Q&A: MS Swaminathan on India’s agrarian crisis

The pioneer of India’s Green Revolution talks about the issues facing the agriculture sector amid violent protests.

M S Swaminathan
'It is very sad that farmers who are sustaining life on earth are forced to agitate for legitimate demands,' says the pioneer of India's Green Revolution [MSSRF]

Farmers in several parts of India have been protesting. They are demanding higher prices for agricultural produce and that billions of dollars worth of loans be waived.

Last week, a farmers’ protest in the central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh turned violent. At least six people were killed when police fired at the protesters. 

In the western state of Maharashtra, farmers emptied milk containers and dumped vegetables on roads. They said the prices they were being offered for their produce were lower than their input costs.

The protests were called off when the state government announced loan waivers and agreed to increase the price dairy firms would have to pay them for their milk.

Experts say this agrarian crisis is the result of short-sighted policies implemented by successive governments over several decades.

More than half of India’s population of 1.3 billion is engaged in agriculture and allied sectors, but their contribution to national income has been dwindling rapidly. Over the past two decades, thousands of indebted farmers have committed suicide.

MS Swaminathan is an acclaimed agriculture scientist who is credited with being responsible for India’s Green Revolution in the 1960s, when agricultural production was increased through the introduction of fertilisers and high-yield varieties of seeds.

He spoke to Al Jazeera about a range of issues facing the farming sector in an email interview.

READ MORE: Five Indian farmers killed during protest 

Al Jazeera: From Madhya Pradesh to Maharashtra farmers have been protesting. Why do you think this is happening?

Swaminathan: Both Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra have a large area under rainfed conditions. Unfortunately, the monsoon behaviour has been very erratic and farmers have been facing the problems of severe drought for the past few years. Fortunately, there is a bumper crop [unusually large crop growth and harvest] this year, but farmers are not satisfied with the procurement price [the price at which the state governments buy the produce].

They are, therefore, unable to repay loans they have taken, both from institutional sources and private moneylenders. And without doing so, they will not be eligible for fresh credit for the kharif [summer] crop. This is one of the reasons why they have been wanting a loan waiver. Additionally, they are pleading for a remunerative procurement price.

Al Jazeera: Are loan waivers a solution to the agrarian crisis?

Swaminathan: Loan waivers, though temporarily necessary for the revival of farming, do not provide conditions for a secure credit system in the long term. The waiver of loans implies that banks will have to be compensated by the government for the amount involved. This means that large sums of money, which could have otherwise gone to strengthen the agricultural infrastructure and research – such as seed production, soil health enhancement and plant protection, will not be available.

Al Jazeera: Despite loan waivers in the past, farmer suicides still remain high. Can you explain this?

Swaminathan: Farmer suicides have been studied by a number of institutions and the underlying causes are many. But the generic cause is the economic condition of the family, aggravated by the drought-induced failure of crops. While past experience shows that there is no problem with the implementation of the loan waiver, it does not provide a long-term solution and comes in the way of adequate allocation for agriculture development.

Demonstrations turned violent in Madhya Pradesh where six farmers were killed in police firing [Raj Patidar/Reuters]
Demonstrations turned violent in Madhya Pradesh where six farmers were killed in police firing [Raj Patidar/Reuters]

Al Jazeera: The share of agriculture in India’s GDP has steadily declined since 1950, when it was nearly 45 percent, to 16 or 17 percent now. Why is productivity so low in a sector that employs nearly half the population?

Swaminathan: The compositions of GDP varies over time in all countries. In developing countries like India, agriculture occupies a dominant position in GDP since the secondary and tertiary sectors are not fully developed. As the economy gets diversified with considerable contributions from the secondary and tertiary sectors, particularly IT and service sectors, the share of agriculture goes down. This does not mean the importance of agriculture has gone down. It only means that the other sectors have grown.

Productivity is quite high in irrigated states like Punjab and Haryana, and in other states like coastal Andhra Pradesh or Thanjavur district of Tamil Nadu. In fact, Indian farmers practise multiple cropping (rice-wheat rotation) wherever there is water. Low productivity is related to higher risk contexts such as droughts and pest epidemics, where farmers don’t invest in inputs like fertilisers.

Al Jazeera: How can farmers increase their income and productivity from small land-holdings?

Swaminathan: This can be done through methods, such as higher productivity, multiple cropping, value addition to biomass and crop-livestock irrigation.

Al Jazeera: About 50 percent of India’s farms still depend on rainfall due to a lack of irrigation facilities. Rainfall has become increasingly uncertain in an era of climate change. How can this be tackled?

Swaminathan: In rainfed areas, water security primarily depends upon rainwater harvesting and the efficient use of the available water through techniques like drip irrigation, and the appropriate choice of farming systems. Groundwater augmentation and management is an important method of ensuring adequate and timely availability of water for crops. Fortunately, the concept of ‘more crop per drop’ is being promoted by the government.

The National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme can provide social protection to landless farmers, says Swaminathan [Photo courtesy: MSSRF]
The National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme can provide social protection to landless farmers, says Swaminathan [Photo courtesy: MSSRF]

Al Jazeera: Will organic farming help in mitigating the crisis?

Swaminathan: Organic farming helps to improve soil fertility and avoids the use of pesticides, which get into the food chain. So, biologically and nutritionally organic farming confers many benefits.

The major problem is price support to organic products in order to compensate for the loss in the yield. As far as the crisis is concerned, it is largely related to economic factors and organic farming can help those farmers who are able to produce high-value organic products for the national and international market.

Al Jazeera: How has the government of Prime Minister Narendra Modi fared in implementing the recommendations of the National Commission on Farmers headed by you?

Swaminathan: The Modi government, which is now three years old, has implemented several of the recommendations such as providing improved seeds, soil health cards, agricultural credit reform, improved insurance, increasing the area under irrigation and the addition of Farmer’s Welfare to the responsibility of the Ministry of Agriculture.

Al Jazeera: How can landless farmers receive better protection?

Swaminathan: The National Commission on Farmers recommended a major non-farm initiative, on the model of the rural township programme of China. This would involve agriculture-based enterprises such as mushroom cultivation, use of bio-pesticides and bio-pesticides and fertilisers, apiculture, inland and coastal aquaculture and the biological software essential for sustainable agriculture, which is the second goal of the Sustainable Development Goals.

This along with the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme can provide social protection to landless farmers. Special efforts are also being made to promote market-driven skills for rural women who contribute to about 50 percent of the agricultural work, through the involvement of the agricultural universities and the private sector. 

Source: Al Jazeera