The Financial Express (India)
By Prof MS Swaminathan
August 9, 2009

The 1950s constituted a critical period in India’s agricultural evolution. At the time of our Independence in 1947, Jawaharlal Nehru mentioned that “Everything else can wait but not agriculture”. This was because our Independence was born in the backdrop of the great Bengal Famine when more than two million people died due to starvation.

Nehru placed emphasis on institution building and infrastructure development. Irrigation and power projects, fertiliser and pesticide industry, and research and education received considerable attention. Production went up largely because of expansion in irrigated area. Thanks to advances in preventive and curative medicine, average life span as well as population growth rate went up. Consequently, food imports grew, much of it under the PL-480 programme of the United States.

The steps taken by government were largely in the field of technology, training, techno-infrastructure and trade. In the field of technology, Nehru helped to introduce frontier technologies for upgrading small farm productivity. Thus, a large exhibition was held in Delhi in 1958, in co-operation with the US Atomic Energy Commission on “Atoms on the Farm”. This exhibition showed the potential uses of atomic energy in creating new crop varieties, in controlling pests and in the field of food safety and storage.

The Indian Agriculture Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi became in 1958 the first deemed university in the country under the UGC Act of 1956. The other institution which was granted deemed university status in 1958 was the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore. IARI became the leading centre for training high level human resource for the transformation of our agriculture. It also became the epicenter for scientific research designed to increase the productivity of wheat and other crops. The scientific foundations for sustainable agriculture were thus laid during the 50s. It is this foundation which helped the launching of the Green Revolution in the 60s.

While the first phase in the agricultural history of India extended from 1947 to 1964, the second period ended in 1984. It can be called the Lal Bahadur Shastri-Indira Gandhi era, when both agricultural production and food security received integrated attention. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s brief period as Prime Minister (1964-66) was characterised by severe food shortage, with the result that he appealed for a one day fast in every week to reduce demand. He also coined the slogan Jai Kisan-Jai Jawan. In 1966, wheat imports touched 10 million tonnes and this helped to avoid famine.

In 1968, the birth of the Green Revolution was announced by Indira Gandhi by issuance of a special stamp titled ‘the wheat revolution’. The Green Revolution was meant to denote that the pathway for the advance of food production is increase in productivity per hectare, not area expansion. For example, in the 1960s the average yield of wheat per hectare was about 800 kgs. At this yield level, we will need 100 million hectares to produce the current wheat production level of 80 million tonnes. The present average is however about 26 million ha, thereby leading to a saving of over 70 million ha.

There were four essential ingredients in the birth and growth of the Green Revolution. First, new plant types of wheat and rice which can respond well to soil nutrition and irrigation were developed, tested in farmers’ fields and popularised. Second, the services needed for the spread of the technology, like seeds, irrigation and extension received considerable attention. Third, public policies relating to input and output pricing and special assistance to small and marginal farmers were tailored to assure farmers an assured income.

Minimum support prices were announced and implemented. Finally, the National Demonstration Programme and the programmes of the All India Radio and Doordarshan (Krishi Darshan programme) aroused great enthusiasm among farmers, as a result of which High-Yielding Varieties Programme became a mass movement. Thus, new technologies, appropriate services, farmer-centre public policies and farmers’ enthusiasm together led to the birth of a Green Revolution symphony. C Subramaniam (1964-67) and Babu Jagjivan Ram (1967-70 and 1974-77) served as able conductors of this symphony. India’s global image of a nation destined to lead a ship-to-mouth existence was erased.

The third phase, covering 1984 to 2004, was marked by both ecstasy and agony. Rajiv Gandhi showed how to improve the production and productivity of pulses and oilseeds by introducing the Technology Mission approach, which involved concurrent attention to all links in the production, consumption and marketing chain. Oilseed production went up in a striking manner. However, a fatigue of the GreenRrevolution set in both due to ecological and economic reasons. A survey by NSSO showed that over 40% of the farm families wanted to quit farming, if there was another option. Farming was no longer a livelihood option for youth, and this spelled disaster to the future of our agriculture, since over 70% of the rural population is below the age of 35. As a result of all these factors, the growth rate in human numbers started exceeding agricultural growth rates.

We were thus confronted with a dilemma. On the one hand, we have no option except to produce more from less per capita arable land and irrigation water. On the other hand, if farm ecology and economics go wrong, nothing else will have a chance to go right. It is under these circumstances that I pleaded for an Ever-Green Revolution, which implies increasing productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm. This will call for mainstreaming ecological principles in technology development and dissemination.

The fourth phase, which began in 2004 and continues until today, marks the beginning of a paradigm shift from measuring agricultural progress from merely growth rates in production to measuring the wellbeing of farmers in terms of real improvement in their net income.

This shift was enshrined in the National Policy for Farmers placed in Parliament by the Union Minister for Agriculture and Food in November 2007. If implemented, this policy will help to reverse the decline in agricultural growth, as well as it will stop the desertion of youth from the farm sector.

To look back, the decade of the 1960s marked a turning point in our agricultural history. For the first time, science and social engineering were brought together. A new confidence in our agricultural capability was born during that period. I have had the good fortune of participating in all the four phases of our agricultural progress during the past 62 years. We have 25% of the world’s farming population. We have also 20% of the world’s farm animal wealth.

Experience has shown that our food security system should be based predominantly on home grown food. Our farm women and men have demonstrated that they can safeguard our food security system, if they are enabled to do so through appropriate technologies and public policies. Pandit Nehru’s exhortation in 1947 that “everything else can wait, but not agriculture”, as well as Lal Bahadur Shastri’s 1965 slogan, ‘Jai Kisan’ are far more relevant today than when they were formulated.

To bring about a mindset change with reference to the multiple role farmers play in shaping our nation’s economic and political destiny, we should institute “National Sovereignty Savior Awards’, to recognise the invaluable contributions of outstanding farm women and men.