The passionate call of agricultural scientist and food policy expert M.S. Swaminathan to the Indian news media to resume their “active participation in revitalising our agriculture and in safeguarding our food sovereignty” has, understandably, received wide acclaim. He made this call in a leader page article, “The media and the farm sector,” ( The Hindu, November 11, 2009). As one of the architects of the green revolution of the 1960s and 1970s, Dr. Swaminathan observed that a major trigger for this revolution was the enthusiasm the media reports generated among farm families on the opportunity created by semi-dwarf varieties of wheat and rice to enhance yield and income substantially.

Experienced reporters from the print media and from All India Radio visited the experimental fields of research organisations and took their message of success to farm families. Their reports, the eminent geneticist noted, led to a widespread demand for the seeds of the new strains, which, in turn, facilitated timely policy decisions. “The media thus helped to convert a small government programme titled ‘High Yielding Varieties Programme’ into a mass movement,” is Dr. Swaminathan’s highly significant assessment. It is the revival of this spirit among the news media that the scientist has called for in the context of the present agrarian crisis. The situation, which is perhaps more serious than the one in the 1970s, has prompted the Prime Minister to call for a second green revolution.

Comparative insight

Dr. Swaminathan offers a comparative insight into the role, then and now, of the news media in taking up public issues. Growing rural poverty and deterioration in the living conditions of peasants and landless agricultural workers are there for everyone to see. And yet, media coverage of these trends and mass realities leaves much to be desired. The extensive prevalence of under nutrition and malnutrition among children and adults and the apprehended failure of India to keep its promise of halving the number of the hungry by 2015 — in fulfilment of the first of the U.N. Millennium Development Goals — have not received adequate media attention, he noted with deep regret in the article. “To the financial media, in particular, what matters is GDP growth rate, as well as the state of the economy as measured by the situation in the share market,” said Professor Swaminathan.

Attitudinal changes in the media industry functioning in an economic reform regime and its recent track record, the impact of global economic crises on India (as on several other countries), and the resultant reversal of priorities do not evidently give him much hope about the capability of the media to rise to the challenge. Hence this sombre conclusion: “Unless the media assume a pro-small farmer approach in their reporting, food production will either stagnate or go down. This will obviously affect the country’s social stability adversely.”

A reader's perspective

A notable and detailed response to the article came from Sandeshika Sharma from the University of California, Irvine. In an e-mail to the Readers’ Editor, she argued: “While the article makes a solid pitch for the future direction of media in choosing a socially responsible course of action, as it (presumably) did in the sixties, we cannot underplay the role of pro-active leadership in guiding and directing media to fulfil its role. MSS [M.S. Swaminathan] has given a lion’s share of appreciation to the media in propagating the message of Green Revolution.” She felt that the role of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in directing and coaxing the media into playing the role it did during the green revolution should have been acknowledged. Even more important, in her opinion, was the fact that Indira Gandhi, while holding the top position in the country, facilitated the ushering in of the green revolution by giving a conscious direction to agricultural policy. “But even more importantly,” she contended, “as regards the issue of food shortages and food scarcities becoming a real possibility across the country, we need more pro-active and bold leadership from the PMO [Prime Minister’s Office]. The PMO must get over its fear of meddling with the free-wheeling market forces and come with a plan for securing food availability or soon we will need a plan for disaster management.”

This response does not sufficiently factor in the context of Professor Swaminathan’s observations. As the note at the end of the leader page explained, his article was based on his November 6 presentation at a workshop on the theme “Parliament and the Media,” organised by the Rajya Sabha secretariat in New Delhi and that was a good occasion for spotlighting the role of the media, for better or for worse. The scientist did give “a lion’s share” of appreciation to newspapers and AIR, as noted by Sandeshika Sharma, but he had not neglect the role of policy-makers. He mentioned “the good fortune of having C. Subramaniam as Union Minister for Agriculture and Food,” which in his assessment “facilitated timely public policy decisions.” Nor did he fail to acknowledge the role of the state in ushering in the green revolution.

Changes in the media

Forty years after the green revolution, the character and composition of the news media have been enormously transformed. Growing urbanisation and metropolitanisation, and the hyper-commercialisation of the media in the context of the neo-liberal policies of the government are the key drivers of this big change. Relevant rural coverage, except in a small minority of newspapers, has become minimal. Problems relating to the rural poor, Dalits, and tribal folk, and panchayati raj activities hardly find a place today in most newspapers. What is reported is at best episodic. How far it will be realistic to expect a repeat of the 1960s and 1970s in respect of agrarian issues, with the current management attitudes and with sizeable sections of journalists showing reluctant to even visit villages remains to be seen. This does not of course mean that the rare species of committed progressive journalists is moving towards extinction.

Professor Swaminathan, in the very first paragraph of his article, made it clear that the success of the green revolution was made possible by certain factors that worked in concert: “The revolution resulted from a symphony approach with four major components — technology, which is the prime mover of change; services, which can take the technology to all farmers, whether small or large; public policies relating to the price of inputs and output; and above all, farmers’ enthusiasm promoted by the mass media.” This is far from taking a one-sided or lopsided view of what worked well. To succeed, a second green revolution — the “evergreen revolution” advocated by Dr. Swaminathan in an earlier article in The Hindu — would certainly need a symphony of scientifically sound and sustainable efforts initiated by an enthusiastic state. But then, will a state that opts for the soft option of importing food grains rather than helping farmers increase production and productivity, which pursues a policy that facilitates industry’s relentless encroachment on land under cultivation, which has no hesitation in withdrawing subsidies and a host of other benefits peasants have long been enjoying, be inclined to take brave new steps to promote a new green revolution?