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Home > Money > Interviews > Dr M S Swaminathan
January 25, 2001
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'The WTO pact on agriculture will kill our farmers'

Dr M S SwaminathanEminent agriculture scientist Dr M S Swaminathan -- who was conferred the prestigious Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development for 1999 for his outstanding contribution in the domain of plant genetics and ensuring food security to hundreds of millions of people in the developing world -- is an agitated man.

His usual air of optimism is conspicuous by its absence. The WTO agreement on agriculture is the sole cause of his uneasiness. At the recently concluded Science Congress, Dr M S Swaminathan, demanded a white paper on the agreement and also offered a solution to solve the problem that stares India and many other developing countries in the face.

He spoke to Shobha Warrier about the 'dreaded' WTO agreement on agriculture. He also briefly touched upon the impending General Budget 2001.

Once our markets are flooded with cheaper food grains when the WTO agreement on agriculture comes into force, what do you think will be the plight of our farmers?

We have not prepared ourselves for the consequences of the WTO agreement in agriculture. The previous UNCTAD (United Nations Conference on Trade and Development) did not include agriculture. Cheaper goods will hit our markets from April 1, but the government has taken no concrete steps to ready our farmers for the tough times ahead.

It is only the Uruguay Round of Negotiations, after the United States and other industrialised countries insisted, that included agriculture within its ambit.

Now, an international organisation will directly control and influence the domestic policies of various countries. Normally, UN organisations leave domestic policies untouched. But this is an exception.

The World Trade agreement in agriculture deals with domestic support, export subsidies, market access, trade-related intellectual property rights and so on. We have voluntarily agreed to place the livelihood of millions of Indians under international coordination.

In India, agriculture is not just a food-producing industry. It is largely a livelihood-generating industry.

This, however, is not the case in industrialised nations where hardly 2-3 per cent -- maybe a maximum of 4 per cent -- of the population is involved in agriculture.

Agriculture is the backbone of our livelihood and food security system. It has been six years since we signed the WTO agreement, but we have not really prepared ourselves to take advantage of any potential benefits.

Are there any potential benefits for a developing country like India in this agreement?

There would be some if industrially developed countries remove their subsidies completely. Because of the high wages there, our goods will be always be cost-competitive. But they have not reduced subsidies. In fact, they have increased them.

Last year, they gave $300 billion as subsidies under various clauses: the Green Box, the Blue Box and so on.

They have neither reduced export subsidies nor increased market access. On the other hand, they have put additional restrictions under the pretext of sanitary and phyto-sanitary conditions.

There have been attempts to add other environmental and other social concerns like child labour and so on.

We have not seen the benefit of the World Trade agreement. On the negative side, our government in its wisdom has put many items under the Open General License. So imports have been terrible in terms of oil seeds and other products.

The WTO pact can actually kill our farmers. From April 1, New Zealand will be able to flood our market with milk at about Rs 8 per litre. Our poultry industry, which provides income to a large number of 'small people', will be killed.

In the United States, they don't like chicken legs. But in India they are preferred. So, they will be hygienically packed in the US and dumped in Indian markets. That then will put our broiler industry to the sword.

Already the oilseed industry is in distress because our oil seed import is going up enormously.

Now, because of farmers' distress and political pressure, trade in our country is becoming like a relief operation.

You have been warning the government about repercussions of the World Trade agreement for a while now. Weren't your warnings taken seriously?

A professional can only point out. Whatever I have pointed out in the last few years, is coming true. There is no use in saying, 'I said so'. I don't like to do that.

The government must be having their own reasons for not increasing tariff or allowing indiscriminate imports. They were importing wheat when 50 million tonnes of our own wheat was perishing in the godowns.

We just don't understand the rationale of the government.

How will your request to the government to publish a white paper on the World Trade agreement on agriculture serve any purpose?

At least we will know the facts. There has to be a reason behind their moves. Why did the commerce ministry not increase import tariff?

The Japanese put 200 per cent tariff on rice import to prevent American rice from coming to Japan. But in our country, they give some excuse or the other, and the common man remains confused. Even I cannot understand the rationale often.

But having served in the government, I know there may be a rationale. Therefore, it is important in a democratic society to know the facts. More so because agriculture is not just another profession in India.

Modern industrialists have an overriding influence in the government policies. But let me ask, how many jobs does the organised sector provide? The truth is that they don't provide jobs, they only sell their products.

The onus of employment is in the farming sector -- horticulture, animal husbandry, agriculture, fisheries, forestry, etc. That is why I call this sector the backbone and livelihood security system of India.

In your address at the Science Congress, you wanted a Livelihood Box to be included in the world trade agreement for 10-15 years. What exactly do you mean by Livelihood Box?

A Livelihood Box will give us an option to impose quantitative restrictions on imports, that is, wherever livelihoods will be destroyed by imports.

Will the Livelihood Box be applicable only to Indian farmers?

No, not at all. Any developing country or poor country can have the Livelihood Box. If you are going to dump cheap kasava in an African country where they can produce their own, what will the local farmers do?

