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A gentle assertive plea to ‘Save Our Soil’…Remembering Sri. M.V.Murugappan

The head of a prominent business family of Murugappa Group, its former Chairman  and a dear friend of Samanvaya, Sri. M.V.Murugappan, passed away yesterday. Here below a short note by Ram, Chief Samanvaya and an article written by Sri. Murugappan 10 years ago.  

The last time I met with Mr. M.V.Murugappan was during the obituary meeting of the legendary organic farming leader, Sri. Nammzhvar in Chennai. We have sent out a note on the meeting by email to several people and true enough there was a phone call  from him earlier that day asking where was the venue. He turned up as he does ahead of time and was happy to sit among the audience. “I am not keeping good memory these days, don’t ask me to say anything, I just wanted to be here to honour him”, he said as he sat among the audience. This was the character of the man and his commitment to the various groups that were in pursuit of ‘alternatives’ in Chennai.  
Sri. M.V.Murugappan in the right extreme with Ram, Chief, Samanvaya
and Sri. Gomathinayagam, Organic Farmer & Teacher during the
Samanvaya Freedom Lecture, 2004

As a head of a major corporate house that had its arms in several domains of expertise and businesses, he had a broad spectrum of interests, including alternative science & technology (the AMM Murugappa Chettiar Research Centre, popularly known as MCRC with its late maverick scientist head, Dr. C.V.Seshadri, is still remembered for setting new pathways of knowledge and priority for science and research in India),  people’s movement on science & technology (he stepped into the Chairmanship of the PPST when Dr. Seshadri passed away during the run-up to the second Traditional Science Congress in Anna University, Chennai) and organic farming. Along with his wife, he was very passionate about Organic Farming and care for the soil and took care to exchange notes with farmers on practices.  

For us at Samanvaya, he was a very different welcome friend. He was far too elderly, far too wise and rather different as a corporate head and head of a very well known and wealthy business family. I don’t remember when I first met him, but, we hit it off and he was a pillar of support for our work with the late Gandhian, Sri. Dharampal. Dharampalji, in his last years started to talk about need for re-discovering the forgotten connections around the Indian Ocean rim countries and India. Sri. Murugappan was happy to provide some initial assistance as a seed funding.   

Samanvaya Freedom Lectures struck an unique template whereby we invited a grassroot worker to talk about their views of freedom and invited some well known personality to introduce the speaker at the beginning. The second Samanvaya Freedom Lecture (2005) had the Organic Farmer, Sri. Gomathinayagam as the speaker;  when we invited Sri. MVM to introduce the speaker, he readily concurred and introduced himself as a ‘organic farming student of Gomathinayagam’.   He made it a point to attend any programme we invited him for and always made time for the Samanvaya Freedom Lectures and any other programme that we sent across invitations. He was also fascinated by the ‘Indian System of Management’ ideas and complimented us on the first small booklet that we published.  Similarly, when Samanvaya Swaraj lectures resulted in a 3 day workshop in Gandhigram, we were surprised when Sri. MVM “registered” for the programme as one of the participants and decided to come and hang out with us for a few days. Needless to say,  it was great to interact and learn from him.
Sri. M.V.M. in one of the subsequent Samanvaya  Freedom
Lectures - being part of the audience and interacting with
the speakers

When I asked him to spare some time to talk about the community he hails from and the practices of the community, he readily made time for me and we had a few sittings in his office in the famous Parry’s corner office. Unfortunately, like several city based initiatives that I had to step out of in the last six years, this initiative to document community practices too could not be completed though he did keep the offer open from his side.  Perhaps if I can make time to look through the old notes and transcribe the tapes, I can perhaps write something in the next year when I can revisit some of my old research ideas.

At this time remembering him, I wanted to share a rare article that he wrote in a newspaper almost 10 years ago on the need to re-think ‘development’ by policy makers. He was quite happy about the article and called to enquire if I had read it and what I thought of it. I think this is the un-edited version that he sent me. Like his points in the article, he was a gentle assertive force in the space of alternatives and organic farming, pleading that people change, holding his own position and place as lightly as possible. As we say in Samanvaya, he was ‘another blessing’ to us and the world. The civil society world in Chennai has lost a supportive and sensitive philanthropist, the Murugappa group its head and Organic Farming movement in Tamilnadu, a gentle and often invisible support base.  

Ram, 21st Sept 2017

Save Our Soil
Thursday July 12 2007
M V Murugappan

Many people who hold high offices, whether in Government or Business constantly tell us through the media, how India can become a major producer and supplier of fruits and vegetables to the world markets, and thereby earn foreign exchange, provide employment in the rural areas, improve livelihood, and cut out middlemen.

In reality, they understand little or nothing about how it works. In many parts of the world, the producers are small to medium size farmers and their produce is retailed by supermarket chains and exported by them. They tell the farmer what and when to produce, provide him the seeds, agri-inputs and the technology support to meet their market requirement. The farmer who is close to the ground becomes merely a servant who does their bidding. The retail supermarket chains and the MNCs will pay the farmer a remunerative price, leaving him a good margin, for the first two to three years and then the squeeze begins. Over-production means lower prices to the farmer and then, the farmer has no other option but to sell at a distress price. Between the bargaining power of a small farmer and the super market buyer, you can guess, who has the upper hand.

