Agriculture and colonialism

Over 2500 years ago, Indian farmers had discovered and begun farming many spices and sugarcane. It was in India, between the sixth and fourth centuries BC, that the Persians, followed by the Greeks, discovered the famous “reeds that produce honey without bees” being grown. These were locally called साखर, pronounced as saccharum (ζάκχαρι). On their return journey, the Macedonian soldiers carried the “honey bearing reeds,” thus spreading sugar and sugarcane agriculture. People in India had also invented, by about 500 BC, the process to produce sugar crystals. In the local language, these crystals were called khanda (खण्ड), which is the source of the word candy.

Prior to 18th century, cultivation of sugar cane was largely confined to India. A few merchants began to trade in sugar – a luxury and an expensive spice in Europe until the 18th century. Sugar became widely popular in 18th-century Europe, then graduated to becoming a human necessity in the 19th century all over the world. This evolution of taste and demand for sugar as an essential food ingredient unleashed major economic and social changes. Sugarcane does not grow in cold, frost-prone climate; therefore, tropical and semitropical colonies were sought. Sugarcane plantations, just like cotton farms, became a major driver of large and forced human migrations in 19th century and early 20th century – of people from Africa and from India, both in millions – influencing the ethnic mix, political conflicts and cultural evolution of various Caribbean, South American, Indian Ocean and Pacific island nations. The history and past accomplishments of Indian agriculture thus influenced, in part, colonialism, first slavery and then slavery-like indentured labor practices in the new world, Caribbean wars and the world history in 18th and 19th centuries.

Indian agriculture since 1947

Cotton flower in India. This is a cash crop in central India.

In the years since its independence, India has made immense progress towards food security. Indian population has tripled, but food-grain production more than quadrupled: there has thus been substantial increase in available food-grain per capita.

Prior to the mid-1960s India relied on imports and food aid to meet domestic requirements. However, two years of severe drought in 1965 and 1966 convinced India to reform its agricultural policy, and that India could not rely on foreign aid and foreign imports for food security. India adopted significant policy reforms focused on the goal of foodgrain self-sufficiency. This ushered in India’s Green Revolution. It began with the decision to adopt superior yielding, disease resistant wheat varieties in combination with better farming knowledge to improve productivity. The Indian state of Punjab led India’s green revolution and earned itself the distinction of being the country’s bread basket.

The initial increase in production was centred on the irrigated areas of the Indian states of Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. With both the farmers and the government officials focusing on farm productivity and knowledge transfer, India’s total foodgrain production soared. A hectare of Indian wheat farms that produced an average of 0.8 tonnes in 1948, produced 4.7 tonnes of wheat in 1975 from the same land. Such rapid growths in farm productivity enabled India to become self-sufficient by the 1970s. It also empowered the smallholder farmers to seek further means to increase food staples produced per hectare. By 2000, Indian farms were adopting wheat varieties capable of yielding 6 tonnes of wheat per hectare.

Men and women at work in rice paddy fields in Tamil Nadu

With agricultural policy success in wheat, India’s Green Revolution technology spread to rice. However, since irrigation infrastructure was very poor, Indian farmer innovated with tube-wells, to harvest ground water. When gains from the new technology reached their limits in the states of initial adoption, the technology spread in the 1970s and 1980s to the states of eastern India — Bihar, Odisha and West Bengal. The lasting benefits of the improved seeds and new technology extended principally to the irrigated areas which account for about one-third of the harvested crop area. In the 1980s, Indian agriculture policy shifted to “evolution of a production pattern in line with the demand pattern” leading to a shift in emphasis to other agricultural commodities like oilseed, fruit and vegetables. Farmers began adopting improved methods and technologies in dairying, fisheries and livestock, and meeting the diversified food needs of India’s growing population. As with Rice, the lasting benefits of improved seeds and improved farming technologies now largely depends on whether India develops infrastructure such as irrigation network, flood control systems, reliable electricity production capacity, all season rural and urban highways, cold storage to prevent food spoilage, modern retail, and competitive buyers of produce from the Indian farmer. This is increasingly the focus of Indian agriculture policy.

