The Way Forward Agriculture as a Business Sector

Indian agriculture has come a long way since independence - from suffering acute food shortage that led to food rationing and a dependence on imported food by PL480 program - to generating capacity, after Green Revolution, to feed the population of 1.28 billion with foodgrains output of more than 260 million tonnes (MT) in 2015. Yet, ensuring food security and sustainability remains a continuous challenge. Among the three sectors of the economy – agriculture, industry and services – the primary sector is the key to several states as well as India’s economy, because it provides employment for a large chunk of the population even now. In India, in 1970, agriculture provided employment to about 75 percent of the workforce, which declined to 55 percent in 2006 and further to 49 percent in 2013. The contribution of agriculture to Gross Domestic Product (GDP) stood at 48 percent in 1970, reducing to 18 percent in 2006 and further down to 14 percent in 2013 (Sivasubramaniyan 2014: 117).

Although both employment and GDP from agriculture has been declining over time, its importance as a backbone of the country’s economy has not diminished. In 1951, when India’s First Five Year Plan was initiated, the country had a population of 361.1 million and foodgrains production was 50.8 MT. In 2011, the population had grown to 1210.2 million and foodgrains production stood at 257.4 MT. The arithmetic calculation shows that the population and foodgrains growth is observed roughly 3.4 and 5.1 times respectively between 1951 and 2011. Apparently, the macro comparison brings out the fact that the population growth and the rate of increase in foodgrains production in India have shown that India is on the safer side of overall foodgrains production to feed its population.

Importantly, foodgrains production depends upon the extent of area under irrigation. Among others, the expansion and improvement of irrigation facilities occupy a prominent place in the programmes for agricultural development in India. Between the period 1951 and 2012, the Central and state governments had invested nearly INR 4943 billion on irrigation, accounting for about one-sixth of total public investment. In normal terms, the financial outlay has risen from an average of INR 910 million per annum during the first plan to INR 4, 41,450 million per annum in the eleventh plan. The factors such as steep rise in prices and construction costs have led to the enhanced outlay.

The growth in the volume of investment has led to major changes in the irrigation development programme; especially in canal based surface irrigation system. The marked shift of emphasis in the investment allocation favouring for minor irrigation works during the eleventh plan has showed trebling of their share (INR 4, 46,71 crore) in total irrigation outlays compared to the tenth plan. Within minor irrigation works, groundwater development has received greater attention. Another important shift is to ensure more efficient use of water that reflected in the emphasis on farm strategies such as conjunctive use of surface and groundwater, command area development and modernisation of older irrigation systems. Given the important role of irrigation in agricultural development and large amount of resources from both public and private sectors, the attempt in this paper is to study the performance of agriculture in India considering irrigation as a major influencing factor amongst others during the period 1951-2012.

Although agricultural performance depends upon many factors, this article mainly dwells assumingly with only two prime aspects, namely: i) the outcome of expanded irrigation in terms of productivity of two major crops and its growth and ii) to explore gap in the requisite foodgrains production in terms of per capita availability of pulses and oilseeds and bridging the gap by better planning than envisaged so far. Since the first factor is directly affecting the growth of output in agriculture, a slight reshuffling in the production process will help us to solve some deficiency in production when it comes to nutritional crops and make us self-sufficient in foodgrains production as per the second factor.

Effect of Irrigation on Production and Productivity of Paddy and Wheat and its Growth in India

There has been ample evidence, both at macro and micro level, to show that irrigated crop yields is much better than unirrigated crop yields in Indian conditions. Moreover, many studies also proved that in the case of cultivation of high value crops, yields are reported much better under irrigated condition coupled with the use of modern technology. Further, some of these studies have also proved that differences in output per gross irrigated hectare as well as cropping intensity across space are significantly and positively associated with the irrigation ratio (the ratio of irrigated area to cultivated area). A small sample of a few studies indicates the ‘gross value of output per unit of gross sown area in the command area to be between 7 percent and 300 percent higher than the control (rainfed) area; the difference in productivity per unit of net sown area is invariably larger and ranges from 35 percent to 400 percent.

Many studies indicate that irrigated crop yields pushed up the productivity of all crops that lead to overall increase in foodgrains production. However, the increase in output has some limitations that may go up to certain level after which it stagnates or even declines. Precisely, this aspect has been established in this article, taking rice and wheat crops using the data from 1950-51 to 2010-11 at all-India level. To understand the existing gap in self-sufficiency, pulses and oilseeds have been taken into account for analysis.

