Indian farmers have often been perceived as lacking initiative, but the latest developments on the farm front belie that stereotype. Not only have they shown initiative, but they have started a quiet revolution on their own steam.

The results are, simply put, startling and the prospects look promising.

The phenomenon can be summed up in one word: vegetables. Small farmers, reeling from recurring droughts and declining productivity of staple crops like rice and wheat, are turning enthusiastically to these short-duration crops as the rising demand for vegetables has opened up a money-making opportunity.

In a couple of years, India has become the second largest producer of vegetables in the world. This is a green revolution that the government did not sponsor. Now, with vegetables driving agricultural growth, the government can no longer afford to ignore the trend.

Take this example from Jharkhand. Ram Oraon blames his grandfather for his frail health and for much of his life spent battling poverty. He has watched his two brothers die young.

“They always had poor health,” says the 60-year-old marginal farmer from Malhan Bhuiyadih village near Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. Over the years, Oraon has realised the reason for his family’s sufferings.

“Like other farmers in my village, my grandfather would grow rice and potato and we would eat mostly that. He never saw profit in vegetables, nor was he aware of their health benefits,” he says. Though late in life, Oraon has made a course correction.

About a decade ago, he switched to vegetable growing from the staples. Showing off a basketful of freshly harvested brinjals from his farm and a bundle of notes, Oraon says “Now, we are healthy and a bit wealthy.”

This holds true for most of the families in his tribal village now. Lured by the booming vegetable market, farmers of Malhan Bhuiyadih and several neighbouring villages in Ranchi have dumped paddy and other staple crops for growing the greens.

The district now supplies vegetables to flood-prone Bihar, West Bengal, Jharkhand, and Odisha, and has earned a new distinction—the “Vegetable Basket of Jharkhand”. By growing vegetables, the tribal population is not only earning a handsome profit, lately they have also started regularly including nutritious greens in their diet, which is a very healthy trend.

About a decade ago, farmers in Malhan Bhuiyadih grew vegetables and paddy in the ratio of 40:60. But now, paddy occupies only 25 per cent of the land. The Economic Survey of Jharkhand shows that some 80,000 hectares have been brought under vegetable cultivation during the last decade.

In 2000, vegetables were grown on 1.5 lakh hectares, which has led to a drastic change in the agricultural employment pattern. While in 1983 vegetable farming employed a negligible number of farmers, it now employs 2.3 per cent of the state’s farmers.

Traders from as far as Delhi throng the rural weekly markets to procure vegetables, cart them to Delhi and sell at a huge profit.

To harness the potential of the new economy, traders in the state are demanding a special train to ferry vegetables to far off cities like Bangalore and Mumbai. This development was unthinkable a decade ago.

It is encouraging to note that Jharkhand is not alone in this trend. Farmers across the country, particularly in drought-prone regions, are waking up to the potential of this new “Vegetable Revolution”. Vegetable production has been traditionally considered a risky venture because of the shorter shelf life. All this is changing fast. These developments mean that India has emerged as the biggest producer of vegetables in the world after China.

What prompted the switch over? The popular perception is that farmers shifted to vegetables only in the past four to five years to exploit the rise in vegetable prices. But this is not true. The shift has been gradually, but definitely, taking place over a decade. States such as Jharkhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Madhya Pradesh and Odisha—which frequently suffer droughts and floods—were the first to make the switch.

People who closely follow the farmers’ plight cannot fail to note that the shift is a coping mechanism in the face of frequent failure of the monsoon or sudden floods, and the prevailing agrarian crisis.

A nagging question is, will this switch over affect food security in the country? The answer is that it will not. The bread basket will continue to remain Punjab, Haryana and Western Uttar Pradesh in the north and Andhra Pradesh to a large extent in the south. The point one should note is that the soils of these states are getting increasingly degraded because of the monoculture of rice-wheat rotation.

In 2010, after six consecutive years of drought in the Bundelkhand region, the Madhya Pradesh government called a special session of the Legislative Assembly to discuss ways to make farming profitable. One of the key strategies suggested was to increase the area under vegetables by 5 lakh ha. In 2012-13, the state received an award from the Centre for the highest growth in vegetable production in the country.

In my view, the shift towards increased cereal production will now take place in the eastern belt, in particular, Bihar. A Bihar farmer is on record as having produced a rice crop that yielded more than 23 tonnes a hectare—indeed a world record!

Since 2000, drought has been regular in several districts of Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh. These are the districts where most farmers have resorted to vegetable production. This is confirmed by Sanjay Singh, a social worker from Jhansi.

In 2010, after six consecutive years of drought in the Bundelkhand region, the Madhya Pradesh government called a special session of the Legislative Assembly to discuss ways to make farming profitable. One of the key strategies suggested was to increase the area under vegetables by 5 lakh ha. In 2012-13, the state received an award from the Centre for the highest growth in vegetable production in the country.

“Farmers will do what will help them earn a bit more,” says Ajay Vir Jhakar, chairman of the Bharat Krishak Samaj, a leading farmers’ organisation. He continues, “Growing vegetables is the most profitable proposition available now, especially for small and marginal farmers.” This sentiment is echoed even in a tiny state like Kerala where, faced with the non-profitability of paddy, farmers are switching almost wholesale to banana, cucurbits, melons and beans, in Palakkad district, the “rice bowl” of Kerala.

What is also pushing farmers to switch to vegetables is shrinking farm size. The average land holding in the country in 2010 was 1.22 ha. It was almost double (2.28 ha) in 1970.

Staples like wheat and paddy are less productive, the yield levels having steeply plateaued or declined, and in such a situation, the farmer has no choice except to pump in more costly inputs like fertiliser and pesticide to prop up the yields. This has become unremunerative.