India’s agricultural economy is undergoing structural changes. Between 1970 and 2011, the GDP share of agriculture has fallen from 43 to 16%. This isn’t because of reduced importance of agriculture, or a consequence of agricultural policy. This is largely because of the rapid economic growth in services, industrial output, and non-agricultural sectors in India between 2000 to 2010.

Agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan has played a vital role in the green revolution. Last year (2013) NDTV awarded his 25 living legend of India for outstanding contribution to agriculture and making India a food sovereign country.

An irrigation canal in Gujarat.Irrigation contributes significantly to the Agriculture in India.

Two states, Sikkim and Kerala have planned to shift to a fully organic farming by 2015 and 2016 respectively.


Main article: Irrigation in India

Indian irrigation infrastructure includes a network of major and minor canals from Indian rivers, groundwater well based systems, tanks, and other rainwater harvesting projects for agricultural activities. Of these groundwater system is the largest. Of the 160 million hectares of cultivated land in India, about 39 million hectare can be irrigated by groundwater wells, and an additional 22 million hectares by irrigation canals. In 2010, only about 35% of total agricultural land in India was reliably irrigated. About 2/3rd cultivated land in India is dependent on monsoons. The improvements in irrigation infrastructure in last 50 years have helped India improve food security, reduce dependence on monsoons, improve agricultural productivity and create rural job opportunities. Dams used for irrigation projects have also helped provide drinking water supplies to a growing rural population, control flood and prevent drought-related damage to agriculture.


Indian agriculture is diverse, ranging from impoverished farm villages to developed farms utilising modern agricultural technologies. This image shows a farming community in a more prosperous part of India.

The changing face of Indian agriculture – formation of larger farms and adoption of wind power generation technologies.

A panoramic view of a rice, cassava and banana farm in Kerala state.

A mustard farm in Rajasthan state.

Amul – an integrated dairy with milk processing plant in Gujarat state.

India has some of the world’s best agricultural yields in its tea plantations. A tea estate in Kerala state.

As of 2011, India had a large and diverse agricultural sector, accounting, on average, for about 16% of GDP and 10% of export earnings. India’s arable land area of 159.7 million hectares (394.6 million acres) is the second largest in the world, after the United States. Its gross irrigated crop area of 82.6 million hectares (215.6 million acres) is the largest in the world. India is among the top three global producers of many crops, including wheat, rice, pulses, cotton, peanuts, fruits and vegetables. Worldwide, as of 2011, India had the largest herds of buffalo and cattle, is the largest producer of milk and has one of the largest and fastest growing poultry industries.

Major crops and yields

The following table presents the twenty most important agricultural products in India, by economic value, in 2009. Included in the table is the average productivity of India’s farms for each produce. For context and comparison, included is the average of the most productive farms in the world and name of country where the most productive farms existed in 2010. The table suggests India has large potential for further accomplishments from productivity increases, in increased agricultural output and agricultural incomes.

Agriculture in India, largest crops by economic value
Economic value Unit price Average yield, India
World’s most productive farms
Rank Product (2009 prices, US$) (US$ / kilogram) (tonnes per hectare) (tonnes per hectare) Country
1 Rice $38.42 billion 0.27 3.3 10.8 Australia
2 Buffalo milk $24.86 billion 0.4 1.7 1.9 Pakistan
3 Cow milk $17.13 billion 0.31 1.2 10.3 Israel
4 Wheat $12.14 billion 0.15 2.8 8.9 Netherlands
5 Mangoes $9 billion 0.6 6.3 40.6 Cape Verde
6 Sugar cane $8.92 billion 0.03 66 125 Peru
7 Bananas $8.38 billion 0.28 37.8 59.3 Indonesia
8 Cotton $8.13 billion 1.43 1.6 4.6 Israel
9 Fresh Vegetables $5.97 billion 0.19 13.4 76.8 USA
10 Potatoes $5.67 billion 0.15 19.9 44.3 USA
11 Tomatoes $4.59 billion 0.37 19.3 524.9 Belgium
12 Buffalo meat $4 billion 2.69 0.138 0.424 Thailand
13 Soyabean $3.33 billion 0.26 1.1 3.7 Turkey
14 Onions $3.17 billion 0.21 16.6 67.3 Ireland
15 Chicken Meat $3.12 billion 0.64 10.6 20.2 Cyprus
16 Chick peas $3.11 billion 0.4 0.9 2.8 China
17 Okra $3.07 billion 0.35 7.6 23.9 Israel
18 Cattle Meat $2.93 billion 0.83 13.8 24.7 Jordan
19 Eggs $2.80 billion 2.7 0.1 0.42 Japan
20 Beans $2.57 billion 0.42 1.1 5.5 Nicaragua

