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HT Archives: Keeping the Green Revolution green

Sep 28, 2023 10:28 PM IST

“What we need now is an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable green revolution or what may be termed as evergreen revolution”

[MS Swaminathan (August 7, 1925 - September 28, 2023) wrote several articles for the Hindustan Times over five decades, from the late 1960s to the 2010s that touched upon the Green Revolution, how the revolution should continue, the harmful impact of food inflation and the country's food policy. This article was first published on July 21, 1996]

Punjab took the lead because of the scientific and educational help given by the Punjab Agricultural University and the presence of essential pre-requisites (HT File)
Punjab took the lead because of the scientific and educational help given by the Punjab Agricultural University and the presence of essential pre-requisites (HT File)

The term Green Revolution was coined by Dr William Gadd of USA in 1968, when our farmers brought about a quantum jump in wheat production by taking to semi-dwarf, non-lodging varieties with peat enthusiasm and when similar progress appeared feasible in rice. Punjab took the lead because of the scientific and educational help given by the Punjab Agricultural University and the presence of essential pre-requisites for progress such as land consolidation and levelling, rural communication, rural electrification and above all, owner cultivation.

Twenty-seven years after the term “Green Revolution” was coined, we are in a position to draw a balance sheet and chalk out a strategy for the future. Apart from erasing the “begging bowl” image of our country, the most important gain has been the saving of forests and land, thanks to the productivity improvement associated with high-yielding varieties. This year, our farmers have harvested over 60 million tonnes of wheat, as compared to 6 million tonnes at the time of Independence in 1947.

Punjab farmers have raised the average yield of wheat to over 40 quintals per hectare. Likewise, Tamil Nadu farmers have raised the average yield of rice to over 50 quintals per hectare. If the yield improvement associated with the Green Revolution in wheat and rice had not taken place, we will need another 70 million hectares to produce the wheat and rice we now harvest. Thus, the productivity improvement associated with the Green Revolution is best described as forest or land saving agriculture.

Our population is growing at a rate of 1.8 per cent per year. If this trend continues, our population will double in less than 40 years. Only Kerala, Tamil Nadu, Goa and Mizoram have so far achieved a demographic transition to low birth and death rates. Besides population increase, improved purchasing power among the poor will enhance the demand for food, since undernutrition and poverty go together. In contrast, per capita availability of arable land is shrinking.

Water use efficiency is still low and water disputes are growing. In addition to the gradual decline in per capita availability of land and water, various forms of biotic and abiotic stresses are spreading. There is still a widespread mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies. In perishable commodities such as fruits, vegetables, flowers, meat and other animal products, this mismatch is often severe, affecting the interests of producers and consumers. This is why foreign experts frequently refer to the setting in of a fatigue of the Green Revolution.

Lester Brown and Hal Kane in their book Full House released last year predict that at the current rate of population growth and environmental degradation coupled with an improvement in the consumption capacity of the poor, India will have to import annually over 40 million tonnes of food grains by the year 2030. This is four times the quantity imported in 1966 i.e. before the onset of the Green Revolution. Complacency should not overtake the farm sector, just because we now have over 30 million tonnes of food grains available with the Government. Industrial countries are responsible for much of the global environmental problems such as potential changes in temperature, precipitation, sea level and incidence of ultraviolet B radiation.

While further agricultural intensification in industrialised countries will be ecologically disastrous, the failure to achieve agricultural intensification and diversification will be socially disastrous. This is because, agriculture including crop and animal husbandry, forestry and agro-forestry, fisheries and agro-industries provide livelihood to over 70 per cent of our population. The smaller the farm, the greater is the need for higher marketable surplus for increasing income.

Eleven million new livelihoods will have to be created every year m our country and these have to come largely from the farm and rural industry sectors. Importing food and other agricultural commodities will hence have the same impact as importing unemployment. Thus, what we need now is an environmentally sustainable and socially equitable green revolution or what may be termed as evergreen revolution.

Those who advocate old methods of farming ignore the fact that just a century ago when the population of undivided India was 281 million, famines claimed 30 million lives between 1870 and 1900. The famine eradication strategy of India comprising the following steps is perhaps the most important achievement of independent India: a. Enhanced production and productivity, b. Better distribution through the public distribution system, c. Adequate grain reserves, d. purchasing power enhancement through various employment generation and guarantee schemes, and e. Special intervention programmes for children, pregnant and nursing mothers and old and infirm persons.

National policy for sustainable food security should ensure (a) that every individual has physical, economic and environmental access to balanced diets, including the needed micronutrients and safe drinking water and to primary health care and education to lead a healthy and productive life and (b) that food originates from efficient, effective and environmentally benign production technologies that conserve and enhance the natural resource base of crop and animal husbandry, forestry and inland and marine fisheries.

The principal operational implications of the above mission statement are the following: *Sustained physical access to food will involve a transition from chemical and machinery intensive to ecological farming technologies. *The emphasis on economic access underlines the need for promoting sustainable livelihoods through multiple income-earning opportunities. *Environmental access involves on the one hand attention to soil health care, water harvesting management and the conservation of forests and biodiversity, and on the other to sanitation, environmental hygiene, primary health care and primary education.

