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|February 12, 1998||
Elections '98 Issues/Dr M S Swaminathan
'There is a greed revolution among the privileged classes'
I am very happy and proud of what we have been able to accomplish, particularly by our farmers, under very difficult circumstances. I am happy at the remarkable progress made by our farmers in the last 50 years to improve productivity and the production of major crops like wheat, rice, etc. This way, we have at least become self sufficient at the current levels of purchasing power.
This does not mean that a large number of people are not undernourished. We have serious problems of protein and calorie undernutrition, of micro-nutrient deficiencies. One-third of all children born in this country are underweight and today we know that this has a serious implication on the brain development of a child. There is an inequity at birth itself as the child is born with a handicap in terms of the full expression of his/her potential for mental development.
If on the positive side, we have changed our image of a begging bowl into a country that can feed itself; on the negative side, we have not been able to assure enough employment opportunities for the rural public so that a large number of people are undernourished today. It is not because there is no food in the market, but because they do not have the ability to buy it: what we call economic access to food.
Regarding food, we have three kinds of problems. Among them, in terms of availability, we have made remarkable progress in making available food, vegetables, fruits in the market. Not so in terms of economic and social access, particularly in relation to women. A girl child tends to be more undernourished in the family. This is not a satisfactory performance. And in relation to absorption or assimilation of food, for which safe drinking water and environmental hygiene are important, we have a very sad situation. So, among the three, we can be only be proud of food availability; we have made little progress in access and have a fairly poor record in the absorption or consumption of food.
India should be able to remain self-sufficient in food for another 30 years, by which time the population might stabilise, for three reasons. First, we have a large gap between what we can produce and what we are producing even at our current level of technology. That is, with technologies on the shelf, we can produce much more. With our current technology, we are hardly producing at 30 per cent to 40 per cent our potential.
The second reason is that we have large non-irrigated, dry lands or dry farming areas which provide enormous scope, but only if we take up group farming as it was done in Kerala. People in a watershed or in the command area of a project get together and harvest and utilise the rainwater most effectively to grow pulses, water efficient plants, etc.
Third, we have nearly 80 to 90 million hectares of what we call waste lands or wasted lands. All these lands can be brought under cultivation by suitable technologies.
So, we have an untapped production reservoir which is far more than what China or many other countries have, with the result that it is possible today to produce much more food.
With good investment and infrastructure, we can produce all the vegetables and fruits in this country. But unfortunately, we do not have cold storages, refrigerated vans, or proper packaging facilities. One of our tragedies is that we have invested relatively less in rural infrastructure. Much of our money has gone to urban areas, with the result that we have difficulties in getting the full benefits from the rural areas.
We have to sustain our agricultural production, otherwise we will not have enough food to feed the people. Sustained development means that short-term and long-term goals are both met. That is why we at our centre (the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation) work on sustainable development.
Soil, Aristotle had said, is the stomach of the plant. Our centre looks after the soil health, plant health, animal health, besides water management efficiency. We have a very important field day coming up in Pudukkottai district. It is a dry farming district where we have organised the farmers to conserve rain water and grow pulse crops, because pulses require less water.
Technologies are available but the knowledge has to be spread. That is why we are starting information villages in many rural areas. It is a computerised information centre with Internet facilities, operated by landless labour woman and from there we give all the information available to the farmers.
I strongly feel that we must use modern information technology to reach the unreached. A lot of people have been bypassed by conventional technology. We must use television, radio, etc. Farmers must be free to go anytime to ask for information. At our information centres, we will not use a government officer coming from somewhere; but a lady belonging to a dalit or poor class who will be the middle pass. We will train her to operate the system. So, one can have imaginative methods to include the excluded. Exclusion is the worst form of discrimination in a democracy.
Development and environment have to go together. There will be no development if the environment is not safeguarded. Today's progress should not be at the expense of tomorrow's children. These concepts are now widely recognised. But we cannot live with concepts alone. We have to convert them into procedures, methodologies, and technologies. It is easy to oppose unsustainable development, but it is more important to propose sustainable options.
