Agriculture and Food security


Poverty and hunger have dogged mankind throughout its existence on earth. No wonder Christ had said that the poor will be always with us. To-day, even in the most developed and richest countries of the world, millions of people live below the poverty line. In the world as a whole it has been estimated that 800 million people live below the poverty line. The 20th century saw the largest number of deaths due to hunger, more than the numbers killed by the wars of that war-torn century. If we take into account the hidden hunger, that is malnutrition, then the victims of hunger will be much more than the actual deaths it caused. The cruel irony of it is that it has taken place when science and technology has placed at the disposal of man enough means to banish hunger and poverty from this earth. In fact in the 20th century, for the first time in history, the world has moved from food shortage to food sufficiency.

The phenomena of poverty is so daunting that in the words of Mahatma Gandhi, even the God will not dare to appear before a famished and idle person except in the form of food and wages. But if we broaden the definition of poverty to include in its scope the deprivations in health, education and other social entitlements, then God will have to take many other forms, besides the form of food and wages, to appear before a poor person.

Though eminently achievable, it is indeed an awesome task to put an end to hunger and poverty. We need physical availability of food, economic capability to have access to available food and ecological security for sustained production. Mankind is now able to have better yield per unit of land resulting in record food grain production. To feed an ever-growing population we will require more food. While receiving Nobel Prize in 1970, Dr. Norman Borlaug had said that the green revolution had won a temporary success in man’s war against hunger and if the frightening power of human reproduction was not curbed, the success of green revolution would be ephemeral. Prof. M.S. Swaminathan therefore talked about ever green revolution and spearheaded it by not only focussing on productivity but also making it pro-nature, pro-poor and pro-women. The main challenge in our attempt to achieve freedom from hunger and poverty is to produce more in an environmentally sustainable manner and to distribute the product equitably to ensure food security for all. In other words, our strategy for food production has to be more cleaner and based on better and efficient natural resource management. As early as in 1957, our first Prime Minister Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter to the Chief Ministers, had warned that our desire to exploit natural resources had outrun discretion and we forget the part of conservation.

He also cautioned that, "Too much of insecticides and herbicides may destroy some insects which might often play some useful role in the economy of nature". These concerns, articulated almost half century back, are now being grappled with by our scientists. Increasingly it is only science, which can show the path for wiping out hunger and poverty. In twenty-first century it is particularly the biological science, which will pave the way. Decoding the genomes of plants and human beings have deepened the understanding of life as such and opened new frontiers for converting our rich bio-resources into our economic wealth through environmentally biological technologies. It is therefore time that we remind ourselves of what Jawaharlal Nehru said over 50 years ago, "It is science alone that can solve the problems of hunger and poverty, of insanitation and illiteracy, of superstition and deadening custom and tradition, of vast resources running to waste, and of a rich country inhabited by starving people. The future belongs to science and to those who would make friends with science". These words are as relevant today as they were five decades ago.

Freedom from poverty and hunger must go beyond physical survival and security of an individual to encompass the larger goals of freedom which aims at removing illiteracy, ill-health, caste and gender discrimination and host of other social and economic problems. In other words, freedom from poverty and hunger invest a person with dignity and self-esteem for leading a fulfilling life. As early as 1939, Mahatma Gandhi referred to an average Indian villager and poetically said, "…remove his chronic poverty and his illiteracy and you have the finest specimen of what a cultured, cultivated, free citizen should be". Again few months before our independence, he linked removal of poverty as a necessary condition for real freedom and full flowering of human potentialities.

He very appropriately wrote, "Unless poverty and unemployment are wiped out from India, I would not agree that we have attained freedom. Real wealth does not consist in jewellery and money, but in providing for proper food, clothes and creating healthy conditions of living for every one of us". It is the larger problem of redistribution of social and economic opportunities which remain at the heart of our exertions against poverty and hunger. Adequate social sector investment is an important step in this direction. Dr. Anil Agarwal, the winner of the Norman Borlaug Award, has advocated for drastic improvement of quality of life through housing, water supply and sanitation for redressing poverty in urban areas.

