Friday, October 23, 2009

The second Green Revolution in India

Anti-poverty fighters world wide have put an increased emphasis on agriculture in recent years. It was once thought that putting a farmer into a job at a factory was the ideal way to get the world's poor out of poverty. But that strategy proved to be a failure when the need for food and the numbers of hungry increased.

From Time magazine we have this look at a second Green Revolution taking place in India. The Indian government has been using money from the growth it has experienced in recent years to improve farming in the country. Reporter Michael Schuman explains some of the programs going on in India.

When the indian national congress took power in 2004, Singh changed course and began an intensive effort to improve the lot of the nation's farmers. Between the 2003-04 and 2008-09 fiscal years, the central government's budget for agriculture quadrupled. Government schemes built rural roads to help farmers get their produce to market, forgave some of their debts and raised minimum purchase prices on cotton, rice and other crops. In 2005, policymakers launched the Bharat Nirman program, aimed at providing electricity, housing and irrigation systems to the country's farmers, and, a year later, the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme, which promised at least 100 days of work each year for poor farming households, often on public-works projects to develop infrastructure in the countryside. In the latest federal budget, announced in July, funds allocated for the rural jobs scheme jumped 144% from the previous year to more than $8 billion — making it the largest social-welfare program in the budget — while funding for Bharat Nirman was boosted by 45%. "It was very clear to us that if you want inclusive growth, it is going to require a significant increase in the productivity of land," says Montek Singh Ahluwalia, deputy chairman of India's Planning Commission in New Delhi.

Perhaps no single region of India's vast hinterland has received more concentrated government attention than Vidarbha. One of India's more distressed farming regions, Vidarbha became infamous for its high rate of farmer suicides. The problem became so severe in 2006, when more than 1,250 took their lives, that Singh toured Vidarbha and announced a special $780 million development program for the area, which the locals refer to simply as "the package."

Three years later, K.S. Mulay, a state agricultural officer based in the Vidarbha town of Amravati, proudly reads off a long list of the progress the government has made so far. Nearly $39 million has been spent subsidizing high-yield seeds, Mulay says, plus $24 million on developing fruit orchards and other pricey produce, and another $24 million on building micro-irrigation projects. As Mulay drives down narrow roads through Vidarbha's cotton fields, he stops his jeep every few miles to show off the government's handiwork. First, he marches up a muddy hillside to a small dam the government built to help farmers preserve monsoon rainwater — one of more than 9,000 constructed in the region over the past three years. Next he visits the farm of Bhiamrao Mahore, who received free orange-tree saplings from a state-funded nursery. Mahore hopes his oranges will bring more money than the cotton he had planted before. Next stop is a state-sponsored training session where scores of local farmers collect for a PowerPoint presentation on how best to protect crops during a drought. "We are trying to increase the income and productivity of the farmers," Mulay says. "All the work cannot be done in three years. But it is a beginning."

And, for now, just that. Some Indian economists criticize the government for spending too much on welfare programs, such as the job-guarantee scheme, and not enough on irrigation systems and other investments that could make farms more productive. "Giving a cow won't help a farmer long-term," says Paurnima Sawai, 42, a farmer in Takarakhede Shambhu village. "But money to build a dam is a long-term investment. For years, you get benefits from it." With only 40% of its farmland irrigated, India's entire economic boom is held hostage by the unpredictable monsoon. With much of India's farming areas suffering from drought this year, the government will have a tough time meeting its economic-growth targets. In an August report, Goldman Sachs predicted that this year's weak rains could cause agriculture to contract 2% this fiscal year, making the government's 7% GDP-growth target look "a bit rich." Even Thakare, with his pond, may not have enough water to plant his extra crops this year. Abusaleh Shariff, a senior fellow at IFPRI's New Delhi office, argues that allocating money is only part of the government's task. The farmers also need better training, technology and marketing opportunities. "Do we have any of these? Almost none," Shariff says. "The government program needs to be improved, and we need to devote a lot more resources."

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