'We must have revised standards for pesticide use in food and water' : M S Swaminathan

By Lalitha Sridhar

As the M S Swaminathan Foundation turns 12, its founder-director Professor M S Swaminathan says that even before the term 'green revolution' was coined, he had warned that overexploitation of soil and water and overuse of pesticides would have terrible consequences

Named by Time magazine as one of the 20 most influential Asians of the 20th century, and one of only three from India (the other two being Mahatma Gandhi and Rabindranath Tagore), Professor M S Swaminathan has been described by the United Nations Environment Programme as the Father of Economic Ecology and by Javier Perez de Cuellar, secretary general of the United Nations, as `a living legend who will go into the annals of history as a world scientist of rare distinction'. He was chairman of the UN science advisory committee set up in 1980 to take follow-up action on the Vienna plan of action. He has also served as independent chairman of the FAO council, and president of the International Union for the Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources.

A plant geneticist by training, Swaminathan's contributions to the agricultural renaissance of India have led to his being widely referred to as the scientific leader of the Green Revolution movement. His advocacy of sustainable agriculture leading to an evergreen revolution makes him an acknowledged world leader in the field of sustainable food security. The International Association of Women and Development conferred on him the first international award for significant contributions to promoting the knowledge, skill and technological empowerment of women in agriculture and for his pioneering role in mainstreaming gender considerations in agriculture and rural development. Swaminathan was awarded the Ramon Magsaysay Award for Community Leadership in 1971, the Albert Einstein World Science Award in 1986, the first World Food Prize in 1987, the Volvo Environment Prize in 1999, and the Franklin D Roosevelt Four Freedoms Award in 2000.

Professor Swaminathan is a Fellow of many leading scientific academies in India and the world, including the Royal Society of London and the US National Academy of Sciences. He has received 43 honorary doctorate degrees from universities around the world. He was recently elected president of the Pugwash Conferences on Science and World Affairs. He currently holds the UNESCO chair in ecotechnology at the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in Chennai, India. The Foundation named after him, of which he is founder-director, recently turned 12. Dr Swaminathan celebrated his 75th birthday on the same day. The Grand Old Man of Indian Agriculture, arguably the country's most famous scientist, shares a few thoughts.

Looking back, was it a difficult task spearheading India's agricultural independence?
It was not demoralising. For us who were working at the time we knew there was a light at the end of the tunnel. We saw hope, we knew there would be turning points. This was not a question of despair but determination. In 1968, when certain western scholars made these doomsday predictions, Indira Gandhi released a stamp called 'the wheat revolution'. The label 'green revolution' was coined later -- first it was the wheat revolution. The westerners were a little confused -- starvation and a wheat revolution? Normally in the biological world things don't go exactly the way you want them to, as there are so many other factors, improbables and imponderables by way of droughts, floods etc. So when you go to the field where millions of small farmers are involved, it becomes a very complex issue. It's not like the test-tube work done in a laboratory.

I gave a paper titled Five Years of Dwarf Wheats in 1963. According to that, 1968 was to be a turning point. It happened like that, but it need not have been so! The ultimate result of any particular production is the result of the interaction or synergy between technology and public policy. If policy support is not there -- in terms of inputs, in terms of water, in terms of investment, in terms of markets for purchase -- not much can be achieved. Technology alone could not have made a difference.

How can grassroots changes be brought about in the agricultural sector?
Farmers are always willing. They are poor. If they know that what you are recommending will help them, then they'll take to it. Only, you don't experiment with them. What is important is that what you are recommending is something you will do or practice yourself. Development initiatives have to be economically viable and socially desirable. For farmers, we put up a large number of demonstrations. Throughout my life, I have had two very basic principles -- if you demonstrate something in a rich farmer's field, it won't have much value because everybody will think: "The man has got a lot of money, so he is able to do it. We are not rich so we'll not be able to do it." If you do something in a poor man's field, all the farmers will benefit because then even the rich man will say: "If this fellow has produced five tonnes why can't I?"

Similarly, in a household, the whole family will benefit if something benefits a woman. The reverse may not happen. That is why our Foundation has a pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-woman orientation. If you help a woman, the whole family benefits. If you help a poor farmer, all farmers benefit.

