After nearly two years and about Rs. 1.5 crores expenditure, the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) has put out a document outlining a policy for farmers, which leaves much to be desired. Even the Ministry of agriculture, which set up the commission, has recently remarked that no worthwhile recommendations have come out of the commission's report. In fact the most important recommendation of the commission is to set up some more commissions and committees! The NCF is a shining example of what Albert Einstein once said, "Existing problems cannot be solved by the level of thinking that created them".
What the NCF and the planners who sit in Delhi forget is that farming is presently non-remunerative. This is because of the policy of low support price for farm produce by the government of India, which is the biggest buyer of agricultural commodities. Thus no amount of soft financial packages will prevent the farmers' suicides or help the marginal farmers. These are all short-term solutions. There is a Chinese saying "You can feed a farmer for a short time by supplying him fish, but if you teach him how to catch fish he will feed himself the rest of his life". Thus if we create a long term agricultural policy which brings in wealth to the countryside, then automatically the farmers' lot will become better. Such an agricultural policy should help the marginal farmers as much as the big farmers.
The only way in which farming can become remunerative is when it is tied up very closely to the industry. This can happen when farms also produce energy besides food. Three types of fuels can be produced easily via agriculture ' liquid fuels like ethanol or biodiesel; gaseous fuels like methane; and electricity. When the major demands of fuel and electricity of the country are met by the farm then wealth will automatically flow into rural areas.
The ethanol liquid fuel can be produced from agricultural crops like sweet sorghum, sugarbeet, sugarcane etc. while biodiesel can be produced from a horde of oil producing crops like Jatropha, Karanja, Castor etc. Estimates are that agriculture-based liquid fuel industry can be of an order of about Rs. 40-50,000 crores/year thereby providing increasing wealth to farmers.
In any agriculture only 25-40% of the produce is food. Rest 60-75% are the agricultural residues. These residues can produce both electricity (via biomass-based power plants) and ethanol fuel (via enzymatic hydrolysis process). Any marginal farm can produce agricultural residues even if the main food crop fails. On an average a farmer can get an extra income of Rs. 2000-4000/acre from the residues alone if they are used for producing energy. This income can give him benefits even in case of a distress sale of his crop.
Today about 600 million tons/year of agricultural residues are produced in India. Most of these residues are burnt in the fields as a solution to the waste disposal problem. This not only wastes the precious resource but also produces tremendous air pollution. Theoretically these residues can produce ~ 80,000 MW of power year round. This is around 60% of the total installed electricity capacity of India. Part of these agricultural residues can also be used via the methane (biogas) route to produce fertilizer for the crops and gaseous fuel to either run rural transport, irrigation pumpsets or be used as cooking gas. The production of electricity via residues will require an investment of about Rs. 160,000 crores. However it will bring about 10 times more money to rural areas in terms of revenues from electricity generation. Besides it can potentially create almost 120 million extra jobs in rural areas.
As the industrial demand for fuels and electricity increases, we might see large tracts of farmland coming under fuel crops and food production may suffer. Thus there is a need to debate the food vs. fuel issues. Consequently R&D needs to be done on crops which produce both fuel and food from the same piece of land. Sweet sorghum is one such crop. Nimbkar Agricultural Research Institute (NARI) pioneered the development of this crop in India. Sweet sorghum produces food (jowar grain) from its earhead, fuel from its stem (the sweet juice can be fermented to produce ethanol) and bagasse and leaves make an excellent fodder for animals or they can also be used as fuel in power plants. Similarly if the agricultural residues can be broken down by suitable enzymes to produce ethanol then both food and fuel can be produced from all food crops.
A policy has to be made by the Government of India that by 2015 AD around 80% of all our liquid fuel and 30-40% of all our electricity will have to be produced from renewables especially biomass. This will result in tremendous growth in the farm sector and can provide a solution to the problems of the marginal farmers. In recent times alcohol economy in Brazil and biogas economy in Europe has brought prosperity to farmers in these countries.
When farms start supplying energy besides food it will generate additional wealth for the 65% of the population who live in rural areas. Production of energy from agriculture will be a single most important step in bringing prosperity to rural India as well as energy security to the country.