The analysis has been done under four contexts, viz.: 1. Decadal trends in Net Sown Area (NSA), Gross Cropped Area (GCA) under food crops and GCA under all crops. 2. Decadal trends in Cropping Intensity (CI) and Irrigation Intensity (II). 3. Trends in Cultivated and Irrigated Area, and 4. Area, Production and yield of rice and wheat as well as pulses and oilseeds have been analysed along with percentage coverage under irrigation.

Decadal Trends in NSA, GCA under Food Crops and GCA under All Crops

Based on the all-India data, it may be observed from Table 1, the NSA has reached the maximum of 142.3 M Ha in the 1990s. However, the GCA under food crops and GCA under all crops have been showing an increasing trend till the latest years of 2010-12. The all India trend shows, further growth of GCA under food crops and all crops are still feasible. Overall, the 60 year data portray that at all-India level, the NSA has stagnated; but the GCA has been moving up gradually.

Decadal Trends in Cropping Intensity and Irrigation Intensity

Cropping Intensity (CI) refers to the number of crops grown in a plot area in a given year counting three seasons of four months each. CI is referred in terms of percentage.

Irrigation Intensity (II) refers to the number of irrigated crops grown in a plot area in a given year counting three seasons of four months each. II is referred in terms of percentage.

The all-India data (see table 1) depict that both the CI and II are on an increasing trend since the 1950s. Interestingly, it may be seen, nowhere the CI and II has declined over the 60 year period. This means, there is still possibility to sustain and grow both the CI and II in future also at all-India level. One may also observe from Table 1 that both the CI and II had the same level of about 113 percent in the 1950s and the same has been growing steadily and finally reached a figure of about 139 percent in the 2010-12. Overall, the data reveal that there is still a possibility of both CI and II moving upward at all-India level. For its sustenance and future growth, required steps have to be taken by the government.

Trends in Cultivated and Irrigated Area in India

At all-India level, as already observed, except the NSA – which has reached its peak in the 1990s, the GCA and the NIA as well as GIA have been steadily increasing (Table 2). Apparently, there has been a growth of irrigated area to raise agricultural production in all possible ways. Mainly, different sources of irrigation are responsible for the growth of irrigated agriculture in India. The analysis of 60 year data on different sources of irrigation showed that irrigated area has been moving up steadily from the 1950s to 2000s.

Area, Production and Yield of Rice/Wheat and percentage coverage under irrigation The performance of agriculture can be gauged through the production of gross output realised by different crops cultivated in a year. The extent of crop yields determines the total agricultural production in an economy. The crop yield is basically dependent upon the extent of availability of irrigation faculities. Consequently, there are interconnections among the irrigated area, yields and production.

Among the foodgrains production, rice occupies the major share followed by wheat. Hence, the production of these two crops and subsequently two important nutritional food crops such as puses and oilseeds have also been examined.

Area, Production and Yield of Rice in India

Rice is one of the water intensive crops and it is grown predominantly during the kariff and Rabi seasons coiciding with the rainfall seasons, and also where assured groundwater source of irrigation is possible.

All-India: Rice and Wheat

A clear picture of rice and wheat is emerging from Table 3. In rice and wheat area, production, yield and percentage coverage under irrigation have been gradually and steadily increasing from the 1950s to 2000s. Over the 60 year period, rice yield has improved roughly 2.5 times compared to 1950s, whereas in the case of wheat, this level has increased about fourfold. The percentage coverage under rice irrigation increased only 20 percent (from 34.3% to 55.1%) over the 60 years. The analysis indicates that the rice production has increased from 36 MTs in the 1960s to 103 MTs in 2010s (2010-1 to 2012-3) registering an increase of 186 percent. While in the same period, the area under paddy has increased from 36 to 42 M ha registering a growth of only 17 percent.

In the case of wheat, there has been nearly threefold increase of area covered under irrigation. The wheat production has increased from 13 MTs in the 1960s to 91 MTs in 2010s (2010-1 to 2012-3), registering an increase of 600 percent. While in the same period, the area under wheat has increased from 14 to 29 M ha, registering a growth of 107 percent.

Hence, it is clear that production and productivity of rice and wheat crops are mainly dependent upon the extent of irrigation facilities available for these crops. Accordingly, steps have to be taken to increase more cropped area under irrigation, especially production deficient crops such as pulses and oilseeds, by stepping up water saving modern technology and adopting water management practices to raise production of these crops.

