Jul 01 2013

A seminar on Africa and a conference on co-ops!

One does not associate the months of June and July with conferences and seminars in Delhi- for they are usually held when the climes are cooler! So there was an element of surprise when your columnist was invited to two back to back conferences last week – the first on India Africa partnership in Agriculture, and for a technical session at the sixteenth Indian Co-operative Congress.  The former was organized by the International Agricultural Consulting group, and the latter by the National Co-operative Union of India.

The India Africa partnership on Agriculture  brought together  participants from International Crop Research Institute for Semi Arid Tropics ( ICRISAT ), International  Livestock Research Institute (ILRI), Indian Council of Agricultural Research( ICAR),  Indian Meteorological Department (IMD), Ministries of External Affair and Agriculture , State Agriculture Universities , High Commissioners and Ambassadors from African countries and Indian agribusiness professionals for a round table discussion on how to meet the growing demand for food and nutrition in Africa –on account of rising population, higher age expectancy  and demand for quality food as incomes grew faster than ever before. That  the world had the technology and resources to address the problem of nutrition is well documented – the challenge is to ensure that  food security for Africa is ensured at the level of local communities , and that  the preferred mode of food security is through strengthening livelihoods of marginal and small farmers, rather than corporate farming . This is where India can make a big difference, and also  send out a clear signal that India’s involvement with the agricultural development of Africa is based on the ‘ farmer and community empowerment model’ , as distinct from China’s corporate farming model.

Your columnist mentioned India’s consistent position   on Responsible Investments in Agriculture at the FAO. India was clear that it was not the aggregate production of food – but the processes involved in production that were equally, if not more important. Moreover, food production should, first and foremost, lead to food security and livelihood security in the host country.  India had made significant strides in this direction – for our food security had been assured by 13 million marginal and small farmers, as also our dominant position in the global milk sector by farmers who rarely hold more than four to five cattle. India’s experience in provision of rural credit, agricultural inputs through co-operatives, and assured marketing through the Minimum Support Price (MSP) and Price Support Scheme (PSS) operations also held out policy exemplars for Africa. Thus investments had to be multi –pronged, and Africa could also benefit from what India had learnt from the Green revolution. There was no point in losing out on bio-diversity, and farmers had to look at the farming system in its entirety, rather than the crop specific approach, which marked the first two decades of the Green Revolution when we only looked at production – and not at inputs like water and fertilizer, which had significantly reduced the water level in the hitherto most fertile agricultural tracts of India.  Thus India was not offering a miracle- but a sincere handholding partnership, besides of course scholarships, training programmes and support for institution building in Africa. It must be placed on record that USAID is also looking to leverage India’s skill in reaching out to its farmers as the preferred mode of ensuring food security in Africa.  India also acknowledges the fact that there can be no omnibus policy for agriculture in Africa. The continent is too vast, and different regions have different levels of technological development, and in so far as plantation crops are concerned, Uganda and Nigeria could give a few lessons on estate management!

The second session was at the Indian co-operative congress, where the discussion was on “Consumers and Producers: How do co-operatives bridge the gap”. The big challenge for the co-operative movement was that consumer co-operatives were losing their business to large retailers, internet firms, neighborhood shops and informal aggregation of purchase orders. Co-operative consumer stores were recording receding footfalls, and were increasingly dependent on government business, which did provide financial security – but made the organization even less member centric. The way out was to redefine ‘consumer needs’. Traditionally, consumer co-operatives have only addressed the conventional needs of a household – groceries, milk, cosmetics, stationery and fast moving consumer goods, including electronic items. There was no thinking, at least among the Indian co-operative movement   about the newer consumption needs of the stakeholders – health, education for pre-school children, crèches, and care homes for the elderly. Globally, the highest growth of co-operatives was being recorded in sectors like day care centres for pre-school children and elderly, health care and services.
With regard to government involvement in co-operatives, the general consensus was that it would be best if government’s role was limited to creating a conducive policy environment for co-operatives. Thus, if the APMC Act was amended to allow all co-operative organizations – both producers and consumers to transact without the necessity of having premises on the campus, the gains to co-operative sector would be meaningful.  Whether or not the consumer co-ops should get a preference in managing the PDS in the light of the Food security Bill also came up for discussion, but yours truly believes that is not a ‘member-driven’ activity . It will certainly benefit the members – as will a lot of things – but it runs the risk of being completely identified with   government programme, with all its attendant externalities. There were not too many takers for this argument, but what is a conference if everyone has to speak the same lines!