitates the diffusion of technological information and innovation, may not capture the localised needs of individuals. Instead, India may require a hybrid system in which many types of farming systems can co-exist - a way of thinking that institutions have been slow to adopt.

Accelerating change begins with understanding the stakeholders and constructing a dialogue between them which considers everyone's voice. “How do scientists become more like farmers and farmers more like scientists?” asked Mr. Kumar, in reference to the million or so farmers - many of whom are women - who could play a key role in testing new agricultural technologies and practices on patches of their own farms, and who should be regarded as knowledge creators themselves. Creating a way to retain and propagate that knowledge is key. Currently, this is achieved through digital media libraries, which store videos of common practices, and self-help community groups, where farmers can discuss their experiences with various technologies. But deeper change may also be required at the institutional level, for example to avoid the technological lock-in associated with government subsidies. However, whilst it remains to be seen whether these platforms can boost the uptake of new farming practices to an entire nation, Mr. Kumar believed we are close to a critical mass of innovators, and that could be all it takes.

Vijay Kumar

Government of Andhra Pradesh

Samuel Ward

University of York