Eminent agricultural scientist and chairperson, National Commission for Farmers (NCF), M S Swaminathan talks to Sourav Misra on agricultural research, the role of the public and private sector in Indian agriculture
What should be the immediate and mid-term strategies for achieving food and nutritional security in India?
Some issues need immediate attention: increase in institutional credit and irrigated areas, improvement of marketing infrastructure and revitalisation of the agricultural extension system. There is also need to ensure that agricultural inputs such as seeds and pesticides are of proper quality. Very often crop failures can be ascribed to poor quality seeds or pesticides.
A recent survey has found that 40 per cent of Indian farmers will quit farming given the option. What should be done for them?
The ncf has suggested a livelihood security package for farmers. This, of course, is not a profit-making proposition but at least it will be an attempt to secure farmers' livelihood.
So what's more important for India today: growth of foodgrain production or farmers' income?
The farmer's income is more important than foodgrain production. We have managed considerable sufficiency in the latter. We must remember that agriculture in India is not just a means of food production but livelihood security.
What should be the share of government and private parties in agricultural investment?
The private sector is not going to provide basic infrastructure like rural roads, though some philanthropists might adopt a few villages. The Bharat Nirman project, if implemented properly, can improve rural infrastructure.
The national Rural Health Mission also has a very important role. Let's not forget that health-related expenses constitute more than a third of the debt of farmers who commit suicide. The government should also invest in research and agricultural extension. The private sector's major role should be to ensure assured and remunerative marketing opportunities -- contract cultivation.
Is it a good idea to allow contract cultivation?
There are both good and bad instances of contract farming in the country. Contract cultivation is essential for all commercial crops because, unlike wheat and rice, you can't save them for future consumption. But the relationship between the private sector and the farmers has to be symbiotic.
Do you think the private sector should take over agriculture procurement and marketing?
No, public sector agencies have important roles in ensuring food security. The private sector has a major role in procuring and marketing perishables.
Can't the government manage post-harvest operations of most perishable commodities?
In 1981, at the behest of Indira Gandhi, the former prime minister, I suggested the establishment of a National Horticulture Development Board (nhdb) on the lines of National Dairy Development Board. The organisation is there but it is totally bureaucratised and virtually dysfunctional. We recommended that nhdb should concentrate only on post-harvest technology, but it has its hands full in a lot of areas. Today, almost 30 per cent of all horticultural produce goes waste after production.
Do you think our basic research is enough in arid, semi-arid and hilly regions of the country?
Not at all. We need area-specific technologies. We also need a paradigm shift from laboratory research to participatory research. The farmers' fields must become the experimental station. In arid zones, agriculture has to be horticulture and livestock driven.
Semi-arid zones also require horticulture and livestock farming, but they can also take an annual crop during the three months when they have more water.
Hill areas require a silvi-pastoral system. In such regions, ecological security and livelihood security are two sides of the same coin -- unlike in other regions where they are pitted against each other.
In the NCF report you have talked about providing farmers credit at simple interest rate of four per cent. Is that feasible for both the government and farmers?
Yes, that's calculated for a proper credit inflow and recovery from agriculturists. But the government will have to support the scheme. Today, you can buy a car at an interest rate of around six per cent, much lower than what the banks would offer. This is because the company manages for the difference. Agricultural inputs, in contrast, are subject to about twice the interest rate.
Do you think farm insurance could help the farmers?
Yes, I think every farm credit scheme should be linked with insurance, but the problem is that farmers lack awareness about insurance schemes.
Do you think the present minimum support prices (msps?) are competitive enough at current inflation rates?
No, that's why I suggest msp should be linked to the wholesale price index as is done in case of salaries, wages or allowances.