Gender issue is of crucial significance for addressing the issues of poverty and hunger. Even if it is acknowledged that women feed the world, the burden of poverty is highly skewed against them. Dr. Anil Agarwal in his numerous studies have proved that women’s association with watershed management programmes and water harvesting programmes in rural areas have helped in addressing poverty in rural areas, most of the beneficiaries being women. Since empowerment is a powerful force against the struggle against poverty eradication, we in India are trying to provide adequate political representation to women in our legislatures and Parliament. This has been described by Ms. Joan Holmes, the President of the Hunger Project as, "…the greatest social experiment of our age…". Already at the level of local Government, almost one million women have participated meaningfully in such decision-making bodies giving a new meaning to developmental work at the village and block levels. As part of poverty eradication programmes, micro-finance has also enabled women practically in all the States of our country to address the issues of poverty and hunger.

Poor themselves are central actors in our struggle against poverty and hunger. They are struggling to change their living conditions. Mahatma Gandhi used to say that people must get their basic needs through the sweat of their brow. Poor people are organising themselves and launching movements to overcome their poverty and hunger. Dr. Anil Agarwal has vividly described the movement of people against poverty arising out of destruction of forests, land degradation and depletion of water resources. He himself has remained in the forefront of many programmes undertaken by poor people to revive rivers, harvest rain water, reclaim land and stop land degradation. He is a compassionate crusader for a better common present through a cleaner environment. I have had the opportunity to watch with admiration and gratitude Dr. Agarwal’s tireless efforts, in spite of his ill-health, for protecting and improving our land, water, forests, biodiversity and other natural resources, as well as for preventing pollution of the atmosphere and unfavourable changes in climate.

Elimination of poverty and hunger is well within our means. It is estimated that the world requires 60 billion dollars over 15 years to make this world free of this persisting problem. It is instructive to learn that in 1999 when the entire world was seized with the problem of making computers Y2K compliant, 300 to 600 billion dollars were spent to avert the potential danger arising out of malfunctioning of computers. We require much less to wipe out hunger and poverty, which have plagued all nations throughout recorded history. If we can achieve this, which I am sure can be done with much less resources, it will constitute the greatest achievement of mankind, far surpassing in importance even the exploration of the frontiers of space or the splitting of the atom.

Science has to-day the capacity to produce more and more of everything including food. But it cannot produce equitable distribution unless there is a parallel political organization of society. I should like to go back to Gandhi in this context. He said once, "if somebody could invent a plough with which the whole of India could be cultivated, it would be good, provided all other people can be provided jobs. Otherwise the most of the population with nothing to do will become dunces". He was not against machinery but against the craze for labour-saving machinery. "Men go on saving labour till thousands are without work and thrown on the streets to die of starvation. I want to save time and labour not for a fraction of mankind but for all. I want the concentration of wealth not in the hands of a few, but in the hands of all. To-day machinery merely helps a few ride on the back of millions". Gandhi wanted not mass production but production by the masses. Since it is the interstices of the production process that wealth and individual incomes are produced, he advocated decentralization of production. The truth of this approach is shown by the recent example of food surplus in India, our storage places overflowing with foodgrains while people have no purchasing power to buy the foodgrains.

Fortunately, to-day by its evolution, science and technology has come to stage when it is possible to enable masses to produce. We have come to a stage when by intelligent and socially purposeful application of computers and information technology the masses can be empowered and produce food and other necessities of life. This is probably the answer to the phenomenon of jobless growth the world is facing to-day. Gandhiji said, "A certain degree of physical harmony and comfort is necessary, but above a certain level it becomes a hindrance instead of help. Therefore the ideal of creating an unlimited number of wants and satisfying them seems to be a delusion and a snare. The satisfaction of one’s physical needs, even the intellectual needs of one’s narrow self, must come at a certain point to a dead stop before it degenerates into physical and intellectual voluptuousness".

This is not an argument that we can advance before the poor and hungry but it ought to be placed before the affluent sections of world society. According to economic pandits like John Galbraith, the developed societies of to-day have long passed the stage of satisfying their wants for a decent level of living. It is, therefore, time the world especially the affluent nations turned their attention to dealing with the hunger and poverty of the rest of mankind instead of catering to the endless cravings of their people to more and more in a frenzy of "physical and intellectual voluptuousness". That way lies the means of solving hunger and poverty of mankind and at the same time preserve the environment through sustainable development.

I compliment Coromandel Fertilisers, particularly Dr. Bharat Ram and Shri M. Murli Rao, in organising regularly, during the last 30 years, lectures by eminent scholars and scientists on themes of national and international significance. Today’s lecture by Prof. Peter Raven has shown how the future well-being of all nations is ecologically intertwined irrespective of their political frontiers. I am glad that all the lectures delivered so far have been brought together in the form of a book. I commend this publication for its contemporary relevance for fostering a sustainable future for humankind.

Thank you.