Honour for a 'seedsman'

Print edition : November 07, 1998

B.R. Barwale is awarded the World Food Prize in recognition of his "superior accomplishments in developing the role of private enterprise in India's agricultural sector".

AN international award that was conferred in 1987 on Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, who pioneered the introduction of high-yield wheat and rice varieties in India, and in 1989 on Dr. Verghese Kurien, who led India's milk revolution, has now gone to a person who started as a small seed grower and went on to found and head what is now the country's largest and most diverse seed company. Badrinarayan Ramulal Barwale, Chairman, Maharashtra Hybrid Seeds Company Limited (Mahyco), received the World Food Prize for 1998 at a ceremony in Des Moines, Iowa, United States, on October 15.

Barwale, 67, is the first businessman to have received the prize, which is awarded annualy since 1987 to recognise the achievements of individuals who have helped improve "the quality, quantity or availability of food in the world". Apart from He Kang, former Agriculture Minister of China, all the 14 previous winners of the prize have been scientists or administrators.

According to a statement issued by the World Food Prize Foundation, Barwale has been "specifically honoured for his superior accomplishments in developing the role of private enterprise in India's agricultural sector." The accomplishments have culminated in the production and marketing, through his 34-year-old company, of 320 hybrid varieties of 21 vegetables and 18 other food crops, including 177 varieties developed through in-house research efforts which began in 1966.

The World Food Prize includes a cash award of $ 250,000 and a sculpture created by the designer Saul Bass. It was conceived by Nobel (Peace) laureate Norman E. Borlaug, whose discoveries in high-yield wheat varieties triggered the Green Revolution. Dr. Borlaug heads the international committee which selects the winner from among the nominees of institutions and organisations round the world. More than 4,000 institutions and organisations are customarily asked to nominate candidates.

At the Des Moines ceremony, Barwale accepted "this greatest honour bestowed upon a seedsman (seed merchant) on behalf of all those involved in the effort to grow more food - scientists, administrators, governments, seed growers, farmers and farm labourers." In the acceptance speech, he expressed confidence that the Indian seed industry would be equal to the food supply challenge posed by the growth of the country's population by 16.5 million each year.

Barwale has decided to donate the prize money, with an equivalent contribution from his family, to a foundation for the development of the seed industry in India and for education and training in better farming practices.

According to one set of estimates, the distribution of quality seeds in India has increased more than 40-fold since 1953-54, the private sector is now capable of providing nearly 40 per cent of all the quality high-yield varieties and hybrid seeds that the country requires, and about half the food produced in the country is grown from private sector seeds.

Barwale acknowledged in his acceptance speech that the development of the private-sector seed industry in India had been facilitated by significant changes in the Government's agricultural policy during the 1960s.

Besides vegetables, Mahyco's product range of hybrid food crop varieties includes wheat, maize, rice, bajra, jowar, oilseeds, pulses, musk melon and watermelon. Additionally, the company produces and markets 79 cotton varieties, including 59 that are developed in-house, and 23 jute varieties. In fact, Malaysia is the world's largest producer of hybrid cottonseed.

BARWALE began his career in his late teens - towards the end of the 1940s. His 350-acre family farm in Jalna in the Marathwada region started providing seeds to farmers in the neighbouring areas. Barwale started exhibiting the entrepreneur's propensity for taking risks at a time when the milieu of Indian agriculture was decidedly conservative and in a place which, by virtue of having been part of the Nizam's Hyderabad, was a stronghold of conservatism.

Pusa Saoni bhendi (lady's finger), developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi, gave him his first breakthrough. At a time when the country had hardly any seed industry worth the name, Barwale began producing and marketing this variety, which is resistant to a widely prevalent virus and which gives the cultivator a larger output and a better price.