Rice and Wheat – Potential Yield and Realised Yield – A Comparison Rice: Since rice (41%) and wheat (37%) occupy 78 percent of total foodgrains production (259.3 million tonnes in 2011-12) in India, the above analysis has been concentrated only in these two crops. Regarding rice yield, although it has been gradually increasing from 830 kg/ha in 1950s to 2052 kg/ha in 2000s in India, this level is more than four times less than the world’s highest yield (9140 kg/ha) registered in Egypt (Table 4). Even the world average yield (3920 kg/ha) is nearly two times higher than the All-India average yield of rice. Among the rice producing countries, India’s rank in rice yield was 13th in 2002-03. This means India has to go a long way to realise its full potential.

Wheat: Similarly, in the case of wheat yield, India is lagging behind many advanced countries. The UK’s wheat yield level in 2002-03 was 8043 kg/ha and India’s yield in that year was only 2770 kg/ha. However, India’s wheat yield is more or less equal to that of the world average yield of 2720 kg/ha in 2002-03 (Table 5) and this level has been increasing and reached a level of 2938 kg/ha in 2010-11.

The Nutrition wise Deficit Production Crops – Pulses and Oilseeds

Although it is frequently referred that India has achieved self-sufficiency in foodgrains production, it is not true if one takes the production of crops individually. That is, some crops have produced more yield and some other nutritional crops produced less than what it is required for. As a result, balanced diet could not be feasible that contributes to uneven distribution of required nutritional foodgrains.

Pulses and Oilseeds

Among the foodgrains, pulses and oilseeds are more important. However, it is observed in Table 6, both area and production of pulses as well as oilseeds has not improved adequately over the 60 year period since the 1950s. In the case of pulses, the area has increased only by 10 percent and production by 45.5 percent. This increase of low level production is mainly due to poor yield level and less area cultivated with this crop. While in the case of oilseeds, a slightly better position has been noticed. However, this crop has less production than what it is required for. More importantly, directly usable edible oil can be extracted from the oilseeds in the ratio of 1:4. Hence, one can take a fourth of oilseeds production for direct consumption of oil extracted from the raw oilseeds production.

As per the recommendation of National Nutrition Management Board (NNMB), the per capita daily requirement of pulses and oilseeds is 40 grams (which is 65 grams as per the Indian Medical Research Council) and 20 grams respectively. However, as per the calculation, the present production level (Table 6, with India’s population of 1270 million) provides only 34.5 grams and 16.2 grams of pulses and oilseeds respectively. Hence, due attention has to be paid to bridge the gap and increase the production and yield of these crops to avert the nutritional deficiency.

Conclusion and Suggestions

Overall, NSA in India has been gradually decreasing. Central/state governments should take steps to prevent land-grabbing for non-agricultural purpose, especially from agricultural lands. Instead of treating agriculture as a way of life, it should be considered as a business sector. Due attention must be paid to improve crop production by developing the irrigation sector.

The overall analysis amply demonstrates the fact that the impact of increase in yield is a major positive factor to influence the increase in overall production of wheat and rice, and the same trend is applicable for pulses and oilseeds. However, the latter two crops have been cultivated mostly by unirrigated condition that retards its productivity. So, agricultural universities and state governments, with the support of the Central government should take viable steps to promote yield enhancing technologies in the case of pulses and oilseeds to achieve self-reliance.

The crop areas should be stabilised wherever self-reliance in crop production of paddy, sugarcane, banana, etc is achieved. Since irrigated crops produce 2-3 times more yields compared to unirrigated/rainfed crops, farmers should be encouraged to adopt irrigated nutritional crops.

More importantly, price policy should be farmer-friendly and it should not be trader-friendly. To achieve this, adequate fair price marketing facilities should be created by the government. The incapacity of agriculture to generate a financial surplus to farmers – especially in the nutritional crops - mainly arises due to the very low prices fixed for vital grains such as pulses and oilseeds.

India must plan effectively to achieve the expected production level. For achieving the goal of self-sufficiency in production of all grains, developing irrigated agriculture coupled with high level water management practices should be adopted on a war-footing.


Sivasubramaniyan, K. (2014). Book Review: Marco Ferroni (ed), Transforming Indian Agriculture – India 2040: Productivity, Markets and Institutions, SAGE, New Delhi, 2013, in Review of Development Change, Vol XIX N. 2, July-December 2014, Pp. 117-120.
The writer is Associate Professor, Madras Institute of Development Studies, 79 II Main Road, Gandhi Nagar, Adyar, Chennai - 600 020, India