The best tribute we can pay to Jagjivan Ram’s life and work is the conversion of the concept of inclusive growth from rhetoric into reality.
Babu Jagjivan Ram’s birth centenary is being commemorated this year appropriately with a seminar on state policies for inclusive growth. Even at a young age, he became a role model for all trying to overcome social and economic disabilities arising from caste discrimination and chronic poverty. In the many portfolios he handled as a Minister in the Government of India for nearly 40 years, he has left his footprints on the sands of time both because of his extraordinary political acumen and administrative gifts, as well as his commitment to promoting economic growth with social justice.
While his contributions in the political, social and administrative fields are well known, his remarkable work to improve food production and strengthen our national food security and sovereignty system is less well known. I would therefore like to concentrate in this article on Babuji’s contributions to shaping our agricultural destiny.
In his long career in the area of governance and political administration, Babuji was entrusted with leading the Agriculture Ministry of the Government of India twice. He succeeded Bharat Ratna C. Subramaniam as Minister of Food and Agriculture in the later part of 1967. He held this position until 1970 when Indira Gandhi made him Minister for Defence. Along with Indira Gandhi, Babuji spearheaded the political strategy designed to assist the people of East Bengal to gain freedom and launch the sovereign nation of Bangladesh. In 1974, the country was experiencing severe drought and food shortage and there was fear that we may have to revert to a ship to mouth existence. Indira Gandhi again requested Babuji to take over the leadership of the Ministry of Agriculture with the added responsibility of accelerating progress in the field of irrigation. He served as Minister for Agriculture and Irrigation during 1974-77. I shall highlight a few of the important decisions he took which led to changing an atmosphere of gloom into one of self-confidence and national pride.
Social inclusion in access to technologies:
The term ‘Green Revolution’ was coined towards the end of 1968 by Dr. William Gaud of the U.S. when Babuji was Minister for Food and Agriculture. Soon after joining as Agriculture Minister in 1967, he convened a meeting to review the progress made in the implementation of the new strategy for agriculture initiated by C. Subramaniam in 1964. He wanted every effort to be made to spread the high yielding semi dwarf wheat and rice varieties, which were capable of yielding 200 per cent to 300 per cent more than the traditional varieties. He asked me to brief him at least once a month on the status of both wheat research and the progress being made to cultivate the new varieties with appropriate inputs. Early in 1968, when it became clear that India would be harvesting a record wheat crop of 17 million tonnes (the previous best production was 12 million tonnes), Babuji requested Indira Gandhi to issue a special stamp to commemorate the Wheat Revolution. He also suggested that the stamp should have the portrait of the library building of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), in order to emphasise the role of science in transforming our agriculture. Both Indira Gandhi and he released the special stamp titled, “Wheat Revolution” at IARI in July 1968.
Babuji was deeply concerned with issues of social inclusion in access to new technologies. He often emphasised that the new technologies might be scale neutral with reference to their relevance to farmers with different sizes of holdings, but that they were not resource neutral. Inputs were needed for output and therefore he felt that small and marginal farmers might not be able to purchase the new seeds and the fertilizers needed for enabling them to realise the full genetic potential for yield of the new strains. Therefore, he initiated the Small and Marginal Farmers and Landless Labour Programmes in order to provide the needed credit and inputs to those who would have otherwise been bypassed by new technologies. Thanks to this important step, all farmers could benefit from high yielding varieties of wheat, rice and other crops leading to a small government programme becoming a mass movement.
Income security for farmers:
Babuji was clear that unless farmers get a remunerative price, they will not take interest in yield enhancing technologies. In 1968, when the first large-scale purchase of the Mexican semi-dwarf wheat variety Lerma Rojo was to be made by the Food Corporation of India, the Agriculture Prices Commission had recommended a difference of about Rs.5 per quintal between red and amber grain varieties. Lerma Rojo which gave a yield of 4 to 5 tonnes per hectare had red grains and would have therefore fetched Rs.5 less per quintal. Babuji knew that if such a difference in procurement price was adopted, farmers would lose interest in the cultivation of Lerma Rojo. He called Mr. Dias, who was then the Food Secretary, and me for a discussion on this topic before he announced in Parliament that the government would buy all the wheat offered to it, irrespective of grain colour, at the same price which was probably Rs.65 per quintal at that time. This one decision of his played a catalytic role in spreading the new high yielding varieties on a large scale during rabi 1968-69 and in subsequent years.
