The media and the farm sector

By TheHindu on 14 Dec 2016 | read

With nearly 60 per cent of India’s cultivated area being rain-fed, Indian agriculture continues to remain a gamble in the monsoon.

The media will have to serve as sources of early warning in relation to the emerging food crisis.

A major trigger for the Green Revolution, which was a term coined by Dr. William Gaud of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in 1968 to mark a significant increase in crop production through yield advance, was the enormous enthusiasm generated among farm families by the print media and All India Radio on the opportunity created by semi-dwarf varieties of wheat and rice to enhance yield and income very substantially. The revolution resulted from a symphony approach with four major components – technology, which is the prime mover of change; services, which can take the technology to all farmers whether small or large; public policies relating to the price of inputs and output, and above all, farmers’ enthusiasm promoted by the mass media. When in 1963 we started large-scale research and testing with semi-dwarf varieties of wheat obtained from Mexico through Norman Borlaug, the new plant types attracted media attention immediately. Several enthusiastic reports appeared in Indian newspapers as well as in foreign journals like The Economist of London on the new opportunities opened up by scientists to achieve a quantum jump in yield. Such reports were based on the visits of experienced correspondents to the experimental fields of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi, and the Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana.

The media reports led to widespread demand for the seeds of the new strains. To meet this demand, 18,000 tonnes of seeds of a few good varieties were imported in 1966 from Mexico, as a part of the purchase of time operation we had then designed. From 1964 to 1967, the country had the good fortune of having C. Subramaniam as Union Minister for Agriculture and Food. This facilitated timely public policy decisions.

In addition to the original Mexican material, we had selected from the segregating populations sent by Dr. Borlaug amber grain wheat varieties such as Kalyan Sona and Sonalika. Farmers in the interior areas of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and Madhya Pradesh used to refer to the new varieties as “radio varieties” since they had heard about them only through All India Radio. The media thus helped to convert a small government programme titled “High Yielding Varieties Programme” into a mass movement. This is why the progress witnessed was revolutionary and not merely evolutionary. India’s print media came to the rescue of the country at a time when the global media and experts had written off India from the point of view of its ability to feed itself. Experts like Paul and William Paddock had even applied the triage analysis methodology and concluded that India cannot be saved from mass starvation and death caused by hunger. It is in this background that the Green Revolution took place and converted India from the position of carrying a begging bowl to becoming a bread basket. The print media and the radio thus served as bright affirming flames in the midst of a sea of despair, and helped generate a new confidence in our agricultural capability.

It is now over 40 years since the onset of the Green Revolution. There is talk about the need for a second Green Revolution. However, such a revolution is nowhere in sight. The media faithfully report the Prime Minister’s desire for a second Green Revolution, but have no time or space to discuss why this is not happening. To the financial media, in particular, what matters is GDP growth rate, as well as the state of the economy as measured by the situation in the share market. Even this year’s widespread drought and the consequent suffering caused to millions of children, women and men were dismissed as unimportant to the economic growth rate, since agriculture contributes less than 18 per cent to GDP. Since we have enough foreign exchange reserves to resort to large-scale food imports, the media’s attitude in general seems to be: “why bother about farmers and farming?” The fact that nearly two-thirds of India’s population live in villages and that agriculture constitutes the backbone of their livelihood and survival, is put under the carpet since it constitutes an “inconvenient truth.” No wonder over 40 per cent of the farmers interviewed by the National Sample Survey Organisation have expressed a desire to quit farming, if there is another option available.

The extensive prevalence of child and adult malnutrition and India’s anticipated failure to halve the number of the hungry by 2015 as per the first of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, receive only a passing mention in the media. The social and economic consequences of pervasive hunger and destitution are hardly highlighted. Even during the Green Revolution days of the 1960s and 1970s, Indira Gandhi stressed in her address at the U.N. Conference on the Human Environment held in Stockholm in 1972, that the health of the environment will depend on the attention we pay to the basic needs of the poor in relation to food, shelter and work. Only mega-calamities such as severe flood, drought and tsunami, and farmers’ suicides attract media attention. Journalists like P Sainath, who has been analysing such issues in depth in the columns of The Hindu, are rare.

