To ensure the survival of the weakest

Print edition : December 11, 1999
Interview with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

Dr. M.S. Swaminathan sometimes recalls the excitement and effervescence during that period in the decade of the 1960s when a major revolution was brewing in the laboratories and fields of India. The explosion in food production brought on by the i ntroduction of high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice in India (and later in other parts of the developing world) created agricultural history. With characteristic modesty, he deflects credit for his role in changing the face of agriculture in the dev eloping world, but instead draws attention to the many lessons of what came to be called the Green Revolution. Apart from its more obvious and recognised ones, he underlines the important political lesson drawn from that experience. The Green Revolution disproved Malthusian predictions of famine and mass starvation for India. It made India self-sufficient in food, a factor that played no small role in strengthening the country's political sovereignty and ability to withstand international pressures at a critical juncture.

Yet it is clear that at the heart of his quest for a better, more equitable and healthier world is the challenge posed by contradictions of a situation where there is food self-sufficiency for a nation on the one hand and hunger for a growing a number o f people on the other.

If there is one strand that runs through Swamina- than's distinguished five-decade public career as agricultural scientist, administrator, innovator and thinker, it is the concept of human welfare, a vision rooted in the ideals of socio-economic equity, women's equality, environmental conservation and ethics. For him, the food and livelihood security of nations, and of different groups and communities of persons within nations, perhaps constitute the foundation of human development. Hunger gives rise to economic and social discord and leads to violence. In a fundamental sense, therefore, Swaminathan's contributions to the theory and practice of human welfare have strengthened the movement for both equity and peace.

Recognition for Swaminathan's work and contributions to agricultural practice, environmental conservation, poverty eradication through the strengthening of opportunities for productive employment, women's empowerment, protection of indigenous conservatio n traditions and practices, and other pathsetting initiatives, have come from across the globe. He has held a series of front-ranking appointments - Director-General of the International Rice Research Institute, the Philippines (1982-1988); Independent C hairman, FAO Council (1981-85); Andrew D. While Professor-at-Large of Cornell University, United States (1989-95); Trustee of the Ford Foundation (1989-97); and President of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources. He currently holds the UNESCO Chair in Ecotechnology at the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai. He is the recipient of several Indian and international awards and prizes, most notably the Padma Vibhushan, the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership (1971), the Albert Einstein World Science Award in 1986; the first World Food Prize in 1987; the Honda Prize of the Honda Foundation in 1991; the UNESCO Gandhi Gold Medal in 1999, and the Volvo Environment Prize, 1999. He is the second Indian to be chosen for the Indira Gandhi Prize for Peace, Disarmament and Development for the year 1999.

In 1989, Swaminathan founded the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai. Here many of his ideas on a multi-pronged approach to poverty eradication are experimented upon through field projects. He leads a large and dedicated team of scientists an d social researchers and is personally involved in each area of the Foundation's functioning.

This interview was given to Parvathi Menon in Pondicherry where Swaminathan had gone to attend an evaluation of the Biovillage project of the Foundation, an action plan envisaging the sustainable development of the land and water resources for imp roving the livelihood security of those communities which live in the 19 villages that come under the project. Here Swaminathan responds to a range of questions on the World Trade Agreement and its likely implications for India's agricultural and informa l sectors; the sorts of initiatives that India and other developing countries can and must take in conferences such as the Seattle Round; the possible fall-out of the imposition of a regime of intellectual property rights for national and global diversit y; the concerns that surround the issue of genetically modified organisms; and other related matters.

Excerpts from the interview:

In your Nehru Memorial lecture, one of the points you made was as follows: "Globalisation is creating new threats to the livelihood security of men and women living in poverty." Today the World Trade Organisation (WTO) has become the global forum wher e many issues relating to food security and the economic sovereignty of nations are being negotiated. Could you comment on the Seattle round and its implications for India and other developing nations in respect of these issues ?

