Balsher Singh Sidhu: Farm Reform Needed For Sustainability, But Modi's Three Acts Won’t Deliver It

The billion-dollar question is, what should be done to solve Indian agriculture’s sustainability problems, because these new acts do not touch them even with the proverbial ten-foot pole

Balsher Singh Sidhu
May 26, 2021 | 5 min. read | Opinion

For the last six months, the three new farm acts have been a topic of active discussion in all social, economic, and political circles of India.

Hundreds of TV debates, thousands of articles in print and online media, and millions of tweets later, there is still no clarity on whether they will improve farmer livelihood as the central government claims, or if they will end up dismantling the government procurement system to further impoverish the already stressed farmer class in India.

Within these discussions of the acts’ economic ramifications, some scholars have claimed that the new farm laws will also make Indian agriculture more sustainable, but there seems to be no evidence for these claims.

When India gained independence in 1947, the horrific memories of the 1943 Bengal famine that killed millions were fresh in her mind. The country was still importing food grains to feed its masses, which jeopardized national food security.

The government sponsored the Green Revolution to increase national crop output through the use of high-yielding crop varieties and agrochemicals (fertilisers and pesticides), cheap loans for farm machinery, and improved irrigation. Within a few years, the country emerged as a net exporter of food due to rapid growth in crop yields. Yields of wheat and rice have increased 4.1-fold and 2.6-fold since 1961.

Along with subsidised inputs, the other enabling factor was the assured procurement of farmers’ produce at a minimum support price (MSP). For historical reasons, this procurement has been limited to mostly rice and wheat (with cotton, corn, pulses etc. to a lesser extent), which incentivised farmers to shift cropping patterns to make rice-wheat rotation the most popular choice in India today.

While the Green Revolution made India food secure, it has had disastrous environmental consequences.

Today, the intensively-cultivated states of Punjab and Haryana, along with Uttarakhand, western Uttar Pradesh, and Rajasthan to some extent, face an environmental crisis of huge proportions. This region is now a global hotspot of groundwater overexploitation, excessive use of agro-chemicals has deteriorated water and soil quality, and massive smoke chambers from stubble burning have become an annual phenomenon.

The new farm acts are essentially silent on the environmental front, so estimating their potential impact on the sustainability of Indian agriculture is not easy. But we can look at past examples where similar policies have already been enacted, to predict if these acts will bring any environmental benefits to Indian agriculture.

Around four decades ago, President Ronald Reagan opened up US agriculture and brought in agro-businesses while reducing government price support mechanisms similar to India’s MSP. Earl Butz, agriculture secretary at the time, believed in “getting big or getting out”.

Today, there is evidence that those policies may have actually reduced crop diversity, a cornerstone of sustainable agriculture. Crop diversification can not only make agriculture resilient to climatic shocks, but also promote efficient resource utilisation, strengthen national food security, and provide economic benefits to farmers

Regrettably, many US farmers who earlier grew corn, beans, hay, and oats besides raising cattle and hogs on their farms, have today shifted to exclusive corn-soy rotations to sell to corporate buyers as animal feed.

Even more worryingly, erstwhile family farms have been taken over by corporations and small and medium-sized farms’ share of total agricultural production has reduced from 50% to 25% in the last three decades. 

While the three Indian farm acts clearly state that no agreement can be entered into to transfer land from farmers, there is no protection for farmers who may simply not be able to compete with big agriculture operations around them, and end up selling land when farming becomes economically unviable.

At the extreme end, acquisition of land by foreign investors has been shown to threaten local food security by redirecting important dietary nutrients to international markets. This is extremely worrying for India, where the average citizen’s diet is already considered unhealthy and lacking essential nutrients, when compared to the EAT-Lancet reference diet. Large-scale land acquisition also carries serious sustainability ramifications because research shows that compared to larger farms, smaller farms have not only higher crop yields, but also greater crop and non-crop biodiversity (an important measure of agricultural sustainability).

The billion-dollar question is, what should be done to solve Indian agriculture’s sustainability problems, because these new acts do not touch them even with the proverbial ten-foot pole. 

I was a part of a group of 77 researchers from 23 countries and 53 organisations that analysed pathways to a world without hunger and published our reports last year. One of the key findings of this massive exercise was that adoption of sustainable agricultural practices is heavily driven by short-term economic benefits to farmers.

For India, that could mean incentivising shifting away from rice-wheat to coarse cereals and other less water-intensive crops through assured procurement at MSP that would not jeopardize the livelihood of farmers currently engaged in rice-wheat rotations. 

Simultaneously, procurement of rice from water-scarce regions should be curtailed while ensuring minimal impact on livelihood of farmers, especially those falling in the small and medium category. 

Chhattisgarh recently decided to procure millets at MSP, and Adivasi farmers have already responded by switching over from rice to traditional millet varieties. Other incentives like allowing farmers to sell ecosystem services like carbon sequestration and increased biodiversity can also be used to encourage sustainable practices, but would need the establishment of a proper framework to quantify and monetise the environmental benefits of sustainable agriculture in India.

A key point that the current establishment seems to miss in all its policy implementations, not just those related to agriculture, is that massive reforms in any sector need time.

Farmers who have been growing rice-wheat for decades cannot switch crops at the drop of a hat. Investments like farm machinery and groundwater wells have multi-year return on investment, and a farmer buying a high-horsepower tractor with rice cultivation in mind expects to grow and sell rice for the foreseeable future. 

The need of the hour is progressive plans with multi-year timeframes that include economic, educational, and technical support for farmers during the transition period of changing agricultural practices. This could include farmer-friendly insurance schemes to reduce risk from low yields and crop failures in the first few years.

There are enough agricultural economists who can be consulted to formulate such policies.

There is no denying that Indian agriculture needs massive reforms if it is to remain sustainable environmentally. But to expect farmers to handle this responsibility without institutional support, when 86 percent of them own less than 5 acres of land, is unfair, not only economically and logically, but more importantly, morally.

*A version of this article first appeared in The India Cable.


Balsher Singh Sidhu is a Vanier and Liu Scholar at the Institute for Resources, Environment and Sustainability, University of British Columbia, Canada. You can find him on Twitter at @balsher_sidhu.

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