In a country where 16 million children are added every year, where 100 million people are looking for jobs today, a negative approach and a negative ecology will not help. It has to be a "do-ecology" and not a "don't ecology." Don't is easy, as we can go to a court and stop the activities, but more important is do. There will be shades of good and bad in everything. Ability to analyse what is good and what is bad and draw a balance sheet is very important.
When the controversy started in Kerala on the Silent Valley project in 1977, I was then the agricultural secretary in charge of forests. I visited the Silent Valley, studied it, and gave a report. I gave an alternative scheme on how to generate power, how to create jobs, and how to get water. The Silent Valley report is now used in international training programmes as a kind of analysis which can be followed. The same critics who criticise power projects also need power. So what is needed is not criticism.
The lifestyle of a marginal or small farmer is very low. The landless poor have the same huts as they've had fifty years ago. They are just living, just existing. Quality of improvement of their life has been very poor. Now some governments have taken steps to at least provide education to their children, which is really good. But government alone cannot do this. It has to come from society and the people. That is why Gandhi once said in his autobiography, 'The most important lesson I learnt in my life was from my illiterate mother who taught me all rights come from a duty well done'.
Unfortunately after Independence, we have only rights and no responsibilities. Unless we are going to combine the rights and responsibilities in an optimum manner, I am afraid things are not going to get much better.
The privileged class should not consider themselves as trustees of excess property, excess money, excess knowledge, etc, and use them for the welfare of the poor, and the underprivileged. Mahatma Gandhi said, 'Nature provides for everybody's need and not for everybody's greed'.
Tragically, today we find a greed revolution among the privileged class. This greed revolution is the greatest danger to the country now as it leads to corruption, it leads to malpractices and exploitation at every level. If we are to become a big nation, I think we have to shed the indifference to the poor. I would say, now people are more selfish and there is short sightedness also in them.
No man can live in an island, in his own prosperity. You can't have a sea of misery around the fortress of yours. Unfortunately, the urban people are not fully aware of what is happening in the rural areas. People think they can have more gunmen around them to protect themselves from the poor, but that is not going to lead to lasting happiness.
Our planning was too centralised. Unfortunately we followed the Russian model. We let bureaucracy proliferate. We have too many officers doing too little, too many layers of decision-making, almost paralysed by analysis. Unless we can change all this, it is difficult to move forward fast. Some of the decision-makers are sensitive, but a majority of them are not. It is like, out of sight, out of mind. The urban people are more vociferous, the newspapers and media are controlled by the urban people. So, they get disproportionate voice and we neglect the rural areas. We are going to pay a big price for that.
The government, from the first five-year plan, has kept poverty alleviation as the most important purpose of the government. The government is in the right place, its goals are in the right place but like George Bernard Shaw said, 'The way to hell is paved with good intentions'.
Therefore, good intentions alone are not enough in this world. It is important to get those intentions into actions. Our rural people are suffering, suffering, and suffering. It is the same hut, the same mosquitoes, the same non-availability of drinking water, no sanitation, and living amidst filth. We have selected a number of rural areas to work in Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, etc. We have developed a very detailed seven-point action plan for Kalahandi in Orissa.
In Kerala, it is not the Communist movement alone which changed the face of its society. Various community leaders like Narayan Guru or Christian missionaries stressed on two things, education and healthcare. Another reason is the matriarchal system that was prevalent in the Kerala society. Women's status was higher there. Dalit men and women were treated very badly in Kerala, but spiritual leaders changed all that. What they did was to provide educational empowerment and empowerment of women. These are the two keys to progress.
Our country can make progress. If it does not, I will put the blame entirely on the political system and political leaders. Our farmers are hard working, like the farmers of any other country of the world. The nation is basically a sound one. We have, fortunately, developed strong democratic traditions. If we really strengthen the democratic traditions at the grassroot level, in the panchayats (village councils) and if we introduce one-third reservation for women at all levels, if we really decentralise authorities, we can improve.
Kerala has for the first time started a "people's ninth five-year plan" and they have given 40 per cent of the budget to the panchayats. So, if political empowerment, social empowerment, economic empowerment and technological empowerment take place, our country can be a great country. But we must not go by the western pathway, we must not be a high consumption society; we must have, like Gandhiji said, a sustainable lifestyle.
Dr M S Swaminathan, father of the Green Revolution, spoke to Shobha Warrier.
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