Gradually his name became widely known, not least because it was found that the seeds he sold demonstrated their quality by producing healthy crops. The emphasis on quality has been maintained through the decades. Mahyco has adopted stringent quality control checks for hybrids. It recently obtained the ISO-9001 certification for product development, production and processing. According to the company, this represents the largest multi-location certification in India and one of the largest such in the world.


What pitchforked Barwale to the big league was his association with the Rockefeller Foundation since August 1963. At that time the Foundation had a joint programme with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), which was working with the latest hybrid and high-yield varieties of maize and wheat from Mexico. It zeroed in on Barwale during the course of an effort to help create a private-sector seed industry in India and found him more than willing to try out new hybrids.

Barwale's efforts produced the first hybrid corn (maize) in 1963-64 with seed supplied by the Foundation. Mahyco was founded in 1964 with its headquarters in Jalna. Addressing an international conference in Niamey, Niger, on September 28, he said: "The first demonstration crop for maize we had grown ignited the curiosity of farmers and government extension officers. As a result...we were sometimes able to sell...one sack of seed a day for Rs.120....But each sack sold was a cause for celebration.

"Imagine our joy, therefore, when an agricultural officer from the neighbouring district telephoned and asked for a truckload of the new hybrid seed! That was a...milestone for us. Our credibility as a seed producer and progressive farmer was established."

Things were helped along by a scientific approach to marketing in what was then a chaotic and disorganised market. Barwale obtained feedback on the farmers' experiences with new seeds from agriculture graduates whom he employed.

CULTIVATORS were recruited to grow seed for Mahyco. Barwale stood guarantee for bank loans to farmers for investment in their plots. Today more than 73,000 cultivators are under contract to grow seeds for Mahyco. The company has 15 production centres located in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Madhya Pradesh, 23 sales offices and about 2,500 dealers.

The Rockefeller Foundation gave Mahyco technical assistance to set up a network of research stations and laboratories in Jalna and in Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh and Delhi. The company now has a new research centre in Jalna, which, according to Barwale, would ultimately involve an investment of Rs.40 crores. Moreover, Mahyco-Monsanto Biotech Limited, a 50-50 joint venture with the American multinational Monsanto, is working on Bollguard, a genetically engineered variety of cotton designed to be bollworm-resistant. (Monsanto now has a 26 per cent stake in Mahyco, a stake that it acquired in one go on April 24, 1998.)

In 1989, Mahyco became the first agriculture-based company to win the National Award for Research and Development instituted by the Government of India. The Mahyco Research Foundation, established by Barwale, has made a Rs. 3-crore grant to the ICAR over three years to fund the latter's research programme in rice. A total of about Rs.1.17 crores was handed over between March 1996 and August 1998.

In 1990 Mahyco received an award from the International Seeds, Science and Technology Organisation. Barwale was named honorary life-member of the Federation of International Seedsmen, a trade organisation, in 1996.

The duplication of the "Barwale model" of development of the seed industry in Africa is being contemplated. Barwale has been interacting with officials of African countries in this regard.

Barwale served twice as Chairman of the Jalna People's Cooperative Bank - in 1965-1967 and in 1973-1974. He was a spokesman for agriculture in the Bombay Board of the State Bank of India between 1973 and 1978. He championed the cause of rural credit expansion during this period.

Barwale was a founder-member of the Jalna Education Society, which established the first college in the town, and its honorary secretary for a long time. He is the president of the Jalna branch of the Saraswati Bhuvan Education Society, which runs a high school and a college and which recently started an avant-garde school. Barwale has established through a trust a state-of-the-art eye-care centre, Ganesh Nethralaya, in Jalna with the support of Sankara Nethralaya of Chennai.

Dr. S.S. Badrinath, chairman of Sankara Nethralaya, is a trustee of Ganesh Nethralaya. In turn, Barwale, his son Raju and daughter, Dr. Usha Zehr, are trustees of Sankara Nethralaya. The senior Barwale is also a member of an informal group - Friends of Sankara Nethralaya - which collects funds for the leading Chennai-based eye-care centre.

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