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MY LOVE FOR AGRICULTURE

As a journalist, I am puzzled by the inverted priorities. I write on a slew of economic and socio-political issues. These get noticed if they relate to the manufacturing or service sector; not much really if they relate to agriculture!

MY LOVE FOR  AGRICULTURE

The genius of C Subramaniam as Union Agriculture Minister enabled the introduction of the hybrid variety of wheat innovated by Dr Norman Borlaug; backed by scientists and a brilliant administrator B Shivaraman, ICS, he triggered a quantum jump in wheat productivity.

There was a lot of adventure in my journey through journalism. In 1965, my elder brother bought a new scooter. He worked for NSIC in New Delhi and was familiar with Hindi. And to travel in north we need to know Hindi.  Remember the DMK, at the height of the anti-Hindi agitation, had successfully kept generations of young Tamils away from Hindi?

My brother and I booked the scooter by train and travelled to Jalandhar.  From there we embarked on an exploration of Punjab begining with the Golden Temple at Amritsar. The great northern trunk road was so free of traffic! We rode from Amritsar to Jalandhar, Phagwara, Goraya, Ludhiana and Ambala. We stopped at several factories en route enjoying the courtesy and hospitality of Punjabis and admiring their enterprise to experiment. Invariably, the factories were located amidst lush wheat fields. Yes, industry was so strongly supported by agriculture!

 

The innovative Punjabi…

I remember the innovative spirit of the Punjabi.  I visited PEPSU Industries, Phagwara, a flourishing exporter of hexagonal U-bolts used to hold rear axles of trucks.

I admired at the simple process: a round steel rod was pulled by a long chain through a hexagonal die, cut to the required length of about 12”  or so, bent into U-shape, tapered at the ends, fitted with bolts, neatly painted and packed for exports. Designed and fabricated by him, the owner said, the contrivance cost around Rs 25,000. I contrasted this with the expensive machine, imported from Britain at a cost of a few lakhs, erected in an ancillary unit in Chennai. Understandably, it was a question of time before the light engineering industry shifted to Punjab and made the well-established large bicycle units in the organised sector in Mumbai, Chennai and Kolkata sick.

At Ludhiana, I had my first exposure to scientific farming. Thanks to chief minister Pratap Singh Kairon, the land grant system of the USA was adopted in setting up the Punjab Agriculture University endowing it with thousands of acres of farmland. This facilitated hands-on experience for students to raise crops. The total involvement of the academie, combined with technology support from US universities, helped PAU emerge in the forefront of agriculture research and, more importantly, extension.


Green revolution that changed the face of Punjab…

Late 1960s witnessed the break of the green revolution. The Bhakra Nangal dam was getting completed assuring copious water from river Sutlej to the state. The genius of C Subramaniam(CS) as Union Agriculture Minister enabled the introduction of the hybrid variety of wheat innovated by Dr Norman Borlaug; backed with scientists and a brilliant administrator

B Shivaraman, ICS, triggered a quantum jump in wheat productivity. Simultaneously, CS persuaded Punjab farmers to raise rice as the summer crop. (Till then, Punjab did not produce much rice.) CS set up the Food Corporation of India under the chairmanship of the brilliant banker T A Pai assuring the farmer to buy all grains offered at fair price. The seeds of national food security, much bandied about today, were truly laid in quick time. India attained self-sufficiency in food.

This first-hand experience through visits to Punjab expanded my interest in agriculture. In 1970 I visited Thanjavur, the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, and had the opportunity to interact with the brilliant agriculture officer A Venkataraman (AV). AV later became senior advisor to FAO and then served as TN’s Commissioner of Agriculture. He made rich contribution to the quick evolution of Tamil Nadu as an agricultural state (Alas, it was history. Today the state has slipped in its rank as food producer).

