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Agriculture, fishing, and forestry of India


Approximately 50% of the Indian population continues to rely primarily on agriculture for their sustenance. This figure has begun to decrease only in recent times after remaining relatively stable throughout the 20th century. Notably, the extent of land under cultivation has consistently expanded, now covering well over half of India’s total landmass, a ratio that is rare on a global scale. In the most fertile areas, such as the Indo-Gangetic Plain and the eastern coastal deltas, the ratio of cultivated land to the total land area often surpasses 90%.

The distribution of water for agricultural purposes is highly variable across the country’s diverse climatic regions. Outside of a limited area, the availability of water for agriculture is predominantly seasonal, hinging on the unpredictable southwest monsoon. Consequently, in regions without irrigation infrastructure, farmers are typically limited to a single crop cycle annually, and the likelihood of crop failure remains substantial in many areas. The potential for and actual progress in irrigation development also differ significantly across the country. Conditions are particularly promising in the Indo-Gangetic Plain, partly due to the consistent flow of rivers originating in the Himalayas and partly because of the extensive groundwater reserves found within the deep alluvial deposits of the area. In contrast, the peninsular region of India faces challenges due to its reliance on highly variable seasonal rainfall and geological conditions that often hinder well construction, thus restricting access to available groundwater.

For a nation as heavily dependent on agriculture as India, the availability of arable soil and water is of paramount importance. While India boasts large expanses of fertile alluvial soils, particularly on the Indo-Gangetic Plain, and other significant regions of productive soils, such as the Deccan’s black (regur) soils, the majority of the country is covered with red-to-yellow lateritic soils, which are inherently less fertile. The per capita availability of arable land is relatively low, and less than half of this land is considered high quality. Additionally, numerous areas have experienced a decline in soil fertility due to factors such as erosion, soil alkalinization from improper irrigation practices, the formation of hardpans beneath the surface, and continuous cultivation without replenishing depleted nutrients.

While the mean size of agricultural holdings in India is approximately 5 acres (2 hectares), and this average is on a downward trend, this statistic belies a highly unequal distribution of land ownership. A significant majority of farms occupy less than 3 acres (1.2 hectares), and the remaining land is predominantly in the possession of a limited number of comparatively wealthy small-scale farmers and landowners. The majority of agriculturalists possess holdings that yield barely enough to sustain their families’ fundamental needs. This situation is exacerbated by the volatility of the agricultural market and the unpredictability of the annual monsoon season, leading to a notably high rate of farm failures, particularly among smaller landowners. Additionally, close to one-third of all farming households do not own land. These families, along with those owning marginal amounts of land, are often compelled to seek employment with larger landowners or to engage in supplementary occupations, frequently those traditionally linked to their social caste.

In India, the sphere of agricultural technology has seen considerable advancements. Government-initiated irrigation projects via extensive canal systems, which commenced in the mid-19th century during British rule, have seen significant expansion post-independence. The focus later shifted to the development of deep wells, also known as tube wells, which are commonly privately owned. These wells employ electric or diesel pumps to extract water. Nonetheless, in several regions, these wells have led to the depletion of groundwater reserves, prompting initiatives aimed at aquifer replenishment and rainwater harvesting. Tank irrigation, which involves sourcing water from small man-made reservoirs along minor stream courses, plays a pivotal role in various parts of India, particularly in the southeast.

The utilization of chemical fertilizers has seen a consistent rise. However, since the late 1960s, the introduction of new high-yielding hybrid seed varieties (HYVs), predominantly for wheat and to a lesser extent for rice, has resulted in the most substantial production surges. These increases have been particularly evident in Punjab, where HYVs are almost universally adopted, as well as in Haryana, western Uttar Pradesh, and Gujarat. The success of the agricultural transformation known as the Green Revolution has been so profound that India has managed to amass grain reserves ample enough to withstand several years of severely poor monsoons without resorting to significant imports or experiencing famine, and has occasionally achieved the status of a modest net exporter of food. During this period, however, the production of coarse grains and pulses, which are less sought after than rice and wheat, has stagnated or declined. Consequently, the overall per capita production of grain has not increased as substantially as some advocates of the Green Revolution might suggest, and the risk of significant food shortages remains a concern.


