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FARM JOURNALISM: THE PLOUGH AND THE PEN

By Prof. Venkat Pulapaka
(venkat.pulapaka@gmail.com)

(Appeared in the December 2009 issue of the Journalism Online newsletter)

Farm journalism today deals with the dead. It is no longer about the living. Ask journalist Palgummi Sainath, he'll feed you with inputs on farmer suicides. Ask economist Jayati Ghosh, she'll spice up your palate with details on the emerging Indian food crisis. Ask the farmers, they'll grind in their desire to quit farming.

It is, therefore, not surprising to see agricultural scientist and food policy expert, Professor M.S. Swaminathan, making a feverish appeal to the media to help farmers feed 1.15 billion Indians in addition to a billion farm animals. (The media and the farm sector, M.S. Swaminathan, The Hindu, November 11, 2009) Swaminathan says that Indian farmers collectively need to double their annual cereal production from the current 220 million tonnes in order to feed over 1.8 billion population plus farm animals by 2050. Is it possible? It has to be made possible, says Swaminathan, because India promised, as part of the UN Millennium Development Goals, to halve the number of the nation's hungry by 2015.

Forty years ago, when global media and food experts gave up hope on India's ability to feed itself, avoid starvation and hunger deaths, the nation miraculously avoided the mass graveyard by sowing 18,000 tonnes of high-yielding Mexican wheat and rice seeds. Thus began the first Green Revolution in India. The imported semi-dwarf varieties of wheat and rice seeds greatly enhanced the yield and incomes. The nation's food grain buffer stocks swelled and everybody (almost!) had food to eat. Charismatic (former) Prime Minister Indira Gandhi's biggest political gamble (garibi hatao!) of the 1960s paid off. As a result, Ms. Gandhi's Administration pumped in more funds for farm research and food scientists led by Swaminathan, who were the key architects of the Green Revolution, developed newer varieties of high-yielding high-breed seeds. There was, however, one glitch. Enormous quantities of chemical fertilisers were needed to aid the new seeds to give high yields.

This is where the media, especially All India Radio, played a major role in the success of the Green Revolution by bridging the gulf between government policies, extension services, new technology and eager farmers. More than the English-language media, the language media had done a yeoman service to the Indian farm sector.

Despite its successes, Green Revolution -- the term was coined by Dr. William Gaud of the Department of Agriculture, United States, in 1968 -- triggered angry debates. Extensive studies had shown that the excessive use of chemical fertilisers over long periods killed the nutrients in the soil. A dead soil cannot grow food grains. Farmers in states like Punjab and Andhra Pradesh, who were already suffering due to erratic monsoon, realised this the hard way. Dead soil was one of the several factors that ultimately led to the second round of food crisis that is now staring in the faces of Indian farmers and policy makers alike. Hence, the renewed interest in the Second Green Revolution. Prime Minister Manmohan Singh expressed his desire for the round two of the GR and his food policy adviser Swaminathan is eager to orchestra the media support for revolutionising Indian agriculture once more.

However, it does not seem necessary to demonstrate the importance and timeliness of farm journalism as a subject of intellectual curiosity and public concern. The Indian media, after four decades of trying with increasing success to isolate agriculture, has begun to shift its focus to food crisis and food security. One of the key drivers prodding media to tilt towards agriculture is the global interest in the commodity market. It is another issue that trading in food grains is pushing farmers into a new world of speculation, debt and uncertainty. Media today is not bothered about the actual process of farming or the wellbeing of farmers. Its interests lie in the financial implications.

Senior journalist S. Viswanathan rightly states that the "... character and composition of the news media have been transformed. Growing urbanisation and metropolitanisation, and the hyper-commercialisation of the media in the context of the neo-liberalisation policies of the government are the key drivers of this big change. Relevant rural coverage, except in a small minority of newspapers, has become minimal. ... This does not of course mean that the rare species of committed progressive journalists is moving towards extinction." (From green to evergreen revolution and roles of the news media, S. Viswanathan, Readers' Editor, The Hindu, November 16, 2009) We hope so.

Journalism Online