India: Conserving farmlands, not transgenic technology, key to country's food & nutritional security Print E-mail

 New Delhi Monday August 28 2006


Farmlands need to be conserved

There is a rising trend for sale of farm lands to fulfill the objectives of rapid urbanisation and for several development projects. Many state governments are acquiring prime farm lands and leasing them out to the private sector for setting up projects. There can be no objection to real development needs, but consequences of the sale of prime farm lands for non-agricultural purposes need to be carefully weighed in light of the country’s food security.
Our food production, though on increase, has not been able to keep in pace with the rate of growth of our population. The net per capita availability of food items has shown a declining trend. The per capita net availability of cereals per day has fallen from 458.1 gm in 2002 to 407.1 gm in 2003. The net per capita availability of pulses per day has fallen from 35.4 gm to 29.1 gm, according to government data. Since 1951, the per capita availability of foodgrains has increased with the increase in production. At times, the increases were in spurts and so also the declines. But the recent declining trend in per capita availability of grains is a major cause of concern.
In terms of increase in productivity of various agricultural crops, this had taken place with the ushering of the Green Revolution (GR) in the country. But the GR had subsequent negative fallouts resulting in sharp declines in factor productivity. The chemical agriculture introduced as a result of the GR resulted in excessive tillage of soil, degradation of soil due to excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, depletion of groundwater table, pollution of environment and health hazards created due to use of chemical pesticides. The overall decline in factor productivity has resulted in deceleration in agricultural growth.
The yield per hectare of various crops, which marked a significant increase in the Green Revolution days, has not shown further increase. The productivity of most crops are still lower than that in China, let alone the developed world. Hopes for increasing productivity through transgenic technology seems remote, given the controversy surrounding GM crops related to health and environment hazards. So far, the claims of developed GM crops are for insect and herbicide-resistance and not for increasing productivity. Thus the country faces a challenging task of continuing to ensure food and nutritional security. In such a situation, it would not be advisable to encourage sale of prime farm lands for non-farming uses.
The alternate way is to use some identified wastelands for non-agricultural purposes. The ministry for rural development has done an excellent job in identifying these wastelands in the country. The identification has been done through physical verification and remote-sensing. The Wasteland Atlas-2003 (WA) has identified 5,52,692.26 sq km of wastelands, accounting for 17.45% of the total geographical area of the country.
Land is administered by concerned state governments. It would be better for the state government to take possession of some of these wastelands for development projects to be initiated either by them or by the corporate sector. But there are some wastelands like the waterlogged or marshy ones, lands with saline and alkaline soil, land without scrub, lands abandoned due to shifting cultivation, degraded forest lands and degraded pastures. These lands can be brought back to agriculture or used for afforestation and hence their reuse for cultivation or forestry should be given the first priority. The paper and pulp industry can also use some of these lands.
There are some wastelands on account of mining operations and industrial use. The WA has identified 1421.72 sq km wasteland due to mining operation and another 555.63 sq km due to industrial use. Some of these can be taken up for development projects as the area has already been developed on account of mining and industrial operations.
Of course, the state governments may face the problem of earmarking wastelands for development projects as many of them may be located at remote places. The viability of development projects also needs to be ensured at these locations. But if development projects are initiated in remote areas, it may result in new growth centres. The daunting task is, therefore, to weigh food security vis-a-vis development.