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'What we need is Evergreen Revolution'

March 16, 2006 18:56 IST

Dr M S Swaminathan, along with Nobel Laureate Normal Borlaug, is an honorary advisor to the US-India joint knowledge initiative in agriculture started last year when Prime Minister Manmohan Singh met US President George Bush in America. American Foreign Agricultural Service Administrator Ellen Terpstra co-chairs the board, and the Indian counterpart is Mangala Rai, chief of the Indian Council for Agricultural Research.

On the eve of the announcement by George W Bush to offer $100 million to the knowledge initiative in agriculture, Swaminathan, the man behind India's Green Revolution, speaks exclusively to's Shobha Warrier.

You and Normal Borlaug are honorary advisors for the US-India joint knowledge initiative on agriculture. What are the plans of this initiative for both countries?

When Manmohan Singh went to the US last year, the PM and the President agreed to renew and revitalise the bonds of scientific collaboration in agriculture. In a joint communiqué, they announced that India and the US would have a joint knowledge initiative in agriculture.

Agriculture is becoming more knowledge intensive, not chemical intensive, and that is what we want for our small farmers too. In a sample survey, more than 40 per cent of our farmers said they wanted to quit farming. If this is true with older farmers, the younger farmers won't stay in the farms at all. That is what is happening already. Even graduates in agriculture do not go back to farming; they like to take up jobs in banks or elsewhere. So, how do we attract and retain the youth in farming? Only if it can become intellectually satisfying and economically rewarding. This means you have to bring down the cost of cultivation and improve productivity.

If you look at the economic survey of 2006, you find that we have 100 million farms in India but over 60 per cent of them are less than one hectare. 40 per cent are below one acre -- what we call sub-marginal. So, where is the source of income unless you have more productivity? If I produce just one tonne of rice, I may not be able to sell much because I need it for myself. If you produce four tonnes from the same area, I can sell three tonnes. So, the knowledge initiative is about improving productivity, but on an environmentally sustainable basis, without ecological harm. That is what I call an 'evergreen revolution'.

In what way is the US going to help Indian farmers improve productivity?

They have a large number of universities, a large number of departments, and certain expertise that we do not have. For example, in areas like bio-fuels, bio-diesels, etc, they have much more expertise than we do. Therefore, it is up to us to choose what we want.

There are four broad areas identified. One is biotechnology as applied to crops, as applied to animals and as applied to fish. The second area is post-harvest technology, in which agro-processing and small farmers' agro business will be given emphasis. We keep saying that only 7 per cent of our fruit and vegetables are processed while the rest is either consumed or lost in rotting. In the US, it is the reverse -- just 10 per cent is consumed and 90 per cent is processed. They have a lot of knowledge on the area of food processing, quality control and packaging, selling, etc. If we want to export, we have to follow international standards.

The third area is market development, which requires considerable expertise. There is a breakthrough in the case of mangoes now. For a long time, the US had not allowed Indian mangoes there. A small country like Holland has more market expertise than us. Our farmers suffer when they have a good crop of onion, potato or any other perishables. Even when consumer prices are high, the producer hardly gets any benefit. Therefore, reform of marketing systems is urgently needed. The fourth area is training capacity building. We can also have new virtual classrooms to share knowledge. It is high time we use 21st century methodologies.

So, is it going to be a one-way movement of knowledge with us getting all the information from them?

It is not a one-way process. We have more knowledge on tropical crops and animals.

What is Norman Borlaug's and your role as honorary advisors?

I need to indicate to them the realities of India's agricultural situation. I told them we have 25 per cent of our population involved in farming, but most of them are poor. They are committing suicide. They don't have proper market infrastructure.

Ellen Terpstra, American Foreign Agricultural Service Administrator, and Mangala Rai, Chief, Indian Council for Agricultural Research, met in Washington and then Delhi. They only wanted me to come there for half an hour to give them some ideas. They should know that science and societal situations should match. Science must serve society; it cannot be a master of society.

In 1981, I had recommended the setting up of a National Horticultural Board like the National Dairy Development Board (NDDB), but it was bureaucratised. Similarly, when Manmohan Singh presented his first budget in 1992 [he was then finance minister], I told him and [Prime Minister] P V Narasimha Rao that our framers require the benefits of agro business. This shouldn't be just Wal-Mart, ITC or Monsanto; small producers also need to be there. So, they created a small farmers' agro business consortium. In Chidambaram's first budget, there was mention of it.

Our farmers are suffering because there is no institutional support to help them. The structure we developed has become bureaucratic and non-professional. The only one that survived was NDDB, thanks to [Dr Verghese] Kurien.

When the real problem lies in India, in what way will the expertise and knowledge from the US benefit our farmers?

Sometimes, foreigners tell you point-blank what the problem is! They can tell us how they succeeded. You should never stop an exchange of knowledge and information. Let us follow Mahatma Gandhi's principle: 'Keep your doors and windows open; let fresh air and ideas come from all sides. Keep, however, your feet firmly on the ground and do not get blown off by untested ideas.'

Let knowledge come from everywhere. They have all the Nobel Prize winners there. They have invested a lot of money in developing ideas, and they have human resources. At the Rashtrapati Bhavan function, George Bush said there are two million Indians bringing about great changes to the US in the fields of science and technology. He acknowledged it.

Apart from the media, even President Bush in his address described the initiative bringing about a second green revolutionÂ…

I have never supported that term. The term 'Green Revolution' was coined by William Gaud in the US, in the '60s. It meant production to productivity improvement. For example, 20th century science has helped us produce more from 50 per cent of the land used, because of the vertical growth in productivity. I coined the term 'Evergreen revolution', which means improvement of productivity without associated ecological or environmental harm. Use of pesticides, etc will lead to a Greed Revolution. There is a distinction between Green Revolution and Greed Revolution. What we need is an Evergreen revolution!

In an earlier interview, you said it was not productivity, but accessibility to food that was India's problem. When we have situations where grain rots in godowns, how will this knowledge initiative help?

Yes, our poor do not have purchasing power. That is why I say we need more income and more employment orientation. This is where the knowledge initiative is going to help us. The situation now is different. We are already lagging behind in food production. It is less than the population growth. We are importing wheat now. We should not go back to the situation we faced in the '60s. What has gone wrong largely is the public policy. Rather, you don't have policies.

Are you confident about achieving good results from this partnership?

Yes. In the '60s the partnership was mutually beneficial, and we took the best advantage. All our agricultural universities were developed then with their help.

America accounts for 30 per cent of the world's food production. Is it knowledge that helped them achieve this?

They are supported by three things -- technology which is knowledge, very high subsidy and capital driven large farms. One farm in Iowa may have a couple of million-worth equipment. Subsidy to one farmer alone in the US is one crore. But, in India, agriculture is a way of life and a means to livelihood. Our production is by masses; their production is mass production. 50 million people in our country produce 90 million tonnes of milk. 100,000 people in the US produce 70 million tonnes of milk. Where is 100,000 and where is 50 million?

Shobha Warrier