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The What, Why, How and Where of Dedicated Agricultural Corridors—Safeguarding Indian Agriculture Against Future Pandemics

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Pooja Paswan
May 17, 2020

“If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right in the country.”

— M. S. Swaminathan (also known as “Father of Green Revolution in India”)

Where are we now?

The ongoing health crisis around COVID19 has affected all walks of life. Protecting the lives of people suffering from the disease as well as frontline health responders has been the priority of nations. The governments have swung into actions since the coronavirus pandemic created an unprecedented situation. According to the agricultural census of India, approximately 61% of the Indian population is dependent on agriculture. A futuristic approach to protect the 140 million households dependent on agriculture is imperative.

Immediately after the nation-wide lockdown was announced, the Indian Finance Minister declared an INR 1.7 trillion package, mostly to protect vulnerable populations (including farmers) from any adverse impacts of the coronavirus pandemic. The announcement contained advance release of INR 2000 to farmers’ bank accounts as income support under the PM-KISAN scheme.

The Government also raised the wage rate for workers engaged under the MGNREGA, the world’s largest wage guarantee act. Pradhan Mantri Garib Kalyan Yojana (the Prime Minister’s plan for welfare of the poor) had been announced under the special scheme to take care of the vulnerable population. Additional grain allotments to registered beneficiaries were also announced for the next three months. Cash and food assistance to persons engaged in the informal sector, mostly migrant laborers, have also been announced for which a separate PM-CARES (Prime Minister Citizen Assistance and Relief in Emergency Situations) fund has been created. In spite of all these measures and in view of continuing restrictions on movements of people and vehicular traffic, concerns have been raised regarding negative implications of the COVID-19 pandemic on the farm economy.

This is the peak of rabi season in India and crops like wheat, gram, lentil, mustard, etc. (including paddy in irrigated tracts) are at a harvestable stage or almost reaching maturity. This is also the time when the farm harvests reach the mandis (market yards) for assured procurement operations by designated government agencies. Moreover, any severe disruption to the supply of perishable fruits and vegetables, dairy products, fish, etc.—having mobilized to meet the increasing demand from a bulging middle class as well as urban and rural consumers—may create irreparable damage to all actors in the supply chain.

India is an agricultural country. Agriculture is “only” 16 % of GDP but the largest sector for employment. Officially, farmers are only a few hundred million, but adding family members who help or occasionally farm, also as wage laborers, the number of farm workers is likely to be closer to half a billion people.

How many people would India need in farming if it were as labor efficient as the United States?

Agriculture in India is a state subject, and as has been observed in past years, policies and programs vary from one State to the other. The waiver of farm loans, evidences suggest, have not fully benefitted the majority of small and marginal farmers. Rather, it affects the future credit behavior of the borrowers and thus negatively impacts the agricultural credit culture altogether.

As the kharif (rainy/wet) season is fast approaching, institutional lending of crop loans should be expanded and facilitated for smooth (and sufficient) flow of credit to borrowing farmers. Agri-inputs—seeds, fertilizers, agro-chemicals, etc.—have to be pre-positioned for easy availability. The private sector must play a significant role with necessary policy support.

Why do we need a Dedicated Agriculture Corridor?

India needs to create a strong infrastructure committed to addressing the current challenges of its agriculture sector. Apart from the soft initiatives of loan waivers, farm subsidy and access to “institutional loans” among other benefits, the exclusive intensive infrastructural investment in agriculture is missing.

The focus should be on creating a separate network of roadways and railways connecting the farms produce to cold storage and from the cold storage to food processing centers and markets. This will further will help in reducing the food wastage and enable farm-to-table delivery of the fresh produce.

Therefore, dedicated agriculture growth corridors serve as a tool for inclusive agricultural development. There is a lot of potential for agricultural research to develop and contribute towards an understanding of how growth corridors function and how they can contribute to agricultural transformation, improved livelihoods and natural resource sustainability.

There is a need for integrated and interdisciplinary research to contribute to research around corridor impacts on food and nutrition security, poverty and sustainability, inclusivity and how to reach the most vulnerable if corridors fail to do so.

What if it doesn’t work?

At the same time, there are concerns about the type, scale and distribution of impacts from corridor-related policies and investments. In particular, critics have associated agricultural growth corridors approaches with so-called land-grabs, mono-cropping and a focus on large-scale business and large-scale commercial farming to the exclusion of small-scale producers and operators.

The interventions associated with corridors may also have unintended consequences for existing trade and production systems, and on natural capital and its capacity to deliver healthy ecosystem services including habitats for biodiversity. Further, corridors are sometimes considered to be driven by outside interests and/or political elites, with far less ‘development’ than their names suggest, implying a need to pay attention to implementation approaches and the broader institutional environment. Some express concern that vulnerable people outside corridor areas may be ignored and condemned to a two-tier farming system.

“If you focus on what you left behind, you will never be able to see what lies ahead.”

—Chef Gusteau (Disney Pixar movie “Ratatouille”)

In the late nineteenth century, Britain and France expanded railways to address the agrarian crisis and restructure the agriculture sector. Indian government owes it to the farmers, their supporting families and to the country to evolve and design a customized infrastructure catering to the needs of its prime stakeholders; farmers, who have been kept away from the main ambit of holistic and sustainable development.

Author: Pooja Paswan is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Political Science at Jamia Millia Islamia University, New Delhi, India. She has Ph.D in Public Administration and specializes in Public Policy. She was recipient of the ASPA 2019 Founders Fellow. She has worked extensively in the area of development administration and policy. She can be reached at https://jmi.academia.edu/PoojaPaswan and [email protected]. Twitter @poojapaswan

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