PLANTING HOPE: M S Swaminathan is still sowing seeds of agricultural reform, almost fifty years after the Green Revolution
M S Swaminathan always strived to make life easier for farmers. Today, they are killing themselves. Ketan Tanna meets an embarrassed revolutionary
Itâ€™s 4 am. The rest of Kerala is still sleeping in the comfort of darkness. An 82-year-old grandfather switches on the bulb in his spartan room in Kottakkalâ€™s Arya Vaidya Sala complex. It illuminates an old divan in the corner, with neatly arranged books and papers, where he is now furiously scribbling notes. Something in his benign smile says this is a habit. He goes on writing, compulsively for about two hours, till itâ€™s time for his Ayurvedic therapy.
Monkombu Sambasivan Swaminathan, the father of Indiaâ€™s Green Revolution, is on his annual two week journey to Kerala â€œto rejuvenate myself.â€ A small table with a computer and printer and a TV in the corner show that he is in touch with the world. But for now, all of them are switched off. Itâ€™s his sabbatical, he need not work. Yet, the bespectacled scientist maintains a punishing schedule of writing through the day, interspersed only by meal breaks.
Whenever he is depressed, he goes to the fields. Lately, his trips have increased. These days, Swaminathan who discovered the seed that doubled the yield for farmers in the â€™60s, naturally feels sad. No one asks him about his favourite subject, agriculture, anymore. â€œI am questioned more on farmersâ€™ suicides rather than on our farmersâ€™ great capacity to produce abundant agricultural commodities under severe constraints,â€ he says.
Itâ€™s an uncomfortable subject for this scientist, who normally has prompt answers to the most difficult queries. Perhaps itâ€™s something that reminds the geneticist that his purpose is slowly being defeated. His eyes crinkle behind his spectacles as he talks about the feeling abroad. â€œWhile in the â€™60s and â€™70s, we had got the reputation for making the country a bread basket from the status of a begging bowl, the reverse may happen now and we will once again revert to a ship to mouth existence.â€
Swaminathan knows the consequences â€” unplanned migration of the male members of marginal farmer and landless labour families to urban areas. Itâ€™s the road that leads to square one â€”to proliferation of urban slums and faminisation of agriculture. The very things he wanted India to emerge from when he took up the unglamorous agriculture as his subject after BSc, much to the dismay of his college principal. In 1952, Swaminathan earned his PhD from Cambridge University in genetics and later turned down a professorship in the US. â€œI asked myself why I studied genetics. It was to produce enough food in India. So I came back.â€
That was the beginning of an era in Indian agriculture. In the â€™60s, he brought seeds, developed in Mexico by American agriculture expert Norman Borlaug, to India and cross-bred those with local species to create a wheat plant that doubled the yield for farmers. After this, Swaminathanâ€™s success could be spelt faster than his name. His proudest moment was when Indira Gandhi released a set of stamps in 1968 titled â€˜wheat revolutionâ€™.
Today, all this applause is history for him. For a better part of the day, agriculture and the ways and means to take India forward dominates his mind and his thoughts. He blames the dire straits of farmers on the breakdown of family and community social support systems that were prevalent in the days of joint families. And, he places the blame on, â€œfarmers without adequate coping capacity taking loans for adopting technologies which are expensive.â€
Several years of interactions with farmers, have made him aware of things that make them vulnerable. Cotton farmers from the dry farming areas of Vidarbha in Maharashtra have particularly been affected during the last few years by serious market failure. â€œEven the credit system is anti-ecological, since in dry farming areas the recovery cycle should really be 4-5 years and not annual. Such a reform of the credit system will help a farmer to retain eligibility for getting credit, if there is drought during a year,â€ he says.
These days, he is in a contemplative mood, sometimes hopeful and at times despondent. Winner of several awards, and the father of three successful daughters, he could have easily sat back at home basking in his laurels. Yet he travels all over India and the world, working consistently on the issues of agriculture, sustainable development and governance.
Swaminathan who has always been a man of action, doesnâ€™t want to waste time in bemoaning the past. Thatâ€™s why even today, he writes, almost with a vengeance. That is his defence mechanism against Indiaâ€™s backward progress from â€œgreen revolution to greed revolutionâ€. And he has plenty to write about. The 82-year-old visionary currently holds the UNESCO chair in eco-technology and is the President of the Pugwash Conference on Science and World, besides running the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation.
The solutions to agrarian crisis lie in reforms, he says. The insurance system which hardly covers 4% of the farming population now, needs urgent reform. â€œThere is practically no effort to impart credit, insurance and trade literacy to resource poor farmers.â€ Compounding all this is the absence of multiple sources of livelihood, so that if one source of income fails there are other avenues which can insulate the farmer from distress, deprivation and despair. If public policies and investment are appropriate to the need, agricultural growth can be even higher than general economic growth. â€œWe should put faces before figures,â€ he says. TNN