Sukhmani Singh: Agriculture scientist M.S. Swaminathan, 82, hailed as the father of India’s Green Revolution was in Delhi to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award from the All India Management Association. A tireless crusader of farmers’ rights, he vented his anger and frustration against the government in an interview with Mint’s Sukhmani Singh. Excerpts:
Do you think there will be a substantial increase in the Budget for the agriculture sector this year? What should the thrust areas be?
The increase will come indirectly—the Bharat Nirman programme allocates a large segment of funds for rural infrastructure like roads and irrigation. Bharat Nirman plans to irrigate an additional one crore hectares. The other streams are the National Horticulture Mission, the National Health Mission and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme. Directly to agriculture, money has to come through credit, insurance and marketing infrastructure, like rural godowns and warehouses for perishable commodities. I’m not sure whether the government will allocate money for all this. Today, the major agrarian distress is caused by the uneconomic nature of farming. The cost of production is going up, the risks are increasing and the returns are uncertain, especially in rainfed areas, where 60% of farmers exist. About 80% of our farmers have small holdings, so in rainfed areas, the risks are very high. Climate change will further increase the risks. That is why I have been asking for a universal insurance scheme.
So which areas do you think the Budget will focus on?
I have no idea. We recommended last year that as 2007 was the 60th anniversary of our Independence, the government should present some Padma Shri awards to farmers. But not a single farmer was honoured. They only honoured industrialists, musicians, cricketers and so on. The government has not yet woken up to the seriousness of the situation. Farmer suicides are taken as lightly as one more person killed in Baghdad. It’s not just an agricultural tragedy, it’s a human tragedy of a vast dimension.
Since December 2004, you have submitted five reports to the government on behalf of the National Commission of Farmers, with detailed recommendations for revitalizing agriculture. No heed was paid to them. Are you hopeful of anything being done now?
I hope things will be done in the interest of the country, not only in the interest of food security, but national sovereignty, peace and security. I believe that if you don’t implement our suggestions, it will lead to social chaos in the country, and the government will have to increase its expenditure on the police.
But you had a series of meetings on your final report with state agriculture ministers and Sharad Pawar last year. What was their response to your suggestions?
They were all very positive. But positive response is not enough, positive action is important. They said it was an excellent report and addresses all the issues and so on ... All the state ministers agreed with everything, except two from Kerala and West Bengal, who disagreed with my suggestion to bring agriculture under the Concurrent List, mainly to legitimize things. Today, unofficially, it is in the Concurrent List as prices and the credit policy is decided by the Centre, and the funds also come from there. But these two ministers said bringing it under the Concurrent List will reduce their autonomy.
Did they promise any action ?
I think necessity is the mother of action. Today, I think things are coming to a stage where you have only two options—either you compound the problems of law and order or find some income for everyone in the country. The slogans of Food for All, Work for All, Literacy for All and Health for All cannot just remain slogans any more. So what is the option? If they don’t implement our recommendations, the option is social chaos and disaster. So do you want to choose the path of national disintegration?
Public investment in farming has been declining over the years. But with retail on the runway, do you feel the small farmer will benefit?
Private investment will largely go into the construction of infrastructure like malls and so on. If private investment also goes into improving the production infrastructure, then it will help. If the private sector takes over the retail trade, they are going to make a lot of profit. We need sustainable and equitable contract farming, where farmers are insulated from risk. In cases where whole villages are producing for contract farming, the companies themselves should provide group insurance like factories do. These are two sides of a coin—universal crop insurance to ensure income security, and universal public distribution to ensure minimum calorie requirements. If implemented properly, these two will change the face of the country for the better. Investment must be made on the basis of social inclusion, not creating more rich-poor divides.
As the architect of the Green Revolution, had you foreseen the present crisis in agriculture?
Yes, and I have been repeatedly warning the government. It has been a gradual phenomenon since the nineties but globalization has exacerbated it. Last year, we exported Rs800 crore worth of fruits and vegetables, but simultaneously imported Rs1,100 crore worth of them as well. The Himachal apple is going out of the local market. So, 1994 onwards, we are facing unfair trade and competition. While cotton mills are doing very well, they prefer to import cheap American cotton, which is highly subsidized, rather than buy from our own farmers. Vidarbha farmers are committing suicide because of the uneconomic nature of cotton cultivation. That is why we want a national policy for farmers, and not for agriculture; but for the people behind agriculture.