May 26, 2015 / 3:29 PM / 2 years ago

India's Modi urges farmers to boost output, skirts issue of rural distress

NEW DELHI (Reuters) - Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Tuesday urged farmers to boost lentils and oilseeds output to cut expensive imports but skirted the issue of rural distress that has turned peasants against his one-year-old government.

India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi waves towards his supporters during a rally in Mathura, India, May 25, 2015. REUTERS/Adnan Abidi

There has been an increase in suicides by farmers after untimely rains and hailstorms damaged crops and weak prices hit farm income in the countryside, home to 70 percent of Indians.

“We spend a lot of money to import lentils and (edible) oils and we must resolve to raise production so that we become self-sufficient in the next 10 years,” Modi said after launching a TV channel for farmers.

India, among the world’s leading producers of grain, cotton and sugar, imports edible oils and lentils at an annual cost of about $10 billion and $2 billion respectively. Vegetable oils are its No.3 import item after crude oil and gold.

Modi, who is trying to boost investment in industry that would create new jobs outside agriculture, said farmers should increase productivity so that they can prosper even as the average size of farms shrinks due to a growing population.

“Our average farm productivity comes to two tonnes per hectare against the global average of three tonnes a hectare and we must strive to reach the global level,” he advised.

India’s near 250 million tonnes of grain output pales in comparison with rival China, which produces nearly 600 million tonnes despite having a lower farm area and smaller average land holdings.

To overcome the problem, Modi has asked scientists to work closely with farmers to introduce high-yielding crop varieties. India is also flirting with the idea of adopting genetically modified (GM) technology to raise productivity.

Scientists have already completed final trials of a GM variety of mustard and will submit a report to the government in a month.

Modi’s clarion call cut little ice with farmers.

“It’s a pity Modi asks us to raise production and productivity but refuses to address the issue of agrarian distress and farmers’ suicides,” said Dharmendra Kumar, a farmer from the northern state of Uttar Pradesh.

“Please remind Modi about his election promise of paying 50 percent profit over farmers’ cost of cultivation,” Kumar said by telephone when told about Modi’s speech.

Editing by Douglas Busvine and David Evans

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