'The balance-sheet... optimism'

Published : Jan 20, 2001 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

"We have reached the end of one stage of the agricultural revolution. To move forward, we need to get out of the commodity-centred approach as we did during the Green Revolution, and into the farming-system-centred approach rooted in the principle of int egrated natural resources management strategy," says visionary farm scientist, agricultural policy expert and institution-builder Dr. M.S. Swaminathan. "The Green Revolution," says Dr. Swaminathan, who spearheaded it in the 1960s, "was necessary t hen to save the country from importing 10 million tonnes of wheat. But today, we are a grain-surplus country and the challenge is to make it accessible to the over 300 million people who go to bed hungry every day."

In an interview to Asha Krishnakumar, Dr. Swaminathan elaborates on the reasons for the inequality in the access to foodgrains in India, the balance-sheet of Indian agriculture today, ways of dealing with the complex issues underlying agriculture development, the impact of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on Indian agriculture and the issues to be addressed at the WTO renegotiation process. Excerpts:

How would you describe the state of Indian agriculture today?

The balance-sheet is one of optimism. There are bright as well as hot spots. The bright spot is that farmers have shown they can produce more if they are enabled to do so through proper services and public policies, particularly in terms of opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing through the minimum support price mechanism. For example, we have never looked back in the matter of wheat or rice ever since the farm revolution started, some 30 years ago. Wheat production this year is nearly 75 million tonnes, the second largest in the world, and rice production has touched 90 million tonnes. It is obvious that today our production is more than what the country can absorb at current levels of purchasing power. We are not producing enough for th e nutritional needs, but we are producing more than what this country's people can afford to buy.

So there is an optimism that we can overcome the problem of short supply in terms of the balance between human numbers and the demand for food. This optimism is not only in rice, wheat or cereals, but also in horticulture, fruits, vegetables, milk and so on. The milk revolution, for instance, has made us the No. 1 producer in the world with over 80 million tonnes from hardly 20 million tonnes two to three decades ago.

Eastern India, which I always called the sleeping giant, has now woken up. West Bengal has made substantial progress and last year Assam made a great leap forward in terms of rice production as a result of developments in minor irrigation. Assam must hav e always capitalised on its large aquifer because of the abundant South-West monsoon. This is unfortunately also the flood-prone season and crops do not grow. But during summer, the non-flood season, there is good groundwater which can be utilised by sha llow tubewells. It is this that Assam capitalised on by putting up 100,000 shallow tubewells last year. It resulted in rice yields going up by four tonnes per hectare leading to a rice surplus there.

Thus, the bright spot is that we are confident we can produce more and our farmers have demonstrated amply that they can produce excellent crops and they are second to none in the world in terms of the capacity to produce, absorb and adapt technology. We should now think of capitalising on this bright spot.

Now, as the stagnant Eastern region has also woken up and has surplus production, we can, for the first time in the country, think of developing regional food security grids. For instance, Assam can take care of the whole of northeastern India, and Andhr a can take care of the needs of Kerala and, to some extent, Tamil Nadu. This way we can work out a regional food security grid for the whole country. This will save the cost of transporting grain from one end of the country to another. There could also b e long-term planning for food security.

For instance, Kerala now takes care of only 25 per cent of its rice needs because the cost of cultivation is very high there - land is expensive, labour cost is high and so on. Thus, Kerala grows perennial crops such as rubber, coconut and so on. So we n ow have an opportunity to make a regional food security plan based on the complementary strengths of States and also long-term planning based on their comparative advantages. That way we can also bring about ecological efficiency - if Kerala's soil and o ther farm parameters are good for plantation crops it is not good to thrust it with rice production and so on.

Thus, in the next phase of planning we need to have carefully worked out regional food security grids. We have now come to a stage where we need much more micro-level planning.

