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Dr M.S. Swaminathan

‘Future belongs to nations who have grains, not guns’

Civil Society News, New Delhi

Published: Nov. 14, 2023
Updated: Apr. 16, 2024

Dr M.S. Swaminathan, who passed away on September 28, 2023, was a scientist ahead of his time. Even as he helmed the Green Revolution to save India from hunger and external dependence, he cautioned against its downsides: pesticide dependence, groundwater overuse and escalating input costs.

His voluminous report on Indian agriculture has gathered dust under successive governments, including the current BJP regime. But the report remains today the most influential and insightful document on reforming and strengthening the rural economy.

When new farm laws were rushed through Parliament and bitterly opposed by farmers, it was Dr Swaminathan who was remembered for his suggestions on compensating farmers adequately and making farming more viable for small farmers instead of abandoning them to the manipulation of powerful market forces. Corporations weren’t his answer to better farming. Empowering small farmers was, as also making farming sustainable and protecting biodiversity.

An exhaustive interview he gave Civil Society in July 2010 covered many of the concerns of today. He was clear that the small farmer should be the focus of an agricultural/food policy. At the time the right to food bill was being drafted, he welcomed the shift to a rights-based approach but pointed out the mere handing out of foodgrains would not achieve much. A law would have to “look at the totality of what needs to be done”.


Q: Are you in broad agreement with the Food Security Bill? What are the key issues you think it should contain?

The Food Security Bill is the culmination of Mahatma Gandhi’s desire that independent India should give the highest priority to mitigating hunger. Since the last 60 years we have been doing many things starting with the Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS). The Tamil Nadu government went further and began a universal midday meal programme in schools. The food for work programme was started in 1974-75. It has culminated in the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (MNREGA) which is to ensure purchasing power in the hands of the people. even the Bengal Famine was not due to a famine of food, but to a famine of purchasing power.

Where there is work, there is money, where there is money, there is food. And therefore purchasing power is important. MNREGA was designed to provide at least Rs 10,000 a year in the hands of the poor.

In the last five years we have seen a paradigm shift from a purely patronage approach to a rights approach – the right to education, the right to information, the right to employment, the right to land for tribals and forest dwellers. The charity approach has been replaced by a rights approach. This shift is very important. The Food Security Bill is a continuation of this rights-based approach.


Q: How should this right be defined in the Food Security Bill?

Food security implies social, economic and physical access – a balanced diet, sanitation, clean drinking water and primary health care. Both food and non-food requirements are involved. For example, if you don’t have good drinking water, you will have stomach ailments and poor health.

On the other hand if we don’t produce more, we can’t have food security for two reasons. One is that unlike Europe or America where hardly two or three percent of people are involved in farming, in our country over 60 percent are engaged in farming. Intelligent people in cities think the consumer is in the city and the producer is in the village. But the producer is the consumer.

Actually, producer consumers form the largest segment in India. Over 60 per cent of producers are consumers. However, the producer is malnourished. Or, in other words, the producer does not have money to buy. Sixty percent of our area is rain-fed, just 40 per cent has irrigation. Only 16 per cent of our crops are pulses, oilseeds, sometimes horticulture. Now if the producer wants to buy other commodities he needs money. So the first step in food security is to improve the productivity and prosperity of small farm agriculture. Only then will small farmers have money to buy a balanced diet.

We have three components of food security. First, availability of food in the market which is a function of production and that means enhancing the productivity of small farms, dryland farms. Secondly, absorption of food in the body, which is a function of safe, clean drinking water, sanitation, primary health care. And thirdly, access to food, which is a function of purchasing power or jobs. With food inflation being high, money is important for food security.

Food security therefore means availability, access and absorption. These three are critical. A Food Security Act should look at the totality of what needs to be done.


Q: Are you supporting universal entitlements?

Any act of this kind can have two components – common, but differentiated entitlements. Even the Climate Convention talks of common but differentiated responsibilities. Similarly, in a Food Security Act common entitlement means common to all the people in this country, or a universal public distribution system, availability of food in the market at reasonable prices, availability of drinking water, sanitation… for everybody, for 110 crores of people.

