The foundational work done in the 1960s has made it possible for India to make access to food a legal right. But more needs to be done to sustain the progress.
This is one of the most significant years in India’s agricultural and national history. At Independence in 1947, we were suffering from acute food shortages that led to the introduction of food rationing. Later, we started depending on imported food, largely under the PL480 programme of the United States, although the country’s population then was only a little over 300 million. In 1966, the year Indira Gandhi became Prime Minister, India had to import nearly 10 million tonnes of foodgrains to ward off a famine.
Building a reserve
In the latter half of 1966, Dr. Vikram Sarabhai and I went to meet Indira Gandhi to discuss issues relating to the use of remote sensing to map coconut root wilt disease in Kerala. She turned to me and asked: “How soon can we build a foodgrain reserve of 10 million tonnes?” It was clear she was worried about dependence on imported food to feed our population, a majority of them farmers and farm labourers. Also, it became clear to me later, that Indira Gandhi was convinced an independent foreign policy could be built only on a foundation of food security based on home-grown food. This led to her determination to achieve food self-sufficiency as soon as possible, and to always maintain substantial grain reserves.
The relationship between food self-reliance and national sovereignty became evident when several important decisions became possible only because we had built up sufficient foodgrain reserves. Thus, India’s assistance to Bangladesh in its liberation struggle, help to Vietnam to avoid famine following the unification of the country in 1975, and its ability to conduct nuclear implosion tests at Pokhran, were all possible only because it had become food self-reliant in the early 1970s. General Vo Nguyen Giap, who was largely responsible for Vietnam gaining freedom from France, and being unified, would tell me whenever I met him in Hanoi in the early 1980s, that Vietnam owes much to Indira Gandhi for saving it from widespread famine soon after unification. Indira Gandhi asked me to visit Vietnam in 1975 to develop a long-term strategy for food self-reliance. This led to India setting up a Rice Research Institute in the Mekong delta to assist in harnessing the untapped yield reservoir in rice in the delta. Today, Vietnam is a major rice exporter.
The foundation laid by Indira Gandhi in the 1960s has now made it possible to make access to food a legal right. The transition from the ship-to-mouth existence of the 1960s to the Right to Food with home-grown food commitment, as enshrined in the National Food Security Act of 2013, is a historic one.
There is, however, no time to relax. The monsoon and the market are two major determinants of the fate of farmers, and we should do everything possible to insulate them from the adverse impact of both climate change and price volatility. The pathway to achieve these twin goals has been laid out in the reports of the National Commission on Farmers, submitted during 2004-06.
Instrument for integration
Agriculture is a powerful instrument for national integration. Wheat and rice produced by Punjab farmers help feed many parts of India. Farmers everywhere have a common need, namely, opportunity for assured and remunerative marketing. They are willing to share their knowledge and expertise freely without thought of intellectual property rights.
Striking progress in improving the yield of crops in the early 1960s came from a shift in plant breeding strategy involving attention to the performance of populations rather than of individual plants. This emphasis on population performance led to a quantum jump in the yield of crops. Similarly, we need to assess our progress by using population performance as a yardstick to measure excellence. National integration is our heritage.
In mid-1968, Paul and Anne Ehrlich wrote in their book The Population Bomb: “Sometime between 1970 and 1985 the world will undergo vast famines — hundreds of millions of people are going to starve to death. That is, they will starve to death unless plague, thermonuclear war, or some other agent kills them first. The United States should announce that it will no longer ship food to countries such as India, where dispassionate analysis indicates that the unbalance between food and population is hopeless.”
Almost at the same time, in July 1968, Indira Gandhi released a special stamp titled the Wheat Revolution, thereby announcing that India had embarked upon the path of self-reliance in foodgrains through a revolutionary change in agricultural technology and policy. It is therefore a great privilege to receive an award bearing her name.
Also, the purpose of the award is an area dear to my heart: a nation that is united in its commitment to the principles of non-violence, secularism, social and gender equity, self-reliance and love and respect for all.
India has become the first nation in the world to make access to food a legal right. The right to information can be implemented with the help of files, but the right to food can be implemented only with the help of farmers.
(Edited excerpts from the acceptance speech delivered by Professor M.S. Swaminathan after receiving the Indira Gandhi Award for National Integration in New Delhi on October 31, 2013.)