In India, before the arrival of the supermarkets, we were accustomed to two to three layers of middlemen, inclusive of the mundis. The spread between farm gate price, that is price to the farmer and the price you pay as the final customer is a factor of 4 or 5, for fruits or vegetables.

We are told, this is because of poor handling, lack of cold storage facilities, transportation and spoilage at every step. In reality, the middlemen make money and manipulate the market and the farmer takes all the risks and puts in the hardwork, but gets very little or none. We are told by the supermarket lobby, with the support of Government and media, that things will change for the better for the farmer and the customer.

With the coming of the supermarkets chains, to begin with the prices to the ultimate customer would be somewhat, say 10 per cent - 20 per cent lower (to begin with) than the earlier situation. But this is the “entry price” and will creep-up gradually. This has been the story in the developed world and if one is to learn from what has happened in the West, it will happen here, for sure.

No doubt, in the new era, fruits and vegetables of a kind will be uniform in colour and shape, beautifully displayed and you can shop in air-conditioned comfort. Fixed price, no bargaining, no hastle. But remember you and I pay for all these frills.

Oh! By the way, the enormous cost of cold storage over prolonged periods, which leads to depletion of nutrients and loss of taste and 100s and may be even 1,000 kilometres of cold storage transportation again adds to the cost. To top it all is the hidden cost of pollution, due to high energy input, in horticulture.

Did you know
·         The variety of apples produced in USA dropped from 7,000 in 1903 to 1,000 in 1983.
·         Variety of tomatoes lost from 1903 to 1983 — 80.6 per cent.
·         Variety of potatoes worldwide dropped from 5,000 in the 1900s to just four commercial varieties now.
·         Variety of corn lost from 1903 to 1983 — field corn 90.8 per cent and sweet corn 96.1 per cent.

In India, there are over thousand varieties of mangoes, out of which about thirty are commercially grown for our markets and which we enjoy. Can you imagine what will happen in the future? Our juicy varieties of apples from the North and our delicious oranges have already been decimated by cheap imported apples and oranges. As to the taste of imported apples and oranges, the less said the better.

In scientific terms, when variety comes down, the chances of pests affecting the fruits and vegetables and for that matter food grains, increases tremendously, and to safeguard against this, you have to use chemical pesticides. This at a cost not only in money terms, but also as “bonus”, jeopardising your health, and more so the health of your children and grand-children, as they are more vulnerable.

Take the Indian example, decades ago, we had over 300,000 varieties of rice that our farmers had bred, to meet every conceivable, soil, water and climatic condition and we are now down to about 300 varieties many of which are, “high yielding varieties”, which can only be sustained by ever increasing use of fertiliser and pesticides.

So, with standardisation and organised trade, without doubt India will in the near future, become the fruit and vegetable “basket” of not just India, but a country to be reckoned with in world trade and we will also have another source of foreign exchange earnings.

But who will benefit from all this? The farmer will be further marginalised with reduced employment along with mechanisation on the farms. There will be aggregation of land holdings with lands owned by fewer people, which is claimed to bring about greater efficiency and productivity. If we are to learn a lesson from the US model and to a lesser extent UK, France and some South American countries, would throw rural people not just out of jobs that they are experts at, thanks to their accumulated “native wisdom” but it will also push them to migrate to urban areas where we see “jobless growth”. Small traders too would be out of jobs, at the expense of the supermarkets and MNCs.

A disproportionate chunck of benefits and employment will go to the retail super markets and higher part of the profits will go to the shareholders of the supermarket chains and MNCs.

What then is the answer?
Simply put, produce locally to consume locally and “export” the surplus to nearby areas. At first, this might seem retrograde and antiquated. By adopting this strategy, the local economy will improve and the producer can either directly sell or form an alliance with others. As an example, set up farmers market, where farmers bring their produce and sell to customers for cash, thereby getting a legitimate price for their produce. Buying and selling directly between consumer and producer at weekly shandies which already exist in all parts of India will help. A local network of fair price shops would serve the needs in small towns.

For cities and larger urban areas, the ideal model could lie in distribution and sale through a network of fair price shops which are subject to social audit to ensure fairness, amongst all stakeholders — producers, retailers, customers, workers and employees.

In India, land holdings are small, mostly a fraction of hectare to may be 10 hectare. This lends itself to “produce locally to consume locally” and “export” the surplus to neighbouring areas. This will improve the livelihood and economy of our rural people who account for 70 per cent of our total population. More so ,it will lead to a more satisfying and rewarding life style, in keeping with our roots.

Here are a couple of “asides” to finish with:
David Nicholson–Lord, a well known journalist and writer, who visited Thailand in 1998 said a fisheries expert of Mekong River Commission told him that 85 per cent of 55 million people who live close to the rivers are dependent on rural fisheries. The catch is a million ton, and in money terms, US$800 million. In economic terms it is not counted at all. It goes straight into the throat of rural people.

He has also said in the same article that once American academics attempted to value such services, as clean air, water, standing forest, uneroded soil and so on and came up with a figure of $33 trillion against $95 trillion for world GNP.

It is high time, we in India learned to quantify such “services” and to value them at their true worth.

Development is certainly desirable, but we need not hand over the controls of our society to supermarket chains and MNCs, uproot and displace people on massive scale, or create false needs to fuel wasteful lifestyles. For the sake of future generations, we must rethink about the lines India should evolve and follow, to suit our own development ethos based on an intelligent grasp of Indian conditions.

The credits in the newspaper said: The writer is a passionate organic farmer