Globalisation, indicating the removal of economic policies which protect the vulnerable sections of society, has certainly led to growing inequity between nations and within nations. The available data from the United Nations and World Bank sources show that in the last 20 years the global domestic economic product has grown from about $10 trillion in 1980 to over $30 trillion now, an increase of almost three times. This money has largely gone to about 12 to 13 countries, mostly industrialised. And in t he poorer nations where some growth has taken place, most of the additional income has gone to the already well-to-do. Seven or eight years ago it was mentioned that one billion of the world's population was earning less than one dollar a day. Now this o ne billion has gone up to 1.3 billion. And according to the Asian Development Bank, one in three Asians is poor and lives below the poverty line, earning less than one dollar a day. Most of the poor, 900 million people, live in our part of the world, Sou th Asia and South-East Asia.

Why has this happened? Growth has not been even, and has been highly skewed in terms of countries and in terms of communities within the countries. There are other indications of the increasing marginalisation of the poor apart from their poverty status. Although the World Food Summit in 1996 called for the halving by 2015 of the numbers of men, women and children going to bed hungry, the Director-General of the FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) has said that the position has worsened in many coun tries since 1996.

As we approach a new century and millennium, we will have to think about how we can reverse the paradigm, to start with the poorest and make poverty elimination and hunger elimination the basic aim of all development. The other implication of globalisati on and economic competition is the fact that large companies are swallowing up smaller companies. Efficiency is being measured in the industrialised countries and in the large multinationals in terms of the level of downsizing of the workforce. This is w hat the late Mahbub-ul-Haq called jobless economic growth, and that has caused much greater hardship to the poor.

What about the specific impact of the WTO for India and other developing countries?

The WTO is five years old, and the Seattle Round is going to review what has happened. The World Trade Agreement (WTA) has a number of provisions, obviously to provide what is called a level playing field. For example, if the phasing out of subsidies has to be done by the industrialised countries in five years, developing countries can take ten years. But unfortunately, there is no level playing field in the world in terms of trade because one has to look at the enormous economic growth in the industria lised nations.

Take, for example, agriculture. You find even today in our country, paddy or rice drying is done on the roads in many parts of South India, Assam and so on. If you go to a North American or Australian farm, there is an enormous infrastructure investment that has been made through public funding in the last 50 years. I would say our investment in some of these areas like post-harvest technology is a minute fraction of what exists in these countries. National investment in rural development and rural infr astructure is generally going down, largely because of the debt servicing burden, the enormous cost of bureaucracy, the Pay Commission commitments and so on. There is hardly any money left for development. As a result, where is the level playing field?

What is the purpose of trade, the ultimate human purpose of trade? I would say the world trade negotiations in Seattle should come to a mission statement on what trade is all about, what is it that we want to accomplish. If we all agree that trade has to be a very powerful mechanism to provide an opportunity for creating a productive life for every human being, then it takes a new meaning in terms of new rules and regulations. At the moment the countries of the European Community want to ensure that the high subsidies they are giving to their farmers are retained under some garb or the other. If you see the provisions for exemptions from the Aggregate Measure of Support (AMS), you will find that many areas, research and technology for example, have bee n exempted because they make a massive investment in frontier technologies like biotechnology and so on.

The developing countries have by and large been reactive and not proactive. The richer nations create the agenda, they prepare the first draft. Then you change a comma here and there, you have small victories, get something deleted or added. This is beca use we have not ourselves gone with a very clear agenda. The rich countries and those who draft the agenda will always have a fall-back position. They take an extreme position and then say that they have given up so much. So I think the negotiations them selves have not been between equal partners.

Did India present an alternative agenda during the Uruguay round?

We should have had a clear alternative from the time of the Uruguay negotiations, but many papers were just classified as secret, confidential and so on. There was no public debate, or public awareness, until suddenly one day the WTO came into existence and then everybody started looking at it. I think that India has not been guided by a commitment to poverty alleviation. Otherwise we would not be in this kind of position, where we have as many people below the poverty line as the entire population of I ndia at the time of Independence.

Why do you think our government did not have the kind of commitment to use the WTO the way it should have?

As I said, the initial drafts were all prepared by people from industrialised nations, the so-called experts, many of whom may have been well-known names in their fields. They see trade as a method of putting into practice the Darwinian hypothesis of th e survival of the fittest. That is the very foundation of modern competitive trade. People who cannot compete will disappear. This is the problem. So the slate was their slate, it was a Western slate in which we dotted the i's.

