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KITE FLYING IN HINGLISH

- Narendra Modi is specific where Manmohan Singh was vague

History has been wiped clean. In Manmohan Singh’s time, his web site had a window for previous prime ministers; all his predecessors from Nehru onwards made a brief appearance. It has now been removed. Anyone who visits the new prime minister’s web site will never know that he had any predecessors.

So they might as well forget that Manmohan Singh addressed the 83rd foundation day of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research. It was an uncharacteristically long speech. He gave so many speeches that his speech writers could not keep up with him; but he blessed ICAR with almost 20 minutes of peroration — apart from the time he spent handing out umpteen prizes to chief ministers and agriculture ministers of states for producing more of some commodity or other. He congratulated them for producing 236 or 241 million tons of foodgrains — he was not sure which — and then went on to urge them to do better. There were so many starving people; they needed to be fed more (but not from the 50 million tons of foodgrains his government was hoarding). So agricultural production had to grow at 4 per cent a year.

He called for a second green revolution. The first one came from America’s high-yielding wheat; the second had to be a home grown one, so that it served his favourite poor and downtrodden. He wanted India’s 51 agricultural universities to produce more scientists, so that they could visit the agricultural science centres in all districts and disseminate Pandit Nehru’s scientific temper.

The first agricultural revolution simply applied assured irrigation to high-yielding seeds; he wanted a second one to address the problems created by uncertain monsoons. Apparently, only 30 per cent of the irrigation water actually reaches a crop; he wanted 50 per cent to reach it — without increasing use of imported diesel for irrigation pumps. He wanted it to be replaced by algae (that was a new one on me). Rains vary more and have become less certain; so he was happy that ICAR had taken a National Initiative on Climate Resilient Agriculture and set up a state-of-the-art National Institute on Abiotic Stress Management — not to forget the government’s Action Plan on Climate Change. He had heard that agricultural scientists had become insular; they should listen to farmers, and help them raise productivity and incomes. Finally, he asked them to become less bureaucratic and more democratic.

That was three years ago. Then, on July 29 this year, his successor addressed the same audience in his trademark Hinglish. When he rose to speak, the gathered scientists gave him a standing ovation. He asked them to transfer the ovation to the farmers. He pulled the leg of S. Ayyappan, director general of ICAR, for his breakneck delivery, which he compared to a superfast train. He complimented Ayyappan for organizing a standing ovation, a great way of waking up a sleeping audience.

He told the scientists that it was not enough for them to make laboratory experiments and get famous for their results; they had to take their innovations to the farmers and explain them in the farmers’ language. ICAR was 86 years old; he wanted the scientists to start planning so that by the time it reached a century, they would have achieved two goals, namely filling the nation’s stomach, and filling the farmer’s purse: in other words, making every one well fed by means of an agriculture that was profitable.

Raising agricultural production was part of these goals; one way of doing so was a reduction in crops’ duration. But such innovations should not be at the cost of quality. Apparently, scientists had worked out a way of reducing the duration of moong crop from 45 to 35 days; but the faster growing moong was smaller. It made consumers wonder if it was as good, or whether they were getting a bad bargain.

He said there was a clash between the weather cycle and the water cycle. Apparently, what he meant was the seasonality of rain was changing. That made it necessary for farmers to understand the change, and to adapt agriculture to it, whether by rain harvesting, water storage or other means. The scientists had to help them in this. It was fine to debate global warming in five-star hotels; but the discussion had to be taken to the farmer.

He said that the river Sabarmati, which is dry today, had plenty of water in the 1930s; but when someone brought a full glass of water to Mahatma Gandhi in his Sabarmati ashram, he would say, bring it half full. He was pained if even a drop of water was wasted. That consciousness needs to spread to everyone today.

Then he returned to the point he had earlier made on taking the results of research to farmers. He suggested that agricultural universities should identify a few hundred progressive farmers in their neighbourhood — educated, confident farmers in their 30s — and turn them into a talent pool. The universities, agricultural colleges, and their students should form a chain of dissemination stretching into the country’s districts. The students should run radio stations, and give farmers solutions — what to do about deficient or delayed rains, how to deal with a disease, and so on.

Narendra Modi said that agricultural universities had existed for 50 years; each probably had 200 PhD students doing research year after year. What happened to all that research? The students took their degrees, got nice jobs and went off; what did the country get out of it? All that research should be digitized, so that it can be uploaded and become available to everyone.

Of the colours in the Indian national flag, there had been a green revolution which made India self-sufficient in grains; there had been a white revolution that increased its milk consumption. Now was the time for a blue revolution: fishermen had to learn to grow blue algae to feed fish. Seaweed could also be used in pharmaceuticals, and crushed and spread in fields as a disinfectant and fertilizer.

He said that both India and China had access to the Himalayas; while we worried about the loss of medicinal plants in the mountains, China had gone ahead to grow and exploit them. He asked public and private institutions in pharmaceuticals and agriculture to get together on this.

The standing ovation Modi referred to occurred at the beginning of his speech; whether one did at its end is not reported. His essential message was the same as Manmohan Singh’s: that agricultural academics should ensure the adoption of their superior knowledge by farmers, herders and fishermen. But the way he did it was very different. Manmohan Singh implicitly told the scientists that they were experts and must work out how to disseminate their knowledge; Modi listed a dozen specific innovations that would make a national difference and asked the scientists to apply them. The next step would be for government departments to make time-bound, targeted plans. Manmohan Singh chaired the meeting of the planning commission every year and gave a characteristically upbeat, inchoate message. Modi will tell the ministries in charge of execution, “Do this specific thing by tomorrow.”