Making agriculture a profitable venture

NAF Managing Trustee S S Rajsekar (third from left) interacting with farmers at the CFRD facility at Illedu village in Chengalpet.
NAF Managing Trustee S S Rajsekar (third from left) interacting with farmers at the CFRD facility at Illedu village in Chengalpet.

Will Indian farmers be swamped by existential woes arising out of Covid pandemic or emerge out of lockdown with better resilience, equipped with scientific tools and farming methodologies? While the spate of farmers’ suicides across the country is cause for grave concern, pointing once again to the dire need for the GoI to fine-tune its macro polices, the Chennai-based National Agro Foundation (NAF) is silently working to make sustainable farming a reality in rural India by changing its ecosystem.

Set up on Jan 30, 2000, as a charitable trust on the 90th birth anniversary of former Union Food and ­Agriculture Minister C Subramaniam, more popular as the architect of the Green ­Revolution (1964–72), the NAF is at the forefront to create a healthy, literate and prosperous rural India. But even a statesman like CS had to endure many critical challenges to realise his dream of a farm revolution way back in 1960s. “My father had to face stiff opposition from both, the Opposition MPs and a section of the Congress party, to his move to import high-yielding seeds developed by ­Norman Borlaug from Mexico,” says  S S Rajsekar, managing trustee, NAF. They alleged that CS was inviting big trouble as foreign pests and diseases would swamp the agricultural fields if the government okayed import of such wheat seeds for a trial run. Finding no support in the House, CS lamented in 1964–65, “I am able to convince the farmers of India, but yet to convince my colleagues in Parliament, bureaucrats and scientists.”

Quitting national politics in 1980, CS returned to Chennai and started giving shape to his pet ideas and projects. When the results of the Green Revolution with incremental production of food grains began to plateau, it was time for a new growth strategy even as the old mantra ‘seeds to grains’ had to be recoined to tackle the emerging challenges. Former President Abdul Kalam as then Chairman of TIFAC, a think-tank under the Department of Science and Technology, and CS signed an MoU to set up NAF which had consultant M K Raju as the Chair of the Board of Trustees and an eight-member Governing Council led by Kalam.

Rajsekar distributing new clothes to farmers and their children on Diwali eve at the Illedu village.
Rajsekar distributing new clothes to farmers and their children on Diwali eve at the Illedu village.

During the initial days, NAF had a simple, straightforward agenda: to increase the annual income of farmers from ₹10,000 to at least ₹50,000; and stem the continuous migration from rural India to urban centres, if not reverse it. “Father used to receive publications from Worldwatch Institute and articles from its founder Lester Brown who has time and again warned that we have exceeded the carrying capacity of Earth. CS quoted Brown to interrelate the 3Ps — population, pollution and poverty; and was concerned about the widening disparity between the rich and the poor,” says Rajsekar.

After Rajsekar joined as managing trustee on Nov 11, 2000, NAF coined the term ‘soil to market’ as a tagline for the Second Green Revolution in the making. “Our primary focus is to make agriculture a viable and productive vocation. Secondly, we want to create employment in farming and farm-related enterprises,” he says.


Centre for Rural Development (CFRD)

In a path-breaking initiative that led to the setting up of CFRD, a training centre for farmers, SHGs, farm managers and bank managers at Illedu village in Chengalpet district, Tamil Nadu, NAF invited 24 farmers to have an open forum “to find ways and means in which we can support them” in Feb 2001.

A demo project having two plots of one-acre each with corn and paddy cultivation was developed to show that high yield can be achieved with quality seeds, deep tilling with sharp chisels to cut through the ‘hard pan top soil’ and scientific management. “Our demo was a reference point for farmers to grow what is needed by the industry (as raw material) and society, instead of blindly doing agriculture,” explains Rajsekar.

At the CFRD a dynamic syllabus is followed with 70 per cent practical knowledge and 30 per cent theory classes. Besides this facility, a soil testing lab, an R&D unit, at the Centre for Biotechnology at the Anna University campus in Taramani, Chennai, offers a range of services to farmers.

With NABARD, they are into watershed management in four projects and roped in corporates for eight more outreach initiatives in Tamil Nadu. In seven other States — Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Karnataka and Haryana — 14 command areas (at least 1,500 hectares each) are being developed with natural resource management like building check dams and renovating water bodies; livelihood initiatives; and farming systems with focus on sustainability, explains S V Murugan, director at NAF. Corporates including Larsen & Toubro, the Tata group of companies and BNY Mellon are sponsoring the rural projects which mentor local farmers in sustainable farming.