But differentiated entitlement will be for those who are really poor, who have no purchasing power. Various numbers have been cited. I would say one-fourth of our population is poor. For them you need to provide food at an economically accessible price, say Rs 3 per kg, but Tamil Nadu prices rice at Rs 1 per kg of rice.


Q: So you are for universal entitlements?

Overarching it should be a universal entitlement. (But there should also be) legal entitlements. And it is important to ensure effective enforcement and implementation, what you call governance. That cannot be legislated. The future belongs to nations who have grains not guns. Guns you can purchase, grains you cannot. Because of climate change, food will be very highly priced. Therefore, we need to improve availability of food from homegrown food. This has two advantages. One, we can be sure of our food, and secondly, by increasing the productivity of small farms you will increase the purchasing power of producer-consumers and mitigate hunger now prevailing among them.


Q: How can you legislate on this?

Some are legal entitlements. Some are enforcements. The Supreme Court takes the right to life with the right to food and water. You can’t have the right to life without food and water. The court has been giving instructions. It is not necessary for an act to be all about legal entitlements. But some enforcement and coordination has to be prescribed. For example I have been pleading for a long time for national grain storages. Today, in Punjab and Haryana grains are put in gunny bags which are left lying around. Then the rains come. Now you can’t discharge a Food Security Act without food.

They say we can have a food security fund. If we don’t have grains we can give money. If you do that prices will go up. In the Sixth Pay Commission, when government servants got more money, the cost of living index went up almost immediately. Giving money therefore means prices will rise.

India is home to the largest number of malnourished children, women and men. In September, this year, there will be a big summit in New York to review the achievement of the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs). The first goal is reducing hunger and malnourishment by half by 2015. And we will present a poor picture there. I hope the Food Security Act will not take a narrow view of just providing some wheat and rice at an affordable price. That is important, I agree. But it does not constitute food security.

Economic access to food, at affordable cost, is one important element of food security. That’s important. But if you don’t have enough food in the market, prices will go up. If you don’t have safe drinking water, sanitation and so on, calorie intake alone won’t help you.

So this is a great occasion for our country to overcome the stigma of malnutrition, maternal deaths and low- weight children. In my view the food security law should start with children, 0 to 3 years old in particular, for that is when 80 per cent of brain development takes place. In a knowledge era unless you can give children the opportunity for expression of innate genetic potential, intellectual and physical development, we will not be a great nation. Take a lifecycle approach to food security. Start with pregnant women, babies and then go up to old and infirm people.

The government has so many schemes. Some are legal entitlements. The other aspect is to have enforcement of schemes, some kind of monitoring mechanism, so that whenever the Supreme Court calls, you can say this is being done. Both prescriptive and mandatory measures are possible.


Q: Is it actually possible to deliver 35 kg at Rs 3?

It is possible. You have to provide money and planning for this. Even now 50 to 60 million tonnes are available to the government. Some grains are rotting. Because they are rotting,  grains are being exported. If we increase consumption in this country, there will be no food surplus. You need to improve your storage. You go to an average American/Canadian/ Australian farm. They have beautiful silos where they store food without any loss. here our farmers produce food with so much difficulty and then you put it in some gunny bags and allow it to rot. Now this is not on. We can’t have food security without attention to production, food safety and safe storage of grains.


Q: You have often talked of decentralization of storage. Could you tell us more about this?

I suggested a minimum of 50 locations, ideally 128, in different agroclimatic regions where climate risk management research and training centres can be set up all over the country and in particular in rain-fed areas and tribal areas. You will find that next month, the media will report starvation deaths. Even in a district like Thane, close to Mumbai, there will be starvation. Media will show pictures. Tribals are there. You should give visibility to grain storage so that prices can be tamed. In a country of 1.1 billion  people which will become 1.5  billion by 2040 or so, the government should remain at the commanding heights of the food security system. That can only be possible if you have national grain storages. People will then know that around one million tonnes of grain are there. And if there is drought or a flood or a disaster, the food can be rushed to them.


