For an 'Evergreen Revolution'

Published : Dec 25, 2000 00:00 IST

Interview with Dr. M.S. Swaminathan.

In a recent interview with Frontline (issue of December 24, 1999), Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, eminent agricultural scientist who is now Chairman of the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation, spoke, in the context of the World Trade Organisation' s Ministerial Conference in Seattle, about the adverse impact that unequal world trade agreements could have on agriculture and food security in developing countries, and suggested some concrete measures by which India and the group of developing countri es could, if they wished to, put poverty and equity concerns on the WTO agenda.

In the following interview with Parvathi Menon, Dr. Swaminathan responds to a range of questions on Indian agriculture. He discusses the successes and problems of the Green Revolution of the 1960s, the problems faced by the public agricultural res earch network in India, and, with some urging, his own contributions to agricultural research and its operationalisation at the field level. Dr. Swaminathan's work on wheat and rice, of which he speaks in this interview, is part of the history of the dev elopment of agriculture in India. The free, cross-continental exchange of scientific information and research results during that period, an exchange unfettered by proprietary 'rights' over genetic material or ideas, made possible the startling breakthro ughs in agricultural production in India and other parts of South Asia. Excerpts from the interview.

India had the finest network of national agricultural research institutes in the developing world. At one time, all the major plant breeders in the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research were Indians. This research system is perceiv ed to have been weakened and undermined in terms of both finance and motivation. Scientists seem no longer fired with the idea of public research. Is this perception correct? If so, what do you think are the reasons for it?

Well, a whole constellation of factors created a mood of total dedication and determination during the Green Revolution. The country was facing a very great challenge. We were dubbed a country that could never feed itself, where famines were inevitable. That was the viewpoint of many outsiders, and the international media too.

Agricultural scientists strongly felt that if we had a technology which we could take into the field on a large scale, it would make a difference to this situation. The problem was that there was compartmentalisation between scientists working in laborat ories and those working in the extension and other agencies that took the fruits of research to the field. There was also very poor linkage between input supply and knowledge delivery. So when the extension services told farmers to grow a particular vari ety of rice or wheat, the advice was sterile unless the seeds were available. So there was the whole problem of linkages between research and extension on the one hand; and knowledge delivery and input delivery, on the other. Unless synchronised in space and time, knowledge delivery alone could not make a difference to the farmers.

A cohesive and systems approach to these problems started in the 1960s. Mr. C. Subramaniam, when he was Minister for Food and Agriculture, certainly brought all the strands together - research, extension, input delivery systems and, above all, an assured and remunerative marketing policy. The media played a very important role in the 1960s. Media representatives visited the fields of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, the Punjab Agricultural University at Ludhiana and the Pantnagar University, and wrote ecstatically about the new opportunities opened up by the high-yielding varieties. This in turn put pressure on the State-level political systems.

That dedication and determination are probably missing today. We see the strands of cooperation, the linkages among various actors in this whole situation getting weakened once again.

We have one of the largest national agricultural research systems consisting of national institutes, agricultural universities and veterinary universities in all the States. We also have a whole series of research projects coordinated at the all-India le vel, national research centres, national bureaus, and so on. This system is functioning very well, overall. Scientists are doing laboratory work and there are some important results. But then how are these results going to the field, what are the linkage s?

Scientists feel inspired when they see the results of their work in the field. Years ago I proposed to the government a whole series of national demonstrations, to validate scientists' findings in experimental stations in resource-poor farmers' fields. T hat had an electrifying effect; a tremendous impact because when a poor farmer produces five tonnes of wheat instead of one tonne, then the whole village gets the benefit. If you do it in a rich farmers' field, the success will be attributed to affluence , and not to technology.

I have always had two philosophies in my life in the last 40 years in terms of extending results. One is that anything you do for a small farmer, all farmers benefit. The other is that anything you do for a woman in the family, the whole family benefits. So you know, scientists and students were fired with a lot of enthusiasm. But that enthusiasm is not so evident today.