Successive Indian governments have advanced the there-is-no-alternative argument as the reason for participation in the WTO on the terms set by the industrialised countries. Do you find this argument acceptable?


If we did not become a member of the WTO we would have had to negotiate our terms of trade with each country separately and there we would always have been the loser; it is very difficult to negotiate with big powers. Therefore a multilateral mechanism w ith a dispute resolving mechanism is a much better one. Which is why China wants to enter the WTO; they know that being out of it is a disadvantage.

Somehow we did not develop a cogent public policy, develop a consensus among political parties, among different shades of opinion. Looking back I would say that if we had had an impact analysis on the poor as one of our policies, then we would have been in much better shape. Just as I am now saying that our Commerce Ministry's policy statement on import and export must have a livelihood impact statement. It has a sobering influence, because then you start looking at what is really going to happen. For e xample, if India begins importing so much of milk powder and puts milk powder on the OGL (open general licence) list, what is going to happen to the National Dairy Development Board's efforts which over a long period of time have led us to the first posi tion in milk production in the world? Because ours are very small producers. This also holds true in many sectors - whether it is in the broad area of textiles which generates over 60 million jobs in this country, or the dairy sector which gives eight cr ore or 10 crore people in the rural areas additional livelihoods through ownership of a cow or a buffalo. Our production process by and large still falls under the small-scale sector and today poverty alleviation depends upon offering credit to small-sca le industries.

Will the WTA consider micro-credit and micro-enterprise at all? In my view there must be a chapter, like TRIPS, in the Seattle Round on micro-entrerprises supported by micro-credit. That chapter should be prepared by us and given to them for their reacti on. This would be supported by all South Asian countries, including China which also has enormous problems of providing livelihoods for each Chinese. As I said, one in every third Asian is poor. We should develop the first draft and give it to the rich c ountries for them to dot the i's. In a preambular statement you can quote their own words from the G-7 and G-8 resolutions on poverty, or the Copenhagen Summit, which has what is called an agreed text, or the World Food Conference, or the United Nations poverty reduction goal of 2015, and then say that if you want to achieve all this, the trade policy should be geared to ensuring the survival, not of the fittest, but of the weakest because we are trying to make them strong.

So you do think that there is negotiation space in the WTO for countries such as India?

There is a lot of negotiation space, but that space has to be clearly defined, it has to be defined in ethical and human terms. You see, our large conglomerates of industries that dominate our economic policies are concerned with their own competitive ab ility - CII (Confederation of Indian Industry), FICCI (Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry) or ASSOCHAM (Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry). They look at their own self-interest, of course they have to be competitive. So they are the ones whom governments consult in such matters. They are concerned with trade and unfair competition in the automobile industry and so on. But how many are concerned with unfair competition that micro-enterprises supported by micro-credit fa ce? That would be very high on the agenda if I were to have anything to do with the WTO because you can quote the resolutions on poverty alleviation supported by governments of rich nations, and say that if you are really serious, then this is what is ne eded.

What has been the level of India's preparedness for the Seattle Round? Do you have any comments on that?

I think that the present Minister for Commerce, Mr. Murasoli Maran, has taken the right steps. He has tried to consult different people and political parties although the time available to him was very little.

In my view, we must define what are the four or five goals of trade. What is the principal mission statement of the WTO? Is it to produce a more equal opportunity world in which there will be a level playing field for the poor, and that trade should real ly become a means of promoting human security and happiness?

So your view is that India can swim against the tide in the WTO, we have negotiation space, we can protect our interests.

We should look at the total picture. If we do, there is enough space. For example, if all South Asian governments have the same aim of poverty alleviation and hunger elimination, then we have a space there. We can join together and say that one of the po tent tools of poverty alleviation is small-scale and decentralised enterprises that are environment-friendly and are supported by micro-credit. You may find that the richer nations may make some bargaining points but they will not be able to disagree unl ess they want to contradict the anti-poverty statements they made elsewhere.

