India: On the road with developing ag


(The first of several columns on developing world agriculture and its impact on U.S. farmers.)

Gitaben Senma, 38 years old and the mother of four, earns 50 rupees per day, or about $1, for the seven hours she toils in two small plots of fodder and sorghum near Ganeshpura, a tiny farming village in the northwest Indian state of Gujarat.

Minuscule as it is, the pay is more than three times what she formerly earned, 15 rupees, working 11 hours each day as a laborer on a nearby bigger farm.

The better pay is tangible; better yet are the intangibles.

“Now I can do anything,” she says through an interpreter as she stands barefoot in the shade of mango tree on the cooperate farm that owns her land.

“I have more confidence.”

Gitaben, the “ben” suffix means sister, is the face of Indian agriculture yesterday and today: brown, proud and mostly female.

And, according to officials met during a whirlwind six-day visit to India in late March, it’s the face that haunts public and private ag policy makers as they move toward the titanic goal of transforming India from a developing nation to a developed one by 2025.

What to do. In simple terms, Gitaben and the policy-makers face a question that is as easy to ask as it is impossible to answer: What will India do with its mostly poor, 600 million rural citizens and many of its 210 million farmers as biotechnology, mechanization and hoped-for international trade replace sweat, bent backs and water buffalo?

The question doesn’t confront just India.

As the crack-up of global trade talks last September in Cancun showed, Brazil, China, Chad, Mali, Birkina Fasso, Benin and the scores of developing nations who are home to two-thirds of the world’s farming billions face it, too.

And the answer – if one can be found – will rattle the relatively few millions of farmers in the United States, the European Union, Canada, Australia and other developed nations.

Livelihood. “In India,” says Dr. Suman Sinha of the Gene Campaign in India, “agriculture is not a commercial activity; it’s a livelihood. If these people can’t farm, there’s nothing for them to do.”

So too in the rest of the developing world.

Sinha, who holds a Ph.D. in genetics from the University of Heidelberg and has taught at the universities of Saskatchewan and Chicago, is not given to overstatement.

Numbers. Indian agriculture, as rife with challenges as with people, is nearly impossible to overstate.

For example, in India:

* 570 million people are directly employed in the food sector;

* 115 million farmers own land, 95 million farmers own no land but farm under sharecrop leases;

* 78 percent of all land holdings are less than 5 acres, 59 percent are less than 2.5 acres and only 1.6 percent are “large holdings” of more than 25 acres;

* mechanization per farm averages one-third horsepower, a nearly-invisible fraction of that on Western farms;

* one-third of the annual harvest, equivalent to the yearly production of Australia, is either wasted or rots because of the lack of refrigeration, integrated markets, all season roads and other infrastructure shortfalls;

* of the 650,000 cities, towns and villages in India, not one has water 24 hours a day, seven days a week;

* $8 billion per year, or about $12 per citizen, is doled out in ag subsidies, many tied to irrigation and food assistance;

* India’s farmers are monsoon dependent yet 47 percent of all rainfall evaporates, 31 percent runs off into rivers and streams and only 22 percent is captured for home or farm use;

* $43 billion, an impossibly rich sum for India, is needed to solve the nation’s chronic farm water woes;

* 261 million of India’s 1 billion people receive some type of federal or state food assistance.

Gitaben in statistics. In one way or another, Gitaben can be found in every one of those statistics.

She’s poor, landless and uneducated. Her key tools are her hands, water and will.

But she’s three times better off today than yesterday.

Tomorrow, however, will bring contract farming, tractors, biotech seed, international market pressure and global agribusiness, and neither Gitaben nor India is ready.

(The author is a freelance ag journalist who lives in Delavan, Ill. He can be reached via e-mail at: Read his columns online at

© 2004 ag comm

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