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In India, the Green Revolution turns to brown

Impact of Chemical Technology

Centre for Education and Documentation

07 / 2009

The term ‘green’ in Green Revolution does not refer to its current meaning namely organic, pesticide-free forested etc. Quite the contrary. The term was coined by an official at the U.S. State Department, William Gaud in 1968. It refers to a period in the 60s and 70s, where farmers in India were persuaded to abandon traditional organic methods and grow crops the modern, American way. Farmers stopped growing old-fashioned grains, beans and vegetables and switched to new, high-yield varieties of wheat, rice and cotton. They began using chemical fertilizers instead of cow dung. They ploughed with tractors instead of bulls…

The Revolution

India has a system of planning through five-year plans where in the mixed economy, commanding position was given to the public sector in what was known as key development areas. Agriculture was given a prominent place in the development goals of the newly independent nation (1947).

Most of us believe that the Green Revolution was adopted in the late sixties as the population was growing at a much faster rate than food production. Dr R Dwarakinath, Chairperson of AME, Agriculture, Man, Ecology (AME) an NGO in South India, who was a senior agronomist and was associated with the early implementation of Green Revolution, recalled in his interview with CED: “This country when it became independent, it lost Punjab therefore wheat supply was lost. The British lost Burma region, therefore rice was lost and we were just emerging out of the 2nd World War, therefore a heavy food problem scarcity was there in those days. So the Government of India in those days instituted a program called ‘Grow More Food Campaign’. ”

The Indian government’s decision to embrace the ‘Green Revolution’ was an emergency response to a perceived crisis in food production caused by agricultural sector failures resulting from both a long history of brutal colonial mismanagement and the Indian state’s embrace of a philosophy that prioritized industrial growth. The move by Indira Gandhi, the then Prime Minister was touted as an anti imperialist move, a resistance to being dependent on foreign food imports, which were said to be influencing the foreign policy of the country.

While the vast majority of the academic and political intelligentsia by and large accepts this, some facts indicate that the trap was in the technology trajectory.

Scientists at the Rockefeller Foundation, who played an important role in the introduction of ‘green revolution’ technology into India, had argued in the 1950s that India had lost all facility for innovation and change. They further claimed that ‘millions are enslaved by centuries of tradition and are not truly free to try new methods or to exploit their own ingenuity.’ (Quoted in John H. Perkins 1990) In addition, the U.S. government under Lyndon Johnson used foreign aid programs to force India out from what it considered to be economic and agricultural stagnation. (Goldsmith 1988)

In 1959, the Agricultural Production Team of the Ford Foundation recommended the intensive approach anew. With the visible failure in the Second Plan to get the food to the market inspite of increasing production, a new Intensive Agricultural District Programme (IADP) was launched in the closing years of the Second Plan. The expressed objective of the programme was to concentrate resources and efforts in specially endowed areas to achieve a quick break-through in production. The programme was expanded in 1964 under the name of Intensive Agricultural Area Programme (IAAP) to cover more of the well-endowed areas. All along, it was made sure that only areas with adequate production potential in terms of assured water and infrastructural facilities are chosen, and that emphasis be directed towards profitability at the farm level (Bajaj).

The Technology

The Green Revolution technology consisted of packages of inputs, such as, high-yielding varieties, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, machines like tractors, threshers, pump sets/motors, combine harvesters/reapers and others. High yielding dwarf varieties of wheat from the International Centre for Maize and Wheat Improvement (CIMMYT), Mexico, were introduced leading to bumper crops. The term “high-yielding varieties” is a misnomer. The seeds are highly responsive to inputs like fertilizers and water. Thus the term “high response varieties” is more appropriate.

There were three basic elements in the method of the Green Revolution:

1) Continued expansion of farming areas;

2) Double-cropping in existing farmland;

3) Using seeds with improved genetics.

As Dwarakinath told us,

“This ‘grow more food campaign’ mostly relied on bringing more irrigation to the farmers, either by canal irrigation or helping farmers to dig wells and lift water and cultivate crops. […] Then the simple fertilizers like Ammonium Sulphate, Super Phosphate, but they did not lift the food production in the country very much. Fortunately for us by 1962-1963, research work done in agriculture elsewhere brought in high yielding varieties. These were biological material which was of very superior material compared to the improved varieties in this country which were capable of producing 3 times of the normal yield. So, from 1965, in irrigated areas, progressive farmers who are a step ahead of other farmers, the so-called elite farmers, were able to use this technology very quickly and within 10 years, we became self-sufficient in food and we were able to not only make token exports, but also have substantial buffer stocks in the country. This is the Green Revolution.”

The yield per unit area of farm land improved by more than 30% between 1947 and 1979. During subsequent decades food grain production increased consistently despite periodical droughts and surpassed 212 million tons during 2003-04.

