‘My hopes for India are very bright’

Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan was 22 when India became independent. Five years later, this son of a surgeon completed his masters from Cambridge University, the stepping stone in a career — and a life — devoted to fighting for a different kind of independence: an India free of hunger and malnutrition.

Educated as a geneticist, Dr Swaminathan has become a legend on the back of a sequence of accomplishments that must surely rank him among the greatest Indians of modern times. Primary among these has been his contribution to agriculture, most notably the ‘green revolution’ he helped engineer in collaboration with American agricultural scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug.

The recipient of a multitude of honours, among them the Ramon Magsaysay Award (1971), the Albert Einstein World Science Award (1986) and the first World Food Prize (1987), Dr Swaminathan — who celebrated his 93rd birthday on August 7 — speaks here to Christabelle Noronha about Indian agriculture and what can be done to lift the gloom enveloping it. Excerpts from the interview:

If you had to address the many crises confronting Indian agriculture, where would you begin?

The main crisis confronting farmers is an economic one. Simply put, farming is not viable in India from an economic standpoint. The younger generation does not want to get into agriculture and about 40% of farmers would take up other jobs if they had the option.

What is needed most now is to find the ways and means to increase productivity, and that requires our farming systems to be improved. You have to enhance productivity across the entire acreage covered by farming, in hill areas, coastal areas and irrigated areas. The benefits of achieving this objective are plenty. There is a job famine in the country today and agriculture is a job-creating enterprise.

Dr Swaminathan at the office of his foundation in Chennai
Dr Swaminathan at the office of his foundation in Chennai
Dr Swaminathan with American agricultural scientist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug in the wheat fields of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute near New Delhi in 1965

How can the economics of agriculture be made good for farmers in distress, in the short-term and over the longer period?

A farmer’s income can be increased by improving productivity per unit area and by developing value-added products from straw, stem, leaf, etc (the Rice Bio-Park established by our foundation in Nay Pyi Taw in Myanmar in 2013 prepares and markets such produce). Additionally, farmer associations are needed to harness the power of scale by bringing together small farms. In the short term, the minimum support price, under the framework proposed by the National Commission on Farmers [NCF], can provide adequate income to save farmers from distress.

What can be done to encourage the new generation in farming families to take up agriculture?

In terms of attracting youth to agriculture, the NCF had suggested making it intellectually stimulating and economically rewarding. This can be done by conferring power and economy of scale to small and marginal farmers, both in the production and post-harvest phases of farming. Emphasis also needs to be put on restructuring agricultural curriculums and pedagogic methodologies to enable every farm and home science graduate to become an entrepreneur and to make agricultural education gender sensitive.

Women comprise 50% of India’s farmers and 60% of our agricultural workforce, yet they are neglected completely. When I was a Member of Parliament, I introduced a bill to provide for the gender-specific requirements of women farmers. This was to protect their legitimate needs and entitlements and to empower them with rights on agricultural land, water resources and more. Entitlements for women farmers are essential for the future growth and health of agriculture, as well as for the protection of food security in the era of climate change.

What are the advantages of the shift in emphasis from food security and staple foods to nutrition and crop diversification?

From food security to nutrition security, the advantage is that you have a healthier population. Nutrition security involves paying attention not only to hunger but also to things like protein hunger and hidden hunger, or micronutrient deficiency. Nutrition security strengthens food security and improves the ability of people to overcome deficiencies and lead healthy lives.

Water is a constant worry for farmers and the problem is getting worse across the country. What sort of solutions should we be pursuing to cope with this situation?

Water literacy and water security should be part of the agenda in schoolbooks; children should be made aware of these aspects. When I was young, there used to be a practice called ‘kudimaramat’ where the community prepares a tank for water harvesting before the onset of the monsoon. Community efforts of this kind have largely vanished. These days everybody believes that it’s the responsibility of the government, without realising that rainwater harvesting can be done by anybody, whether in a village or in a town. Rainwater harvesting should, I believe, be made mandatory.

Coming to the world trade order, this depends on certain principles, essentially fair and free trade. Many a time the ‘fair’ component is erased, while ‘free’ remains. I suggested in 1992, when the ‘Dunkel Draft’ was being prepared, that there should be a livelihood security box for countries like India, where agriculture is not just a business but the foundation of livelihood security.

