The cuckoo and the harvest

The pipe crescent cuckoo, India's migrating harbinger of an approaching monsoon, arrived late this year in New Delhi, signaling either a weak or possibly a bad rainy season for Indian farmers.

Year by year, however, the cuckoo's timing means less and less to Indian farmers striving to be more independent of the weather.

All looked well in the late 1970s, when India ceased grain imports and claimed self-sufficiency in grain. Production had reached 131 million metric tons, up almost 30 percent from a decade earlier. But then a drought in 1979 forced more imports. Imports were necessary last year and perhaps will be this year, too. American officials predict on-again, off-again imports throughout the 1980s.

A World Bank study said last year: ''The balance between supply and demand for food grain is still precarious.'' By the year 2000, the bank says, food demand will rise 60 percent, and Indian farming will have to keep pace.

Agriculture, however, means more than just feeding people. Grains make up 60 percent of all food produced; agriculture accounts for 40 percent of the value of all economic production (and 75 percent of the population). Only if agriculture grows 3 or 4 percent a year can industry expect a growth rate of 5 to 8 percent.

About 300 million of India's 700 million people buy food at the government's subsidized ''fair price'' shops. To cope with bad years, the government has taken to stockpiling more grains each year for distribution to the poor. This year's purchases have topped 15 million tons.

In India, one farmer feeds two people. In the United States, one farmer feeds 60 people (and 40 percent of American crops are exported). India has to feed three people on every two acres of cropland.

Since independence in 1947, when the grain yield was only one-fourth of today's harvest, India has done well. But the question on most officials' lips is, ''Has it done well enough?''

In the states of Punjab and Haryana, new seed varieties and irrigation have permanently planted the ''green revolution,'' providing excess food for other parts of India.

In general, one-third of Indian agriculture is said to be ''modern.'' Fertilizer use has tripled in the last decade, and with new natural-gas finds allowing more domestic production, the trend may continue. More supplies, it is hoped, will offset the government's lifting of fertilizer subsidies over the past two years.

With 120 million landless people and another 82 million owning less than a hectare (about 2.5 acres), India's land-distribution program progresses at a donkey's pace. Democracy, the officials now conclude, does not easily allow the taking of land from the rich to give to the poor.

If the emphasis is anywhere, it is on irrigation and electric water pumps for farmers. About 28 percent of potentially irrigable cropland now gets irrigation water, with 1 percent more added each year. About half the villages now have electricity to run pumps.

Building new irrigation systems, however, may be less productive than just fixing the old systems. Low in efficiency and sometimes poorly constructed by corrupt contractors, these systems lose much water that would otherwise reach farmers' fields.

The World Bank is insisting that canals be lined with plastic sheets to prevent seepage.

The accent on food-grain production has distorted Indian agriculture significantly, pushing other crops to marginal lands. This is especially true in oilseeds, such as sunflowers and peanuts, which are a major source of fatty acids and protein. Self-sufficient in oilseeds just a decade ago, India now must shell out over $1 billion a year to import them. ''We need a green revolution for peanuts,'' says one official.

A budding revolution is under way in soybeans. Production has risen in the last five years from 200,000 metric tons a year to 600,000 metric tons. It could reach the 2 million figure by 1986.

Also budding is a growing farmers' movement, principally among the more well-to-do farmers of Punjab and Haryana. Led by a former UN bureaucrat, Shrad Joshi, it is seeking to raise prices for its crops. So far, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi has successfully fought off, and even co-opted, the movement.

By and large, however, Indian farmers remain poor. ''It would be better to have farmers in politics,'' says one government minister of planning, ''but so far they are not.''

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