What do you attribute it to - liberalisation, the lifting of import controls, the growth of corporate interest in the agricultural sector?

Privatisation is one component. But I think people must have a goal, a mission. What has happened today is that the agricultural research system as a whole reflects the general malady of the country. There was a genuine commitment to poverty alleviation and to problems of national development in the 1950s and 1960s. But our vision is getting narrower, we are getting increasingly parochial.

So first we should have policies which will help bring concerted action, a symphony kind of approach. Secondly, the country, owing to liberalisation, has again taken the easy option of solving problems through imports. In a country as large as ours, with one-sixth of the human population, food self-reliance, the livelihood security of the poor and the ecological security of the country must continue to remain the three pillars of our economic, political, social and action-oriented philosophy.

With the weakening of public sector research we also see a flight of scientists from the public sector to the private sector, which offers higher salaries and, presumably, better research facilities.

This is one of the problems we will have to take care of. The public sector will start losing its scientists to the private sector. The salary difference is high. Secondly, the private sector's is mission-oriented research and they have the necessary fac ilities. I believe that in the private sector one must make a differentiation between large multinational companies and numerous small enterprises - small seed companies trying to cater to specific eco-geographical regions.

One evaluation of the Green Revolution is that while it created self-sufficiency in food for the country, its potential impact was limited by the non-completion of land reforms, and the failure of the state to help put purchasing power into the hands of the poor.

The Green Revolution was really a term for productivity improvement. There have been a lot of statistics to show that to produce the quantity of rice and wheat we now produce - around 72 million tonnes of wheat and over 85 million tonnes of rice - we wil l need 175 million hectares if we are doing it at the yield level of one tonne a hectare as in 1964. Now we are producing that much of wheat and rice in about a third of that area. So that is why in one way the Green Revolution has been forest-saving agr iculture.

There are two major problems of the Green Revolution that have always been discussed in the literature and in seminars. One is the question of the inputs needed for output. If a farmer does not have access to inputs, he cannot take advantage of any revol ution - the Green Revolution, even the gene revolution (which is going to be even worse because he will have to pay a very high price for the seed). After the credit melas, the whole credit system collapsed in this country for several years. I mus t say in hindsight that as early as the early 1970s, this problem of inputs being needed for output was realised and that is why the government started taking credit to the small farmers, marginal farmers and the landless labour through special programme s.

The second major problem is the environmental one, that is, in relation to the overexploitation of groundwater, excessive use of pesticides, the use of ineffective pesticides, pesticidal resistance of insects, and so on. The ecological problems are compo unded by policies like free supply of electricity to pump out groundwater. In Punjab, land is getting salinised partly because the government decided to give free electricity supply to farmers.

How far were poor farmers able to reap the benefits of the Green Revolution?

Take our production of wheat of 72 million tonnes. The contribution of large farmers - those who own 10 hectares or more - will hardly be a few million tonnes. The rest have all come from small farms. The smaller the farm, the greater is the need for mar ketable surplus, otherwise the owner will have no income. For example, if a farmer owns one hectare which produces one tonne of wheat, he would keep 700 to 800 kg for his own needs, and be left with hardly any marketable surplus. If he produced five tonn es of wheat on the same farm, he would have four tonnes to sell. That is the reason why small farmers, wherever they have been enabled to do so, have taken to the Green Revolution. The difference has been between the irrigated farms and the unirrigated, rain-fed farms. In our country, 60 per cent of the cultivated area is rain-fed. Some degree of cooperative work will be needed to harvest, save and share water in such areas.

Did the failure to complete land reforms limit the impact of the Green Revolution?

Land reforms are absolutely needed. The land reform process started off and then went into a phase of hibernation. But today we also have to rethink land reform, on what is feasible. If we had completed land reforms when our population was 350 million as it was in the 1950s, it would have been very different. Today we are one billion people. If you give waste land to the poor people then an enormous investment is needed to improve it. In fact, even earlier, the ceiling surplus land given to the poor was often wasteland.

