When Narendra Modi won the 2007 state election in Gujarat, the media focused on Hindu-Muslim issues. Some journalists highlighted rapid industrial development that had made Gujarat India’s fastest-growing state. I mentioned Gujarat’s successful port-led development.
However, an excellent new study suggests that the secret of Modi’s success lay in agriculture, an area completely neglected by political analysts. Ashok Gulati, Tushaar Shah and Ganga Sreedhar have written an IFPRI paper, ‘Agricultural Performance in Gujarat Since 2000’, which highlights something few people know — that Gujarat’s agricultural performance is by far the best in India.
Between 2000-01 and 2007-08 agricultural value added grew at a phenomenal 9.6% per year (despite a major drought in 2002). This is more than double India’s agricultural growth rate, and much faster than Punjab’s farm growth in the green revolution heyday. Indeed, 9.6% agricultural growth is among the fastest rates recorded anywhere in the world. That drives home the magnitude of Gujarat’s performance.
Since the bulk of Gujarat’s population is still rural, this mega-boom in agriculture must have created millions of satisfied voters. Hence it must have played a major role in Modi’s victory. Yet I did not see a single media analyst mention it.
Gujarat is drought prone, with 70% of its area classified as semi-arid and arid. Although journalists focus on the Sardar Sarovar Project, its canal network is hopelessly incomplete, and currently irrigates only 0.1 million hectares. No less than 82% of irrigation in the state comes from tubewells, which have depleted groundwater. By the mid-1990s, groundwater extraction exceeded natural recharge in 31 talukas, and 90% of the safe extraction yield in another 12 talukas.
In the 1990s, the state along with grass-roots organisations embarked on decentralised water harvesting. This included the building of check dams, village tanks, and bori-bunds (built with gunny sacks stuffed with mud). During the 2007 election campaign, the Congress slogan was ‘chak de, chak de Gujarat’. I heard Modi say at a rally that his reply was “check dam, check dam Gujarat.” I did not realise at the time how significant this really was.
The IFPRI study says that 10,700 check dams were built up to 2000, and helped drought-proof 32,000 hectares. That sounds a lot. But subsequently, under Modi, Gujarat has built ten times as many check dams! He could well say ‘chak de, check dam’. These have played a big role in the agricultural growth of Saurashtra and Kutch (aided, it must be said, by bountiful monsoons in the last five years). Better water availability has also increased milk and livestock production.
Gujarat has promoted drip irrigation, badly needed to conserve water in semi-arid districts. Like other states, Gujarat offers subsidies and loans, but it also fast-tracks and simplifies procedures. Farmers contribute 5% initially. Then a state-owned company provides 50% as subsidy, and arranges a bank loan for the balance of 45%. One lakh acres have been covered by drip irrigation so far. Like the Sardar Sarovar Project, drip irrigation’s total irrigation potential is far higher.
Research shows that rural roads are the most important investment for agriculture. Gujarat has one of the best rural road networks in India, and 98.7% of villages are connected by pukka roads.
Modi’s Jyotigram scheme for power has provided regular, high-quality electricity to villages, greatly helping farming. Jyotigram provides separate electric feeders for domestic use and pump-sets. This permits the state to supply round-the-clock domestic supply, while limiting agricultural supply to eight hours a day (which is continuous and of constant voltage).
This has facilitated a switch to high-value crops like mango, banana and wheat, which need assured water. Constant voltage has protected farmers from damage to pump-sets earlier caused by fluctuating voltage. Continuous power for non-agricultural uses has spurred diversification into non-farm activities, vital for rural growth.
The irrigated area has expanded at the rate of 4.4% per year. The fastest growth in crops has been in wheat, followed by cotton and fruits and vegetables.
Private seed companies have brought in new technology for several crops, ranging from bajra to castor, but above all in Bt cotton. More than 20 Bt cotton varieties are now produced by 30 seed companies. In his election campaign, Modi waxed eloquent about Gujarat’s success in cotton.
He declared that Gujarat was now famous in China as the producer and exporter of Bt cotton, and he said this was a source of Gujarati pride. (Let me add that this is a great improvement on his earlier notion of Hindu pride, exemplified in his ‘gaurav yatra’ after Godhra).
Gujarat has only 26% of India’s cotton area, but 35.5% of its production, thanks to high yields.
Rising world prices have also helped, and been buttressed by a huge jump in the minimum, support price for cotton.
New institutional arrangements like contract farming have helped improve marketing. Gujarat’s famous dairy co-operatives (everybody loves Amul) have provided a stable basis for milk and livestock development. But the private sector is emerging as an important player too. Corporates have entered agro-exports, agro-processing, organised food retail, and rural infrastructure development.
Vimal Dairy and Vadilal Industries have entered the dairy sector. Agrocel has taken up organic farming of cotton and sesame seeds. Atreyas Agro and Godrej Agrovel plan contract cultivation of jatropha and palm oil respectively. Food retail chains like Food Bazaar, Reliance Fresh and Spencer have sprung up in Gujarat’s cities, sourcing produce from farmers directly.
The state has helped catalyse production, notably in water harvesting. It has worked with NGOs and companies to bring the best technology to farmers. Gujarat Agricultural University has been split into four separate universities, helping strengthen R&D.
Can this be replicated in other states? Much of it can. Jyotigram looks least likely to be replicated because it abandons the free-but-unreliable rural power that politicians regard as vote-winners in most states. Many states also prefer large irrigation projects to small water-harvesting ones, since bigger projects translate into bigger kickbacks. Yet Modi’s electoral success points to a new way of winning rural votes. Others should sit up and take notice.