The Statistics Office of the Food and Agriculture Organisation reported that, per final numbers for 2009, India had grown to become the world’s largest producer of the following agricultural products:

  • Fresh Fruit
  • Lemons and limes
  • Buffalo milk – whole, fresh
  • Castor oil seeds
  • Sunflower seeds
  • Sorghum
  • Millet
  • Spices
  • Okra
  • Jute
  • Beeswax
  • Bananas
  • Mangoes, mangosteens, guavas
  • Pulses
  • Indigenous Buffalo Meat
  • Fruit, tropical
  • Ginger
  • Chick peas
  • Areca nuts
  • Other Bastfibres
  • Pigeon peas
  • Papayas
  • Chillies and peppers, dry
  • Anise, badian, fennel, coriander
  • Goat milk, whole, fresh

Per final numbers for 2009, India is the world’s second largest producer of the following agricultural products:

  • Wheat
  • Rice
  • Fresh vegetables
  • Sugar cane
  • Groundnuts, with shell
  • Lentils
  • Garlic
  • Cauliflowers and broccoli
  • Peas, green
  • Sesame seed
  • Cashew nuts, with shell
  • Silk-worm cocoons, reelable
  • Cow milk, whole, fresh
  • Tea
  • Potatoes
  • Onions
  • Cotton lint
  • Cottonseed
  • Eggplants (aubergines)
  • Nutmeg, mace and cardamoms
  • Indigenous Goat Meat
  • Cabbages and other brassicas
  • Pumpkins, squash and gourds

In 2009, India was the world’s third largest producer of eggs, oranges, coconuts, tomatoes, peas and beans.

In addition to growth in total output, agriculture in India has shown an increase in average agricultural output per hectare in last 60 years. The table below presents average farm productivity in India over three farming years for some crops. Improving road and power generation infrastructure, knowledge gains and reforms has allowed India to increase farm productivity between 40% to 500% over 40 years.India’s recent accomplishments in crop yields while being impressive, are still just 30% to 60% of the best crop yields achievable in the farms of developed as well as other developing countries. Additionally, despite these gains in farm productivity, losses after harvest due to poor infrastructure and unorganised retail cause India to experience some of the highest food losses in the world.

Agriculture productivity in India, growth in average yields from 1970 to 2010
Crop Average YIELD, 1970-1971 Average YIELD, 1990-1991 Average YIELD, 2010–2011
kilogram per hectare kilogram per hectare kilogram per hectare
Rice 1123 1740 2240
Wheat 1307 2281 2938
Pulses 524 578 689
Oilseeds 579 771 1325
Sugarcane 48322 65395 68596
Tea 1182 1652 1669
Cotton 106 225 510

India and China are competing to establish the world record on rice yields. Yuan Longping of China National Hybrid Rice Research and Development Centre, China, set a world record for rice yield in 2010 at 19 tonnes per hectare in a demonstration plot. In 2011, this record was surpassed by an Indian farmer, Sumant Kumar, with 22.4 tonnes per hectare in Bihar, also in a demonstration plot. Both these farmers claim to have employed newly developed rice breeds and System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a recent innovation in rice farming. The claimed Chinese and Indian yields have yet to be demonstrated on 7 hectare farm lots and that these are reproducible over two consecutive years on the same farm.