So you have to think of a new kind of approach. I have been using the word asset reform rather than land reform, because land is only one of the productive assets. You have livestock, the fish pond, the trees, participatory forest management, access to n on-food forest products, access to community land. We must think of asset building for the poor. Wherever there is the opportunity for land redistribution, you should do it. But from my knowledge such opportunities are getting very limited today. In my v iew we must also make women eligible for land rights. This, along with one-third reservation in Parliament, will be a major contribution to poverty alleviation. As we enter the new century we must relook at the whole question of asset reform in which lan d is a very important asset although I will not confine it only to land.

To sum it up, I think, the Green Revolution of the 1960s and 1970s helped us in three ways. One is that it built up self-confidence in our agriculture. Agriculture had a low social status. Agricultural scientists started getting social recognition, they could stand upright. And in the 1960s our media also started looking at our achievements. Secondly, it established the linkage between sovereignty and food self-sufficiency. The third important gain of the Green Revolution was in respect of rural infrast ructure. Rural roads were built and electrification started. Groundwater use grew exponentially during this period.

But the Green Revolution became a greed revolution. I warned against this at the 1968 Science Congress in Varanasi. If we start overexploiting soil and groundwater, covering large areas with a single genetic strain, I said (and it has been printed, fortu nately), then we are entering an era of agricultural disaster, not progress. And in some areas this started happening. The Green Revolution led to the excessive use of pesticide, and improper and imbalanced use of fertilizers.

That is why I have been saying in the last few years that what we now need is an Evergreen Revolution. We have no other option except to produce more on less land and less water. We must ensure that agriculture, which is the mainstay of our livelihood se curity system and ecological security system, is carried out in such a way that it can produce more but produce it in a sustainable way. We have to produce more but produce it in a different way. This is what I call sustainable advances in productivity o r an Evergreen Revolution.

As you look back on your long public career as scientist, administrator and now as the Chairman of MSSRF, what aspects of your work have brought you a sense of satisfaction?

I have a sense of satisfaction that in the three crops in which I personally carried out both strategic and applied research, namely potato, wheat and rice, I could make some useful contributions.

It was in 1949 that I started my research on potato at the Agricultural University in Wageningen, the Netherlands, under a UNESCO Fellowship (interestingly, the award letter was signed by the late Dr. Malcolm Adiseshiah who was then with UNESCO). The pro fessors with whom I worked asked me whether I can help in developing techniques for transferring genes that provide resistance to the golden nematode - which was then a serious problem in the polder lands of Holland - and to frost damage. I succeeded in standardising techniques (this was before the era of genetic engineering) for transferring genes from a wide range of wild species of potato to the cultivated potato, Solanum tuberosum. I continued this work at Cambridge, United Kingdom, where I w as awarded the Ph.D. degree for my research on the genetics and cytogenetics of potato, and later at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, United States. I am happy that the papers I published then are still being quoted. My work also helped breed severa l potato varieties resistant to diseases and the effects of frost. One such variety was Alaska Frostless, released for cultivation in Alaska. This variety contained genes from Solanum acaule, a frost-resistant species from the Andes in South Ameri ca.

On my return to India in 1954, I first joined the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack and later the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi. At Cuttack, I joined the Indica-Japonica rice hybridisation programme, originally visualise d by Dr. K. Ramiah and organised by Dr. N. Parthasarathi. The goal of this project was to transfer genes for fertilizer response from the Japonica varieties grown in Japan to the Indica rice varieties cultivated in our country. Even in the 1950s, the ave rage rice yield in Japan was nearly five tonnes a hectare, while our average yield was below one tonne a hectare. Since about 20 kg of nitrogen is needed for the rice plant to make one tonne of rice, we need to give about 100 kg of nitrogen a hectare to produce five tonnes of rice. Under such high soil fertility conditions, our varieties tended to lodge or fall. The Indica-Japonica hybridisation programme resulted in varieties such as ADT-27 at Aduthurai in Tamil Nadu and Mashuri in Malaysia. From 1964, we turned our attention to using the Dee-gee-woo-gen dwarfing gene from China, received first through Taiwan and later through the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, since the Indica-Japonica crosses presented problems like semi-s terility.