What are the constraints to smoother, speedier development?
In our country we do not realise that India is very diverse -- agro-ecologically, agro-economically, culturally and climatically. But we also have more complications than any other country in the world -- in terms of caste, religion, creed, gender discrimination and so on. Hence, a rigid bureaucratically-controlled programme won't work. We require a much more decentralised approach. For that we have not yet empowered the panchayati raj institutions. There was a lot of hope when constitutional amendments 73 and 74, dealing with gram panchayats and nagar palikas, were approved. There was a lot of hope that a new beginning could be made in terms of democratic decentralisation for the implementation of projects. The more decentralised you are the less the corruption, the greater the transparency. The more centralised you are, the more cover-ups happen. People will not know what is happening and people must have a sense of participation. If there is a problem, there is a solution. Our Foundation's projects are controlled by the people, particularly women, based on the principle of social inclusion, not exclusion.

Please elaborate on the gender inequities that still persist in India
Women and men have equal roles. Of course, they do have biological differences. Women have to play multiple roles. There is the home-keeping and child-rearing burden, and also the economic one of earning money. More than men, women are burdened with responsibilities and work. That is why when you look at the toppers at school and in college exams, they are all girls. But if you look at all the science academies, the directors of institutes and so on, there are very few women. I always say -- what happened between the early promise and the subsequent realisation? Our policies have to be designed to help women overcome these handicaps. I think our gender sensitivity is more of lip service, and one of the cruelest in terms of dealing with women in general. There have been women PMs and so on but it has not made much difference. In the villages and among the poor, alcoholism among males increases the burden. This makes hunger endemic. If women are empowered more, if literacy is high among women, things will improve significantly. What we need is greater attention being given to the empowerment of women -- social, economic and political reservation, including 1/3rd reservation of seats for women in parliament. At least the political parties should nominate women. Now that state and national elections are coming, let us see their commitment. Political and social empowerment, as we have seen in other countries, is fundamental to other rights.

How and when did the change in focus from a 'green' to an 'evergreen' revolution come about?
It was clear from the changes happening in western countries. 1962 was a turning point. A book called Silent Spring by Rachel Carson showed the fallout of the application of fertilisers and chemicals. For them, the green revolution had been happening for a century and more. We were very much behind. Even Japan, by the 1940s, was producing five to six tonnes per hectare, while our production was just 600-700 kg per hectare. 'Green revolution' is an old phenomenon in the industrial/developed world. After the industrial revolution, the agricultural revolution happened. But we took it up only after Independence. Up to then it was completely neglected. Plantation crops were all that generated interest, because of their export potential. The whole question of sustainability came about because anything we use in excess, including pesticides, ultimately causes us harm. That is why, in 1968, even before the term 'green revolution' was coined, I had warned that unless we were careful and did not overexploit the soil and water, and did not use too much pesticides, the consequences would be harmful and terrible. We know we have to examine and protect the health of the soil and the quality of the water, and there is greater awareness about this now.

It is important that we make integrated pest management (ie conjunctive use of biological, genetic and agronomic control methods together with the use of the minimum essential chemical and botanical pesticides) and integrated nutrient supply (ie, conjunctive use of organic manure, green manure, biofertiliser, crop rotations involving legumes and a minimum essential mineral fertilisers) mandatory. We should also have revised standards relating to pesticide residues in water and food. As Chairman of the Centre for Science and Environment whose results on the status of pesticides residues in bottled water and soft drinks have evoked widespread public and political interest, I hope to convene a meeting shortly on the food and water safety standards we should adopt with reference to such food items.

How can we combat hunger?
We have been depleting our surplus food stocks by exporting them. Fortunately, we still have enough. What I have been saying is, at least a few million tonnes of grain should be kept like a fixed deposit in a bank under a Food Security Trust of India. This should be used to sanction small food-for-work projects like building bridges or reservoirs. Unfortunately, what happens with national projects is that they are rigidly structured. The Sampoorna Grameen Rozgar Yojana is good. But there are too many rules and regulations that circumvent the benefits from reaching those who need them most. Variety is the spice of life. You can have a community food bank in hunger hotspots in remote areas. The initial grant of grain can come from the government. This way we can use this unique, uncommon opportunity, as I call it. In India, for the first time, our food stocks went up to 60 million tonnes -- and then came down to 40. But this is still an uncommon opportunity that should be utilised to eradicate hunger.

(Lalitha Sridhar is a Chennai-based freelance journalist)

InfoChange News & Features, August 2003