Dr M S Swaminthan, the man behind India's Green Revolution, is in the news with the newly formed United Progressive Alliance government making him the Chairman of the National Commission for Farmers. With that rural India and agriculture too are back in news.
In a candid interview with Shobha Warrier, Dr Swaminathan talks about what was the condition of India when it won independence, why Indian framers are still committing suicide and where we went wrong.
When India won independence, it was almost a starving nation. Through the Green Revolution initiated by C Subramaniam and you, we started producing surplus food. Now, after 57 years of independence, we once again hear about starvation deaths. Where did we go wrong?
The great Bengal famine happened before Independence and starvation was largely due to lack of availability of food in the market. We had to import from the United States, Canada, et cetera. Yes, we didn't have enough food for our people when we won independence.
But now, starvation, hunger, etc. are the result of the lack of purchasing power. Lack of purchasing power comes from lack of opportunities for employment or jobs.
So, today, the job famine is leading to food famine.
Our approach, now, has to be to increase the livelihood security of the poor by giving opportunities for assured remunerative employment.
We have made a very extensive analysis of the three dimensions of food security: the availability of the food in the market, access to food, and the absorption of food in the body which is a function of clean drinking water, environmental hygiene and primary healthcare.
Today, we have made progress in addressing the first challenge in food security, namely, availability of food.
It is clear that our framers will produce more if they have access to remunerative markets because today, markets determine whether the farmers will invest more or not.
But our latest problem in food security concerns access and absorption.
Ever since India won independence, political parties and politicians are talking about rural poverty, upliftment of the poor, etc. But why is it that even after so many years, a large chunk of India's population is below the poverty line?
: There are three reasons why there is such a gap between the political pronouncements and actual accomplishments.
Number one: our population has grown a lot. When we became independent, we had 30 crore (300 million) people. Now, it is more than 102 crore (1.02 billion). This population explosion has upset many of our calculations.
Number two: we have not given concurrent attention to on-farm and non-farm employment in the rural areas.
China started its economic revolution through agricultural revolution and rural development. They started the reform process in the rural areas where they took away over 100 million people from on-arm to non-farm employment through township enterprises.
We didn't have a concurrent strategy because majority of our people in the villages are landless poor. We have not given constant attention to them at all.
Number three: poor delivery systems of government programs. Less than 50 per cent of what is intended reaches the poor.
You mention a poor delivery system. In the new Budget, Finance Minister P Chidambaram has allotted a lot of money for the rural sector but has not done anything to change the system. What is the point in giving more money to a system that fails?
Yes, it is a major problem. It can be refined only if you have confidence in the local democratic structures; the panchayati raj institutions, the gram sabha, etc. So long as we don't have faith in them, so long as you want to run everything bureaucratically, many of our complex problems cannot be solved.
Budget is only an allocation exercise but whether that money will achieve anything or not depends upon the system.
Are you satisfied now that the finance minister has pumped more money in to rural programmes?
There is no doubt about the fact that the rural sector needs money. Yes, rural India is crying for attention and investment but the method of delivery of these programmes is far from satisfactory.
There are so many linkages and so many problems, with the result that no programme is delivering.
The finance minister can only give some signals. The signal of the budget is that we should no longer neglect rural development and agriculture, not only from the point of view of human well being but also for political survival.
Who should be held responsible for what rural India is now: the Congress which ruled India for decades? They had slogans like Garibi Hatao, Jai Kisan, etc. . . but what have they actually done?
You should not mistake slogans for achievement. In our country at the political level, there is a sentiment that once they have made a speech, they have achieved everything.
But all ruling parties should be held responsible. There are so many ruling parties both in the states and at the Centre. They are all stuck with the old colonial administration.
For example, in China, even the ministers and officers are technocrats who know the subject. Their agricultural minister was the person who won the World Food Prize.
Many of our political leaders, though they are elected by the people, are not trained. There should be a school to train political leaders.
But the political leaders always blame the bureaucracy. . .
It is always easy to blame each other. This has not helped India. Poverty in India is growing, people are suffering and farmers are committing suicide.
We have had very good stories of successes in this country. Punjab and Haryana have shown that our farmers are capable of producing. There are a number of good examples of non-governmental organisations working successfully like the programmes of Tarun Bhagat Singh in Rajasthan, Rajendra Singh, and so on.
One can give a number of examples of outstanding work done in this country. How we make these unique examples more universal is the challenge.
You once said that unlike in the developed countries, farming is for livelihood in India, and we have a lot more small farmers with little land. If that is so, will doing something similar to what Dr Verghese Kurien did in Anand, starting co-operatives, help our small farmers?
The number of farming families in the entire OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development) countries is hardly 10 million, while our country alone has 110 million farming families. Where is 10 million and where is 110 million? They also provide subsidies.
Regarding co-operatives, well, if they function well, they are good. Yes, not only Anand, there are other successful examples too.
Unfortunately, co-operatives in many parts of the country are not functioning properly because they have been bureaucratised and not professionalized. If somebody exploits co-operatives for political purposes or personal ends, they will not function.
The present approach is to promote self-help groups. The self-help groups need not have a formal constitution; it is a group of people coming together on the basis of an agreed code of conduct. They are growing in strength, particularly among women, in technology, credit, management and marketing.
We have a lot of hope in these groups. The finance minister also has increased allocation to them. But unless these groups have selfless leaders, they won't succeed.
Is lack of availability of technology a main reason for why our farmers produce only enough to sustain themselves?
There is a big gap between the 'know-how' and 'do-how' camps. This is why we have launched Mission 2007, that is, by August 15, 2007 when India celebrates its 60th anniversary of Independence, to take information communication technology to every village.
Our mission statement is, 'Every Village a Knowledge Centre.' There are 600,000 villages in our country. Our villages need a lot of timely information.
The second mission is, 'Hunger Free India.' Both the missions are related, and I feel both can be accomplished, if we want.
Who can implement this mission?
The self-help groups.
I feel that if we can give insurance, credit, and appropriate technology at the right time, and access to market, this country will be a different country.
India has a vast pool of talent in information technology. In what way do you think these young Indians who are proficient in information technology help rural India?
They can do two things. They can help improve connectivity in rural India. Secondly, they can help in content creation in terms of weather, water use or agriculture or marketing, even heath information.
They can enormously help in giving the right knowledge at the right time at the right place: what you call 'reaching the un-reached.' They can voice the voiceless.