The total production and economic value of horticultural produce, such as fruits, vegetables and nuts has doubled in India over the 10 year period from 2002 to 2012. In 2012, the total production from horticulture exceeded grain output for the first time. The total horticulture produce reached 277.4 million metric tonnes in 2013, making India the second largest producer of horticultural products after China.Of this, India in 2013 produced 81 million tonnes of fruits, 162 million tonnes of vegetables, 5.7 million tonnes of spices, 17 million tonnes of nuts and plantation products (cashew, cacao, coconut, etc.), 1 million tonnes of aromatic horticulture produce and 1.7 million tonnes of flowers (7.6 billion cut flowers).

Horticultural productivity in India, 2013
Country Area under fruits production
(million hectares)
Average Fruits YIELD
(Metric tonnes per hectare)
Area under vegetable production
(million hectares)
Average Vegetable YIELD
(Metric tonnes per hectare)
 India 7.0 11.6 9.2 17.6
 China 11.8 11.6 24.6 23.4
 Spain 1.54 9.1 0.32 39.3
 United States 1.14 23.3 1.1 32.5
World 57.3 11.3 60.0 19.7

During 2013 fiscal year, India exported horticulture products worth 14365 crore (US$2.3 billion), nearly double the value of its 2010 exports.Along with these farm-level gains, the losses between farm and consumer also increased, and are estimated to range between 51 to 82 million metric tonnes a year.


A rural market in India – farmers with limited marketing options sell their surplus produce

India lacks cold storage, food packaging as well as safe and efficient rural transport system. This causes one of the world’s highest food spoilage rates, particularly during Indian monsoons and other adverse weather conditions. Food travels to the Indian consumer through a slow and inefficient chain of traders. Indian consumers buy agricultural produce in suburban markets known as ‘sabzi mandi’ such as one shown or from roadside vendors.

Indian agriculture includes a mix of traditional to modern farming techniques. In some parts of India, traditional use of cattle to plough farms remains in use. Traditional farms have some of the lowest per capita productivities and farmer incomes.

Since 2002, India has become the world’s largest manufacturer of tractorswith 29% of world’s output in 2013; it is also the world’s largest tractor market. Above a tractor in use in north India.

“Slow agricultural growth is a concern for policymakers as some two-thirds of India’s people depend on rural employment for a living. Current agricultural practices are neither economically nor environmentally sustainable and India’s yields for many agricultural commodities are low. Poorly maintained irrigation systems and almost universal lack of good extension services are among the factors responsible. Farmers’ access to markets is hampered by poor roads, rudimentary market infrastructure, and excessive regulation.”

—World Bank: “India Country Overview 2008”

“With a population of just over 1.2 billion, India is the world’s largest democracy. In the past decade, the country has witnessed accelerated economic growth, emerged as a global player with the world’s fourth largest economy in purchasing power parity terms, and made progress towards achieving most of the Millennium Development Goals. India’s integration into the global economy has been accompanied by impressive economic growth that has brought significant economic and social benefits to the country. Nevertheless, disparities in income and human development are on the rise. Preliminary estimates suggest that in 2009-10 the combined all India poverty rate was 32 % compared to 37 % in 2004-05. Going forward, it will be essential for India to build a productive, competitive, and diversified agricultural sector and facilitate rural, non-farm entrepreneurship and employment. Encouraging policies that promote competition in agricultural marketing will ensure that farmers receive better prices.”

—World Bank: “India Country Overview 2011”

A 2003 analysis of India’s agricultural growth from 1970 to 2001 by the Food and Agriculture Organisation identified systemic problems in Indian agriculture. For food staples, the annual growth rate in production during the six-year segments 1970-76, 1976–82, 1982–88, 1988–1994, 1994-2000 were found to be respectively 2.5, 2.5, 3.0, 2.6, and 1.8% per annum. Corresponding analyses for the index of total agricultural production show a similar pattern, with the growth rate for 1994-2000 attaining only 1.5% per annum.