The emphasis on the individual is important, since the household is not often a homogenous unit. Women and girl children tend to suffer more from under/nutrition than men and boys. UNDP’s 1995 Human Development Report contains distressing data on the growing feminisation of poverty. To give operational content to such a concept of food security, we should initiate a Hunger-Free Area Programme (HFAP) consisting of the following components:

a. Ensuring sustainable availability of food by maintaining the growth in food production over population growth through the development and dissemination of eco-technologies, supported by appropriate packages of services and public policies. Eco-technology involves the blending of the ecological prudence and technologies of the past, with the best in frontier technologies, particularly biotechnology, information technology, space technology, renewable energy technology and management technology. Without eco-technological empowerment, farm men and women will not be able to produce more food and other agricultural commodities on an environmentally sustainable basis from less land, water and energy resources.

b. Sustain the productivity of the natural resources base, by conserving and improving the ecological foundations essential for continuous advances in crop and animal productivity.

c. Ensure adequacy of household income through promotional social security, such as accessing assets, employment and organisational and marketing empowerment/Agricultural programmes should concurrently aim at more food, more jobs and more income. Integrated attention to farm and non-farm employment and value-addition to primary agricultural commodities will be necessary to enhance income and rural livelihood security.

d. Provide entitlement to food through protective social security measures to the vulnerable groups, such as employment guarantee and food for nutrition programmes.

e. Introduce a National Food and Livelihood Security Act with the concurrence of the National Development Council for the purpose of paying integrated attention to conservation of land, water, forests, biodiversity and the protection of the atmosphere: enhancing productivity through eco-technologies: improving, distribution in order to eliminate endemic hunger; maintenance of adequate food security reserves; strengthening the techo-infrastructure for better postharvest technology and expanding the coverage of sanitary measures, and efficient research, education, extension, marketing systems both to take full advantage of emerging opportunities in international trade and to ensure that research and extension designed to promote public good receive adequate support.

The year 1995 marked the beginning of a new era in global agricultural research due to the onset of Trade-related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). How do we promote research for public good under a fast spreading Intellectual Pro Rights Environment (IP )?

In order to ensure that our national effort for achieving the ecotechnological empowerment of resource poor farm and rural families do not suffer under an economic environment where profit gets precedence over public good, I suggest that the Government of India may set up a National Trust Fund for eco-technology with an initial outlay of at least 1000 crore to foster research designed to promote sustainable public good in the farm sector.

Designing a Hunger-Free Area Programme (HFAP)

Step No. 1: Identify the basic underlying reasons for chronic under and malnutrition.

Step No. 2: Collate information on available programmes and opportunities for the sustainable end of hunger.

Step No. 3: Articulate the steps needed to provide the ‘missing elements’ in achieving the end of hunger.

Step No. 4: Mobilise local level community action and commitment for achieving the end of endemic hunger by the end of the Ninth Five Year Plan and enlist mass media support for this purpose.

Step No. 5: Assess the extent of (i) Financial resources required, (ii) Technical resources for technological empowerment necessary, (iii) Managerial and organisatnonal resources needed.

Step No. 6: Foster the organisation of a Grassroot level Coalition for Ending Hunger in each HFAP area comprising representatives of 1) Elected representatives of the people, 2) Government agencies, 3) Civil Society-Non-government organisations, voluntary agencies, service organisations like Rotary Clubs, Lions Clubs, etc., 4) Academia - Research, Training Institutions and Universities, 5) Corporate Sector, 6) Financial Institutions and 7) Mass Media.

The Coalition for Ending Hunger will be responsible for design. Ing, implementing and monitoring the Hunger Free Area Programme.

In 1981-82, the Union Planning Commission set up a Group under my Chairmanship to promote the development of Wardha District on the principles of self-reliance and people’s participation outlined by Gandhi in the concept of Gram Swaraj.

The idea was to develop Wardha into Gandhi Jilla. The Wardha District Plan on Gandhian lines prepared by the Group and published by the Planning Commission in April 1982 shows how the 80,000 families who were then living below the poverty line in the district can have better and more secure livelihoods through an integrated ‘health, education and work for all” programme.

The challenge lies a converting HFAP from a concept into an operational programme. In such a programme, during the remaining years of this century, emphasis will have to be placed on generating additional livelihood opportunities for those living below the poverty line in villages and towns.

The increasing feminisation of poverty demands that priority attention be given to women and girl children. The initiation of a National Hunger Free Area Programme will be the best tribute we can pay to the memory of Jagjivan Ram.

I would like to close with another example of Babuji’s unique wisdom, compassion and pragmatism. Soon after he joined as Agriculture Minister in October 1974, he mentioned to me: “If our people have money, they will find the food. Let us ensure that they have some money to buy food”. In 1857, Col. Baird Smith, who was asked to study the famine in northwest India, wrote in his report: “Indian famines are famines of work. Where there is work, there is money, where there is money there is food”.

Here are the other articles that MS Swaminathan wrote for the Hindustan Times

New frontiers in farming (1967)

Implications for India (1969)

Not a grain to spare (2007)

A do-or-die year for agriculture, thanks to food inflation (2010)

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