Q: You have emphasized water a lot for food security.

There are five major sources of water. We have high density rainfall which comes in 100 hours a year. We need to harvest and store every raindrop. In MNREGA, emphasis has been rightly given to water harvesting, watershed management and soil conservation. I would say we need to utilize the enormous labour available. The month of June is the time. June must be monsoon management month.

Professors in agricultural universities, students, those who have knowledge of water-harvesting should go from village to village and see what preparations have been done. have farmers got seeds in place? Do they have fertilizers? Is the water-harvesting structure alright? They will learn much more than sitting in classrooms. In MNREGA we should give dignity to the work being done. I would say institute a water saviour award for the best MNREGA group which saves the most water. MNREGA workers must feel they are doing something nationally important. The beneficiary approach should change to a participatory approach. As Gandhi said, don’t make people beggars. enable everyone to earn their daily bread.

Apart from harvesting rain, use water more efficiently. Some years ago the Ministry of Water Resources started at my suggestion a programme called, ‘more crop and income per drop of water.’ We have farmers participating in this programme across the country. We can augment supply of water, manage our demand better and use new technologies. There is rain water, river water, groundwater, recycled sewage water and effluents from industry. Nearly 80 per cent of water which industry takes can be given back in a pure form.

Finally, there is sea water. Ninety-seven per cent of water is sea water. As Mahatma Gandhi said when he started the Salt Satyagraha, sea water is a social resource, not a private resource. We should use sea water farming, or agri-aqua farms in the Andaman and Nicobar Islands and the Lakshwadeep islands.


Q: We have just had a heated debate on seeds.

Nearly 80 per cent of seeds are farmer-saved seeds. hardly 18 to 20 per cent of seeds come from companies or the National Seeds Corporation. There is difference in assessment on whether farmers can get more yield and income by changing their seeds. If you go to tribal areas, you will find not only do they save their own seeds but they grow traditional foodgrains, millets. In fact the Food Security Act should promote grain banks everywhere with local grains, apart from wheat and rice. We should promote diversification of the food basket and not confine ourselves to wheat and rice. So traditional seeds must be conserved and saved.

Fortunately there is a National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources in Delhi which has got more than a million varieties. There is also DRDO which has established a very interesting storage in perma frost at Chang La not far from Leh. It is naturally cooled. Farming is the largest private sector enterprise in India in which 115 million families are involved. It’s not just a bunch of industrialists like CII. Farmers keep their own seeds and make their own judgment on what to grow and what not to grow.


Q: Is there any role for the scientific establishment in all this?

The scientific establishment should have a great stake. When we started our agricultural universities, the idea was that rural people would consider them as their own. They would see the university as their friend, philosopher and guide. Now we have over 40 agricultural universities. They should go in June to help farmers in villages. But they don’t go. I have been going to visit fields for the last 60 years. My knowledge is not from books alone. Unless you intermingle with farmers, you’ll be living in a world of your own. The field is the laboratory, not the scientist’s personal research. In 1964 when I realized we have a new opportunity to make a breakthrough in the yield of wheat — we were importing at that time 10 million tonnes under PL 480 — I proposed to the government that we establish 1,000 national demonstrations in the poorest farmers’ fields. I said if you demonstrate anything in the rich farmers’ fields, its success will not be attributed to technology. They will say this fellow is a wealthy man, I can’t do it. So we changed the methodology of extension from the prosperous farmer, to the toiling farmer. Unfortunately, now those demonstration plots are all malls.

I went to see one of my best farmers and his land has been given to a heritage hotel, you see. In those days, farmers put up the demonstration plots. I only helped. They produced four to five tonnes of wheat, whereas earlier they were producing only one tonne, one and a half tonnes. The rich farmers came and saw their success and a small government programme, called a high-yielding varieties programme, became a mass movement. A government programme cannot trigger a revolution. It is only the farmer’s enthusiasm that can do it. I told the Prime Minister don’t talk of a green revolution. Forty percent of farmers want to quit farming. So how do you create a mass movement? You need enthusiasm.


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