The dark, or hot, spot is that we have many imbalances - commodity, regional and trade (surpluses not being lifted necessitating trade relief operations). We still have not made any progress in the dry farming areas, nor in oilseeds and pulses - oilseeds imports worth nearly Rs.10,000 crores are an enormous drain of foreign exchange. This has led to commodity imbalance.

There is also regional imbalance. For example, North Bihar is sitting on immense water resources, as is the case with Assam and West Bengal. But bad administration, poor infrastructure, bad extension and services and so on have prevented it from doing we ll. The dry farming areas on the whole are crying for attention. Fortunately, we now have the watershed management programme. The best thing is to grow high-value, low-water-intensive crops as the MSSRF (M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation) has done in the case of pulses in Ramanathapuram. There is need for some discipline in the areas.

The unfortunate side of producing a surplus crop is that in spite of good production, farmers face a price crash. This is the sad story in our country. This leads to trade imbalances. The government is today operating as a purchaser of paddy. This is wha t I call the trade relief method, like drought relief, flood relief and so on. It has become a calamity approach to trade, which is most unfortunate. Owing to political pressure, the government rushes to some place and purchases sub-standard grain at a h igh price. This is a relief operation and not trade operation. This is because we are a country with a relief mind-set. The government is seen as a do-gooder. If you have floods, drought or trade problems, the government rushes there. This is also becaus e many vested interests work in such operations. But this is not the way to build forward.

There are other problems like casualisation of the workforce because of fall in capital flow, capital formation and factor productivity in agriculture. This has led to the increasing marginalisation of the workforce, particularly of women, leading to the feminisation of poverty.

The primary reason for all the problems is that the key element called management, putting together all the pieces - water, pest, productivity and so on - and looking at it holistically, is absent. The extension services are, by and large, not capable of delivering. There is a mismatch between the methodology of the extension services and the genuine requirements of farmers.

What accounts for the paradox of plenty co-existing with poverty and the under-utilisation of the public distribution system (PDS), as also the declining efficacy of anti-poverty programmes?

By and large the reason is clear - no purchasing power. The majority of our rural population - Dalits and the socially underprivileged in particular - are landless labourers. They become agricultural labourers and all that they can expect is the minimum wage, which is by and large less than the mythical $ 1 per day of the World Bank's poverty line. Therefore we have a large number of assetless people - no land, livestock, fish ponds, trees and, mainly, no education. In a dry farm area you hardly get job s for 200 days a year.

Thus, our problem is poverty, which can be overcome only by transforming unskilled workers into skilled ones. In our Pondicherry project we found that the rural people, particularly women, learn the skills very quickly and take to technology like fish to water, whether it is computer or hybrid seed technology. So we need to address the problem of poverty, which is related to the problem of hunger.

Poverty can be addressed only if there is convergence and synergy between the various anti-poverty programmes and they are people-controlled, people-centred and people-driven and not run by bureaucrats. An IGIDR (Indira Gandhi Institute for Development R esearch, Mumbai) study shows that the government spends Rs.6 to deliver Re. 1 to the poor. For instance, Pondicherry has over 145 anti-poverty programmes. We have now made a data-base on this information, which itself has been of great benefit to the poo r as all the schemes have been disaggregated by gender, class, caste, age, small and marginal farmer, landless labour and so on. They are given an entitlement passbook, from which they find out what benefit they are eligible from each scheme. Thus, disag gregation of the vast problem of entitlements itself can help deal with poverty. Instead of just saying 300 million people are living below the poverty line, we need to divide the numbers among 700,000 villages, nagarpalikas and so on in order for the pr oblem to become manageable. About 10-15 per cent of the people who are ultra-poor require immediate attention. So we will always live in the paradox of plenty in the midst of poverty and under-utilisation of the PDS so long as people have no purchasing p ower. I would consider this the No. 1 challenge facing the country today.

Has there been a tapering of yields in the traditional Green Revolution areas? Does the Green Revolution need a fresh impetus in order to increase farm productivity?

