At the very outset let us appreciate Sri Lanka's vision for the agriculture sector: "An agriculture sector contributing to regionally equitable economic growth, rural livelihood improvement, and food security through efficient production of commodities for consumption for agro-based industries and for exporting competitively to the world market." [Sri Lanka: Priorities for Agriculture and Rural Development].
What is the reality of agriculture in our region? More than half of the global population already resides in cities. This number is projected to increase, with 60 per cent of the population living in urban areas by 2030. The U N rightly warned that half of the world's increase in urban land will occur in Asia over the next 20 years and two of the region's largest economies, China and India, will see the most extensive changes. In India, the loss of agricultural land to urbanisation, aided by insufficient planning for food supply lines, will place a severe constraint on the country's future food security for its growing population, the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) said in its The Cities and Biodiversity Outlook report.
With the total urban area in the world expected to triple between 2000 and 2030 and urban populations expected to double to around 4.9 billion in the same period, urban expansion, the report said in its assessment, will put stress on water and other natural resources, and consume prime agricultural land. This report makes a strong argument for greater attention to be paid by urban planners and managers to the nature-based assets within city boundaries. Sustainable urban development that supports valuable ecosystems presents a major opportunity for improving lives and livelihoods, and accelerating the transition to an inclusive green economy.
In this 21st century rural regions are facing major challenges which arise mainly from globalisation, demographic change and the rural migration of young, well-trained people. Policies for rural areas desperately call for recognising and making use of strengths and opportunities.
No doubt, the policy shift towards integrated rural development has been there though at a snail's pace -- reflecting a fundamental change so far as the objectives are concerned and a movement towards a more holistic approach to rural development inviting new tools of analysis. But the goings in the developing world cannot be given an excellent certificate in as much as a number of inhibiting factors still roam at large.
In particular, agricultural lands require top attention in as much as sectoral competition may lead to diminution of farm land steadily in the absence of proper land use planning.
It will be pertinent to refer here some recent global happenings.
This is particularly serious in Egypt, where only 3.0 per cent of the total area of that country is of any use for agriculture, the rest being largely desert. It appears that every year, that country loses 0.5 per cent of what remains of its agricultural land-a trend that cannot go on for ever. The situation is similar in China. Indeed, since that country started industrialising, it has lost some 10 per cent of its agricultural land. In China urban areas are increasingly encroaching on protected areas of the country. In the Latin American and Caribbean regions, where the number of cities has grown six-fold in the last 50 years, housing for low-income residents often occurs in important areas for biodiversity and ecosystem services such as the wetlands or floodplains. These are mistakenly considered to be of marginal value by planners.
Regional disparity also plays a role in worsening the situation. Due to interplay of a number of factors the incidence of regional disparity galore It is definitely a matter of grave concern in as much as not only between the districts, but within the blocks also differences galore - in case of any indicator on this score - irrigation, fertiliser use, productivity, cropping intensity and the like. The trend is to be mitigated.
Regional peculiarities must be given adequate weightage. Species of fish, crops and livestock to be raised will have to be selected on the basis of local conditions and requirements. Access to science and technology are also not included adequately in rural development strategies in order to improve the nutritional value of crops, reduce production fluctuation and increase productivity on small-scale farms in a manner appropriate to the ecosystem in which they operate.
Empowering rural population (that includes a large number of vulnerable groups, including women, indigenous peoples, member of low castes, and ethnic minorities) still remains a far cry. Women, as is well known (thanks to the African Proverb: without women we will go hungry) in particular are responsible for a vast majority of food production, household work, and care work. They are yet to be actively included in designing and implementing the programmes that will enhance security of their livelihoods. Poor educational facilities and awareness on this score stand in the way of achieving gender equality and equity. These, in turn, blocked speed of the ongoing efforts directed towards mitigation of regional imbalances. Manpower wastage, marketing hindrances, inadequate availability of quality inputs and managerial ineffectiveness, among others, just go on adding to sectoral and spatial imbalances.
Finally, what about access to services and infrastructure that should be available throughout the economy (drinking water supply, sewage treatment, mail, telecommunications, transport, access to broadband in the field of IT and telecommunications)? The quality of these services, however, differs from region to region. One field which urgently needs improvement is sewage treatment where, for economic reasons, the number of decentralised systems is growing. Furthermore, employment opportunities are not at all sufficiently available in rural regions.
An innovative approach has to be there in as much as tinkering around the existing practises could not enable an economy to reach higher level of equilibrium. Rural diversification, one way of looking at this, in turn, refers to the process aimed at reducing the risks of farming and is a logical consequence of the policy shift away from direct agricultural price support -- a synergy approach to rural development, incorporating both traditional network and institutional analysis, focusing on working mechanisms and processes. This, no doubt, paves the way for fostering cooperation between public and private actors to achieve sustainable development. Planning is a continuous and spontaneous process indeed.
Further innovation, inclusive of the drive for optimising productivity, subject to environment constraint, is the crying need to push the integrated farming system almost to perfection. At the same time environmental concerns should be considered and integrated during the planning phase of to support rural areas. A large share of policies targeted at land use in rural areas should have served to promote agro-bio-diversity and environmental measures in agriculture.
Dr B K Mukhopadhyay is a Management Economist.
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