The Missing Links

Often asked to summarise a prepared speech in five minutes, Bharat Ratna Dr MS Swaminathan would demonstrate his innate ability to fluently explain complexities of agriculture, economics, and nutrition in easyto-understand points.

The Missing Links

Bharat Ratna Dr MS Swaminathan (photo:SNS)

Often asked to summarise a prepared speech in five minutes, Bharat Ratna Dr MS Swaminathan would demonstrate his innate ability to fluently explain complexities of agriculture, economics, and nutrition in easyto-understand points. At an international conference in 2011, agile and alert at age 85, Dr Swaminathan explained, “when every nation is searching for methods to meet UN Development Goals, to eradicate poverty and hunger, the synergy between agriculture, health, and nutrition, in my view, is a missing link in many of the cases in government efforts, including India. We are not able to achieve targets because those linkages, which are necessary, are missing.”

Like a 21st century Charles Darwin emphasizing gaps or missing linkages in the evolution of agriculture in modern times, Dr Swaminathan’s mind straddled centuries when he spoke about India’s traditional indigenous systems and their relevance in contemporary India. “We seem to have forgotten our tradition of bringing agriculturehealth-and nutrition together. In Ayurveda, which is a holistic system, the diet is questioned and prescribed by the practitioner not merely the drugs: it deals with the entire life-cycle of an ailing person. The linkage of this food and drugs approach cannot be over-emphasized,” he said.

Clearly Dr Swaminathan, who became synonymous with his mentor Dr Norman Borlaug for ushering in the Green Revolution, was way beyond being an agri-geneticist or one preoccupied with agri-production. It is appropriate to underscore, recount and underline the importance which he gave to water, water conservation and irrigation in the pioneering work he did, the volumes of reports, papers he wrote and speeches and interviews he gave across the world, for several decades. When Dr Swaminathan was helming the National Commission on Farmers, he submitted five reports between December 2004 and October 2006. Following the first four, the final report focused on causes of farmer distress and the rise in farmer suicides, and recommended addressing them through a holistic national policy for farmers.


“Agrarian distress has led farmers to commit suicide in recent years. The major causes of the agrarian crisis are: unfinished agenda in land reform, quantity and quality of water, technology fatigue, access, adequacy and timeliness of institutional credit, and opportunities for assured and remunerative marketing. Adverse meteorological factors add to these problems,” stated the report. The National Crime Records Bureau of India reported that a total of 296,438 farmers who died between 1995 and 2014 and whose deaths were registered as ‘suicide’. NCRB data showed incidence of farmer suicides remained high between 2014 and 2020, with over 5,600 farmers committing suicide in 2014, and 5,500 farmers in 2020.

The NCF report was a pointer to this agrarian distress, and recommended that “farmers need to have assured access and control over basic resources, which include land, water, bioresources, credit and insurance, technology and knowledge management, and markets.” It recommended that ‘agriculture’ be inserted in the Concurrent List of the Constitution. Water, its quantity and quality, was high on its priorities and one of the major causes of farmers’ suicides. Out of the gross sown area of 192 million hectares, rainfed agriculture contributed to 60 per cent of the gross cropped area and 45 per cent of the total agricultural output.

The NCF report recommended a comprehensive set of reforms to enable farmers to have sustained and equitable access to water; Increased water supply through rainwater harvesting and recharge of the aquifer should become mandatory; “Million Wells Recharge” programme, specifically targeted at private wells should be launched; substantial increase in investment in irrigation sector under the 11th Five Year Plan apportioned between large surface water systems was necessary as were minor irrigation and new schemes for groundwater recharge. While the report focused on water, the life blood of agriculture which was under severe threat, it acknowledged the real challenge lay with the allocation of water to agriculture facing a losing battle with the industrial, domestic, power, and other sectors.

At the same time, there was a compulsion to intensify agriculture even when production per capita land and water availability was declining. For dedicated men of science like Dr Swaminathan the lack of water availability on the one hand, and inefficient use of available water on the other, were the reasons for limited agricultural production, way below potential. The war-cry in the NCF Report was for ‘Efficient Water Management’, despite several constraints and challenges. There was gradual deterioration in the quality of water. Added to it were the adverse impacts of expected climate change on precipitation, temperature, and sea level rise as a consequence of global warming. Thus Indian agriculture at any time was facing a precarious situation.

