Millennium Post

From the anecdotal to the empirical

This is a report on two non–controversial, non–political, non–urban, small budget interventions, which do not fall under the radar of the mainstream media, and the “special correspondents” looking for breaks or big-ticket announcements. However, they have the potential of bringing about a positive change in the agricultural operations in the Eastern Region.

The first of these was a Regional Training workshop on Agricultural census organised for West Bengal and the North Eastern states by the Land Reforms Commissioner of West Bengal, Manoj Pant with the Agriculture Census Commissioner of the Government of India, Ms Mamata Saxena at Kolkata on the February 18 and 19. In fact, she acknowledged West Bengal’s leadership role in computerisation of land records and the initiative taken by LRC Manoj Pant in organising this crucial meeting.

At the very outset, it must be mentioned that West Bengal and the North East is perhaps the most diverse region in the country in almost all respects – from agro-climatic zones to cropping patterns, ownership structures, nature of farming, and farmers incomes. This region has land under tea plantations, jhum cultivation, sharecropping, owner-cultivators, informal leasing arrangements, and producer–aggregator models as well. From almost all varieties of rice, and vegetables and fruits to niche products like organic ginger and turmeric in Mizoram, to orchids in Sikkim and Kalimpong – the region has now become a net exporter, not only of rice and vegetables, but also high-end agricultural products – mango, aromatic rice, organic teas, mandarin oranges, kiwis, and large cardamom. This diversity is growing and needs to be captured, especially new trends like smallholder tea growers who are giving a run to the organised sector in terms of productivity and incomes.

But why are agriculture census operations organised by the Land Revenue/Reforms departments, and not by agriculture? Firstly because the Land Department is the custodian of all land records and revenue settlements; and second, the revenue department has a robust mechanism which is available right unto the village level, and the district and sub-district officers also have magisterial powers in most cases. What does the agriculture census do? Why is it repeated every five years? How does it add value to our policy making on agriculture? Is it such a specialist task that training has to be structured to ensure that every revenue official takes his job in earnest?  

Well, simply stated, an agriculture census takes policy making from anecdotal impressions to a robust empirical basis. We know, for example, that land holding size is coming down, informal tenancy is increasing, farmers are moving from subsistence agriculture to commercial crops which give better returns, farm workers are seeking (and getting) higher wages and farm equipment and machinery is playing an increasingly salient role in agricultural production. Yet these impressions have to be verified, (or revised) based on field level verification by officials who are not from the agriculture department, It is repeated every five years because this a good time to capture the change in the cropping pattern, land ownership, provision of credit and mode of production. It helps policy makers understand that while farmers need to work together to achieve economies of scale and scope, the co-operative model has not delivered results: as such, there is a need to look at farmer-producer organisations opt commodity groups or Joint Liability groups to ensure the provision of credit, technical inputs and marketing arrangements. The extent of fallows, including current fallows and their duration gives an idea of whether short duration crops or commodities like pulses /oilseeds can be introduced in the same fields to optimise resource use efficiency. Land under institutions, village commons, pastures, and watersheds also gets recorded – and though till a decade ago, these lands had little significance, now with pressures on land for almost every activity gaining ground – and the government is always needing land with clear titles for all its interventions – from ICDS centres to polytechnics, this census has many collateral advantages as well.

The second workshop was on the introduction of Oil palm – a non-traditional crop in the North Bengal districts of Jalpaiguir, Cooch Behar, and Alipurduar. This was organised jointly by the GoWB in collaboration with the National Mission on Oilseeds and Oil palm, an intervention of the Union Agriculture Ministry to address the huge deficit in oilseeds in the country. For the record, India needs over 20 lakh MT of edible oil, but our own internal production from all sources is just about 8 lakh MT which leaves a deficit of nearly 12 lakh MT which has to be imported annually with a whopping import bill of Rs 30,000 crores, which is about 35 percent higher than the budget of the Union Agriculture Ministry!

The main sources of domestic edible oil in India include groundnut, mustard, sunflower, and coconut, but the imported oil is usually from oil palm, which is a plantation crop in Malaysia and Indonesia. There are several agro-climatic regions in our country where it is possible to grow this crop - and the Indian model is “smallholder-aggregator–processor” model. While it is understandable that Andhra Pradesh and Telengana have done well in this crop the good surprise is that Mizoram is fast emerging as a major hub for oil palm. Within less than a decade the state now has 32,000 hectares under oil palm and growing.

The identified districts of West Bengal also have a similar potential, and as the state is also looking for diversification, the introduction of oil palm augurs well. In addition to the technical presentations from ICAR institutions connected with oil palm, there were representatives from the industry to explain the commerce of the crop. After the fourth year, returns are assured for the next thirty years, and even in the first three years, it is possible to do inter-cropping along with oil palm.

Certainly there are ifs and buts. The main one relates to an assurance on the farm gate price, as the farmer is committing to the land for at least half her lifetime. The workshop was informed that many states, including Arunachal Pradesh and Mizoram, have a legislative framework to regulate production, prices and processing of oil palm.

But on thing is clear: the demand and the market for edible oils is perking up, and will continue to do so, especially if incomes of the households at the bottom of the pyramid continue to grow, and their dependence on cereals gives way to a diverse “thali”!

(The writer is a senior bureaucrat . The views expressed are personal.)
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