Ashok Gulati and Ritika Juneja had an excellent write-up in the Indian Express last week, and if you are a student of Indian agriculture, it is an absolute must read.
- “Agri-exports touched $41.8 billion in FY 2020-21, registering a growth of 18 per cent over the previous year.”
Here’s a fun1 exercise. Figure out where the authors got the data from?
There’s a very good reason I ask this question. We don’t (yet) have something like FRED available in India. When you read an article such as the one we’re going through today, it is one thing to take a look at the statistics and think about them – and quite another to try and dig out the data yourself. It is a skill that most of us pick up out of necessity when we start work – you’d do well to start practicing right now.
You’ve won if you can see this on your screen:
2. We need to grow exports, and we need to increase agricultural production. These are, even at an introductory level, obvious statements2. But as the article points out, we therefore need to dig deeper into the data to be able to answer this question in its entirety. Which products can we export more of? Why? At what cost?
Think of it this way: in what ways can the Indian cricket team get better? That’s like asking which specific Indian players can get better, in a way. So if we say that the team will get better if Kohli bats better and Bumrah bats better, is that a correct answer or just lazy thinking? Because they’re already pretty good, no?3.
3. As the article points out, rice accounts for about 21% of the $41 billion. Note that the statistics split this out by basmati and non-basmati rice, we’re adding these up. After that it is marine products (14.46%), spices (9.66%), buffalo meat (7.69%) and sugar (6.77%). That is, the top five categories together account for about 60% of all our agricultural exports. (Get familiar with the power law, if you aren’t already)
4. The rest of the article focusses on rice and sugar, and points out that exporting these two crops is akin to exporting water – and it is not as if we have a lot of it to go around.
India is a water-stressed country with per capita water availability of 1,544 cubic metres in 2011, down from 5,178 cubic metres in 1951. This is likely to go down further to 1,140 cubic metres by 2050. It is well known that a kg of sugar has a virtual water intake of about 2,000 litres. In 2020-21, India exported 7.5 million tonnes of sugar, implying that at least 15 billion cubic metres of water was exported through sugar alone. Another water guzzler, rice, needs around 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water for irrigating a kg, depending upon topography. Taking an average of about 4,000 litres of water per kg of rice, and assuming that half of this gets recycled back to groundwater, exporting 17.7 million tonnes of rice means that India has virtually exported 35.4 billion cubic metres of water just through rice.https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/how-green-are-indias-agri-exports-7368002/
5. Related to that last point, here is an old EFE link fest about water and India.
6. “Moreover, the export subsidy given by the government to clear excessive domestic stocks of sugar has led many other sugar-exporting countries like Australia, Brazil and Thailand to register a case against India at the WTO, which India may find difficult to defend.”
As a student, here are the questions you should be asking (in my opinion). Where can I find details about this case? How do these things work? They have a whole course about it, and you really should sign up for it. If you even think about asking if you get a certificate for this course, you end up killing a little kitten. Yes, really.
7. “Farming practices such as alternate wetting drying (AWD), direct-seeded rice (DSR) and micro-irrigation will have to be taken up on a war footing.”
What is AWD? What is DSR? What is micro-irrigation? Better questions: which countries do this extensively? To what effect? What stops India from doing this? What can be done about it? I haven’t hyperlinked to the last five questions, and that is deliberate. Try searching for the answers yourself, and tell us what you learnt! 🙂
8. “Closer evaluation of non-basmati exports exposes another interesting fact: These exports are actually sourced not only below-MSP but also below the average domestic mandi prices prevailing in the country after one adjusts for freight from mandi to port and loading charges at the port. How does that happen? One possibility is that a substantial part of supplies through the PDS and the PM Garib Kalyan Yojana are leaking out and swelling rice exports.”
This really takes us into the weeds of agricultural economics, but here’s an article to get you started.
9. And finally, the authors’ proposed solutions:
“It is high time that policymakers revisit the entire gamut of rice and sugar systems from their MSP/FRP to their production in an environmentally sustainable manner. We must ensure that we produce more from every drop of water. Also, at least in the case of rice, procurement will have to be limited to the needs of PDS, and within PDS, it is high time to introduce the option of direct cash transfers. All these will go a long way to promote better diversification of our agri-systems and better use of our scarce water supplies and lesser GHG emissions. We could save on the unproductive use of financial resources locked up in burgeoning grains stocks with the FCI. These savings can be used for doubling investments in agri R&D to improve productivity on a sustainable basis and improve farming practices for minimising carbon emissions. An export-led strategy also needs to minimise logistics costs by investing in better infrastructure and logistics. Only then one can ensure sharing the returns of these investments with farmers to give them a better deal in terms of higher and more stable incomes.”
I’ve been writing posts like these for a while now. Here’s one about fiscal policy in India, here’s one about footwear in India, here’s one about a Marques Brownlee interview, and if you dig through the archives, you’ll find plenty more. The reason I bring this up is that I think there is genuine value to taking notes as you read anything, and publishing these notes online. Plus, as a student, there is genuine merit in asking a simple question repeatedly: where did the authors get the data from? Especially in India, the answers often aren’t simple, and the exercise is therefore worth your time.
Another reason I bring this up is that if you do this long enough, you end up making a very helpful mental map of whatever it is that you’re studying. And trust me, over time, learning compounds.
So I hope that this helped you learn a little bit more about agriculture in India, but I also hope that you learnt how simple, and powerful, it is to take notes regularly. Please do! 🙂