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A master in his field

Babu Jagjivan Ram ensured that Indian agriculture moved from a state of dependence to one of proud sufficiency during two very critical periods: first, from 1967 to ’70 and second, from 1974 to ’77, writes MS Swaminathan.

india Updated: Apr 07, 2013 23:44 IST
MS Swaminathan
MS Swaminathan

Babu Jagjivan Ram headed the Union ministry of agriculture during two very critical periods: first, from 1967 to ’70 and second, from 1974 to ’77. In between he served as the defence minister and provided outstanding leadership in the struggle for the liberation of Bangladesh. He thus attended, with great dedication and distinction, to the two pillars of our freedom, captured in the immortal formulation of Lal Bahadur Shastri, namely, “Jai Jawan and Jai Kisan”. Babu Jagjivan Ram achieved national admiration and appreciation rather young in his life through his work for giving support and comfort to the victims of the Bihar earthquake of 1934.

Throughout his life he remained a simple person, committed to the Gandhian values of non-violence and secularism. He was truly a son of the soil to whom agriculture remained the noblest of all professions. Even when he was a minister he used to attend to his kitchen garden and ensure that the plants are healthy and happy. He was also fond of growing mushrooms in his house. His unique characteristic was his desire to share good food with others, rather than eating alone. On many occasions I have received a sudden invitation to come to his house for dinner and share the joy of good and tasty food.

During 1964-67, Bharat Ratna C Subramaniam provided the political leadership and support that led to the green revolution. Those were difficult days in our agricultural history. We were described as a nation leading a ‘ship to mouth existence’ since the public distribution system depended on the arrival of wheat from the United States under the US government’s PL480 programme. The whole world had written off India from the point of view of its ability to feed itself. Indian farmers were described as “lazy and fatalistic” persons. It is in this atmosphere that the green revolution was born.

From that ‘ship to mouth existence’ of the 1960s, we have now graduated to the state of making access to food a legal right. Such a change in our agricultural destiny happened during the critical years of 1967-70 when Babuji led the ministry of agriculture. When Indira Gandhi invited him in 1967 to join as minister for agriculture and food, he told her that he would do so, but only if he was also made in charge of the irrigation portfolio. This was because of his conviction that irrigation water security holds the key to food security in our country. He also knew that land use decisions are also water use decisions. Therefore, land and water have to be managed in an integrated way. Unfortunately, today this wisdom appears to be absent and there is fragmentation with regard to the political management of the several components of sustainable agriculture.

Babuji was clear that unless farmers get a remuneration price, they would not take an interest in yield-enhancing technologies. In 1968, when the first large scale purchase of the Mexican semi-dwarf wheat variety Lerma Rojo was to be made by the Food Corporation of India, the Agriculture Prices Commission had recommended a difference of about R5 per quintal between red and amber grain varieties. Lerma Rojo, which gave a yield of 4 to 5 tonnes per hectare, had red grains and would have therefore fetched R5 less per quintal. Babuji knew that if such a difference in procurement price was adopted, farmers would lose interest in the cultivation of Lerma Rojo. He called Mr Dias, who was then the food secretary, and me for a discussion on this topic before he announced in Parliament that the government would buy all the wheat offered to it, irrespective of grain colour, at the same price. This one decision of his played a catalytic role in spreading the new high yielding varieties on a large scale during 1968-69 and in subsequent years.

The seeds of the green revolution in India were sown in the fields of the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack, in the early 1950s through the indica-japonica hybridisation programme, and later in 1963 in the fields of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), New Delhi and the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. Research on semi-dwarf, non-lodging varieties was started at IARI in the mid-1950s. The arrival and assistance of Dr Norman Borlaug in 1963 helped to accelerate the dwarf wheat breeding programme and purchase time in launching a yield revolution. The wheat improvement and production programmes were entirely conceived, planned and executed by us. We achieved rapid progress and proved the prophets of doom wrong only because we could achieve synergy among packages of technology, services and public policies. Such a symphonic approach was facilitated first by C Subramaniam and later by Jagjivan Ram.

The year 2013 marks the 50th anniversary of the initiation of the semi-dwarf wheat breeding programme that ultimately resulted in the wheat revolution. This development has made it possible for us to plan on conferring a legal right to food on about 70% of our population through the National Food Security Bill currently under the consideration of Parliament. When enacted, the National Food Security Bill of India will be the largest social protection measure against hunger in the world. The transition from ‘a ship to mouth’ existence of the 1960s to ‘right to food’ with homegrown food in 2013 marks the brightest chapter in India’s agricultural history.

Among the various scientific and public policy initiatives that led to the green revolution of the 1960s, sharply focused inter-disciplinary research and international collaboration are important. Eternal vigilance is the price of stable agriculture and this will call for concerted and continuous attention to soil and plant health as well as resilience to climate behaviour. At the public policy level, assured and remunerative marketing opportunities hold the key to stimulating and sustaining farmers’ interest in achieving higher productivity and production. This is the pathway to shaping our agricultural future and to achieving an evergreen revolution in farming. This is the message of Babu Jagjivan Ram to both agricultural scientists and farm women and men.

MS Swaminathan is a Member of Rajya Sabha and an agricultural scientist

The views expressed by the author are personal

First Published: Apr 07, 2013 23:20 IST