Thus the Green Revolution succeeded in creating a sustainable level of cereal self-sufficiency at the national level.

However the success of the Green Revolution relied on continued access to adequate levels of inputs. The technological infrastructure needed to support High Yielding Varieties then presented unaddressed environmental challenges. It also did not ensure that India’s poor would be provided with adequate food even though a system of government handouts, through the public distribution system was created. Much less create a parallel system of self-sustaining entitlements (as opposed to government handouts) that would provide India’s poor with an adequate diet. Thus, the Green Revolution in India provides a convincing demonstration of both the power and the limitations of technical solutions as a tool in the development process (taken from Arena).

The Impact of Green Revolution in Punjab

The Government of India invested more than Rs. 70 million to promote agriculture in Punjab, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, etc.

Punjab was the most stunning example of green revolution in India. Vandana Shiva, an internationaly renowned environmentalist, points out that it was the availability of assured irrigation for fertile lands that provided a conducive environment which in turn enabled the dynamic farmers in states like Punjab accept innovations in seed technology. Other farmers, irrespective of the size of their holdings immediately imitated these initial innovators, when they observed sudden jumps in per hectare yield. The impact was spectacular and between 1965-66 and 1970-71 the per hectare yield of wheat doubled, from 1104 kg/ha to 2238 kg/ha.

By 1984, 1.8 m ha and 2.8 m ha areas were brought under paddy and wheat respectively. A committee for ‘Diversification of Punjab Agriculture’, set up in 1985, suggested diversification of crops. However as minimum support price for certain grains increased, and subsidies for chemical fertilizers and irrigation facilities augmented all in the name of National Food Security, farmers in the state continued to bring more and more areas under wheat and paddy.

The state is now at a crossroads. The state’s agriculture has reached a plateau under the available technologies and natural resource base and has become environmentally unsustainable and economically non-viable. Over intensification of agriculture over the years has led to overall degradation of the fragile agro-ecosystem of the state and high cost of production and diminishing economic returns from agricultural practices are affecting the socio-economic condition of farmers. Out of about one million operational holdings, about 63% are smaller than 4 ha. These farmers have been forced to over use their land by increasing cropping intensity (cropping intensity has increased from 126% in 1960-61 to 189% in 2005) and adopting the wheat-paddy mono-cropping practices. The various central and state level policies like Minimum Support Price (MSP) & effective procurement of selected crops, subsides on agricultural inputs & energy and available credit facilities over the years have played a key role in influencing the farmers to adopt this cropping pattern. Further, the policy of free electricity to farmers has resulted in excessive mining of groundwater resources due to cultivation of water-guzzler crops like paddy.

The subsidy on fertilizers has encouraged the farmers towards excessive use of nitrogenous fertilizers with relative under-utilization of other fertilizers and micro-nutrients leading to unbalanced fertilizer use which, in turn, has adversely affected soil quality over time, apart from causing environmental pollution.

The area under paddy has increased twelve fold from 227 thousand hectares in 1960-61 to 2642 thousand hectares in the year 2006. This has led to decline in area under other major kharif crops like maize, bajra, jowar, sugarcane, groundnut, pulses, etc. The area under wheat has increased by two and a half times between 1960 to 2006, from 1400 thousand hectares to 3468 thousand heactares, respectively. This has been at the expense of area under other rabi season crops especially gram, barley, rapeseed, mustard and sunflower. Area under American cotton has been fluctuating around 5 % of total gross cropped area of Punjab.

As per a study by International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), the yield of rice has almost stagnated in Punjab, going up only by 0.02% annually in the 1990s and wheat has slowed significantly (down from 2.96% annual gain in 1980s to 1.96% in the 1990s compared to all India average of 3.2%). Overall, the crop sector grew only by 1.3% per annum in the nineties compared to 4.8% per annum in the eighties. Rice production has come, at the expense of other crops too (Economic Times,10th Oct, 2006). The study had warned that if Punjab does not rationalise incentives and increases investments significantly, it will suffer declining income and employment and irreversible environmental degradation.

The Social Impact: The small farmer

Francine Frankel in Food, Population, Employment (1973) warned « In the agro-economic setting of the Asian countryside, the introduction of capital-intensive technologies inevitably increases economic disparities between the small group of surplus farmers on the one hand and the majority of subsistence cultivators, sharecroppers and landless labourers on the other.”

30% of the agricultural population in India are landless labourers, who are hard put to earn even their basic means of subsistence, and would not even come into consideration in any scheme designed to promote an entrepreneurial class of agricultural capitalist farmers. Another large proportion of the agricultural population are small farmers owing tiny plots of land and engaged in mere subsistence farming, using family labour. Very often they are obliged to hire out their labour to larger farmers because their meagre cultivation is not enough to meet even this requirement, apart from other fixed monetary obligations they might have, such as interest on previous debts or consumption expenses. Tenant farmers and sharecroppers, who form another large majority of the agricultural classes, are even more directly hit by the ‘Green Revolution’ programme in areas where the High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) have been introduced. In Punjab, for example, landlords enhanced their rents to as much as 50—70% of the total crop, the tenant being forced to comply or face eviction.

