Financial Express | 2010-07-12
Dinker VashishtChandigarh—Jagjit Singh Hara has just got himself inoculated against yellow fever from Pasteur Institute, Kasauli, in Himachal Pradesh. Hara, a farmer in Jalandhar who has contacts in the agriculture ministry, says he has been getting offers from Congo, Namibia and Nigeria to take land on lease and start cultivation. “Our state government and the armchair experts at the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) have failed us. The land holding in the state has shrunk, the water level has depleted and fertility of soil has gone down. Punjab’s farmers will have to fend for themselves. If it means going out of country and starting cultivation elsewhere, they will,” says Hara. And so he is going—to Africa. What started as a trickle a few years ago is now gaining momentum. And it’s not just individual farmers who are flocking to Africa. Prominent agro groups from Punjab, including the Ponty Chadha group and Rana Sugars, too, are exploring possibilities of investing in agriculture in Africa. In fact, the bulk of the dairy industry in Kampala, in Uganda, is run by farmers who migrated from Punjab. The sudden spurt in interest in Africa can be traced to an Africa summit held in Patiala four months ago. Minister of state for external affairs Preneet Kaur who is an MP from Patiala brought along ambassadors and high commissioners to India of seven African nations and together they exhorted farmers in Punjab to explore opportunities in Africa. They pointed out that Africa was more than just a continent torn apart by war. Last month, Ethiopian ambassador to India, Genet Zewdie, came on a four-day trip to Jalandhar, met local farmers and invited them to take land on lease in Ethiopia. The offer from Africa basically means a farmer can take a large tract of land on lease for 50 years, and in some cases even up to 99 years. With land prices in Africa much lower than those in Punjab, farmers can think of doing agriculture on a scale that’s unimaginable in the state. Then there are other advantages such as easy export to the lucrative European market. Several European nations have imposed stifling regulations on the import of Indian horticultural produce, but when it comes to produce from Africa, these checks are relaxed considerably. But there is a darker side to the African dream. The threat of diseases and security fears are never far away. Though Africa offers endless opportunities, critics talk of how the dream to own land was once grounded in Burkina Faso, a country in West Africa. In 1999, many farmers from Punjab migrated to Burkina Faso as part of an Indian government programme. But in the absence of agriculture infrastructure and irrigation facilities, the programme had limited success and wound up nearly three years after it began.