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Mainstream, Vol LII, No 15, April 5, 2014

India: Growing Importance of Fruits and Vegetables

Sunday 6 April 2014, by Gilbert Etienne


Fruits and vegetables (F/V) have been quite a luxury in many countries in Asia and elsewhere for centuries. When travelling from Lebanon to the border of Bengal, kitchen gardens, so widespread in Africa south of the Sahara, were not common, although some fallow lands could have been devoted to F/V.

Milk was widespread but with low yields. There was a combination of agriculture and animal husbandry which was not the case further east. The famous French geographer, Pierre Gourou, called China “la civilisation du vegetal”. (La terre et l’homme en Extrême Orient) There were, and there are nevertheless some areas where F/V played an important role in the economy, using a sizeable part of the land while bringing an important income to farmers such as in Afghanistan (Kandahar and the Northern plain of Koh i Daman near Kabul). For centuries, Afghanistan has been famous, as today, for its delicious fruits in great varieties, including all kinds of grapes.

The Starting Point

The issue of F/V, and milk to a less extent, is crucial: there is a growing demand of such items going along the rising society of consumption in cities and advanced villages. However, one wonders whether the present price crisis is not linked to a gap between the demand and the offer, aggravated by speculators.

The promotion of F/V has also high social contents. The shrinking of land holdings makes imperative a faster growth of F/V. In 1951, there were 70 per cent cultivators versus 27 landless agricultural workers. In 2001, the ratio was only 45.6 per cent cultivators. As to the size of holdings, around 80 per cent have fallen to one hectare or less. One hectare, double-cropped and well-irrigated, enables a farming family to live decently, especially if one of the boys works outside. As will be seen in the following page, half a hectare or even a quarter of a hectare of F/V gives a much higher net return than cereals, but in rain-fed areas, the situation is much tighter.

Finally come flowers. Until the 1970s you could hardly find a shop in big cities like Delhi, while, today, you find flowers displays in many street corners and some are exported.

• The share of foodgrains and other major crops declined from 63 per cent of total agricultural value to 53 per cent between 1982 and 2006. Today, F/V output may be equal to the share of major crops (Business India, 20.1.2014) which may be too high (?). We must bear in mind the deterioration of land records and their impact on statistics.

• While these trends are welcome, these data are still rather small for such a large country. A large untapped amount of land remains to be transformed.

• Plenty of observations confirm the much higher net return of F/V compared to cereals, cotton, sugarcane, oilseeds. Taking onions, with an average yield of 15,000 kg/ha), even low retail prices around Rs 10 per kg as happened in 2013, are much more favourable than foodgrains selling prices (other cases in the following page) out of yields of 3000 to 4000 kg/ha of clean rice or wheat.

Present Achievements

In adequately irrigated areas, the promotion of F/V does not raise major problems, except where there is excessive pumping of ground water as in northern India with its double-cropping of rice followed by wheat. It is increasingly advised to shift to horticulture for better return and substantially less requirment of water.In add-ition one can use drips which save much water.

Around a number of cities including medium ones, as I observed in Guntur and Benares, vegetable belts are expanding in order to answer the growing demand.

• Then come more difficult issues in mostly rain-fed areas, particularly in peninsular India. In the plateaux of Mayurbhanj (Orissa), inhabited by poor tribals, an Indian NGO (DULAL) is promoting F/V. Each family is assisted to grow one acre (0.4 ha) of mangoes and/or cashew trees. The trees can grow on wasted, poor soils, provided great care is taken: a substantial amount of organic manure around the growing trees, careful and regular watering, if necessary by hand. After six-seven years, 40 fully mature mango trees produce each 40 to 45 kg of fruit sold 18 to 22 rupees a kg. The net return per acre amounts to Rs 22,000 to 25,000. Before full growth of trees, farmers can also grow vegetables.

• One may add that a major canal irrigation project (Subernarekha) was started in 1982 but 95,000 ha are still waiting for canals, a typical mismanagement of the irrigation policy. DULAL is not exceptional. One sees similar projects under very poor soils provided they are handled with care.

Eksal is a village of Satara district (Maharashtra) rather typical of the region: Wide undulated fields bearing jowar, the yields of which may fall to 300 kg/ha with poor rain. They may double under a good monsoon. Under such conditions, a family with two hectares does suffer.

Wherever the farmer can have a pump set on an open well to tap ground water, he can irrigate a small piece of land and cultivate potatoes. Sold in the bazaar, they enable him to buy some jowar missing from his own fields. Striking is the case of my old friend, Govind Pandurang, a Mahar.1 He learned to grow grapes already in the 1960s on 0.1 hectare irrigated. Later on he added 0.2 hectare of onions and potatoes. In 2006 I met his two sons, clerks in Pune, wearing spotless dhoti and kurta.

• In order to boost such techniques, the Government of Maharashtra subsidies drip irrigation which saves water.One does find similar trends, particularly in Rajasthan.

• One must however remember that these small plots of irrigated land are far from universal. I happened to visit some villages where not a drop of water was available. In 2002, I visited a miserable village on a bad road in the Ghâts, 40 km from the affluent hill station of Lonavala, above Mumbai. People there were living in miserable huts, children were dirty and partly sick, daily wages amounted to Rs 25, not even half of the rate in Eksal.