Further, because of the high costs of the required technological inputs the peasants’ dependence on the moneylender is increased since they have virtually no other source of agricultural credit. The cooperative rural banks supposedly provided to benefit the peasantry in general are in reality open only to the rich farmers who can provide the necessary security for a loan. According to a field study done in the east Thanjavur district, a middle farmer (owing 20-30 hectares of land) could borrow up to Rs. 750 per hectare from the co-ops societies at 8.25% interest per annum. A sharecropper or tenant farmer cannot borrow from the co-ops at all as he owns no land. Thus he would have to pay an interest of 100—200% if he went to private moneylenders. When one talks of moneylenders in India, it doesn’t necessarily imply a separate class of persons otherwise unconnected from the land; very often the larger landowners themselves are able to borrow money from the co-ops at low interest rates and re-lend it to the poor peasant at a much higher rate.

Benefit to large landowners

It is obvious then, that the Green Revolution’s programme was designed, by its very nature, to benefit only the very small minority of large landowners who would develop along capitalist lines. And certainly a powerful kulaks class has emerged as a dominant interest group in certain areas where the programme has been ‘successful’. These big landowners either cultivate the land themselves, introducing a greater degree of mechanisation, or hire wage labour. Using the terms ‘capitalist farmer’ or ‘wage labour’ does not, however, imply any significant change in the productive relations between these two classes. Since most labour is hired on a seasonal basis, the latter have employment only for some months in the year, and rather than starve during the rest they hire themselves out at basic subsistence wages in an almost feudal relationship with the landowner. Reports have further shown that, in Punjab and Haryana, the two States where the programme was declared most successful there was a fall in the real wages of agricultural labourers due to the fact that food prices rose much faster than the wage rate. According to one study the daily average wage rose by 89% between 1961 and 1968 whereas prices rose by 93%, despite an increase in agricultural production of 66% (Extract from Heble, 1979).

Dr G. V. Ramanjaneyulu of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture takes a broader view of agriculture. He begins with a critique of research and knowledge development. He says that most of the research in India is based on the US model of research. Their content as well as the institutional systems is all based on the US.

« But in US neither the climatic situations nor the economic conditions nor the size of the farms nor the soil situations resemble those in India. So it is a science which explains what needs to be done in larger farms or situations where you don’t have people to do certain things and therefore you need either chemicals or machines to replace people. And because you are using machines you cannot have multi crop system, you need to go for large mono crop. And in large mono crop, what pest management practices you need to adopt? That kind of science was brought in here and you try to apply it to small farms, where you have large diversity. So this is our larger contradiction in science. So given that how do we find solutions is what we were trying to look at. That is where I found a lot of contradictions in the way agriculture science is going on. It is completely deviant from meeting the farmer’s needs. »

Dr Malla Reddy who heads an NGO in Anantapur District in Andhra Pradesh, when asked about the future of agriculture and the future of the small farmer, says that in America or any other developed countries where agriculture has developed, farmers have disappeared.

« There is an agriculture sans farmers. India cannot afford that kind of thing, because 65-70% of our population is still depending on agriculture. Besides our agro-climatic conditions are suitable for a kind of agriculture where many farmers can involve themselves. They make a living out of it. Not only is their livelihood taken care of, but they also feed the nation. Thus, we don’t have to remove the farmers from the agriculture and make some kind of corporate farm, where one farmer can do cultivation in 30 villages, 40 villages. I think this is where our policies have to address; make some kind of an environment where it enables the small and marginal farmers, to make a livelihood out of it and at the same time to produce crops. »

Vandana Shiva, a nuclear physicist turned agro-ecologist who is India’s harshest critic of the green revolution calls it « mono-cultures of the mind ». She says « They just look at yields of wheat and rice, but overall the food basket is going down. There were 250 kinds of crops in Punjab before the green revolution ». Shiva argues that small-scale, biologically diverse farms can produce more food with fewer petroleum-based inputs. Her research has shown that using compost instead of natural-gas-derived fertilizer increases organic matter in the soil, sequestering carbon and holding moisture—two key advantages for farmers facing climate change. « If you are talking about solving the food crisis, these are the methods you need, » adds Shiva.

Key words

sustainable agriculture, agriculture, agriculture and environment, green revolution

, India


Small scale farming in India


This sheet is also available in French: En Inde la révolution verte tourne au brun

Further readings :

See also : La facture de la Révolution Verte, Notre Terre, n° 5, février 2001


Original text

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