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                          From Basket-case to Bread-basket        

 M. S. Swaminathan








The fortieth anniversary of our independence is a good occasion both to look back and forward. Looking back, there can be nothing but pride in the achievements of our farmers.

          During 1900-1947, the rural economy was practically stagnant, the annual growth rate in food grain production being just 0.1%. In recent decades, the growth rate in food grain production has been about 2.8%, a little above the growth rate in population. 

          Progress has been good in achieving self-sufficiency in all areas, though admittedly, statistical food self-sufficiency does not imply the elimination of hunger. This is why FAO has defined food security as “physical and economic access to food to all people at all times”. 

          I would like to briefly refer to three important elements which made such progress possible. 

          Package of technology

          During the first 20 years after India’s independence, production advances were achieved largely by increasing the area under cultivation. With the pressure of a growing population, improved productivity and more intensified cropping became necessary.

          One of India’s first tasks, therefore, was the building of a scientific infrastructure to stimulate and sustain rapid agricultural advance. As a result, India now has an excellent network of agricultural research institutes and universities.

          At the national level, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) supports and coordinates scientific research, training, and extension education in crop husbandry, fisheries and agro-forestry. It is a unique organisation since it has responsibilities for both research and education.

          Research programmes in India are carried out in a large number of central and state research institutes, and national bureaus such as the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning, and the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. Linking these agricultural universities and central institutes are the All-India Coordinated Research Projects which bring together scientists working in different institutions and disciplines into a symbiotic partnership. Once improved technologies are developed by scientists, verification of the experimental findings in farmers’ fields becomes essential before they are recommended for widespread adoption.

          ICAR has developed the following methods to do this:

          a. “Lab to Land” programme to extend new experimental findings to the small farmers;

          b. National demonstrations to showcase the high-yielding farms in the community; and

          c. Whole village or watershed operational research projects to help identify the major constraints responsible for the gap between potential and actual farm income.

          Agricultural research institutions and universities have identified themselves with the farmers, and farmers often spend many hours visiting the experimental fields and discussing with scientists problems of mutual interest. Briefly, technology development has been based not only on individual factors of production, but also on the farming systems as a whole.

          Let me give two examples of how the research system responded to a specific challenge. After independence, fertiliser production began within the country, and its use in wheat fields was in low doses of about 20 kg of nitrogen per hectare in the 1950s.

          There was no economic response to this low level of nitrogen application. Hence in the early 1960s, research on the breeding of varieties which could respond well to water and fertiliser application was started. The semi-dwarf wheat varieties from Mexico containing the Norin genes for dwarfing, introduced through the help of Dr. N. E. Borlaug, provided suitable strains which could respond well to good soil fertility management.

          A National Demonstration Programme was started in 1964-65 to show new opportunities for improving productivity by using management-responsive varieties. A small government programme was soon converted into a mass movement by farmers, and as a result, the area planted with semi-dwarf varieties increased tremendously from about 4 ha in 1964 to about 4 million ha in 1971. From a peak production of about 12 million tons in 1964 before the introduction of high-yielding varieties, wheat production in 1986 exceeded 46 million tons.

          Likewise, the production of rice - which accounts for 40% of total food grain production in India - was stagnant as rice is predominately a crop of the south-west monsoon period (i.e. May to October) when pest problems together with water control difficulties make it hard to increase yield.

          Fortunately, in the mid-sixties, the ICAR, in partnership with the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), helped to provide new genetic strains, location-specific varieties and technologies for different parts of the country.

          Because of these new technologies, non-traditional rice areas like the Punjab, and non-traditional rice seasons like the summer, became important in rice production. Even in severe drought, Punjab has maintained high rice yields because the government provided adequate energy to pump water from the tube wells.

          Because of all this, milled rice production has increased from 20.6 million tons in 1950-51 to 62 million tons in 1985-86.         