Add to this the scarcity of labour— typically characterised in a state like Kerala. The Gulf boom led to a large exodus of unskilled labourers who once toiled in the fields of the state. This characteristic is most markedly seen in Palakkad district, where rice farmers are either abandoning their fields or putting them to vegetables.

This situation opens up the chances of food insecurity, but the state has in any case depended on imported rice from other states, mainly Andhra Pradesh, for a long time. However, under the technical guidance of the author, a vigorous “Paddy Campaign” is in place to restore the state’s pre-eminent position in paddy cultivation, but progress is at a snail’s pace.

In 2007, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) did a comprehensive cost-benefit analysis of growing vegetables among other horticulture products. It found the shift to horticulture was faster in recent years due to declining benefits from cereals. For each unit of investment in vegetables, the return was almost double; returns were half for cereals.

“This implies that it is profitable to cultivate fruits and vegetables rather than cereals,” the ICRIER report concludes.

Of course, the time too was right, and it was an opportunity too good to miss. Food preferences were changing in this period. A lot of people now demand vegetables and other high-value commodities like fruits and livestock products rather than cereals due to rising incomes and changing lifestyles.

It is not that cereals are totally dispensed with; however, the proportion of cereals to fruits/vegetables, unlike in the past, is shifting towards the latter in terms of unit consumption—a trend observed in a growing economy like China as well. This is true for both urban and rural areas.

Fruits and vegetables are no longer considered a luxury even among the poor. The trend is clearly reflective of a growing Indian economy.

Periodic surveys by the National Sample Survey Organisation show a clear shift from food grains towards fruits and vegetables, livestock products and fisheries. These are the products responsible for the high and persistent food inflation in the past five to seven years. Yet their share among all food items consumed remains high: 47.4 per cent in 2007-08, up from 41.3 per cent in 1993-94 and 37.3 per cent in 1983-84.

Between 2005 and 2010, vegetable consumption alone went up by 30 per cent in rural areas. Fruits and vegetables now contribute more than 30 per cent to the overall agricultural output in Himachal Pradesh, Odisha, West Bengal, Jammu and Kashmir, Bihar and the northeastern states, according to the National Horticultural Board.

That farmers prefer vegetables over other crops is also clear from the employment data. The number of people employed in staple crops production has declined but in horticulture, which includes vegetables, it is picking up.

The share of horticulture in crop sector employment was 1.9 per cent until 1993-94. It reached 3.5 per cent in 2009-10, though it was a severe drought year. This year, the share is expected to rise to five per cent.

It is the small and marginal farmers who contribute to this increase. They contribute 70 per cent of the total vegetables produced in the country, while they own just 44 per cent of the land, according to a report of the Planning Commission’s Working Group on Horticulture. The shift to vegetables is accelerated because the cost-benefit ratio is more, and more frequent, for them than for fruits.

Ecology (environmental considerations) and economics support this transition. On average, a farmer needs one cubic metre of water to produce 330 grams of grains. The same quantity of water is sufficient to grow 18 kg of vegetables. Besides, paddy takes a minimum of 100 days to mature, while vegetables are ready for harvest, depending on what one grows, between 45-60 days. Cereal farming like paddy is unremunerative on small patches of land, but, for vegetables any size will do.

Then there is the price advantage. Unlike the prices of cereal crops, determined by market forces, farmers can sell vegetables at prices they choose. A farmer can sell in the local market every week, while for paddy the wait is close to four months.

For farmers in Bahuti village of Mirzapur district in Uttar Pradesh, water availability and quality farm inputs posed a big problem. To help and encourage farmers to take up vegetable production, the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research in Varanasi introduced a project named “Ensuring livelihood security through watershed based farming system module”.

The farmers were encouraged to take up pea cultivation, and two varieties, “Kashi Nandini”, which flowers in about 32 days, and “Kashi Uday”, which flowers in about 35 days, were taken up. The farmer (Sushil Kumar) earned about `1 lakh in less than five months, a sum he would never have earned had he continued with his paddy crop.

There are five basic reasons why vegetables are becoming popular. The first is that they are short-duration crops. This offers the farmer frequent income. In comparison, paddy or millets are long-duration ones, the farmer has to wait six month or more for returns.

In a vegetable-deficient state, the farmer has a ready market at his doorstep. Horticulture development programmes can further enhance this appeal. The returns are almost instant. Growing vegetables means being integrated with the market. Monetarily, the farmers are better off and think they can sell vegetables and with the money buy food grains, and still be left with some cash in hand.

Shrinking land holdings means it makes better sense. Cereals are less viable on small patches of land but the same patch of land can be used several times in a season to grow vegetables without compromising on cultivation of cereals for sustenance.

Finally, water management is much easier. While cereal crops are monsoon-dependent, vegetables can be cultivated round the year with assured irrigation. The government through the horticulture mission is promoting dug wells. Traditional water storage structures can also ensure irrigation to small vegetable farms.

The Planning Commission provides some intriguing data on the subject of the Vegetable Revolution, suggesting it may well be driving India’s agriculture. Its estimates are: While production of rice saw negative growth in the 2000s, vegetable production has been consistent. It grew 0.49 per cent in 2007-08, 1.69 per cent in 2008-09 and 6.4 per cent in 2010-11. In 2011-12 it came down, yet it was the highest and three times more than that of fruits.

Though the land under vegetables has not grown much—115,140 ha has been brought under vegetables during the past five years—its production has soared by 65 per cent between 2001 and 2011. The average yield per hectare has increased from 12.2 tonnes to 16.7 tonnes.

Vegetable production is growing the fastest among all the different varieties of horticulture, and this trend will decide the overall growth of agriculture in the country. A true Vegetable Revolution is in the making—a revolution that came by itself, through the combined efforts of countless Indian farmers without the government or the agricultural messiahs shouting about it from the roof tops.