From Ram rajya to scientific farming

AFTER a decade of academic exercises, Indian planners have decided to incorporate the concept of agroclimatic regional planning in the Eighth Five-Year plan to ensure sustainable crop yields and spread of agriculture through ecologically-sound land and water management programmes.

"We are moving from Ram rajya to science fiction," was the initial reaction of V M Dandekar, noted economist of the Indian School of Political Economy, Pune. Later, convinced about its utility, he helped in formulating the conceptual package for this new planning approach. The idea had originated during Y K Alagh's tenure as member in charge of agriculture in the Planning Commission.

Still, the aura of fiction began to fade away only after Prime Minister P V Narasimha Rao asked the Planning Commission to divert additional funds to agriculture and rural development in the Eighth Five-Year plan.

This is seen as an achievement by several economists because, under the structural adjustment programme, development initiatives are scheduled for major cuts. Speculation was rife in official quarters that the finance ministry considered the agroclimatic regional plan unnecessary in view of the forthcoming Rs 500 crore project for agribusiness for small farmers. But the Prime Minister's intervention has made available additional funds to the tune of approximately Rs 24,000 crore to the rural development and agricultural sectors. This will help in implementing the agroclimatic regional plan.

"This is a major departure from the conventional planning approach which emphasises only technology," says Alagh. "The mid-term appraisal of the Seventh plan in 1987 had brought to light the basic drawbacks of our agricultural plans. Efficiency of water use, a more realistic assessment of resource requirements, greater coordination at the district level, improved policies for credit, seeds for alternative crops, and alternate delivery systems were recognised as immediate requirements."

By that time, considerable research had gone into mapping agroclimatic zones based on well-defined ecological parameters like land capability, rainfall and availability of groundwater and surface water. "It was decided," says Alagh, "that land and water development strategies most suited to each region would be taken up."

In 1989, the then prime minister, Rajiv Gandhi, had announced that agroclimatic planning would be accepted in the Eighth plan. He announced that the "productivity of unirrigated lands is to be enhanced through effective watershed development and in situ moisture conservation. About 25 lakh ha of usar and barani lands will be reclaimed at the rate of 5 lakh ha a year." But the plan hung fire when his government was voted out.

The Planning Commission has now issued guidelines to the states urging them to incorporate the recommendations of the agroclimatic regional plan. About 30 districts have been selected, representing different agroclimatic zones for pilot experiments during the Eighth plan period.

"It is too early to comment on the outcome of this effort, but I am optimistic," says S P Shelat, chief planning secretary, Gujarat, who is now supervising the district plan for Mehsana district, selected for the pilot project. While the technical plan is almost complete, organisational and financial arrangements for its implementation are being worked out.