Taking technology to the farmer

Tags: Op-ed
Taking technology to the farmer
Bloomberg
BEING PROACTIVE: We need an Indian single market where farmers can move and sell their produce across the country without restriction
India’s independence in 1947 had the great Bengal famine as its backdrop. During the Bengal famine of 1942-43, over three million children, women and men died of starvation. India’s first prime minister Jawaharlal Nehru, therefore, said in 1947, “Everything else can wait; but not agriculture”. This commitment led to the initiation of several programmes in the field of agriculture, such as extension of irrigation facilities, establishment of seed corporations, fertiliser and pesticide factories, development of market infrastructure and setting up of agricultural universities.

A special programme called the ‘package programme’ was initiated in 1960-61 in the form of an intensive agriculture district programme (IADP). The aim of the IADP was to maximise production in areas where irrigation water was available. Unfortunately, it did not yield the expected results. On a careful study of the reasons for IADP failing to deliver high yields, I found that the so called ‘package programme’ had a missing ingredient, namely, a genetic strain capable of responding well to good soil fertility conditions and irrigation water application. This led to the search for new genes for fertiliser response. This is where Dr Norman Borlaug’s timely help led to a change in India’s agricultural history.

On my invitation, Borlaug visited India in 1963, when he and I travelled in the wheat belt of north India. He prepared a package of seeds for trial in the country for which, Borlaug kept in view their performance in Pakistan, where he had sent the seeds earlier. Immediately on their arrival, the seeds were despatched to different locations for a multi-location trial. These trials, when harvested in 1964 revealed that the new semi-dwarf strains sent from Mexico could give two to three times more than the yield of the earlier Indian varieties. This led to the birth of the high-yielding varieties programme in 1966 which resulted in the Wheat Revolution of 1968.

Few important innovations triggered the speedy progress, which in turn made many prophets of doom wrong. First, several agronomic innovations were introduced, such as shallow sowing and giving the first irrigation at the crown root initiation phase. Secondly, extension innovations like the national demonstration programme (NDP) and the ‘lab to land and land to land’ (that is, farmer to farmer learning) were introduced. The national demonstrations were laid out in the fields of farmers with small holdings, since the success of demonstrations in a rich farmer’s field will be attributed to affluence and not to technology. Thirdly, innovations in seed production were introduced such as the organisation of seed villages and the import of 18,000 tonnes of seeds from Mexico. Finally, economic and public policy innovations such as the announcement of a minimum support price and procurement by the Food Corporation of India at the announced price of all the quantities brought by farmers to the market played a major role in stimulating and sustaining farmers’ interest in the semi-dwarf varieties. In the ultimate analysis, only assured and remunerative marketing opportunities lead to farmers producing more. Thus, the Green Revolution was the result of mutually reinforcing packages of technology, services and public policies. Scientific skill, political will and farmers’ toil were all responsible for rapid and spectacular progress, thereby falsifying the phophets of doom. Borlaug has certainly left his footprints on the sands of time in India’s farming scene.

Borlaug’s birth centenary was commemorated last week at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation, Chennai by organising an inter-disciplinary dialogue titled “Take it to the farmer”. This title was prompted by Borlaug’s last words when he told his daughter to take to farmers a new device for soil health measurement which was shown to him by a scientist from the Texas A&M University. Borlaug was keen that there should not be much gap between scientific know-how and farmers’ do-how.

The three-day event that was attended by over 200 scientists and farmers from 15 countries laid particular stress on the need for strengthening our work on climate resilient agriculture. Recent climatic events including hailstorms and unseasonal rain in Maharashtra and north India emphasise the need for accelerating our work designed to scientifically checkmate the adverse impact of unfavourable weather.

Another area which received considerable attention was value chain development in order to increase the income of smallholders. This requires new forms of cooperation among farmers, such as producer companies and commodity centred associations. We need methods of combining the power of mass production, which promotes job-led economic growth, with production by masses. It is this combination which helped to take us to the first position in the world in terms of milk production. There is need for making available the latest scientific technologies to farmers in agricultural engineering, biotechnology, information technology and renewable energy technology.

The national commission of farmers’ recommendation is that there should be an Indian single market, which will allow the free movement of agricultural produce throughout the country, deserves implementation. There are too many impediments in the movement of agricultural and horticultural commodities across the nation and it is high time that we have an Indian single market where farmers can move and sell their produce all over the country without restriction. This will help them to get the best possible price for their produce.

The year 2016 has been designated as the international year of pulses and we should begin steps now onwards to intensify the cultivation of pulses. This will not only help to improve soil fertility but also will help to alleviate protein hunger. To conclude, taking the best available technologies to farm families is the need of the hour. Now that agriculture has assumed a legal obligation to provide the food needed for implementing the right to food under the National Food Security Act, 2013, there is no time to relax on the food production front.

(M S Swaminathan is an agricultural scientist who led India’s green revolution)

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