In the 1960s, I continued my work on rice at the IARI in association with E.A. Siddiq, V.P. Singh and several other scholars who worked with me for their Ph.D. degrees. In 1965 itself, Dr. Siddiq and I began work on the breeding of high- yielding basmati rice varieties, by crossing the best available basmati variety with Taichung Native-1, a dwarf rice from Taiwan. After 20 years of breeding work, this programme resulted in the variety Pusa Basmati, the first semi-dwarf, high yielding basmati type of ri ce variety in the world. (More recently, varieties like Texmati have been developed in the U.S., combining basmati grain characteristics with the semi-dwarf plant stature.)

When I joined the Botany Department of the IARI, in late 1954, its Director, Dr. B.P. Pal, suggested that I work on wheat and transfer genes from wild to cultivated species, as I did in the case of potato. Jointly with several Ph.D. students - many of th em now famous scientists - I initiated in 1955 a multi-pronged strategy to breed non-lodging, fertilizer-responsive wheat varieties. While this work was going on, I learnt in 1960 from Dr. Orville Vogel of the Washington State University, Pullman, United States, that an ideal source for breeding non-lodging wheat varieties will be the Norin-10 dwarf wheat varieties from Japan. Dr. Vogel wrote to me indicating that the Norin-10 material is available in a spring wheat background with Dr. Norman Borlaug in Mexico. I wrote to Dr. Borlaug and he indicated that he would be happy to provide suitable material after visiting India and studying our growing conditions. Therefore, I sent a detailed proposal to Dr. Pal, giving my reasons why we should go into a lar ge-scale semi-dwarf wheat breeding and field testing programme and requesting him to send an invitation to Dr. Borlaug through the Ministry of Agriculture. Dr. Borlaug's visit took place in March 1963. We travelled together extensively in the wheat-growi ng areas of North India. Based on his observations as well as the performance of his material in West Pakistan, where he had sent them two years earlier, he sent us a wide range of material in September 1963. Multi-location testing during rabi/wheat 1963 -64 confirmed that semi-dwarf wheat varieties performed very well under conditions of good soil fertility and irrigation water management.

In the early 1960s, we were racing against time in our efforts to improve the productivity and production of major food crops, since the quantity of wheat imports under the PL-480 programme of the U.S. was increasing year after year. Many foreign experts predicted that serious food famines will be a regular occurrence in India. I therefore felt that in order to gain time we must concurrently get the views of farm families on the new varieties, since they are the ultimate judges of the worth of new varie ties and technologies. I therefore proposed a national demonstration programme in the fields of small farmers to test whether the promising results we were getting in experiment stations can be reproduced under field conditions. My proposal that the demo nstrations should be in the fields of small farmers was because of my conviction that the results obtained in the fields of rich farmers will be attributed to affluence and not to technology.

