The OECD-FAO Agricultural Outlook 2021-2030 considers India among the handful of nations that will drive foodgrain production this decade. Given its production surplus in staples such as rice, wheat, groundnuts, to name a few, India rose to the occasion as a major food exporter during the COVID-19 pandemic and continues to do so amidst the current geopolitical tensions that have created food scarcity and higher food prices in many parts of the world. However, for India to rightfully claim title to being the world’s food bowl necessitates that the country lives up to the modern demands of agriculture wherein we upskill and innovate to improve productivity with minimal impact to the environment.
Consider this – India is home to one of the largest national agricultural research systems in the world, with 97 Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) institutes, 53 agricultural universities, 6 Bureaux, 18 National Research Centres, 25 Project Directorates, and 89 All India Coordinated Research Projects. Yet, the quality of workforce that is available to our agricultural sector shows glaring gaps in terms of knowledge, skills, and aptitude. Companies must train new employees at considerable expense to bring them up to speed with new technologies and sharpen their understanding on how to farm sustainably in the era of climate change.
Skill gaps that stand in the way of India becoming a modern agricultural society
Today, the impact of such skill shortages reverberates across the agricultural sector – from R&D to post-production:
The onus for improving agricultural productivity rests on the country's R&D centers; however, due to a skill shortage, R&D centers fall short of achieving their mandate. India's agricultural productivity is currently between one-half to one-third of the global average.
The sector could also immensely benefit from real-time technology transfer to farmers, making capacity building in the areas of innovative communication services/apps the need of the hour.
Skillsets to leverage the confluence of technology and agriculture are in short supply. For instance, using drones in agriculture can create half a million new jobs by 2030; however, a shortage of workers with the skills to operate drones remains a concern. The lack of skills to use predictive diagnostic tools - which lie at the heart of precision agriculture – is also worrying, impacting the sector’s ability to harness data and derive actionable insights from it.
Due to a shortage of skilled manpower to run Farmer Producer Organizations (FPOs) as entrepreneurial business units and a dearth of skilled workers to address storage and infrastructure challenges, the country suffers post-harvest losses totaling a staggering INR 1.5 lakh crores.
The paucity of workers who are qualified to work in agri-finance, insurance, and rural banking further sets back the sector.
But while these are daunting challenges, they are not intractable.
Solutions to address challenges
To counter the skill shortage, one must tackle the root of the matter and make teaching more effective. An estimated 35,000 full time faculty members are involved in agriculture and allied sciences teaching, but what is amiss is exposure and training to innovative technologies. Increased use of digital tools and training programs are crucial to ramp up the quality of the teaching faculty, with universities going the extra mile to invite external faculty and keep students abreast of current market conditions and integrated practices in the field.
A practical, versatile, hands-on curriculum
The Government of India has recently launched the Agri Innovation and Incubation Center, Farmer Producer Organization Business School, and Smart Classrooms. Initiatives like these will go a long way in upskilling youth and making the prospect of working in the agricultural sector more attractive. There are several encouraging measures in the NEP 2020 such as promoting Indian Higher Education Institutions into global study destination hubs as well as offering students the flexibility to choose more than one area of specialization. Additionally, introducing a six-month mandatory industry training for all students and a compulsory inclusion of IT-driven solutions within the curriculum will help create a talent pool that is trained for the job from the get-go.
Partnerships between academia and private enterprises
The rising demand for agrisciences is evident from the near 80% of confirmed seats last year in such courses. What is paramount at this stage is a dedicated involvement of private organizations in curriculum setting and development of a national research agenda. On another note, the private sector could look to sponsor Krishi Vigyan Kendras (KVKs) to facilitate skills development and provide rural youth with remunerative, self-employment options. The KVKs which serve as links between the ICAR and farmers to apply agricultural research in a practical, localized setting are the ideal springboard for maximizing public-private partnerships.
In an increasingly turbulent world where agricultural supply chains are in flux, India has the potential to step up and become a major food exporter should it act decisively to improve the skills of its agricultural workforce. Let’s make the most of this opportunity.