One of the contemporary problems in terms of harmonising commitments made in different inter-governmental fora is the fact that different viewpoints are expressed in different U.N. fora. For example, member-governments of the FAO accept the concept of fa rmers' rights. Most governments, barring the U.S., have ratified the Convention on Biodiversity (CBD) which places heavy emphasis on ethics and equity in the sharing of benefits from genetic resources. The same is true in many other global fora and summi ts such as the Copenhagen Poverty summit, or the Beijing Women's conference. There is an overall commitment in these to the eradication of poverty, to fair play, to justice, to fair, and not free, trade. But all this finally gets operationalised at the f orum of the WTO. So unless governments also take a similar stand in the WTO then whatever they have said in the other fora do not make sense, because the WTO forum is really the main pathway to which the other commitments can be operationalised.

How prepared do you think India is to protect its genetic reserves? How would you evaluate our sui generis legislation which has still not been passed in Parliament but which you have had some involvement in helping to draft?

The CBD is the first major international legally binding convention which has principles of ethics and equity incorporated in it - of both gender equity, social equity and ethical principles in relation to exploitation of bio-resources. Since we ratified it we have not yet had a legislation to convert the principles of CBD into an effective legislative position. There are now two major legislation that need to be passed - one dealing with Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) on plant varieties and farmer s' rights, the other the Biodiversity Act. This should also include geographic appellations, because after the basmati patent it has become clear that we should also have some legislation to safeguard our unique products of various kinds.

We hope the present Parliament will provide high priority to providing a legal framework that is effective. For this it would also have to be realistic. For example, we should have a community gene management system from the bottom up. You can have at th e State level a biodiversity board, then a national bio-diversity authority. The challenge in the Biodiversity Act is the question of management at three levels - conservation, sustainable use and equitable sharing of benefits. The last is the most impor tant. These are community contributions. We must have legal methods of recognising and rewarding communities. In the draft I prepared on the Plant Variety Protection Act , I called it a community gene fund. The community should decide in what way they wi ll use it.

Both these acts have undergone debate and discussion in the last five to six years. They should be such that they should not be used to harass legitimate researchers. We should not be of the view that it is only our material that is being exploited. If y ou take our major crops like wheat, maize, jowar, bajra, in fact all cereals except rice, everything came from outside. Take all our plantation crops - rubber, tea, coffee - nothing is our own. The world has benefited from an approach of give-and-take. T herefore, when we develop these legislation we should also not have the feeling that we are the only ones who are giving and not gaining. Unless we have strong South-South collaboration, we will find that many of our breeding projects like those for rice and wheat will be in difficulty. We should not have a siege mentality. Instead we should look upon our bio-resources from the angle of bio-prosperity, or rural prosperity.

Does our draft sui generis legislation reflect that?

Well, I have not seen the final drafts. They will probably be placed in Parliament soon. We have been pleading that plant varieties protection and farmers' rights should be linked. If we do this, we will be the first country in the world where breeders r ights and farmers' rights are linked as mutually reinforcing. I think that some provisions have not really been understood, like the Community Gene Fund. If we have national commitment, we must have a one per cent cess on agricultural commodities that s hould be credited to the Community Gene Fund. That should go towards revitalising and rewarding the conservation traditions and ethics of tribal and rural families, the large invisible unrecognised community conservation process. Look at the very poor pa rts of Orissa. We have got a database on their contributions towards conservation of plant species. It is very moving, as the very poor are not working for recognition or reward. But it is people such as these who have saved the food security system of t he world, and we must realise it.

So I think we should really use our sui generis system for achieving the triple purpose of promoting conservation, making it a people's movement; ensuring its sustainable use with participatory breeding programmes done with farming families; and e nsuring equity and ethics in benefit sharing. Those behind the large unrecognised community conservation efforts must be recognised, given social prestige and economic rewards.

What are your views on the ethics of patenting of life forms? Could a global consensus be built up against this?

As a rule patenting of life forms is unethical. But the distinction was made by the Supreme Court in the Diamond vs Chakravarti case by saying that where something is a completely novel creation by human ingenuity, it can be patented. For example, you should not patent the human genome sequences because all that you are doing is studying something with the help of sophisticated technologies. You can 'discover' a new plant species and name it after yourself, that is not an invention. Invention is the product of the human brain, where something never existed but because of your effort it happened. Well, I think inventive people must be rewarded because that is how the world progresses. There is nothing wrong in honouring invention. But we must see to it that there are some international ground rules in this whole rush for patents on all kinds of things. In all patent regulation there must be a provision for compulsory licensing of rights. Suppose I discover a new rice variety which is resistant t o a particular disease, it should be available to everybody, poor or rich, not only to those who can pay.