In another initiative to handhold small and marginal farmers in Tamil Nadu, 49 Farmer Producer Companies were formed with the support of NABARD and Small Farmers Agribusiness Consortium (SFAC).


Second Revolution

In a paradigm shift, NAF has taken up clusters of villages in different parts of the country to educate small, marginal and medium-sized farmers in sustainable agriculture along with holistic development of natural resources, watershed management and ushering changes in their livelihood.

A mega watershed and sustainable farming project was completed at Genupauli cluster in Sambalpur district of Odisha in 2016–17. “We have developed a 900-acre command area by creating irrigation channels, renovating check dams and taking up frontline demos on sustainable agriculture (lean farming),” says M R ­Ramasubramaniyan, executive director, NAF.

In Maharashtra, three ongoing projects spread over 3,000 hectares across 15 villages are setting up watershed facilities and ushering in best practices among farmers. With 122 employees including agri specialists, watershed engineers, IT people (for GIS, remote sensing et al), community organisers and 11 project officers, NAF is on a mission to fulfil its dream of making Indian farmers self-reliant by elevating their skillsets through support systems and extension activities. Over the last 20 years, NAF has reached out to over 770 villages in eight states and lifted the livelihood of thousands of farmers by equipping them with best farm practices thus ushering in a profile makeover for the beneficiaries.

CS, rebel with a calm demeanour

Chidambaram Subramaniam was a born rebel. He never tolerated obscurantism in the name of tradition or loyalty. And he was never an orthodox man. While everybody knows his contributions as the Union Food and Agriculture Minister, followed by his stint as Deputy Chairman of Planning Commission during 1964–72, not many are aware that he was chosen as the first Science and Technology Minister by PM Indira Gandhi. He served in this position too with distinction.

His son, S S Rajsekar, member of RC Madras East, RID 3232, shares interesting facets of CS, one of the tallest statesmen of India. After completing UG in Physics at the Presidency College, he did Law at Madras Law College and at the age of 23, joined the freedom movement. He was jailed for opposing the British rule and after Independence, he was inducted as a member of the Constituent Assembly (1946–52).

When the Madras Province threw up a hung Assembly in the first election, “my father proposed the name of C Rajagopalachari, aka Rajaji, to the post of CM. CS owed a lot to his guru Rajaji. And for two consecutive terms (1952–62) he held the portfolios of Education, Finance and Law in the State cabinet.” When Rajaji lost the vote of confidence among legislators in 1954, PM Jawaharlal Nehru intervened and requested the new CM K Kamaraj to retain CS in the revamped cabinet.

CS mooted the idea of ‘Green Army’ as Defence Minister when ­Charan Singh was PM (1979). Jawans who quit Army after the age of 30–35, were given the choice of settling on the foothills of Himalayas and joining agroforestry scheme. “The Army funded the soldiers who took up the greening project which was not for the officers.”

In 1966, CS declared with conviction in Parliament that India would become self-sufficient in food production, though at that time “we were having a ship-to-mouth existence with large quantities of wheat imported from the US.” His vision was fulfilled in 1971 when we achieved record production of food grains riding the wave of the Green Revolution. Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee conferred Bharat Ratna, the highest civilian award,
on CS in 1998 for his role in the Green Revolution.

Rajsekar was drawn into the NAF after his father’s demise with former President Abdul Kalam and M K Raju, Chairman, Board of Trustees, convincing him to join the Foundation.

During the birth centenary event of CS in 2010, when a scribe asked Rajsekar to describe his father in a pithy line, the son replied: For my father, India was his constituency and the world his country.

Covid relief work

During lockdown, NAF has reached out to frontline warriors against Covid-19 by providing around 50,000 face masks, 17,000 gloves and sanitisers (1,750 litres) to Chennai and Madurai police, health workers and other volunteers. Dry ration kits containing rice, wheat flour, dhal, cooking oil, masala items, salt, sugar, tea and soaps worth ₹850 per bag were given to over 3,500 daily wage labourers. A complete set of 250 PPE kits were donated to Stanley ­Hospital and government hospitals in Chennai and Villupuram. One ventilator was donated to ­Chennai Corporation. “Our community kitchen provided food three times a day to 600 migrant workers for two weeks in Tiruvallur district. Besides, 4,000 fishermen in Royapuram were given food prepared at this kitchen,” said Ramasubramaniyan, Executive Director, NAF. In all, relief material worth ₹1.5 crore were provided to various beneficiaries through the CSR funding from BNY Mellon, an IT conglomerate.


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