There is certainly a stagnation in yield. Though this is for a variety of reasons, it is primarily because of factors concerning soil, water and pests. In many places, such as Punjab, soil salinity and over-exploitation of groundwater have been major pro blems. It is also feared that yields would start dropping, necessitating the need to deal with the ecological factors of soil, water and pests on a war footing.

Punjab grows rice and wheat by rotation as there is a ready market in the Food Corporation of India. This takes away the nutrients from the soil. In my view, Punjab should not grow so much rice, particularly now, as eastern India is becoming more than se lf-sufficient. Punjab should go in for agro-forestry. It should grow poplars (suitable for the sub-tropical climate) and between each tree (4 feet) they should grow redgram, fodder crops or quality protein maize (for which Dr. Surinder. K. Vasal won the World Food Prize). They can also think of cereal-legume crop rotation, which was the soil fertility replenishment method in Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries. There are many such possibilities. But, as the Punjabi farmers are market-oriented, the choice of crop rotation should be based on markets and income.

I recommend looking at three aspects: Defend the gains already achieved without being complacent. Make new gains by extending the benefits of technology policy and services to dry farming and hill areas, as well as to other ecosystems which have been byp assed by the farm revolution of the 1960s. And, make new gains by farming system intensification, diversification and value-addition, which would also create a lot of downstream jobs. This three-pronged policy is essential to go forward.

All this should be thought out locally and not nationally. There is an urgent need for land-use boards to become functional and effective. For example, there are a number of instruments to assist the farm families now. There is one headed by the Prime Mi nister, called the National Land Use and Wasteland Development Council. This has not met after February 1986. The Agriculture Ministry has a National Land Use and Conservation Board chaired by the Agriculture Minister, which has also not met after August 1986. Then there is a National Afforestation and Eco-Development Board chaired by the Union Environment Minister. This meets more often as it has to dole out money. The State Land Use Boards generate a lot of maps.

But what the farmers require is an effective and well-informed land-use committee at the State and district levels based in agricultural universities and not in any government departments. These committees must be capable of tendering pro-active advice o n the areas to be sown under different crops, based on meteorological information, of which we now have both short- and medium-term forecasting capability. Second, it should advice on ecological efficiency. That is, under given conditions of rainfall, su nlight and soil, what crops are most efficient. Thirdly, on home and marketing opportunities. And, finally, on national and international prices. All these can be done very easily using the computer. The Americans have worked out all this very well and p ut it in the 'Blue Box' (producing as much as the market can absorb) in the WTO. They pay not to produce what the market cannot absorb. This is not considered subsidy.

Fortunately, we have detailed maps of over 130 agro-ecological zones in India. A land-use unit should be set up for each one of these zones.

Let me give you an example, tobacco is a dying crop. So alternative cropping systems need to be worked out for them. Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N. Chandrababu Naidu has given a crop holiday this year. There is the ITC to take care of the farmers. But what happens to those who collect tendu leaves in Madhya Pradesh or Rustica (another type of tobacco) in Gujarat? This is one good example to understand the need for pro-active land-use planning for an area with a dying crop or for areas growing a crop t hat is not in demand.

Much of our problem of lack of pro-active measures is due to lack of professionalism. Officers of the IAS are good for security, law and order, national integration and so on. But they cannot be put on professional jobs. Had an IAS officer headed the mil k federation production in the place of Dr. V. Kurien or Amrita Patel now, we could not have reached the No. 1 position in milk production. Very few politicians listen to professionals as C. Subramaniam did in the 1960s and, most important, took responsi bility for it.

What are the priorities in the national agricultural research system today?

Whatever we do, it should improve the multiple livelihood systems of the farmers, it should be based on a farming-system-centred approach (and not a commodity-centred approach) and also lead to a radical restructuring of the extension services.