I am not talking about India alone, because you can't have a box only for India. The Green Box and the Blue Box were developed by the industrialised countries cleverly to protect their subsidies.

For example, the Blue Box is a good device as it makes adjustment between production and demand. Under this, the United States gives lot of subsidies for not growing crops so that production can be kept at a level that the market can absorb.

Dr M S SwaminathanWe don't have a facility to advise our farmers on land use. Our farmers do not have the competence to decide on their own. Look at the tobacco industry in Andhra. Tobacco is a dying industry, but there are millions of tobacco farmers. Are we doing something pro-actively? Have we prepared them for an alternative?

What we need is pro-active advice on land use planning. Industrialised countries are doing it. That is how the Blue Box functions.

Livelihood Box is a method by which the revised world trade agreement agrees to insert a box. If a dispassionate analysis shows that imports will kill the local livelihood of the poor and aggravate poverty, the box has to be used.

But it cannot be used lightly. There has to be some rationale. Before the WTO agreement, why were these countries surviving? Why didn't we have so much foreign debt? Only in the last 10-15 years, the debt has risen. That was because we were conservative earlier.

We did not import anything -- including automobiles. Call it swadeshi, but there was a considerable amount of self-reliance in this country. Today, how can a small industry survive unless the government gives high subsidies, like they give for khadi, cottage industries, etc? But how long can they do it? Today, surplus sub-standard paddy is bought at a high price by the government. I don't call it trade. I call it trade relief. When trade becomes a relief operation, is there a scope for this country to come out of the poverty trap?

Since the WTO agreement is detrimental to our farmers, can we pull out of the agreement?

It is not advisable to pull out because a multi-lateral agreement based on a UN pattern is always better than a bilateral agreement. Otherwise, you have to enter into a bilateral agreement with several countries.

But we must have a National Trade Policy. The first thing in this policy should be Home Trade: through which we should have regional trade grids. We must divide our country according to ecological conditions.

For example, today Assam can supply rice to the entire north-east India. Andhra Pradesh can take care of the rice needs of south India.

Then, you must have a policy for regional trade. In our own SAARC region or ASEAN, we can have agreements whereby we buy something that they produce efficiently and vice versa.

Even if we import palm oil from Malaysia, we can sell our onions, chillies or apples. We must have long-term trade agreements with our neighbors.

We must also develop a long-term global trade policy with others.

We must convert this calamity into an opportunity. A nation that does not learn to do this will always remain backward. So, the trade calamity of 2001 should be converted into an opportunity by developing a long-term trade policy and then ask for a Livelihood box for 10-15 years.

Meanwhile, we must invest massively in post-harvest technology, sanitary measures, rural roads, coal chains, etc. Thus, we can be globally competitive.

How effective, according to you, are the oft-repeated plans of increasing the Public Distribution Scheme and provision of insurance cover to farmers?

These are issues that the white paper should bring out. Insurance also has been talked about for a long time. It is not easy in a country where there are 105 million farming families and over 600 million engaged in farming.

It is a question of billions of rupees. Because the problem is complex, it will be swept under the carpet.

You may refuse to face the problem, but the problem will face you. That is what we are facing now. For the last six years, we refused to face the consequences of the world trade agreement.

Although 70 per cent of our population is involved in agriculture, this is one area neglected by every government. Is it because agriculture is not an organised sector?

Yes. They do not have a strong voice like the CII or the FICCI. That is why I have been saying that there must be a national federation of agricultural organisations.

If you read the budget speech of all the finance ministers, you see maximum sympathy going to agriculture. They raise slogans like 'Jai Kisaan'. Maximum paragraphs are there for them, but the action is minimum.

Do you expect anything challenging in the coming budget?

Yaswant Sinha says that he is consulting widely, and wisely. He knows the problems. He says he puts a lot of weigh on agriculture in his budgets: but, unfortunately, nothing is followed up.

He announced 1999 as the Year of the Gram Sabha. He also talked about democratic decentralisation. But no state government has done anything.

In the last budget, he talked about land use board, commission, etc. Again, nothing happened.

In my view, the first part of his budget speech should be about the actions taken. He should first talk about the promises made in the previous budget and then inform to what extent did we succeed. Only then, he should he move on to new promises.

Is it because we have been producing surplus food after the green revolution that various governments are ignoring this sector?

The truth is, we are not producing surplus food. If all the 300 million children, women and men who will go to bed partially hungry tonight, eat well, there will be no surplus.

Our surplus is only an expression of poverty. Every third child born in this country is of low birth weight because of maternal under-nutrition.

But isn't there an illusion that we produce surplus food grain?

That is because all newspapers depend on advertisements. The government gives sops and not solutions. There is a difference between sops and solutions.

Doesn't the government have a solution?

They are all advised by non-professionals. The secretary in the fisheries department will become a vigilance commissioner in his next posting.

We have this self-inflicted injury of not having enough professionals to take decisions. WTO is not responsible for our plight. We ourselves are responsible.



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