Unlike foodgrain crops that have been getting every kind of support from the government for their growth ever since the green revolution started in the 1960s, horticultural crops have been receiving attention only since the 1980s.
Yet, they now contribute nearly 30 per cent to the country's agricultural gross domestic product (GDP) from merely 10 per cent of agricultural land under them
Buoyed by this performance, the National Horticulture Mission has decided to put an additional 3.3 million hectares under horticultural crops and rejuvenate another 1.6 million hectares of senile horticultural plantations during the 11th Plan to boost the production and availability of fruit, vegetables, flowers, spices, etc.
The Planning Commission has fixed a target of 7 per cent annual growth for the horticulture sector, against 4 per cent for the agriculture sector as a whole, for this Plan period.
However, there is a formidable constraint that needs to be overcome if such an ambitious goal is to be achieved. There is an acute shortage of good-quality, disease-free seeding material for horticultural crops.
Hardly 30 to 40 per cent of the requirement of planting materials for horticultural crops is estimated to be met through the reliable public-sector horticultural seed producers.
Though the private sector has also stepped into this field, there is still a large unmet demand for healthy seeding materials. This is restricting both the expansion of area under horticulture and the rejuvenation of over-aged orchards by replacing old plantations with new ones.
Since a large number of horticultural crops, especially fruit and flowers, need to be propagated through vegetative means (cloning), the production of their planting material (cloned seedlings) requires modern technology, besides, in most cases, heavy investment.
Moreover, vegetative multiplication of the planting material involves greater risk of viruses and other diseases being carried forward to new plantations. There is, therefore, a need for observing strict phyto-sanitary standards, which many of the nurseries are unable to do. Substandard seeding material can lead to debilitation of the new plantations and poor quality of the produce, causing huge, even though avoidable, losses to the horticulturists.
Methods to detect the presence of viruses and pathogens in the seedlings were not available till recently. But, according to H P Singh, deputy director-general (horticulture) of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), this lacuna has now been covered to a large extent.
Scientists have worked out diagnostic techniques for early detection of diseases in many fruit and vegetable crops, such as banana, citrus fruit, potato and other tuber crops. These techniques need to be used on a mass scale to weed out unhealthy seeding material.
A national conference on "Production of quality seeds and planting material and health management in horticultural crops" was recently held in New Delhi to promote these techniques.
Apart from technological shortcomings in the production of healthy propagation material for horticultural crops, the legal framework for ensuring adherence to quality-control norms, too, is wanting.
Though the seeds industry is subjected to several binding regulatory measures, including the Seed Act, 1966, the Seed Control Order, 1983, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act, 2001, and the National Seed Policy, 2002, none of these measures specifically deals with the quality assurance of plants produced through vegetative means, such as tissue culture, grafting, layering and the like.
Another problem with the existing legal framework is a lack of provisions for dealing with transgenic and other genetically-modified (GM) propagation materials.
With the entry of multinational companies in the seeds sector, especially in research and development of GM seeds and crops, bringing quality assurance of cloned seeding material of GM horticultural crops under legal regulatory regime has become imperative.
A Bill for enacting a new seeds law to replace the Seeds Act, 1966, which was introduced in Parliament way back in 2004 but not pursued further since then, too, does not deal comprehensively with the GM seeds and seeding material though it seeks to introduce some other significant reforms in the seeds sector.
Since the Seeds Bill, 2004, suffers from this lacuna, besides being embroiled in other controversies, it seems desirable to suitably redraft the Bill to address the current needs, and get it enacted into a law.
Besides, the producers of the propagation material for horticultural crops need to be encouraged to use modern diagnostic techniques and follow strict phyto-sanitary standards.