S Balasubramanian (SB), the media baron with great interest in farming is no more. Son of movie moghul S S Vasan, SB’s interests also expanded to the world of exotic birds and wondrous vegetables. Keen to develop Gemini Farms on scientific lines he roped in the expert Dr Lux Lakshmanan of Davis, California.
It was 10 January 2006. Dozens of cars zoomed into Gemini Farms, Padappai. The cool air of January morning greeted over 40 leaders. Host SB treated them with a delicious breakfast of bread sandwiches, fruits, tender coconut and coffee. Supported by his charming daughter Seetha, SB welcomed the guests that included Deputy Chairman, Planning Commission, M S Ahluwalia, IT Czar F C Kohli of TCS, B Muthuraman, Tata Steel, R Thyagarajan, Shriram Group, B Santhanam, Saint Gobain, T C Venkatasubramaniam, Exim Bank, K S Mony, APEDA.
The guests had a glimpse of vegetables produced in profuse. This was followed by a demonstration of simple techniques to increase agri productivity. To ensure the reach of water and fertilizers applied to the roots, a simple technique of creating ridges and furrows, planting on the ridges and applying water and fertilizers in the furrows was demonstrated. SB also pointed to the care bestowed in providing a steam bath to soil that ensured the seedlings were raised on sterile soil on benches of concrete.
The visitors shifted to Le Royal Meridien Hotel and deliberated over the next three hours on productivity improvements. These led to the setting up of the Agriculture Consultancy Management Foundation (ACMF) as a not-for-profit trust to work on productivity improvements in agriculture, presently at, abysmally low levels.
SB helped me organise this. He attended to the minutest details of the demo, made the first contribution of the trustees, of Rs 100,000 and offered six acres of land on lease. ACMF experimented on raising and nurturing different crops at this farm over the next couple of years.
Perhaps SB was the first in India to pursue scientific agriculture through e-farming. He sent soil samples to US for testing and got daily advice on course corrections from Lux. Apart from technical support, Lux would also help him with hybrid seeds for several exotic vegetables.
In 15 years of practising scientific farming, SB emerged as the most progressive farmer of vegetables in the south. The average production in tonnes per acre rose to 40 in the case of hybrid tomatoes and to 25 in the case of capsicum. He introduced bajji chilli and Chinese cabbage. He raised concrete platforms on which sterilised soil and appropriate fertilizers were used to raise healthy seedlings. Look at the dramatic change: in the normal practice of raising seedlings, only 45 out of 100 survived. In SB’s method it shot up to 96 out of 100! SB also trained farm hands to rear exotic birds from the stage of hatching eggs to nurturing the chicken. I used to admire the tender care with which the chicken were fed and nurtured to health. SB’s exotic bird farm was a profit centre.
His dad Vasan pioneered Tamil magazine journalism through Ananda Vikatan. Under SB, Vikatan reached new heights with renowned writers Saavi, Manian, Sridhar (Marina/ Bharanidharan) Madan... to assist him. New generation writers like K Jayakanthan and Sujatha, lyricists Vaali, Mu Mehta, Vairamuthu... enriched Vikatan. The publication also introduced a scheme for nurturing talent from colleges (the Vikatan Maanavar Pathirikayalar Thittam) by inducting hundreds of talented students into journalism. In fact, this provided a good source for recruitment for years.
SB supported Cho to launch Thuglaq and took care of its birth and initial years.
Vikatan launched Junior Vikatan, which made a quick mark for investigative journalism. Prakash M Swamy and other journalists helped take this publication to new heights with encouragement and strong backing by SB. In the leader-oriented politics of Tamil Nadu it is not easy to investigate issues of corruption and intolerance.
In the late 1980s, when the AIADMK ruled, SB was arrested for publishing a cartoon on the cover page of Vikatan lampooning the MLAs. The then Speaker P H Pandian sent him to jail. The media rose in protest. SB refused to apologise and was released after three days in prison. The court awarded him damages. I remember seeing the two hundred rupee notes awarded as part of compensation alongside a cartoon by R K Laxman, neatly framed and displayed at his office cabin!
It is reported SB had willed to donate his body to Sri Ramachandra Medical Hospital. Even in death, he has chosen to live.