When he was presented the Padma Vibhushan in Mexico City last month, Dr Norman Borlaug, one of the main architects of India's first Green Revolution, warned that India may be on the edge of a severe foodgrain crisis. An exclusive encounter with the Nobel Laureate:
Three hundred and fifty agricultural scientists from 70 countries and various disciplines -- who were attending an international plant-breeding symposium at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (Centro Internacional de Mejoramiento de Maiz y Trigo in Spanish, CIMMYT) -- and a number of dignitaries including Mexican Secretary of Agriculture Franciso Javier Mayorga were present at the luncheon where Indian Ambassador R K Bhatia presented Norman Borlaug with the Padma Vibhushan, India's second-highest civilian award.
Dr Borlaug, one of the architects of the Green Revolution in India, told rediff.com that he deemed it his greatest privilege to receive the award from the Indian government and that it took him back to 1965 when India was on the verge of famine. It was then that he started working with Indian and Mexican scientists to introduce high yielding varieties of wheat in India.
He said he had to work with a large number of people -- especially renowned scientist Dr M S Swaminathan, then with the Indian Agricultural Research Institute, and then agriculture minister C Subramaniam -- to persuade the Indian government to accept high yielding varieties of wheat.
India finally agreed to import 18,000 tons of hybrid seeds from Mexico. That was the beginning of the Green Revolution, which transformed India's agriculture.
Dr Borlaug said then Indian agriculture secretary Siva Raman also played an active role. "I used to call them 3 S: Subramaniam, Swaminathan and Siva Raman," the Nobel Laureate, who is 92, said.
"It was on the research stations and the farmers' fields in Mexico that Dr Borlaug developed successive generations of wheat varieties with broad and stable disease resistance, broad adaptation to growing conditions across many degrees of latitude, and with exceedingly high yield potential," Ambassador Bhatia said while presenting the Padma Vibhushan, the highest award India can give a foreigner. "These wheat and improved crop management practices transformed agricultural production in several counties, including India, sparking what is known as the Green Revolution."
Dr Borlaug has been awarded 57 honorary doctorates and he belongs to the academies of science in 12 nations, Bhatia noted.
The ambassador said when he wrote to Dr Borlaug about the award, the legendary scientist sent him a communication "conveying his willingness to accept it 'in the name of hundreds of Indian scientists, policy makers and millions of farmers, without whom there would have been no Green Revolution. I am deeply grateful to be so honored by my beloved country India.'"
Mayorga noted Dr Borlaug had saved many lives "in the history of mankind" through his high yielding varieties of wheat and other food crops.
Dr Borlaug recollected that there were some bureaucrats and journalists in India who were dead opposed to India accepting his varieties of wheat. 'When would India get rid of this man?' they would say, the scientist chuckled. "These were people who had never in their lifetime produced a single ton of food grain," Dr Borlaug quipped. "Without new technology, we won't be able to provide food for 6.4 billion people (worldwide)... There are people who have lot of theoretical knowledge but have never produced a ton of food. They are causing all kinds of problems and many of these people are in India also causing great problems. They are making it difficult for the political leaders to make decisions."
"Many of these people in India are still against new technology. We should go back to the olden days, say in the 1950s when the world population was about 2 billion people. Now we are 6.4 billion. What was adequate then cannot be adequate now. Many of these people in India and elsewhere are thinking in theoretical terms. They haven't lived around hunger and miserable people," he said.
When asked why the media is negative, Dr Borlaug answered: "Because stories about gloom and doom sell." These are the same kind of people "who said something should be done about this guy (Dr Borlaug) as he's messing up everything (in India)," he added.
CIMMYT Director General Masaru Iwanaga, the chief organiser of the luncheon, noted that India is now self-sufficient in food production. But he expressed concern that India may have to, like Japan and China, import large quantities of wheat. That would increase food prices internationally and developing countries will not take that kindly, he pointed out.
"India built buffer stocks to cope with bad monsoons, bad crop seasons. Those buffer stocks have during the last three, four years declined So, India is now thinking of importing large quantities of wheat," he added.
Dr Iwanaga was equally concerned that India may have to soon import foodgrains.
Dr Borlaug started going to India in the mid 1960s. His three slogans were 'fertiliser to farmers six weeks before the crop,' 'credit to farmers' and 'fair price to farmers.'
"Farmers in India are still not getting fair price for their produce. That has a negative impact on food production," Dr Borlaug said.
He said archaic, colonial rules and regulations have not changed in India. "There are inter-state taxes, there are restrictions for moving commodities and goods from one state to another and the Indian farmers even now are paid 40 percent less than the international price for their produce," he pointed out.
"When we exported 18,000 tons of that hybrid seed, luckily for farmers, fertiliser was there, the credit was available to ensure farmers used the seeds, and it was made clear that the harvest would be used not for eating but for seeds and simultaneously the Indian government policy on wheat production were changed. Happily everything took off," he continued.
In a lengthy, humour-sprinkled conversation with rediff.com, Dr Borlaug said, "India, Pakistan, Iraq, Iran, Egypt were able to do well with hybrid seeds. But they had to be planted at the right time so that you avoided frost at the time of flowering before the temperature went too high. You had to plant the proper amount of seeds, fertilise them. If you did that, those varieties were very productive. Those old, tall varieties fell down when you started to fertilise them. So, we had to ensure those crops didn't grow too tall after fertilisation."
There were several farmers unwilling to opt for new technology, new varieties, Dr Borlaug pointed out. "But the same people started to look their neighbouring farms producing 4,000 kg to 50,000 kg of wheat on one hectare against their own land -- not producing more than 800 kg per hectare. So, looking at the bounty next door, this Indian farmer said to himself, 'I better change this,'" he continued.
"The Indian farmer may not be able to read but he could figure what's good for his family. It spread like a wildfire," he added.
Ambassador Bhatia said, "This is the first time in my long diplomatic career that I had this privilege to exercise (presenting the award). As ambassador, I represent the President of the Republic. It is kind of him that he asked me to perform this role. It was also a matter of both pride and happiness that one was doing this for a great cause and to a great man."
There were naysayers, not only in India but outside the country, and they repeatedly argued in the 1960s and early 1970s that India's wheat production can't be fixed. "This was when the country was almost facing famine," Dr Borlaug said.
"I said several times in India, if I were a member of India's Lok Sabha, I would repeatedly shout: fertiliser, fertiliser, fair price, fair price, credit, credit," he continued.
"I told Indian scientists and Indian politicians that the Indian farmer was becoming impatient and that they needed to recognise their position on fertiliser. Many of them in turn said there was no capital in the country to invest in importing fertiliser. My response to them was capital could come from private sources if the Indian government were to make rational policies. We demonstrated to them our technology -- hybrid seeds -- had great potential to increase productivity, which would in turn increase the farmer's income so that he becomes part of the country's economic system," Dr Borlaug said.
"During the last two-three years, wheat production has been declining. So, India is going to import several million tons of wheat this year. I am very concerned," said the father of the Green Revolution.
"I would, therefore, tell the Indian farmers: Don't be afraid of the new technology. There's a lot of confusion about the new biotechnology, transgenic crossings between species... Instead of applying 15 applications of insecticides you now apply just one. This is a wonderful thing," he added.
Dr Borlaug retired from the leadership of the CIMMYT's wheat programme in 1979. Since 1984, he has been a distinguished professor of international agriculture at Texas A&M University, where he teaches one semester each year. Since 1986, he has also been the president of the Sasakawa Africa Association -- the leader of the agricultural programme in sub-Saharan Africa.