Fortunately at that time Bharat Ratna Mr. C. Subramaniam became the Minister for Food and Agriculture. One of his first steps was to invite scientists for a discussion on how to achieve an agricultural breakthrough. I mentioned at that meeting that we ma y be able to achieve a breakthrough with the new varieties of wheat and rice and hybrids of maize, jowar and bajra and pleaded for support to initiate a national demonstration programme. Mr. Subramaniam immediately approved the proposal. The scientists o f the IARI and several agricultural universities enthusiastically took up this programme, which had a dramatic impact on the minds of farm families. Farmers who were used to thinking that about two tonnes a hectare was the maximum yield they could obtain , found that they could harvest five tonnes a hectare. Based on the results of the national demonstration, I prepared a paper indicating the potential and actual yields in the areas where the demonstrations were conducted. Mr Subramaniam decided that eve ry step should be taken to bridge this yield gap. (I recall Agricultural Secretary Mr. B. Sivaraman coming to my house at the IARI early morning one day to get the data needed to prepare a high-yielding varieties programme covering nearly 32 million ha u nder the crops where rapid yield advances were possible.) In 1968, we reaped the first important result of this programme when wheat production went up from 12 million tonnes to 17 million tonnes. This was not an evolutionary jump but a revolutionary one . On my suggestion, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi released a stamp with the legend "The Wheat Revolution", in order to bring to the attention of the public the beginning of a science-based farm revolution in the country. The rest is history. The wheat rev olution is an index of the power of synergy between technology and public policy.

In rice, one of my great satisfactions has been helping Burma, China, Cambodia, Vietnam, Egypt and Madagascar to develop strong national rice research institutes. I was also instrumental in getting a Philippines National Rice Research Institute establish ed so that the location-specific problems in the numerous islands of the Philippines could be attended to.

Another great satisfaction was the organisation of two international networks, one dealing with women in rice farming and the other on sustainable rice farming when I was at IRRI. At IRRI, some of my major contributions were to integrate considerations o f ecology and gender and social equity in all the research and development programmes and to harness the tools of biotechnology in rice improvement.

Finally, the last 10 years have been most rewarding since the MSSRF, mainly established to promote a new social contract between scientists and resource-poor rural families, has been effective in working towards this goal. It was clear that only a pro-na ture, pro-poor and pro-women orientation with an emphasis on job-led economic growth can help eliminate rural poverty and conserve natural resources.

I have always felt that agricultural scientists should measure the impact of their work on two important considerations, namely, sustainable advances in the productivity of the major farming systems of the area and the promotion of happy farming families . The MSSRF has shown the creativity and social dedication of our young scientists and scholars.

My greatest satisfaction has, however, been working with our hardworking, cheerful farm men and women. In retrospect, I am happy that the various programmes I initiated - such as the National Demonstration, Lab-to-Land, Seed Villages, Whole Village Water shed Operational Research projects and Krishi Vigyan Kendras - have helped to promote a symbiotic partnership between farmers and scientists. I believe firmly in the power of both participatory research and participatory learning with rural women and men . Whatever I have been able to do is only because of partnerships with students, fellow scientists, farmers and political and administrative leaders. My Ph.D. students, numbering 65, have taught me much.

What is your vision for the future in respect of your concerns and work?

My present concern is that we are not making enough progress in attracting and retaining the youth in farming. Youth from the age of 15 to 25 hold the key to the future of our agriculture. We must do everything possible to make agriculture both intellect ually stimulating and economically rewarding to attract them. Modern ecological agriculture based on precision farming techniques and modern post-harvest technology which helps add value to primary products in the village provide opportunities for gettin g more young persons involved in farming. Mahatma Gandhi said long ago that unless the divorce between intellect and labour is ended, Indian agriculture will stagnate. I hope that in the early part of the new century we will promote actively the marriage of intellect and labour in rural India.

Modern information and communication technology provides uncommon opportunities for this purpose. The tragedy is that we are not giving enough attention to either rural infrastructure or the creation of opportunities for rural non-farm employment. Our ma cro-economic policies, both national and global, tend to destroy micro-enterprises supported by micro-credit. Dryland farming areas are not receiving the attention they need; this is evident from the increasing import of pulses and oilseeds. Regional imb alances are also growing. Public policies designed to safeguard the ecological foundations of sustainable agriculture are yet to be evolved through political consensus. Foreign experts have once again started asking "Who will feed India by 2020?". In 194 7 Jawaharlal Nehru said, "Everything else can wait, but not agriculture." This is even more true today.

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