Irrigation water security:
As early as 1937, Babuji resigned from the Bihar Assembly on the issue of irrigation cess. He knew that water was life to farmers. This is why he insisted that irrigation should be linked to agriculture in political oversight and decision making. He gave great impetus to minor irrigation including rain water harvesting, conservation and aquifer recharge. His policy was to promote command area development in irrigated areas and watershed development in rainfed areas. For him, the qualitative aspects of water use were as important as the quantitative aspects of water availability. He tried his best to solve the Cauvery water dispute through political dialogue and consensus. Unfortunately, this became difficult and the matter had to be resolved through a Tribunal.
Towards sustainable agriculture:
Babuji wanted environmental concerns to be mainstreamed in agricultural research and development strategies. He himself grew a wide range of vegetables and fruits in his home garden adopting organic farming procedures. When I was Director General of ICAR, he asked me to promote organic farming in a big way. Similarly, he was deeply interested in giving due consideration to traditional wisdom and technologies. At his instance, the ICAR supported a project for understanding the impact of music on crop growth and yield at the Annamalai University. He also wanted to understand the scientific basis of rain making through the pathway of vedic knowledge. He had desired that a detailed compilation of vedic agriculture be made so that we can learn from the past and adapt it to the present. At his instance, ICAR commissioned a study on this subject through the Kashi Vidyapeeth, Varanasi, and the Bhandarkar Oriental Research Institute, Pune. Thus, Babuji’s approach to agricultural development was to combine the knowledge and experience of the past with frontier technologies.
Skilled work for all in rural areas:
Babuji was convinced that in a country where 60 per cent of the cultivated area was still exposed to the vagaries of the monsoon, rural families should have multiple livelihood opportunities if they were to be insulated from seasonal financial distress. This led to his promotion of animal husbandry and fisheries. He felt that mixed farming involving crop-livestock integration should become a way of life in rural areas. In addition, he laid considerable stress on the creation of opportunities for skilled non-farm employment. This led to his encouraging collaboration with Bulgaria and other eastern European countries in setting up agro-industrial complexes. An agro-industrial complex involves an end-to-end approach, leading to concurrent attention to all the links in the production-consumption-marketing chain. We need urgently the introduction of such an approach to generating new opportunities for non-farm employment in villages. For example, every Watershed can become a Bio-industrial Watershed comprising a series of biomass based micro-enterprises. The Herbal Biovalley being developed in the Koraput region of Orissa is another example of an integrated approach to on-farm and non-farm employment.
Revamping agricultural research and education:
Because of his profound practical wisdom, Babuji helped to reshape agricultural priorities and revamp the agricultural research management system in a manner that there was synergy between scientists’ expertise and farmers’ experience. He helped to introduce the Agricultural Research Service to provide scientists with opportunities for financial and professional advancement without interruption during their entire career. Also, he helped to reorganise the Governing Body of ICAR, and established a Department of Agricultural Research and Education in the Ministry of Agriculture to assist in combining government authority with functional autonomy.
He also played a dominant role in the establishment of Krishi Vigyan Kendras based on the concept of learning by doing. Many new institutions, national bureaus and coordinated projects were established during his leadership of ICAR as its president. Two of the important new institutions were the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources, New Delhi, which now has one of the world’s largest Gene Banks, and the National Bureau of Soil Survey and Land Use Planning at Nagpur.
Babuji loved good food and was particularly happy when he could share it with others. In meetings of agricultural scientists, he used to stress the need for not overlooking organoleptic properties while breeding new varieties, “Remember that food passes through the tongue” was his famous statement. This led to a greater partnership between plant and animal breeders and Home Science colleges, leading to the pyramiding of genes from yield, nutritive quality and culinary characteristics.
By taking the responsibility for any shortcomings on himself, Jagjivan Ram evoked the loyalty and admiration of staff as well as the respect of parliamentarians. The best tribute we can pay to his life and work is the conversion of the concept of inclusive growth from rhetoric into reality.