n his recent visit to India, the US President George Bush famously remarked, "The US is looking forward to eating Indian mangoes." The comment isn’t simply about the world-renowned Indian mangoes. It also represents the huge opportunity knocking on our door—to make India the food basket of the world. Since liberalisation, we have done wonders with our economy and achieved a lot. Indian manufacturing and services sectors are world-class today. India’s telecom industry is feted the world over. The emergence of IT and ITES industries has put India on the world map. Hundreds of thousands of new jobs have been created for a vast pool of skilled manpower and this, in turn, is driving demand within the economy.
While this is one side of economic development, our agriculture sector seems to be getting left behind. When the Green Revolution began in the late 1970s, it brought about a quantum leap in agricultural production in the country, making us self-sufficient for meeting our food requirements. However, the growth and productivity of the sector has somewhat stagnated over the last decade or so. It is important to note that agriculture still contributes nearly 20 per cent of our gdp and employs close to two-thirds of our working population. If we have to achieve growth rates of over 10 per cent, then the agricultural sector will play a crucial role and, therefore, needs a big push.
I believe that the growth opportunities for our agriculture sector lie in looking at markets beyond our borders for our produce. India has competitiveness in terms of diversity—from tropical, sub-tropical to temperate climates. Abundant rainfall, sunshine and soil quality, along with a large arable land mass, make it a natural large volume cultivation hub. We also have a competitive labour cost structure which makes us a low-cost producer.
Picture this, India is the second largest grower of fruits and vegetables. It produces about 130 million tonnes of fruit and vegetables every year, which translates into 10 per cent of global fruit output and 14 per cent of global vegetable output. However, its horticulture exports are less than one per cent of world trade in fresh produce and the wastage is almost 30 per cent of the total production.
The reasons for this are poor post-harvest management facilities, lack of air, road and rail transport in terms of cold chain facilities, capacities and prohibitive costs of shipment. To add to that, there is a limited technical knowledge to meet world standards in cultivation and a lack of interest in implementing stringent food safety and hygiene norms.
But what if this was not the case? Here lies a great opportunity for India to create a foothold in the world’s fresh produce market. Imagine fresh Indian produce retailing in all leading supermarkets of the world. Imagine the Indian farmer getting good returns for his produce and every corner of the country prospering. This may sound like a dream but it is very much possible to turn it into reality. What’s required is some right steps by the government and initiative by private enterprises.
There are already a large number of corporates engaged in the export of basmati rice and other food grains and we have witnessed phenomenal growth in these exports over the last few years. We must now focus on our strengths in the area of fresh produce and plug the gaps that constrain us.
Horticulture production is a high-risk, yet high-return endeavour. The farmer gets higher returns if he undertakes fruits and vegetable farming. The constraints in terms of produce marketing, storing and handling along with high level of intermediation are current risks that far outweigh the returns. This is an area where corporate participation and initiatives will make a significant difference.
Corporates can bring in the requisite expertise in terms of good agricultural practices, research and development on pest control, irrigation equipment, financing back up and risk cover. Corporate participation also brings in a systematic and structured approach to farming and marketing of fresh produce in both export and domestic markets. And over a period of time the benefits of scale could dramatically transform our agricultural landscape.
A gigantic leap will need to be made to achieve success in positioning India as a consistent quality supplier. Positive policies that promote public-private partnerships in a workable format are the need of the hour. What is also required is the development of vital infrastructure support such a cold chains, roads and transport facilities, perishable centres at the airports to ensure that the fresh produce reaches its intended markets on time. In addition to this, we need to raise awareness levels among farmers regarding the benefits of contract farming.
As part of our vision to be a knowledge economy, we must also develop world-class agriculture universities and institutes that focus on r&d. Newer varieties of seeds developed locally, research on soil and farming practices will help provide us vital knowhow and global edge. I was delighted to note a Rs 100 crore grant to Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, in the recent budget. We have made it possible in IT, ITES and telecom. Why not agriculture? The resources are available and it’s only a question of initiative and enterprise. Let us sow the seeds of another agricultural revolution.
(The author is chairman, group MD, Bharti Enterprises.)