Agriculture and Food security


I am happy to associate myself with the International Conference on Land Resource Management for Food, Employment and Environmental Security. It is said that care of the land is a down to earth index of a civilisation. Better soil health, adequate water and sustainable agricultural practices contribute a lot to the quality of the land. Soil Conservation Society of India since its inception in 1951, as a non-governmental organisation and a scientific organisation, has focussed on these vital issues. Department of Land Resources which is the co-organiser of this Conference, was created at the initiative of the Soil Conservation Society. I am happy that eminent international experts are meeting here to discuss this important subject.

Land resources are finite and therefore their conservation, development and management have always played a determining role in sustaining life and civilisation. Mahatma Gandhi, the father of our nation, had very poignantly said in 1946, "To forget how to dig the earth and tend the soil is to forget ourselves". If we forget to take care of the land in our desperate search for food security we will only harvest disaster. Lord John Boyd Orr, the first Director General of FAO said in 1948, "Increases in agricultural production are possible through modern methods. But those advances in science will be useless, unless there is enough good land for farming. If the soil on which all agriculture and all human life depend is wasted away then the battle to free mankind from want cannot be won".

It is appropriately said that, "we are only 15 cms. away from our annihilation, this 15 cms. being our top soil." The land degradation is taking place at an alarming rate resulting in erosion of soil. In India alone it has been calculated that the annual loss of soil due to water erosion may exceed 4 billion tonnes.

Our first Prime Minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, in a letter to the Chief Ministers on 12th January 1958 cited the observation of Dr. C.E. Kellog, Head of the Soil Conservation Division of the USA and wrote, "if proper soil conservation practices were applied to land in India, production could be increased three to four times to solve the food problem of the country".

I recall that in February 1980, the 12th International Congress of Soil Science, held in New Delhi, urged for a one point World Charter stipulating all nations for adoption of a well identified national policy to husband the soil wealth.

Green revolution in our country, in the conception and execution of which Dr. M.S. Swaminathan played a crucial role, has helped us to ensure food self-sufficiency by increasing our annual food grain production from 55 million tonnes in 1950 to slightly over 200 million tonnes in 1999. One interesting aspect of green revolution is that most of the production took place in a limited land area, and as a result, a lot of land was saved from agricultural operation. In spite of this saving of land, per capita availability of land has declined from 0.48 hectares in 1952 to 0.15 hectares in 2000 due to population increase. The shortage of land is compounded by increase of waste land which is estimated, by the Department of Land Resources, to be 63.8 million hectares. We are also loosing 15 million hectares of land due to spread of urbanisation and the demand for more land for housing, industries, and communication. In such a grim situation how can we provide 0.5 hectares of arable land per capita, the minimum land required, for ensuring food and other essential needs of an individual?

I think we have no option but to produce more from the limited land available to ensure food security. While doing so we must be mindful of the soil health for future generations. Mahatma Gandhi had warned that, "trading in soil fertility for the sake of quick returns could prove to be a disastrous, short-sighted policy. It would result in virtual depletion of soil." Dr. Norman Borlaug had said that, "the significance of maintaining soil fertility becomes increasingly crucial, not only for food security but indeed to preserve civilisation". We have, in our recent National Policy on Agriculture, aimed at achieving 4% growth rate in food grain production and at the same time recognised that sustainable agriculture is fundamental to food security. It is clear that the future of food security lies in conserving prime farm land for agriculture and restoring the biological potential of degraded lands. The scientific know-how for land conservation and reclamation exists. What is lacking is the conversion of this know-how into field level do-how.

Land use decisions are also decisions on water use. In this context let me take you from the realm of scientific know-how to the world of ordinary people who by applying their traditional practices have saved land and conserved water. I visited the Bhaonta-Kolyala village in the Alwar district of Rajasthan along with Mr. Anil Agarwal of the Centre for Science and Environment and saw the watershed created by villagers during the last 10 years by building hundreds of rain water harvesting structures. This has helped them to reclaim land for agricultural purposes and conserve water which helped them to survive even a drought. I am glad that this Conference is organising a special discussion on the experiences of the people of Bhaonta-Kolyala and similar villages.

I recall that two decades back in a village in Madhya Pradesh common people started a movement under the banner "Save the Soil Campaign" to protect their land from salinity caused by water from an irrigation project. They planted trees which saved the soil from erosion salinity and water logging. Villages such as Ralegaon Siddhi in Maharashtra and Sukhomajri in Haryana further provide shinny examples of people’s initiatives reversing land degradation.

Government has also taken initiatives to involve people for land regeneration. Our former Prime Minister Rajiv Gandhi announced a major national policy to develop and green waste land with the active participation of people.

I also wish to commend the Community Food and Water Security System launched by the M. S. Swaminathan Research Foundation at Chennai. When I visited the JRD Tata Ecotechnology Centre of the Foundation two years ago, I saw the work being done in very low rainfall districts in getting every drop of rainwater conserved and used for growing high value but low water requiring crops like pulses. The Foundation has initiated a programme for enabling village communities to conserve their local biodiversity in field gene banks and to preserve water, seeds and grains in village water, seed and grain banks. It is only such community-centered and controlled food and water security systems that will help us to realize Gandhiji’s vision of a hunger-free India.

Since people are in the forefront to manage land and water resources, scientists, particularly the agricultural scientists in this Conference, must provide leadership in launching a Land and Water Care Movement. I am aware that Australia has an effective community led land care movement. Developing countries need such programmes urgently.

In our efforts for land resource management we must acknowledge the vital role of women. Women themselves constitute the best of human resource. In many movements for preservation of forests and top soil, women have played pioneering role. It is now acknowledged that Women Feed the World. But they remain the worst victims of land degradation. The distances they cover to fetch water, fodder and fuel wood have further increased as a result of such ecological problems. If women remain disadvantaged due to land degradation their progeny will grow stunted. Therefore land degradation is one of the worst forms of inter-generational inequity. In India one-third members in our Panchayats are women. They have availed of reservation of 33% of seats for themselves. Already one million women have completed a term of five years and played an important role in management of natural resources. Therefore it is imperative that their abilities are harnessed for food security.

Our efforts for food security through land resource management and sustainable agriculture can be greatly augmented by combining space technology with biotechnology advances. Information obtained through remote sensing data on land use practices, soil condition, water resources can be used for sustainable development.

The green revolution that we witnessed in the 1960s and 70s can be converted into an evergreen revolution only if there is a paradigm shift in our research and development strategy, leading to a change from a purely commodity-centered approach to one based on an integrated natural resource management strategy. In this integrated strategy people’s participation will be a crucial element. Scientific and agricultural experts will have to join together with the farmers and the common people in a popular movement for protecting the land and the mother earth itself so that the blessings of nature can be sustained and harvested for meeting the basic needs of the human kind. I congratulate the Soil Conservation Society of India and the Department of Land Resources of the Ministry of Rural Development on their timely initiative in bringing together large numbers of national and international experts at this Conference. I wish the Conference all success.

Thank you.