When Shugriben Ratva bakes yellow maize rotis on a clay griddle over a roaring wood fire, a tradition goes up in smoke. White desi maize has long been the staple of the Gujarati tribals. They find it tastier. “But it is true that rotis made of yellow maize are sweeter,” Ratva says not unhappily, flipping the roti which she has rolled between the folds of a polythene sheet. “The harvest is better and the rates are good. So we grow for the market, after retaining some for food,” she adds, justifying the victory of wallet over palate.
Yellow hybrids are more productive and also in industrial demand because of the higher starch content. So when Ratva sowed Sriram Bioseed’s hybrid maize, not only did the calculus of commerce enter her soot-blackened hut in Chhota Udepur, she, too, made a cultural crossover.
Shifting tribal farmers from low-yield, low-income maize to more productive agriculture has been at the heart of Gujarat’s plan for tribal uplift. The formula is not radical; it was the template of the Green Revolution in the plains. The novelty is in its application in poorly-irrigated hilly tribal areas where farms are stamp-sized, the weather erratic and the soil miserly.
The man who infused the Tribal Development Department of the Gujarat government with this innovating thinking was Anand Mohan Tiwari, who took charge in 2006, and is now principal secretary in the government’s education department. Tribals constitute 7.5 percent of Gujarat’s population. While they are better off than peers elsewhere, Tiwari saw his mandate as lifting their income and amenities at least to the level of other Gujaratis.
So a five-year, Rs 15,000-crore plan with 10 parts was crafted, of which the hinge component was Project Sunshine to raise maize yield. The idea was to persuade about two lakh tribal farmers through personal experience to switch to smart agriculture with deep discounted seeds (8 kg) and fertilisers (150 kg), enough to cover one acre each.
The profit motive of private seed companies was meant to be the driving force. The government would open up a virgin market for them on the understanding that they would roll out their distribution networks once the threshold of demand for smart seeds was crossed. Multinational corporations like Monsanto, vilified by environmentalists for being the flag bearer of genetically-modified technology, were invited to bid without ideological hang-ups.
“Our logic was that we do not care who doubles our income, whether it is an MNC or an American company or an Indian company, as long as our objectives and goals are achieved,” Tiwari says, lounging on the spacious lawns of his house in Bharuch, as head of the state-run fertiliser company, his mezzanine stop before the current posting. “We would issue public tenders; there was a rigorous selection process and if an MNC got the tender, so be it. We did not have any value judgement.”
Tiwari had to brave vicious publicity from a farmer’s organisation and environmental activists for that decision, though he had Chief Minister Narendra Modi’s tacit backing. Monsanto, which had demonstrated gains from smart maize through a pilot covering 15,000 farmers at its own expense before Project Sunshine was initiated, remained the principal seed supplier along with DuPont’s Pioneer Hi-Bred, United Phosphorous and Sriram Bioseed, as long as Tiwari was in charge.
Another fresh thought was involving non-governmental organisations with proven records in rural service—like Sadguru Foundation—in the distribution of seeds and fertilisers as well as the coaching of tribals in the discipline of hybrid crops, bypassing the state’s stretched agriculture extension system. Do-gooding industrial wives like Shruti A Shroff (managing trustee of Baroda-based NGO Shroffs Foundation Trust) were roped in, believing that they would be interested in earning goodwill rather than any pecuniary benefit.
A recent study by the Gujarat Institute of Development Research (GIDR) vindicates this faith, as almost all tribals officially certified as poor got their full entitlement of seeds and fertilisers—in time. A few complained of having waited for two-three days at the taluka distribution centres, but these are small gripes compared to the corruption rampant in welfare schemes across the country.
The gleam in Premsinghbhai Ratva’s eyes as he confesses to earning about Rs 1 lakh—perhaps a first-time event—from four acres of hybrid maize this summer, confirms the soundness of Gujarat’s tribal uplift plan. A former sarpanch of Bhilpur village in Chhota Udepur, he says the shift from desi has meant a switch from growing for subsistence to producing for the market. He claims a yield of 30 quintals an acre compared to the average of eight quintals in these parts. “There is faayda [profit] in yellow maize,” he says.
(This article is excerpted from the latest Forbes India 20 September, 2013 issue which is now available at news stands and book stores. You can buy our tablet version from Magzter.com)