Our system is one of the best in the developing countries today. It is also fairly well-supported by the government. The State agricultural, fisheries and veterinary universities have an integrated responsibility of research, education and extension trai ning. They have developed their own Vision 2020 statements. But what is important is that they have to be linked to the national agricultural strategy as a whole. They should make a difference to the lives of the poor farmers. This can be an excellent mo tivation for their research.

Thus, efforts in land-use planning, developing post-harvest technologies of processing and ecological agriculture of pest and water management and so on should move from a commodity-centred to a farming-system-centred approach (based on crop, livestock, fish, trees and so on) rooted in the principle of integrated natural resources management strategy (based on land, water, flora and fauna).

Providing livelihood security to over 300 million people is the bottomline. Farm families need to have multiple livelihood opportunities as they cannot get minimum income from just one source. Thus, there needs to be horizontal integration between differ ent departments of agricultural universities, apart from in-depth research in each area of specialisation, on a farming-system basis. This is most important from the farmer's point of view.

The Green Revolution of the five crops - rice, wheat, bajra, maize and jowar - was a commodity-centred approach. It was a high-yielding-varieties programme. We were importing 10 million tonnes of wheat under the PL 480 programme in the 1960s, so at that time it was necessary to have a commodity-centred approach. But now we have reached the end of one stage of our agriculture revolution. In the next stage that we are into now, farmers need more detailed pro-active advice on various things based on ecolog y, markets and so on. They also need a lot of in-depth advice on ecological farming, which is holistic. In this context, the eco-technology revolution should be spearheaded by the agricultural universities.

Thirdly, there is an urgent need for a radical restructuring of extension services. In the next five years we would need 700,000 farm graduates to set up a knowledge centre - computer-aided and Internet-connected, creating another million jobs - in every village. It could consist of self-help groups. The present extension services have outlived their utility. There is a need for location-specific information from generic ones. The ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) and the agricultural unive rsities must think in terms of short-term, non-degree programmes. We are a data-rich but action-poor country. We have a lot of data on GIS (geographic information system), precision farming and so on, but these are very inadequately used.

What impact do the institutional factors, particularly land ownership and credit availability, have on yields?

Land ownership - even if it is a small plot - certainly makes a lot of difference to the food and nutrition security of the poor. So, had land reforms been implemented in the 1950s the way it was originally intended, it would have helped solve some of th e problems. But today the population has increased manifold. Land is already getting increasingly fragmented. Now, how can you give the power of scale to small producers? This is one of the great challenges.

I do not believe in corporate farming because it would create more landless labour. Apart from their becoming wage labourers, they also lose the advantage of gaining from implementing new technologies such as ornamental fish breeding, mushroom cultivatio n and so on that the small and marginal farmers in our study villages have shown. Thus, land reform has to give room to a broader asset reform, which could include livestock, fish pond, forestry and so on. That is important for more income generation.

In terms of credit availability, more money is going out of the villages than is coming in. So access to credit is becoming crucial. I suggest linking credit to self-help groups, as the transaction cost is low, the repayment capacity is high and they wor k at affordable interest rates. So, the community banking movement must become the dominant mode of access to credit. The formal banking system should support the community banks. Given our socio-economic conditions, it could be an informal activity-base d community banking. A whole village need not have just one community bank.

What are the implications of the WTO agreement for Indian agriculture? You have said that there is an inherent inequality among nations in the 1994 WTO negotiations and you have also asked for a White Paper. What are your concerns? What are the issue s India need to focus on in the re-negotiation process?

The 1994 agreement came after prolonged, what was called the Uruguay Round, negotiations. From our side, different people represented us at different points of time because the governments also changed during the period of the protracted negotiations. I do not know how much continuity there was in the whole process. But the text of the WTO agreement has a dominantly Western bias. It has been developed that way. Although the negotiators might not have fully understood the implications of the different bo xes such as the Blue Box and the Green Box provided in the text, the West had a clear understanding of what it wanted to get from the agreement.