Very Poor Marketing

I don’t know if marketing was better with small supplies or not, but what is clear is that the overall situation has become very bad, leading to waste and losses, underpaying the growers, affecting the economy while depriving it from sources of growth. This has been particularly clear in recent times with fast price increases. The total post harvest losses are estimated at 30 per cent of production.

There is a big lack of cold storage houses, which is badly needed for certain crops vuln-erable if not stored. The district of Muzffarpur (North Bihar) produces the best leeches of the subcontinent, but they would require cold storage. When talking with big local dealers, they told me that they could not build a factory, for lack of electricity. Then a diesel generator would be too costly.

Poor packing, delayed transport and bad roads are common. The quality of F/V is not always checked. The multiplicity of intermediary traders is a major issue. The case of onions in recent times is typical. (See the Economist, 16-12-13 and EPW, 1-2-14) There may be four crops. It is grown in the kharif but may suffer from humidity unless stored in a cold house. Rabi onions need less protection and can survive for eight months. Important exports (total Rs 890,000) go to Bangladesh, Pakistan, Malaysia.

“Every player in the chain adds to the cost to the customer.” Then the Mandi Government rules may not be respected by influential dealers. The worst case which I came across was that of a Punjabi farmer who sold one kilogram of potato for Rs 1 to a local dealer. From one dealer to the other, the kilogram ended in Delhi bazaar, selling at Rs 15.

There are big differences between States. While Gujarat is doing well in agriculture including marketing, the poorest States in India, Odisha and Bihar, have a lot to do.

The Poorest Dalits and Tribals

Particular attention is not given to the lowest Dalits and tribals by the local authorities. In Benares district I came across Musahars (literally rat-eaters) on various occasions. They were living thoroughly apart from other communities. Except for a few new houses supplied by the State, they were living in shabby little huts, children and women particularly ill nourished. They were often paid less than the usual rates for agricultural work.

Badri Naryan made similar observations on a larger scope. There are around one million Musahars in UP. In certain villages, local authorities do not even know that they exist. (EPW, 1-2-14)

Organised and Contract Farming

Oddly enough, out of a total retail trade of about $ 450 billion, only seven per cent belong to the organised trade, as against 20 per cent in China, 30 per cent in Brazil. In addition, only a very small part of agricultural goods are processed into industrial items: in 2012 it amounted to 20 per cent, as against 30 per cent in Thailand, 70 per cent in Brazil.

In 1961, Nestlé set up a milk factory at Moga (Punjab) to collect the milk from the farmers. In the 1990s, Pepsi Cola started a scheme with farmers, also In Punjab, to grow tomatoes transformed into juice, but it did not last long.

Contract farming is attracting a growing number of major Indian corporations, but it seems that they face difficulties. Their malls were doing fairly well in the early part of 2013, but, by the end of the year until 2014, they had to give heavy discounts to maintain sales. They also complain of high operational costs. (Arzoo Dina, Business India, 20-1-14)

Big multinationals like Wal-Mart and Carrefour are pressing the government to expand their business in India against the narrow interests of the bazar. So far they play only a minor role. As we know in Europe, contract farming may have occasional abuses against the producers but, on the whole, the system works rather smoothly. It could no doubt be the same in India, while disturbing vested interests.

Summing Up

A stronger policy in favour of V/F would create chain reactions: growth of GDP, jobs creation and poverty alleviation. Such aims remain narrowly dependent on the very weak power and transport deliveries in villages. Such defects became obvious already in the 1980s and yet remedies at the Centre and States keep on being delayed. No less appropriate would be faster growth in research and extension services. Last but not the least comes the slow progress of irrigation.

I wonder whether parts of these weaknesses are not the result of the growing ignorance between urban elites and rural issues. This was already criticised by the famous anthropologist M.N. Srinivas in the 1970s. (On living in a Revolution, New Delhi, Oxford University Press, 1992)

Is it not time to bridge these gaps?

The Case of China

In spite of a higher urban population ratio, China faces heavily populated rural areas. While the cultivated area is falling with new factories, roads, trade... this leads to numerous conflicts between locals and outsiders.

The decollectivisation of the agriculture since the 1980s under Deng Xiaoping had allotted a piece of land to every rural family. In heavily populated plains, (1000 or more per plots amounted to 1/3 hectare. With their heavier yields, the Chinese are growing around 4000 kg/ha clean rice and 6000 for wheat.

As for population growth, it has slowed down though people can have more than one child in cities. According to Chinese estimates, 160 million people are undernourished, 11 per cent of total population.

Removal of subsidies, better irrigation and other inputs will not be enough. Meat consumption is expanding fast so that more and more feed grain, maize and large amounts of soya will be encouraged. As for farmers, they are advised to push F/V giving a higher return.


  • The Mahar are the cream of the Dalits. Dr Ambedkar, their great leader, was one of them. During WW II, the British created the Mahar Regiment.

Gilbert Etienne is the Professor Emeritus of Development Economics, Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies, Geneva.

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