There has to be a differentiation made between commercial cropping and a livelihood security crop. The Indian government changed the term from livelihood security to food security and the arguments about this have continued on various portals. Livelihood security would have been much better.

Equity in water sharing is critical for cooperation in harvesting water ... the rivers of India could be combined; we could then have an Indian Rhine, like the Rhine in Europe.”

What about water sharing issues between states? How can equitable outcomes be secured here?

Water sharing is a very big problem. It should, ideally, lead to win-win situations and not a win-lose situation. Equity in water sharing is critical for cooperation in harvesting water. Also, the rivers of India could be combined; we could then have an Indian Rhine, like the Rhine in Europe. You cannot do this in North India because the rivers that flow there — the Ganga, the Indus and the Brahmaputra — are international rivers. But the Krishna, the Godavari and the Cauvery are all under our control. These can be joined to create a navigation path for irrigation and for human consumption.

Our state governments should understand that only through cooperation can they deliver benefits to all their people. There is unrest on this front because we have allowed problems to fester; we have not addressed them in time. Back in 1992, I had suggested that there should be a ‘Cauvery river management board’ comprising Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Puducherry. This kind of a board would have been able to decide what is fair and what is not.

Farming is going to become ever more critical for India, as you have reiterated on many occasions. How can we as a nation prepare for this reality?

It is true that farming will become more important. There are not many countries that have surplus grain now and we have a population which will reach 1.5 billion by 2030. There will be a lot of undernourishment and protein hunger. Our malnourished children below the age of one will be hit the hardest. Their common abilities will be damaged and their intellectual capacity will be affected. Their future will be compromised.

We should attend to malnutrition with all the strength and resources at our command. India is a multilingual, multicultural country with great diversity. We need to have some priorities. We need freedom from hunger and unemployment, we need safe drinking water, we need a minimum wage, we need nutrition for everybody, and we need to pay greater attention to a clean environment, with the forests and oceans taken care of.

Dr Swaminathan says “there has to be a differentiation made between commercial cropping and a livelihood security crop”

You have lauded the current government’s efforts to make agriculture a viable proposition in India? What has the government got right and what more can it do?

Although the NCF report was submitted in 2006, very little action was taken until the government headed by Prime Minister Narendra Modi took office. Over the last four years, several significant decisions have been made to improve the income and status of farmers. The re-designation of the agriculture ministry as the agriculture and farmers’ welfare ministry means there is additional stress on using farmer welfare as a measure of agriculture progress.

The issuing of soil health cards to farmers has been crucial since soil health is basic to plant health, and plant health is basic to human health. Budgetary and non-budgetary resources have been allocated to promote micro-irrigation. Conservation and sustainable use of indigenous breeds of cattle is being encouraged. Activities such as apiculture, mushroom cultivation, bamboo production and agro-processing are being promoted to generate additional jobs and income for farm families.

The recent announcement of a remunerative price, essentially based on the recommendations of the NCF, is a very important step in ensuring the economic viability of farming. If all the schemes announced by Prime Minister Modi are implemented effectively by the state and central governments, the future of farming and farmers can be shaped to help India become a leader in food and nutrition security.

Jawaharlal Nehru once said, ‘The future belongs to science.’ It also belongs to those who strike up a friendship with science.”

In terms of research and technology – including genetic engineering – what’s the way forward for agriculture in India and the rest of the developing world?

Genetic engineering provides an opportunity to create new gene combinations. But there are many other technologies that are critical, in soil-health enhancement, water management, post-harvest processing and value addition. The developing world is mostly made up of small farmers and many of our technologies, including green- and evergreen-revolution technologies, have widespread applications.

What is important is the allocation of adequate resources to agriculture, education and public health. I have suggested, for this purpose, that we should persuade all political parties to place the right emphasis on these issues in their election manifestos. We need to have an integration of political will and commitment and technological skills, as well as a public understanding of science. Jawaharlal Nehru once said, “The future belongs to science.” It also belongs to those who strike up a friendship with science.

Dr Swaminathan believes that new technologies in areas like soil-health enhancement and water management are critical

As a public intellectual, what are your hopes for India?

My hopes for India are very bright. We have all the ingredients essential for developing a great nation devoid of poverty and hunger. This has been my goal and it has defined my work over the past half-century.