Top priority must be given to conserving every drop of water, declared the Report, and sought rendering “water as everyone’s business” to ensure most judicious and efficient use of this precious resource. Hydrological balance, water security and water-use policy, water users’ associations, storing water everywhere, recharging million wells, reviving dying wisdom for water conservation and use, energy and water pricing, integrated watershed management and convergence and synergy among missions comprise major water conservation and use initiatives. Being a strong votary of convergence in agriculture, health and nutrition, Dr Swaminathan kept an unwavering focus on nutrition.

A true Gandhian in orientation, he often quoted the Mahatma’s words “For those who are hungry, God is bread.” He wanted every Indian home to be blessed with life-giving and lifesaving bread. Not many are aware of the deep influence of Mahatma Gandhi on Dr Swaminathan’s life and work. In his archives, there are photographs of Dr Swaminathan seated at his work table, with only a framed photograph of the Mahatma adorning it. “Our agricultural policies have to be Pro-Nature, Pro-Poor and Pro-Women,” he explained in an interview with Doordarshan. Pro-Nature referred to the entire spectrum of natural resources whose sustainability and productivity was to be ensured over the long-term: land, air, water, forest, plants and trees, animals, and cattle.

Being conscious of the social, ecological, and cultural diversity in our land, Dr Swaminathan advocated for policies that would holistically and positively impact agriculture, especially lives of the small farmers and landless labour who tilled the land. “Pro-Poor policies are essential,” he said, quoting his mentor the Mahatma who judged policies and programmes on how they affected the lives of the poorest. “The third aspect is ProWomen: our initiatives recognise the feminization of agriculture and the critical role played by women.” He highlighted the example of ‘bio-villages’ where women are gainfully employed in non-farm activities. When asked whether globalization was adversely affecting Indian agriculture, Dr Swaminathan would explain, “our social structure, our population growth ~ from 300 million in 1947 to over a billion in seventy years ~ are not related to globalization. These are the issues which we need to address.”

There is tremendous pressure on land, and almost 70 per cent of India’s population continues to be dependent on agricultural or non-farm activities in rural areas. “Even small farms, less than one hectare, can produce more. Japan, Taiwan, and China have demonstrated increased productivity in small farms. In India, however, the small farmer has no access to credit, technology, irrigation, or production inputs,” was the explanation, radiant with the clarity of Dr Swaminathan’s words and hopeful that public and private investment in Indian agriculture would grow. “What is the purpose of agriculture,” questioned Dr Swaminathan at the 2011 conference in New Delhi, adding, “agriculture has to become an instrument for both health and nutrition.”

While precision agriculture and efficient water management were paramount, Dr Swaminathan called for collaboration among the scientists, field functionaries, and the farmers. He stood for the convergence of scientific thought and government policy formulations, always ready to bridge modern science with ancient wisdom on agriculture. “We must put faces before figures, if we are to understand the sad plight of farm families. To assure farmers that Government measures agricultural progress not merely on the basis of production targets, but also on the basis of real growth in farmers’ income, figures on annual growth rate in farmers’ income should be given.

Such a change in mindset, which regards farm families as the custodians of food security and national sovereignty and not just as ‘beneficiaries’ of small Government programmes, will become explicit by redesignating the Ministry of Agriculture as the ‘Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare,” he said. As the NCF report recommended in August 2015, the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers’ Welfare and the Department of Agriculture, Cooperation & Farmers Welfare was announced.

In June 2019, the Department of Animal Husbandry, Dairying and Fisheries was separated from the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare to form an independent Ministry of Fisheries, Animal Husbandry and Dairying. In Dr Swaminathan, modern India was blessed to have a scientist who brought technology and public policy on agriculture together to transform not just the lives of millions of farmers but shape the destiny of our Republic.

(The writer is a researcher writer on history and heritage issues and a former deputy curator of Pradhanmantri Sangrahalaya)