A businessman and a farmer

Print edition : November 07, 1998

B. R. Barwale, founder of the Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (Mahyco), was a picture of quiet happiness when R. Padmanabhan met him for an interview in Mumbai on October 26, 11 days after the World Food Prize had been formally handed over to this farmer-entrepreneur at a ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa, United States. Excerpts from the interview:

You are the first businessman to have won the World Food Prize...

I have myself been pondering the question why I was chosen. My feeling is this. The people associated with this prize, such as Dr. Norman Borlaug, have taken major initiatives in creating food security. India, Pakistan and China, among other countries, have benefited from these. But in the whole of Africa no seed industry could come up.

Maybe our work is seen as providing an example for the developing world of how a seed industry can flourish in the private sector and carry good seeds to the farmer. After all, whatever research you do is carried to the farmer through the medium of seeds. We have been rather successful in carrying good seeds to the farmer. So, maybe those associated with the prize thought that our work had set a good example.

Could you give us an idea of the scale of operations of Mahyco in 1964, when you founded the company? Where does the company stand now?

The turnover was only about Rs.34,000 in 1964, whereas it was more than Rs.132 crores in 1997-98. Even so, we made a profit, albeit a small one, that first year. Except for two or three years, Mahyco has not made losses.

On an average, what percentage of Mahyco's annual expenditure is devoted to research and development?

Expenditure on R & D has increased considerably now. There has been a tremendous amount of capital expenditure during the last three years. We have a new research centre in Jalna, which would ultimately cost us Rs.40 crores. The revenue expenditure on R & D has ranged from 2.5 to 5 per cent of the total revenue expenditure.

We learn that early in your career you developed new techniques for the production and marketing of superior seeds. What were these techniques?

We started producing and marketing Pusa Saoni bhendi (lady's finger). I didn't realise it then, but it was a revolutionary step. At that time seeds were imported on a considerable scale. Several Indian seed dealers asked me what Pusa was. They didn't know about the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi. That was the situation then. The Pusa Saoni bhendi, which was resistant to a species of virus, gave the farmer a larger output and a better price.

As we produced seed, we cleaned it. That was an absolutely new concept in India. We cleaned, dried and packed the seed and presented it in a nice carton - inside which we placed a leaflet containing detailed instructions. We also conducted demonstrations for the benefit of farmers. The farmer is prepared to accept what he sees with his own eyes. The Indian farmer understands things. He is very intelligent.

In which year did the Rockefeller Foundation approach you? What was the nature of the assistance the foundation gave you?

The Foundation approached me in August 1963. It had signed an agreement with the Government of India - in 1957, I think. After that its endeavours were directed towards increasing food production. The first crop they worked with was hybrid corn-maize. The first hybrids were available in 1961, but the real impact started in 1963-64. As I said, I came into contact with the Rockefeller Foundation in 1963. We produced the first hybrid corn in 1963-64. I had received Foundation seed that year.

There was no financial assistance. The Foundation gave technical help. Of course, there might have been a lot of indirect assistance. The Foundation had an agreement with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) on a joint programme. Its people used to act as ICAR staff.

When I visited the U.S. in 1965, the Foundation gave me a grant to enable me to visit some seed companies. I went round some seed companies, some universities. Actually, I had gone to the U.S. on a farm leadership programme, but the Foundation people asked me to extend my visit by four or five days. They were very happy with what we were doing, and very helpful.

You are credited with having championed the cause of expansion of rural credit when you served as chairman of the Jalna People's Co-operative Bank and as member of the Bombay Board of the State Bank of India (SBI). What were the results?

So far as the State Bank is concerned, I was taken as an agriculturist. Before bank nationalisation, agriculture was taboo for bankers. We got crop loan limits enhanced once new varieties - hybrids - came into the picture: the cost of cultivation went up with the introduction of these varieties because of the need for higher doses of fertilizer and insecticide. We tried to get the SBI's rural branch network expanded. Moreover, I think my stint with the bank did contribute to the establishment of norms for rural credit.

Could you identify the educational and health care facilities you have built in Jalna district, Mahyco's main base?

It so happened that I was associated with all social activities there right from the beginning. I was a founder-member of the Jalna Education Society, and I was its honorary secretary for a long time. The society established the first college in Jalna. I was also the chairman of the committee that oversaw the construction of the college building.

Right now I am president of the Saraswati Bhuvan Education Society (Jalna branch), which runs a high school and a college - named after me, though I didn't like the idea. Recently we have started a school which embodies a very modern concept of education. In the area of health care, we have Ganapati Netralaya (an ophthalmology centre) at Jalna. A speciality facility as good as any in the world, it is operating with the support of Sankara Nethralaya, Chennai. It has 11 full-time ophthalmologists.

Starting a venture in Jalna is much more difficult than starting one in Mumbai. We can't attract talented people to that small town unless it has amenities such as education and health care of a certain standard.

Have you experienced some kind of conflict between the interests of your clientele and society at large, on the one hand, and the requirements of your company's bottom line, on the other?

We never had a conflict of interest. First of all, I am basically a farmer and therefore know what a farmer needs. We work absolutely in the interest of the farmer. We are trying to achieve greater productivity - or rather, more prosperity for the farmer. I am very clear in my mind that there has never been any conflict of interest.

Could you please comment on what is termed the Terminator technology, the technique patented in the U.S. in March this year for the genetic alteration of seeds so that crops raised through their use yield seeds that cannot germinate?

What I understand is that what has been patented is only a concept. Even if somebody starts working on the concept right now, it would take 10 years for something to materialise, and even that only if the necessary approvals are forthcoming. So far as Mahyco is concerned, I can assure you that whatever we produce shall be for the prosperity of the farmer.

But it has been stated that the genetically modified organisms (GMOs) conceived of by the U.S. patent could affect non-target plants as a result of cross-pollination.

That can't be a correct statement. When a GMO is put to trial, all kinds of scientific studies are done to determine whether it would have harmful effects; and if any harmful effects are detected, permission to put it to use is denied.

That there has been controversy over the Terminator technology, that there have been expressions of concern, cannot be denied. Reports have it that several departments of the Government of India and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) are seized of the matter.

As we are a democracy, people are free to highlight issues which they consider, rightly or wrongly, to be worrisome. All I can say is that our governmental systems are so alert and so well organised that it would not be possible for anyone to do anything that would hurt the farmers' interests or harm the environment.

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