What happened is that we had undue expectations of the West reducing subsidies, making our products more competitive in the external market. But that has not happened because they have concealed their subsidies in different ways. Also, although the farmi ng community constitutes only 2-3 per cent of the population in Europe, it is vital for the survival of the respective countries because the ecology is just not seen as a food producing machine but as a vital activity for the good of the environment.

It is seen as one with multi-functions such as cleaning the air, absorbing carbon dioxide, sustaining ecology and so on. Thus, agriculture has a multi-functionality role in terms of the environment in the West. But in India, its multi-functionality role is greater as it is not only a means of producing food for the urban people, but a means of livelihood and a way of life for millions of people.

When I called for a White Paper I did not intend to blame anyone for entering into an unequal bargaining position and so on. Many of these agreements have an unequal bargaining capacity for different nations built into them. The world is made that way. S o there is no use playing politics with agreements. We need to ask ourselves honestly what lessons we learnt in the last six years from the WTO. Only based on the lessons from the past can we plan our strategy for the future.

Thus, I wanted the government to analyse our commitments and expectations when we entered into this bargain and to assess the experience in terms of fulfilling expectations. As also to see whether the industrialised countries are really reducing subsidie s as promised or are showing them in the various boxes they have put into the agreement or employing various ways of circumventing it. Also, if they are introducing various non-trade dimensions, such as social, environmental and so on, what do we do abou t it?

These are some of the issues the government has to come out with. That was the point of calling for a White Paper. In a democratic society, where over 70 per cent of the population is to be affected by the policy, the people would like to know what exact ly is happening. An honest explanation of the position, pushing nothing under the carpet, is necessary, and it would also help us in future bargaining.

Many non-trade issues are being included in the WTO. When there are other forums such as the UNEP (United Nations Environment Programme) for environment, the ILO (International Labour Organisation) for labour and so on, why should one load a trade agreem ent with such issues? As President Clinton pointed out recently in Warwick, trade with a human face is important. This is particularly important as the industrialised world is now talking about 'trade and not aid' as a method of poverty eradication. In s uch a case, trade should become an ally in the equity movement and not a source of inequity. If trade has to become an ally of the equity movement, we should ensure that imports do not destroy the livelihood of the poor.

For a variety of reasons - historical and colonial - hardly any attention was paid to food crops. That is why from 1900 to 1947, the growth rate of food crop production was hardly 0.1 per cent per annum. So our infrastructure - post-harvest, in particula r - is very poor. How can we compete with European, Australian or North American farms, which have enormous infrastructure? The government needs to develop good infrastructure - godowns, cold-chains, good roads and so on. And this means a lot of investme nt by the government. Wherever such investments have been made, it has paid off. For instance, to a limited extent in Maharashtra in the field of horticulture.

What has been the experience with regard to the implementation of the WTO agreement in the last six years?

The industrialised countries have not kept their promise of reducing subsidies. In fact, they have enhanced it. Japan, for instance, levies 2000 per cent tariff on foreign rice. The other thing which is very confusing is differential tariffs on different crops. These issues need to be sorted out during re-negotiations.

Is India now in a position of strength for re-negotiations?

I think so. We need to form an alliance with the other developing countries. There is a need for a trade policy within the country, with the neighbouring countries and internationally. Essentially, what we urgently need is a longer-term policy - for the next 10-15 years. We can compete globally and we have the capacity for it. A small farm is a factor of strength in intensive agriculture. A small farmer is a euphemism for a farm family which cannot take risks and which is struggling for existence. You s hould thus differentiate between a small farm, which has the opportunity for intensive and precision agriculture, and a small farmer. By overcoming the problems of the small farmer, we can maximise the potential of the small farm. To compete globally the re is a need for investment in infrastructure, in post-harvest technology, sanitary and psyto-sanitary and so on. Quality should be insisted for local consumption also. It should become a habit.