India has very poor rural roads affecting timely supply of inputs and timely transfer of outputs from Indian farms. Irrigation systems are inadequate leading to crop failures in some parts of the country because of lack of water. In other areas regional floods, poor seed quality and inefficient farming practices, lack of cold storage and harvest spoilage cause over 30% of farmer’s produce going to waste, lack oforganised retail and competing buyers thereby limiting Indian farmer’s ability to sell the surplus and commercial crops.

The Indian farmer receives just 10 to 23% of the price the Indian consumer pays for exactly the same produce, the difference going to losses, inefficiencies and middlemen. Farmers in developed economies of Europe and the United States, in contrast, receive 64 to 81%.[citation needed]


Although India has attained self-sufficiency in food staples, the productivity of Indian farms is below that of Brazil, the United States, France and other nations. Indian wheat farms, for example, produce about a third of the wheat per hectare per year compared to farms in France. Rice productivity in India was less than half that of China. Other staples productivity in India is similarly low. Indian total factor productivitygrowth remains below 2% per annum; in contrast, China’s total factor productivity growths is about 6% per annum, even though China also has smallholding farmers. Several studies suggest India could eradicate hunger and malnutrition within India, and be a major source of food for the world by achieving productivity comparable with other countries.[citation needed]

By contrast Indian farms in some regions post the best yields, for sugarcane, cassava and tea crops.

Yields for various crops vary significantly between Indian states. Some Indian states produce two to three times more grain per acre than in other Indian states. The table compares the statewide average yields for a few major agricultural crops within India, for 2001-2002.

Crop Average farm yield in Bihar Average farm yield in Karnataka Average farm yield in Punjab
kilogram per hectare kilogram per hectare kilogram per hectare
Wheat 2020 unknown 3880
Rice 1370 2380 3130
Pulses 610 470 820
Oil seeds 620 680 1200
Sugarcane 45510 79560 65300

Crop yields for some farms within India are within 90% of the best achieved yields by farms in developed countries such as the United States and in European Union. No single state of India is best in every crop. Tamil Nadu achieved highest yields in rice and sugarcane,Haryana in wheat and coarse grains, Karnataka in cotton, Bihar in pulses, while other states do well in horticulture, aquaculture, flower and fruit plantations. These differences in agricultural productivity within India are a function of local infrastructure, soil quality, micro-climates, local resources, farmer knowledge and innovations.

The Indian food distribution system is highly inefficient. Movement of agricultural produce within India is heavily regulated, with inter-state and even inter-district restrictions on marketing and movement of agricultural goods.

One study suggests Indian agricultural policy should best focus on improving rural infrastructure primarily in the form of irrigation and flood control infrastructure, knowledge transfer of better yielding and more disease resistant seeds. Additionally, cold storage, hygienic food packaging and efficient modern retail to reduce waste can improve output and rural incomes.

The low productivity in India is a result of the following factors:

  • The average size of land holdings is very small (less than 2 hectares) and is subject to fragmentation due to land ceiling acts, and in some cases, family disputes. Such small holdings are often over-manned, resulting in disguised unemployment and low productivity of labour. Some reports claim smallholder farming may not be cause of poor productivity, since the productivity is higher in China and many developing economies even though China smallholder farmers constitute over 97% of its farming population.Chinese smallholder farmer is able to rent his land to larger farmers, China’s organised retail and extensive Chinese highways are able to provide the incentive and infrastructure necessary to its farmers for sharp increases in farm productivity.
  • Adoption of modern agricultural practices and use of technology is inadequate, hampered by ignorance of such practices, high costs and impracticality in the case of small land holdings.
  • According to the World Bank, Indian Branch: Priorities for Agriculture and Rural Development”, India’s large agricultural subsidies are hampering productivity-enhancing investment. Overregulation of agriculture has increased costs, price risks and uncertainty. Government intervenes in labour, land, and credit markets. India has inadequate infrastructure and services. World Bank also says that the allocation of water is inefficient, unsustainable and inequitable. The irrigation infrastructure is deteriorating.The overuse of water is currently being covered by over pumping aquifers, but as these are falling by foot of groundwater each year, this is a limited resource.TheIntergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a report that food security may be a big problem in the region post 2030.
  • Illiteracy, general socio-economic backwardness, slow progress in implementing land reforms and inadequate or inefficient finance and marketing services for farm produce.
  • Inconsistent government policy. Agricultural subsidies and taxes often changed without notice for short term political ends.
  • Irrigation facilities are inadequate, as revealed by the fact that only 52.6% of the land was irrigated in 2003–04, which result in farmers still being dependent on rainfall, specifically the Monsoon season. A good monsoon results in a robust growth for the economy as a whole, while a poor monsoon leads to a sluggish growth. Farm credit is regulated by NABARD, which is the statutory apex agent for rural development in the subcontinent. At the same time overpumping made possible by subsidised electric power is leading to an alarming drop in aquifer levels.
  • A third of all food that is produced rots due to inefficient supply chains and the use of the “Walmart model” to improve efficiency is blocked by laws against foreign investment in the retail sector.

Farmer suicides

Main article: Farmers’ suicides in India

In 2012, the National Crime Records Bureau of India reported 13,754 farmer suicides. Farmer suicides account for 11.2% of all suicides in India.Activists and scholars have offered a number of conflicting reasons for farmer suicides, such as monsoon failure, high debt burdens, genetically modified crops, government policies, public mental health, personal issues and family problems.

Diversion of agricultural land for non agricultural purpose

Indian National Policy for Farmers of 2007 stated that “prime farmland must be conserved for agriculture except under exceptional circumstances, provided that the agencies that are provided with agricultural land for non-agricultural projects should compensate for treatment and full development of equivalent degraded or wastelands elsewhere”. The policy suggested that, as far as possible, land with low farming yields or that was not farmable should be earmarked for non-agricultural purposes such as construction, industrial parks and other commercial development.

Amartya Sen offered a counter viewpoint, stating that prohibiting the use of agricultural land for commercial and industrial development is ultimately self-defeating. He stated that agricultural land may be better suited for non-agriculture purposes if industrial production could generate many times more than the value of the product produced by agriculture. Sen suggested India needed to bring productive industry everywhere, wherever there are advantages of production, market needs and the locational preferences of managers, engineers, technical experts as well as unskilled labour because of education, healthcare and other infrastructure. He stated that instead of government controlling land allocation based on soil characteristics, the market economy should determine productive allocation of land.


Viticulture farms in Maharashtra.
Coffee farms in Tamil Nadu.

The required level of investment for the development of marketing, storage and cold storage infrastructure is estimated to be huge. The government has not been able to implement various schemes to raise investment in marketing infrastructure. Among these schemes areConstruction of Rural Godowns, Market Research and Information Network, and Development / Strengthening of Agricultural MarketingInfrastructure, Grading and Standardisation.

The Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), established in 1905, was responsible for the search leading to the “Indian Green Revolution” of the 1970s. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is the apex body in agriculture and related allied fields, including research and education. The Union Minister of Agriculture is the President of the ICAR. The Indian Agricultural Statistics Research Institute develops new techniques for the design of agricultural experiments, analyses data in agriculture, and specialises in statistical techniques for animal and plant breeding.

Recently Government of India has set up Farmers Commission to completely evaluate the agriculture programme.However the recommendations have had a mixed reception.

In November 2011, India announced major reforms in organised retail. These reforms would include logistics and retail of agricultural produce. The reform announcement led to major political controversy. The reforms were placed on hold by the Indian government in December 2011.

In the summer of 2012, the subsidised electricity for pumping, which has caused an alarming drop in aquifer levels, put additional strain on the country’s electrical grid due to a 19% drop in monsoon rains, and may have helped contribute to a blackout across much of the country. In response the state of Bihar offered farmers over $100 million in subsidised diesel to operate their pumps.

India Plantation Agriculture Information