26 Aug 2020 21:40 IST

Agriculture drives economic growth, not just welfare sector: Ashoka Prof

Farmers at Ariculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) market, amid Covid-19, Ahmedabad, India.

At the IIMB conference, experts discussed the need to craft agricultural policies with an economic vision

Prof Barbara Harriss-White, economist and Emeritus Professor, Development Studies, Oxford University, and Dr Mekhala Krishnamurthy, Senior Fellow, CPR, and Associate Professor, Sociology and Anthropology, Ashoka University, addressed issues such as challenges of agricultural market systems and food systems at the 15th International Conference on Public Policy and Management, hosted by IIM Bangalore’s Centre for Public Policy.

They were engaged in a special virtual conversation on ‘Public Policy for Food and Agricultural Markets: Planet Micro and Planet Macro.’



Barbara Harriss-White



Pointing out that her research in this domain is “work-in-progress”, Prof Harriss-White defined food, systems (invoking the work of Rolando Garcia), agriculture markets, and policy. “Food is impossible to produce or consume without water and we forget that at times,” she remarked, adding how when land use is changed from forest to agriculture production it causes enormous burden on the environment. “Policy priorities,” she said, “must address the food question — making sustainable food, identify key foods damaging to human health, and so on.”

Quoting Garcia, a meteorologist and epistemologist, Dr Harriss-White observed how fluxes going into the food system like credit policies, technology and so on going out of the system like profits need policy to be fitted into food systems. “Garcia suggested physical, agro-productive and socio-economic sub systems,” she explained.

Agriculture market is complex and layered

The system is full of concepts and ideas that might change in the process of researching them and so we propose seeking data or evidence as we go out and hunt for our system. “Agricultural markets are indispensable links in the food system between production and consumption. India’s agricultural markets are seen either as oligopolistic and socially constructed and protected together with masses of petty trade or competitive and efficient. But, in practice, they are neither. They are complex and layered,” she remarked, drawing from an example of an agricultural market in West Bengal which she had researched in the 1980s and 90s.

Defining policy as “experience grating against concepts,” she said it is a system of four simultaneous process of bureaucratic politics — agenda (policy formulation), procedure (laws, regulations and institutions of claim), resources (money, personnel, technology, energy), and access (queuing and counter). “All of these have economic costs,” she said, noting that her research work involves working these costs into the food system.

Conceptually broken

Drawing from 16 collective published representations of contemporary global food systems to show how systems and sub-systems are all different, Dr Harriss-White said organisations trying to model global food systems use different scales of aggregation. “These representations show that the system/sub-system drivers are available measurable quantifiable data not theorised processes. Among what is missing from all of them are gender relations, questions of money, waste, information and more,” she said, adding that the existing models are fuzzy and obscure and ignore policy, often reducing it to governance or idiosyncratic lists of specifics.

“The food system exists and functions but conceptually it is broken — we are like blind men feeling the elephant! There is a great deal of work to be done and there is enormous opportunity for the nation state, the federal state and the local level as much of consequence for the food question in the 21st century has been missed out by these 16 models though they were also drawn from 21st CE problems and data.”

In India, Dr Harriss-White argued, agricultural policy has many agendas at the discursive level, there is regulation without enforcement, resources incentivise chemical agriculture though the rhetoric concerns sustainability, and access is blocked by entrenched economic interests.

‘Room to manoeuvre’

In the second half of the talk, Dr Mekhala Krishnamurthy from Ashoka University and the Centre for Policy Research, focused on India’s agriculture markets, their diversity, complexity and their uniqueness. “It amazes me how such a vital, vibrant sector of the Indian economy suffers from such a lack of empirical specification and is so inadequately theorised. Agriculture is again on India’s policy agenda during the Covid crisis as it is one sector which seems to be working in these extraordinary times. But the Indian policy imagination treats agriculture as a welfare or residue sector instead of treating it as a vibrant sector that needs an economic vision and drives economic growth,” she explained.


Mekhala Krishnamurthy




Discussing the ‘One Nation, One Market’ reform recently announced by the Govt. of India, Dr. Krishnamurthy said, “We tend to forget that we do have a national physical agriculture market where complex transactions happen, where systems are dynamic and intermediaries play vital roles in this low margin, high volume business. Will this reform change anything at all? If it is to have an impact, it cannot continue to ignore regional diversity, commodity specificity and institutional pre-conditions. The terms of engagement must change.”

Explaining that India’s agriculture market is primarily private and informal with the state playing a regulatory role, she said it needed a new and grounded imagination to address the needs of this vast masses of small actors in this space.

Earlier in the evening, Prof. M.S. Sriram, Chairperson, Centre for Public Policy, introduced the speakers and thanked NABARD and GIC for extending support to the conference.