It is now two years since a National Policy for Farmers based on a draft provided by the National Commission on Farmers (NCF) was placed in Parliament by Union Agriculture and Food Minister Sharad Pawar. This is the first time either in colonial or independent India that a comprehensive policy for farmers has been developed. All the earlier policies were for agriculture and not for the men and women who toil in the sun and the rain to feed the country. The National Policy for Farmers calls for a paradigm shift from measuring agricultural progress merely in terms of growth rates, to measuring it in terms of the growth in the real income of farm families. The policy stresses the need for an income orientation to farming, both to overcome poverty in rural India and to attract and retain youth in farming.

The famine of jobs is one of the primary causes of food insecurity in the country. Recent reports that over 5,000 persons apply for each clerical job available in the railways and banks is evidence of the growing frustration among educated youth. Agriculture can trigger job-led economic growth, provided it becomes intellectually satisfying and economically rewarding. This will involve the technological upgradation of small-farm agriculture and giving small farmers the power and economies of scale through appropriate group management innovations. This will also call for strengthening the services sector relevant to small-scale farming, such as agri-clinic, agri-business centre, and Small Farmers’ Agri-business Consortium.

Nearly 60 per cent of India’s cultivated area is rain-fed, with the result that Indian agriculture continues to remain a gamble in the monsoon. There are, however, new technologies which can help enhance the yield of dryland crops like pulses and oilseeds by 200 to 300 per cent. The country’s imports of pulses are increasing, while there is great scope to produce in the rainfed areas the pulses and oilseeds we need. In the 1960s, media correspondents visited experimental stations and conveyed to readers the excitement of the new genetics. Such visits and reports are rare now.

Because of the proximity of the Copenhagen Summit, there is currently considerable discussion on common and differentiated responsibilities with reference to the containment of greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is very little discussion on the potential impact of a rise in the mean temperature by 2 degrees C, as agreed at L’Aquilla by the G-20 nations. Such a rise in mean temperature will diminish the production of wheat, rice and other crops significantly. Food production will also be affected globally and the price of the basic staples will go up. We cannot therefore depend on imports to meet the food needs of a growing population. Also, global warming will affect rural women more, since they are traditionally involved in the selection of feed and fodder, the care of animals and the fetching of water. The gender dimensions of the impact of climate change are receiving scant attention.

We currently produce about 220 million tonnes of cereals to meet the needs of a population of 1.15 billion. While calculating food requirements, we often overlook the needs of farm animals. We have nearly a billion farm animals including poultry that need feed and water. We have to double cereal production by 2050 in order to meet the needs of the expected human population of nearly 1.8 billion, in addition to meeting the needs of livestock and poultry. Globally also the human population is expected to reach nine billion by 2050 and global food production will have to go up by at least 70 per cent to meet the needs. Two years ago when petroleum prices went up, food prices also went up and there were food riots in many countries. The saying “where hunger rules, peace cannot prevail” is not just a cliché. The media will have to serve as sources of early warning in relation to the emerging food crisis.

Finally, farmers get inadequate and uncertain prices for their commodities. This is why the NCF recommended that the minimum support price for rice, wheat and other commodities should be C2, that is, the total cost of production plus 50 per cent. Fortunately, the Commission on Cost and Prices adopted this formula while recommending a support price of Rs.1,080 a quintal for wheat last year. I hope this year’s announcement of Rs.1,100 a quintal of wheat will be suitably adjusted at the time of procurement, taking into account the meteorological conditions and the price of inputs.

Unless the media assume a pro-small farmer approach in their reporting, food production will either stagnate or go down. This will obviously affect the country’s social stability adversely. It is time the media resumed their active participation in revitalising our agriculture and in safegaurding our food sovereignty.

(Professor Swaminathan is a Member of Parliament, Rajya Sabha. This article is based on a presentation he made on November 6 at a workshop on the theme ‘Parliament and the Media’ organised by the Rajya Sabha in New Delhi.)