The agricultural economy of India places significant emphasis on livestock rearing, despite a relatively low consumption of meat among the Indian populace. India boasts the world’s most extensive bovine population, with cattle and buffalo primarily utilized for labor. These animals also fulfill multiple roles by providing milk, serving as a source of meat for communities without dietary restrictions against beef consumption (such as Muslims, Christians, and Scheduled Castes), and producing fertilizer, cooking fuel from cow-dung cakes, and leather.

The productivity of Indian cattle and buffaloes in terms of milk yield is modest, with buffalo milk tending to be of a higher quality and richer than that of cattle. The legal prohibition of cow slaughter in numerous Indian states results in a minimal cattle industry focused on meat production. The limited beef consumption in the country is mostly attributed to the natural demise of the animals. When cattle are no longer serviceable, they are either sheltered in goshalas—sanctuaries funded by Hindu devotees—or left to fend for themselves, often competing with humans for limited plant resources.

While a segment of the Indian population strictly adheres to vegetarianism, there are those who consume goat, mutton, poultry, eggs, and fish, albeit in limited quantities. Sheep are cultivated for their wool as well as their meat. Pork consumption is forbidden among various religious groups, including most Hindus and Muslims. Nevertheless, pigs are raised by certain Scheduled Castes and fulfill a role as local scavengers, with their meat being consumed without religious impediments.


India’s commercial forestry sector remains underdeveloped, yet the nation ranks as one of the highest in the world for the annual harvest of hardwoods. Key species harvested for their valuable timber, pulp, plywood, veneer, and matchwood include teak, deodar cedar, sal (Shorea robusta), sissoo (Dalbergia sissoo), and chir pine (Pinus roxburghii). The demand for firewood is extensive, with much of the supply being sourced through illegal collection, and a significant portion is processed into charcoal. In addition to timber, the forestry industry also produces a variety of minor products such as bamboo, cane, gums, resins, dyes, tanning substances, lac, and medicinal herbs.

The Western Ghats, the western Himalayan region, and the central Indian hill regions are recognized as the primary zones for commercial forestry, listed in descending order of significance. To address the decline of forest cover, both the central and state governments in India have actively promoted small-scale reforestation initiatives. However, the outcomes of these programs have been variable, with a range of economic and environmental impacts.

Historical population expansion has led to a progressive reduction in forested territories over the years. Much of India’s original forest land has been repurposed for agriculture, although some of this land is now unproductive. Additionally, extensive areas have been degraded into barren land due to overgrazing or excessive harvesting of timber and firewood. The challenge of securing adequate firewood, primarily for cooking purposes, is especially severe. In numerous regions, forests have vanished entirely, leaving only the occasional village grove, often populated with fruit trees like mangoes, as a refuge for the local populace and livestock from the intense heat of the summer. In certain districts, particularly in the northeast, bamboo growths serve as a vital alternative to wood for construction.

Official statistics that estimate forested land to comprise approximately one-fifth of India’s total land area do not accurately reflect the reality, as many of these designated ‘forests’ are sparse and consist mainly of scrubland. The environmental repercussions of deforestation in India are profound, including diminished groundwater retention, increased monsoon runoff, heightened flood risks, intensified soil erosion and sedimentation, and an aggravated water shortage crisis.


In addition to the traditional methods of fishing along the coastline and river systems, India has also seen a rise in intensive inland aquaculture practices. This shift towards mechanization and modern processing methods has led to an increase in the overall yield from both marine and inland fisheries. Despite this progress, the country still faces challenges in meeting the growing demand for fish due to the prevalence of non-mechanized fishing vessels. The state of Kerala, renowned for its fishing industry, is at the forefront of this evolution in the fishing sector. The marine harvest in Kerala predominantly consists of sardines and mackerel, while the inland catch is primarily made up of various species of carp.

With the increasing demand for fish in both domestic and international markets, there has been a significant expansion in intensive inland aquaculture, particularly in fish and shrimp farming. Shrimp farming, in particular, has emerged as a key export commodity for the country. As India continues to move towards mechanization and modern processing methods in its fishing industry, there is a growing focus on tapping into offshore fishing zones that were previously inaccessible to smaller vessels. This shift is essential to meet the rising demand for fish and seafood in the country. By adapting to these changes and embracing new technologies, India’s fishing industry is poised for further growth and development in the years to come.


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