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September 3, 1999


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Issues 99/ Dr M S Swaminathan

'Our countryside is crying for attention, our countryside is crying for investment'

The year 1999 represents a very important year in our agricultural history. For the first time, we have exceeded the 200-million tonne mark in food production. Wheat production has exceeded 72 million tonnes and we have become number two in the world. In milk production, we are number one in the world.

But the problem is we still have a large number of landless labourers and they form at least 60 per cent in most villages. When we became independent, our population was hardly 30 crore, now it is 100 crore. It has more than trebled, as also the number of landless farmers. In dry, unirrigated, rain-fed areas, the crop depends entirely on the monsoon. If the rains fail, the labourers are without employment for nearly 150 days. These small farmers take loans and if the crops fail, they find it difficult to repay the loan. When they find that they cannot pay back the loan, they commit suicide.

That is what happened to cotton now. Severe pest infestation took place. The farmers applied too much pesticide too early. With the result, the natural enemies, which feed on the pests, got killed. All this happens because of the lack of proper advice. There should be agricultural extension departments in all the villages to guide these farmers. They maybe guiding them too, I don't know. You cannot blame the departments too, as the number of people to be reached is also very large.

We have nearly 110 million farming families today. Even at the rate of 5 persons per family, nearly 55 crore of families are involved in farming. And out of this 55 crore, 75 per cent of them are small and marginal farmers. In the final analysis, the cost, the risk and the return structure of farming are the ones that determine a farmer's fate.

All data show that in the last ten years or before that, the capital investment in agriculture and rural development has gone down steadily as a percentage of GNP. In the latest Economic and Political Weekly, Dr Thamarajakshi, who was statistical secretary to the Government of India, has given a very interesting analysis about how the investment in the rural areas has gone down gradually. And if you convert the investment into per capita terms, it will be even worse. Even in terms of absolute investment, the percentage is going down but if you divide it by the number of people, it goes down further. Rural roads are bad and there are no communication facilities too in the villages. Our countryside is crying for attention, our countryside is crying for investment.

We are the largest producers of vegetables and fruits, about 125 million tonnes. But we do not have the infrastructure to process, we have no cold storage, we have no refrigerator fans, so we find a lot of spoilage. We would not have made progress in milk production but for Dr Kurien and the NDDB, which brought about all storage structures.

Unless you have a massive investment in agriculture, what we call the 'four T's, things will become worse. The four Ts are technology, training, techno-infrastructure and trade.

We have food security but it is not accessible to many people because they have no money or job. I mention three As in food security; availability in the market, economic access to it and the ability of the body to assimilate it. Absorption or assimilation depends upon clean drinking water and environmental hygiene. In other countries, the last two As, access and assimilation have become the greatest food security channels. A majority of the people in the developed countries get safe drinking water and there is environmental hygiene too.

It is a good thing that some of the election manifestos talk about better crop insurance. That way you can insulate the small farmer. Whenever there is a failure of crops for reasons beyond their control, like pest incidence, lack of rainfall, etc, they can be insured and protected. Poverty, population and environment should be the real issues that should be tackled. Many of the so-called incentives in agriculture are directed toward those who have got the ability to utilise those subsidies. But if you are a very poor farmer, certain subsidies have no meaning to you.

So, what has to be done? For the last ten years, we have seen various governments developing an agricultural policy statement. But there has to be a clear-cut policy. I always say that the future of our agriculture depends upon happy and satisfied farming families and sustainable farming systems. Sustainable framing systems are those which are economically, ecologically and gender and social equitably viable. Sustainability does not mean only environment and economic sustainability but also social sustainability.

It is not that we have not achieved anything. We have overcome the problem of famine. We have not had the same kind of famine that the British India had. The last famine was the Bengal famine. We have increased our food production, but we have also increased our population, we have also degraded our environment, we have also increased poverty.

Poverty, population and environment are the three critical issues that have to tackled seriously. Food security also depends upon poverty because if you are poor, you cannot purchase food. Food security again depends upon environment because if your soil is fertile, you produce more food and if your soil is not, you don't. The poverty, population and environment nexus is very strong.

Political leadership is very, very important in bringing about social changers. Had C Subramaniam not been there, had he not taken those critical decisions, the Green Revolution would not have been possible. If political support is not there, even technology will be on the shelf. Because we now have frequent elections, we are not able to have long term plans. All said and done, during the times of Nehru and Indira Gandhi, they were there for 17 or 18 years, so, they could have a few long-term plans. These days, even the five-year plans have become difficult. When the government changes, the Planning Commission also changes. In the last three years, we have had three Planning Commissions.

The politicians also have to be aware of the problems that our rural India faces. C Subramaniam was aware. He also listens to people. But today's politicians do not have enough time to listen to people who have ideas; they are just surrounded by sycophants.

I always felt that we could do well if we concentrated on three things. We must have serious population stabilisation programs. We must give greater thought to agriculture in a real broad sense. But the most important thing is, we must empower the panchayats. The 11th schedule of the Constitutional Amendment 73 gives a number of responsibilities to the panchayats like looking after the soil, water, etc. But the panchayats have not been empowered financially, technically or legally to discharge all the functions under the 11th schedule. We cannot solve these problems at a macro level, it has to be done at a micro level. What we lack is not technology or finance but political vision, political will and political action.

I am not against fast food per se but I am against the kind of food McDonalds, Pizza Hut, Kentucky Fried Chicken etc serve. These types of food are not suitable to our country. It may be elitist as only those who have money can go to these places. But I want similar fast food joints like Annapoorna, which serve nutritious food using local means. We can have non-cereal diet like millets, pulses, ragi -- a very important food in Karnataka -- as they are all very nutritious. If we use locally produced items, we help the farmers too.

Unfortunately, a large number of people have a sense of hopelessness in our country and I find so much of despair everywhere. But I am optimistic and realistic because being pessimistic does not help. You cannot be optimistic without a rationale behind it. I have just written a book,A Century Of Hope. My optimism is based on a number of reasons. I know there is a large untapped potential in our country but it requires a lot of policy changes. For example, going to Australia and buying pulses is okay for this year. I have no objection if it is to stabilise the prices but it should not become a habit. There is a pulses technology mission and it must be accountable. For that matter, all departments should be accountable.

Mahatma Gandhi once said, politics without dharma is evil. Today dharma has gone out and only politics remains!

As told to Shobha Warrier.


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