On TRIPS, in the Seattle Round, what do you think of India's position?

India had already taken a position on a number of issues. On trade liberalisation, access to markets. But on the fundamental issues of TRIPS, I think India's position should be that we should try to promote a sui generis system that contains recog nition and reward to farmers' rights. But we must develop a consensus among other countries also, because you must have a critical mass of countries which have the same viewpoint. So during this process we must have a national stand, a regional stand amo ng those countries which have a high degree of poverty, like Africa, India, Latin America. There is no use pretending that we are all well off. Thirdly, I think we must insist that there is some harmonisation in global negotiation, particularly in terms of ethics and equity. We should insist on benefit-sharing, access, prior informed consent, and so on. We must move to make UPOV, the Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties, a Union for the Protection of Breeders' and Farmers' Rights. So in this way you must set the ball rolling towards a more equitable world in the new century.

Without this pro-poor lobby in the WTO do you think its decisions will have an adverse impact on agriculture and livelihood security?

It will continue to have adverse implications. I have already said that importing pulses and oilseeds, as India is doing, is a measure of the neglect of dry-land farming. What are the crops of dry-land farmers? The most important are pulses and oilseeds.

In agriculture there have been two major questions. One is market access to other countries. The hope was that if the European Union and North America really reduce subsidies to their farmers, then we will have a comparative advantage. The other aspect i s the quantitative restrictions. So far we find that market access has not happened. Protectionism and subsidies are very high, and now they have introduced non-tariff barriers, forms of protections like environmental concerns, pesticidal residues or eve n social concerns like child labour. So how far we are going to have free market access is one question. Of course we are also not really geared to compete in a big way as our post-harvest technology is poor as are our sanitary and phyto-sanitary measure s. So we must make a major investment here if we are going to have a competitive advantage in terms of exports. At the same time, the industrialised countries should really improve market access and provide a level playing field by reducing subsidies.

The second aspect of quantitative restrictions is the one where we have to be very careful. If foods like pulses and oilseeds are imported indiscriminately it can kill incentives for the improvement of our dry-farming areas. So we should be careful in im porting commodities that will destroy livelihoods of the poor. There should be a consensus on this, and as I said, a separate chapter or section in the revised WTA should be put which deals with trade and poverty alleviation, trade as an instrument of po verty alleviation.

You have warned about the possibility of India's 'genetic enslavement'.

When I use the word genetic enslavement it means two things. One is to have very few options - large areas being covered by one particular strain, which ties the farmer to the company. The second include techniques like Terminator. The companies call thi s genetic-use restriction, which means the farmer will have to buy from them every year. That will certainly lead to the farmer's own control over his agricultural destiny being destroyed. We have over 106 million farm families in the country, the larges t free enterprise segment. It is important that they have choices, that they can keep their seeds, they can sell their seeds in the neighbourhood and so on. If all this is destroyed you can call it genetic enslavement.

What are your concerns on genetically modified organisms (GMOs)?

These concerns are now universal. There are those of an environmental nature; for example, the creation of super weeds, or the studies on the monarch butterfly, which suggest harmful effects from pollen containing the BT toxin. Also, in human beings, we do not know the kind of hay fever that may spread with new kinds of pollen. Similarly there is the food safety aspect, arising from the use of anti-biotic markers in genetic engineering; when you really need them you would have developed a resistance to them. Then there are ethical issues such as the one involving the Terminator. So we have food safety concerns, we have environmental concerns, we have the whole area of ethical concerns. All these come under the blanket cover of bio-safety. Under the CBD , there should be an internationally agreed protocol on bio-safety which addresses these issues. I have always felt that there should be a broad-based National Commission on Genetic Modification for Food and Health Security to look at bio-safety issues i n India.

Do you think there should be a moratorium on GMOs?

Moratorium not in terms of research but in terms of the commercialisation of GMOs. I would say that there is no harm in waiting for a few years until the clinical, nutritional, medical and environmental trials, the ethical guidelines, are complete.

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