This will take time. Thus, we need protection for 10-15 years from dumping. We should overcome poverty but we should not be ashamed to say we are a poor country and need protection. Thus, there is a need for a 'Livelihood Box' (providing an option for co untries to impose restriction on imports if it affects the livelihood of its people) in the WTO agreement. We may be food secure but not necessarily livelihood secure.

Under the WTO rules, India is obliged to work out a sui generis legislation for the protection of plant varieties. What are the minimum safeguards necessary under this legislation for the well-being of the farm sector?

The sui generis system developed by our government is before Parliament now. It provides rights for the three roles of farmers - as cultivator, breeder and conserver of genetic material. As a cultivator he has plant-back rights - that is, to keep seeds for the next season and enter into a limited sale without using a brand name. As a breeder, when a farmer develops a new variety of crop he also has the right of sui generis protection. The conserver - and who adds value to crops as in the c ase of medicines and so on - has to get recognition and reward under the National Gene Fund.

In the re-negotiated TRIPS we must insist on the incorporation of ethics and equity provisions of the Convention on Biological Diversity. The CBD came two years ahead of the WTO. Those who went for the WTO negotiations, from the Commerce Ministry, were n ot aware of the provisions of the CBD, as people from the Environment Ministry had attended the CBD. So the CBD provisions, which are also legally binding, did not get reflected in the WTO. Thus, in the re-negotiated TRIPS we must ensure that there is ha rmony between the commitments made by governments - industrialised and developing ones - in the CBD and WTO agreements.

What role do you foresee for biotechnology in Indian agriculture? Under what circumstances could biotechnology make a meaningful contribution?

Some of the biotechnology methods and tools, such as fermentation, tissue culture, bio-pesticides and bio-fertilizers, are the ones we are propagating now. They are important for ecological agriculture. But the one which is controversial and at the same time most powerful is genetic modification. That is, getting genes across sexual barriers, from totally alien species. The so called Golden Rice has genes from daffodils. Some material at the MSSRF - of mustard, rice and tobacco - for salt tolerance are from the mangroves. All this was unknown before. If we are able to identify the genes for drought tolerance and put it in other plants, it could make a phenomenal difference to our agriculture. Thus, genetic modification, with novel combinations, provide s enormous new opportunities - what I call uncommon opportunities - for agriculture, as also for medicine.

There is a two-fold problem in genetic modification: They would come under propriety science or patenting and, therefore, may not be available to poor farmers. Thus the poor farmers will be bypassed by the gene or biotechnology revolution, being controll ed by multinational or big companies (unlike the Green Revolution which was controlled by the public sector and was available to all farmers). There would be exclusivity rather than non-exclusivity of the benefits of technology. Biotechnology should be s cale- and resource-neutral and available to all.

Is there any way we can ensure that biotechnology is available to all and does not bypass poor farmers?

We need to have more designated centres around the country, which the Department of Biotechnolgy is in the process of setting up. But it cannot develop genes with novel combinations. It can be given to farming families through what we call participatory research. We can develop some varieties and give it to farmers, say in the coastal areas, to cross it with their seeds. This way we can reach the unreached in terms of technology benefits. It is only the question of designing such a method. This means mo re of public sector research. The government should invest more in this area. This is one way of ensuring that the benefits of new science reach the poor. Otherwise it would enhance inequity. If technology has to be an ally in the equity movement, it is necessary to develop methods of reaching the new technology to the poor.

What are the safeguards and incentives we need to put in place to ensure an appropriate response to the new technologies?

We need to have a risk-benefit analysis system which goes thoroughly into all the risks. It should have a multi-stakeholder analysis built into it. That is why I recommend a broad-based National Commission on Genetic Modification for Food Security, which would include media representatives, non-governmental organisations, commercial companies, scientists, farmers and so on. Get all stake-holders under one platform and have a transparent open discussion. We need to apply our minds to our own problems, ir respective of what the industrialised countries, MNCs or big companies say.

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