          Package of services

          In India, both government and private agencies have been active in providing inputs like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, and, very importantly, credit. Public sector companies like the National Seeds Corporation and credit institutions like the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development have become very important instruments that enabled small farmer to adopt new technologies. Mass media - particularly radio, local newspapers and now increasingly television - have been extremely important in the dissemination of agricultural information. The major goal of the input supply system is to render new technology accessible to all farmers, and is tailored to specific socio-cultural conditions.         

          Package of government policies

          Farmers will not be able to derive benefit from good technologies and efficient input supply systems unless some basic steps are taken by government, as for example, land reform. Farmers need to have a long-term stake in the land to make them invest on infrastructure essential for sustained productivity. Security of tenure, land-ownership pattern, and size of the farm-holding are areas that need particular attention.

          In the past, land use decisions were taken by farming families based largely on the needs of the family and the immediate neighborhood. With the modernisation of agriculture, farmers produce food grains and other commodities not only for themselves, but more importantly, for the market. When this transition takes place, opportunities for producer-oriented and remunerative marketing become an important factor in sustaining and stimulating farmers’ interest in modern technology.

          The turning point in Indian agriculture took place in 1964, when the Government of India set up an Agricultural Prices Commission to recommend minimum prices for food grains in order to provide an incentive to the farmers. To honour its commitment to the farmers on floor prices, the Food Corporation of India was set up to purchase all the surplus grain offered by farmers. This is the reason for the fairly substantial grain reserves now with the Government.

          When packages of technology, services, and public policies are developed and introduced in a mutually supportive manner, agricultural progress is rapid. However, it is the investment policies of government that ultimately decided the fate of rural professions.

          Without adequate rural infrastructure such as roads, warehouses, and electricity, and facilities for education and health care, rural areas will not attract technically qualified people. In fact, the most serious form of brain drain in most developing countries is the migration of educated and well-trained persons from the village to the town.

          In India, as in most developing countries, youth below the age of 21 constitute the majority of the population. The future of agriculture and rural professions will depend greatly on our ability to make agriculture both economically and intellectually attractive, through the development and popularising of knowledge-intensive production systems. At the same time, essential facilities for decent living and the opportunities to acquire consumer goods should be provided in rural areas.

          I have briefly dealt with some of the major ingredients of food production policies and strategies in India, with emphasis on basic principles rather than dates and details. Essentially, the lessons learnt from the last 40 years experience are the following:

          a. develop a strong national research capability in agriculture which can help provide optimum returns from the land, water, livestock, and capital resources;

          b. develop methods of transferring know-how and skills to farmers and provide them with inputs necessary for converting technological advances into production gains;

          c. introduce agrarian reform, rural development and communication concepts, input-output pricing policies and other programmes which can stimulate and sustain the growth of market-oriented farming;

          d. stimulate consumption by the rural and urban poor through various measure including Food for Work and Employment Guarantee projects; and

          e. consider agriculture not just as a means to produce food for the urban population but also as a powerful instrument to increase income and employment. Such an approach is necessary to generate diversified opportunities for enhancing the purchasing power of the rural population. This will call for a labour-friendly approach in technology development and transfer. 

          Challenges ahead

          1987 has been characterised by widespread drought in many parts of India and by floods in some parts. Consequently, food grain production will suffer a severe setback during this year, thus emphasising that our agricultural destiny is still linked closely with the behaviour of the monsoon.

          Fortunately, we have adequate food grain reserves to feed the public distribution system and to operate a national “Food for Work” programme. The reserves will however get severely depleted at the end of the year.

          There is thus no time to relax or rejoice. The last 40 years have shown that if agriculture goes right, there is a chance for everything else to go right. A “more of the same” approach will not help us solve the more difficult scientific, social, and ecological problems responsible for the uneven spread of new technologies and for our inability to get full benefit from our investment in irrigation. The future of our agriculture will depend on the actions we take now to achieve a proper blend of individual initiative, group endeavour and government action. 

(Excerpted from INDIA DIGEST NO. 2: Sept.-Oct. 1987)

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