The advent of the Janata government under Morarji Desai marked a paradigm shift in the focus on rural development. Charan Singh and H M Patel directed a massive step up in allocation to rural development. Significantly, the two years of Janata rule witnessed quantum growth in the production of a variety of agriculture products including commercial crops like sugarcane. Dr M S Swaminathan as Secretary, Agriculture Research, provided me an opportunity to look closely at agriculture in Haryana and Punjab. I visited the National Dairy Research Corporation, the Haryana and Punjab Agriculture Universities, the large fertilizer plant taking shape at Bhatinda, a visit to the Bhakra Nangal dam and National Fertilizers’ large fertilizer plant at Nangal.

 

They demanded import of harvester combines...

I attended a seminar on rice productivity at Ludhiana, inaugurated by Dr Swaminathan and also visited along with him several large farms. I was puzzled at the several representations made by farmers requesting for lifting the ban on imported harvester combines. As one from Tamil Nadu familiar with small land holdings, I could not understand the demand for mechanical harvesters for rice. Swaminathan explained the shortage of labour during harvests, needing large importation of farm hands from distant Orissa, Bihar… And also to the larger size of land holdings: in an average Punjabi family, of three sons, one worked abroad, another served the defence forces and the third managed the family farm! Thus, de facto holdings are still large. I was amazed to see the vast range of mechanical equipment at progressive farmers’ lands. These prosperous farmers also afforded all the luxuries of their urban counterparts.

The visit to NDRC and to the animal husbandry divisions of the two universities further provided a glimpse of the advances in upgrading cattle stock and improving milk yields- as high as 50 plus litres a day! Milking the buffalo thrice a day was then not heard of in Tamil Nadu nor the resort to mechanised milking.

The next year I visited the other great agriculture university at Pant Nagar, U.P.  It was the height of the mango season. It was a treat to look at the extensive research in improving yields and quality of mango. I still remember the mango treat at a large mango orchard with a wide variety of delicious mangoes. Don’t ask me what it did to my tummy that evening.

In 1985 the US government invited me under the International Visitors’ (IV) Programme. It included a look at the flourish of US agriculture in the mid-west. The visit to Federal Reserve Chicago, to the Commodities Exchange and the weekend spent with a farmers’ family at Freeport, Illinois, further expanded my horizons on agriculture.

Back home, I covered Orissa, UP, Gujarat and Punjab again extensively.  I looked closely at agriculture in these states. Combined with my interactions with policymakers at Krishi Bhavan during my visits to the annual Economic Editors’ Conferences, further helped in expanding my interest in agriculture.

In 2005, I visited Davis, California. The three-day stay with Dr Lux Lakshmanan was another great experience. This expert in agriculture, consulting for a number of farmers, has great hands-on experience in experimenting and refining farm productivity. The septuagenarian drove through miles upon miles of tomato, corn, almond and pistachio farms. In August, these were in full bloom. It was a sight to witness hundreds of acres of tomato farm mechanically harvested and transported in 50 tonne lots!

A similar flourish I could see in raising almond orchards, mechanically harvesting and processing these. California produces bulk of the almonds for the world. Lakshmanan has encyclopedic knowledge on the entire gamut of agri productivity.

I followed up my trip to Davis visiting the Purdue and Wisconsin universities. Interactions with experts like Dr Ken Shapiro and Dr John Peters at UW-M and Dr Avtar Handa and Prof Raghu Ragottama of the Horticulture Department of Purdue University opened up new vistas. Supplementing these by visiting western U.P through Tata Chemicals’ dozens of extension networks and an interaction with Prime Minister Manmohan Singh led to the setting up of the Agriculture Consultancy Management Foundation (ACMF). The instant support of the Mahindras, Tatas, Shriram Group and the close involvement of leaders from different walks of life helped ACMF to look closely at productivity improvements.

I firmly believe India has great potential to emerge a food bowl of the world. Vast arable land, agri climate that lends for production round the year and the present low levels of productivity lend for achieving quantum growth. I firmly believe that with a proper policy back up, India can double food output to 500 million tonnes. This will generate large surpluses for export. Agri exports alone can earn over $100 billion. Only it needs a vision to think big and achieve big.

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