At 75, his enthusiasm and energy would put a 20-year old to shame. Seated in the cosy living room of his modest apartment in the well-planned settlement called Garodia Nagar in the bustling Mumbai suburb of Ghatkopar, he’s brimming with scores of revolutionary thoughts characterised by his exceptional humility and awe-inspiring simplicity.
He’s best known to the world as the man behind the arrival of the wonder tree Leucaena Leucocephala (Subabhul in Marathi) on Indian shores - a green revolution that changed the face of Indian agriculture. But his credentials don’t end there.
He’s travelled to Japan, Philippines, Hongkong, Bangkok, Bahrain, Oman and Dubai on pioneering study tours. He’s helped scores of individuals across India become owners of thriving mini-sugar plants. He’s helped set up more than 100 industrial units through astutely prepared project reports, and he has written more than 100 research papers on diverse social and economic issues.
From introducing Japanese management techniques to SMEs to the call for regional balance in state economy; from the removal of ban on coloured sarees by power looms to highlighting the need for auto rickshaws in Mumbai...this activist has upheld every cause with untiring resolve and unflinching commitment. His passion knows no bounds – he relishes the bible, a G K Chesterton quote, an Orwell novel, an industry manual or a project report...all in the same breath.
In a recent engagement, he’s been appointed member of Prime Minister’s National Council on Skill Development, Sectoral skill committee, for the vocational training of more than 5 crore young people in Maharashtra on technical and managerial skills with special emphasis on the fast-growing agro-processing industry.
In India, your name is synonymous with the wonder tree Leucaena Leucocephala? Tell us more about your fascinating discovery?
It was on a study tour to Philippines that I first came across this miracle leguminous plant. Its origins are in Mexico. In fact, Mexico gets its name from this plant. When I learnt about its miraculous properties, I carried a good number of seeds back home to India. This is not just the fastest growing among plants but is actually a boon to any community, thanks to its diverse applications and benefits.
For one, it provides nitrogen fixation to the soil enriching fertility in the process as also the yield on other crops in its vicinity. The seeds can be processed to make a coffee-like drink of nutritious value while the dried leaves are a protein-rich cattle feed. The wood is used for making newsprint (the coloured paper of newspapers like Economic Times and Business Standard is made from this plant).
The government bodies were initially reluctant to adopt this plant but following the recommendation of the then Prime Minister Late Indira Gandhi, things swung into action. Soon after, the “Subabhul Vikas Yojna” was set up to help small farmers raise the crop to reap its proven benefits. India has a healthy number of Subabhul trees today. You will find a roaring plantation alongside all major highways and expressways.
I wrote a Marathi book on the wonder plant that proved to be a bestseller. It’s now being published in all Indian languages by the Government of Maharashtra.
Your historic meeting with Prime Minister Indira Gandhi must be a cherished memory?
Undoubtedly. I had taken a delegation of Khandsari manufacturers (mini sugar plant owners) in 1975 with a plea - to remove the mammoth excise duty on production to grant much needed relief to these small entrepreneurs. For paucity of space, the meeting took place in the lawn adjoining her residence. Hats off to her acumen and agility, she accepted the demand on the spot and made an official declaration to that effect. This was a landmark decision affecting the lives of scores of aspiring entrepreneurs from the rural belt.
Former PM Late Mrs. Indira Gandhi in rapt attention as Mr. Deshpande voices the concerns of mini- sugar plant owners in a special gathering organised in the lawns of the Prime Minister’s residence No. 1, Safdarjung Road, New Delhi.
You have helped many individuals and organizations set up flourishing export houses?
Actually, people don’t bother to gain knowledge from the right sources. And our education system is flawed and lop-sided, stressing more on the academic rigour at the cost of practical wisdom. I have prepared a ready reckoner for export business that helps aspirants fulfil the mandatory obligations and obtain the necessary approvals. Our consultancy services help people gain hassle-free bank loans as well. It’s my sincere wish that more and more people, especially the youth population of India, should tap the booming export market. The food and agricultural produce sector has a lot to gain if small farmers and female entrepreneurs exploit the various concessions conferred upon them by the government.
Why do you stress on food processing the most?
The stress is logical. We are the world’s largest producers of milk and the second largest producers of vegetables, sugar and fruits. In sharp contrast, our farm productivity per hectare is 1/6th that of the world average. We lose around 30 percent of our farm produce due to ill-equipped storage and packaging facilities, a phenomenal loss for a nation with 35 crore people below the poverty line.
We have traditionally sold farm produce ‘as it is’ in the market. This not only fetches very low returns but also curtails the longevity of the produce. We process only about 2 per cent of our farm output whereas the food processing coverage in the West is as high as 90 percent. Most of our sugar factories don’t think beyond sugar, jiggery and alcohol where as the sugar cane is capable of creating as many as 18 high-value products.
If we start processing farm produce using best-of-breed technology, the production and export scenario will dramatically change for the better. Mango chutney, dry fruits, milk powder, turmeric powder, ginger paste, all these processed items fetch more returns than what their respective natural states do. All we need to do is to improve the technical and financial infrastructure surrounding the food processing industry before we create awareness among the farmers. The inception of “Venture Capital for Agri-business Projects” is a major step in this direction.
What would be your advice to the youth of this country?
‘Follow your dreams’ is what I would say. Instead of overloading the youth with heavy sermons, let me share the real-life ‘rags to riches’ story of an exceptional gentleman called Sitaram Rangoji Shinde. This illiterate man, many years ago, was employed in the Byculla vegetable market on meagre daily wages. The day he joined the Khandsari movement, his life changed forever.
Today, he’s a multi-millionaire managing different businesses and supporting a huge family of 85 members. His native bungalow in a far-flung corner of Maharashtra boasts of a lavish swimming pool - the only one of its kind in the whole district. All his seven brothers are highly qualified and well placed in life and this man who never went to school has toured all over the globe including places like Russia, Germany and Israel.
I would appeal to the young boys and girls that they use their learning and education to good effect rather than just be reduced to being mechanically ‘educated’ products of schools, colleges and universities.