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The Green Revolution in India

Is The Joyride Over?

KUMKUM DASGUPTA / CSE /Down To Earth Features Packet No. 1: 239, 28jul00

Four decades after the Green Revolution, India’s soil and water have been poisoned, posing a serious challenge to the country’s food security all over again.

It’s been 50 years since politicians have been mouthing the slogan: Jai jawan, jai kisan (Long live soldiers, long live farmers). Now it has started to sound like a raucous chant, at least to the farmers struggling to survive. They till the soil harder, increase their spending to replenish their patch of land, but nothing helps. It is the marriage between science and farming practices that has failed. The more they try to revive it, the more they get bogged down in the mire.

The maze encompasses the use of high-yielding varieties of crops, spraying pesticides to ward off uninvited guests from their fields and rejuvenating the soil with fertilisers. All this to ensure that their crops have all the ingredients for a good harvest.

The Green Revolution (GR) was what this practice was called when it started in the late 1960s. During the time GR was envisaged, India was reeling under a severe drought. Its dependence on imports to feed its rising population was unprecedented. "The GR is the best that could happen to India. The then agriculture minister, C S Subramanium, told me later that there was food stock only to last for the next seven days," recalls Davinder Sharma, a New-Delhi based agriculture analyst.

The objective was met.
Food production registered a phenomenal increase during the next two decades. From 10 million tonnes in 1967, food imports dropped to 0.5 million tonnes by 1977. Today, India imports very little wheat, and no rice. Unfortunately, though agricultural production has continued to increase, the rate of yield per hectare has started to a decline.

Today, many stand disillusioned. With the benefit of hindsight, many are trying to understand where India went wrong. "At the time GR was adopted, the sustainability issue was not the criteria. The only way out was to pump in the inputs so that production rises," says Abhijit Sen, chairperson, Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices, ministry of agriculture.

"It was a strong ‘reductionist’ strategy, not a total one. It was not sustainable. It did not incorporate forward and backward linkages," says Pramod Kumar, director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh. Furthermore, it was a grain revolution, not a GR, he says. Wheat and rice became the kings among crops. These were not the traditional varieties. With GR came the water-thirsty, chemical-intensive hybrid varieties. Even M S Swaminathan, the father of GR and former director of Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, had warned of the dangers when GR was adopted.

Addressing the Indian Science Congress at Varanasi in January 1968, he has said: "Exploitive agriculture offers great possibilities if carried out in a scientific way, but poses great dangers if carried out with only an immediate profit motive. The emerging exploitive farming community in India should become aware of this. Intensive cultivation of land without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure would lead, ultimately, to the springing up of deserts. Irrigation without arrangements for drainage would result in soils getting alkaline or saline. Indiscriminate use of pesticides could cause adverse changes in biological balance and lead to an increase cancer cases and other diseases, through the toxic residues present in the grains or other edible parts. Unscientific tapping of water will lead to exhaustion of this wonderful resource left to us through ages of natural farming."

His words were prophetic.
Without the management systems, agricultural disaster, rather than prosperity, has taken place in barely three decades. Increased demand for water led to over-extraction of groundwater. Channeling of water from rivers or streams followed. The natural drainage pattern was destroyed. Now, some GR regions are turning to deserts due to water depletion while other places are suffering from severe water logging. The latter has also led to unproductive saline fields.

Besides, indiscriminate use of chemicals and intensive cropping have robbed the soil of its nutrients, poisoned the groundwater and contaminated crops.

No other state illustrates the ugly face of GR more than Punjab, the state that supplies food to almost all the states in India. Unfortunately, the happy image of the turbaned, muscular man waving a kerchief while plying his tractor across lush green fields is but a picture of the past. While trying to feed the rest of the nation, Punjab has lost its prime land. Central districts face a desertification threat, while the southwestern districts are swamped in excess water. The state on which the rest of India relies on for foodgrains is in grave danger.

In 1997-98, Punjab and Haryana produced 12.8 per cent and 30.6 per cent of the total rice and wheat, respectively, in the country. Of the total 82.5 million tonne total rice production, the two states accounted for 10.5 million. During the same year, of the total 66.3 million tonne wheat production, the two states accounted for 20.3 million tonnes.

Their contribution to the Central food pool, particularly wheat and rice, also cannot be undermined. In 1999-2000 (up to July), these states were providing 49 per cent and 82 per cent of the total rice and wheat, respectively, to the Central food pool.

Unfortunately, the growth rate in productivity of rice and wheat has registered a decline in most of the districts in Punjab and Haryana. "From a state average of 8.97 per cent during 1965-74, rice productivity declined rapidly to 2 per cent in the mid-1980s. In the last decade, there was only 1 per cent increase per year," says a 1998 report, Decline in Crop Productivity in Haryana and Punjab: Myth or Reality?, by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research’s (ICAR), New Delhi. Ludhiana and Ropar — key GR districts — have now negative growth rates, the report states. Meanwhile, the growth rate of wheat which was almost 5 per cent in the late 1960s has come down to 3.5 per cent in the late 1980s and to 2 per cent in the last decade. The situation in Haryana is slightly different. "However, if the experience of Punjab is any indicator, the growth rate in Haryana will also decline in this decade," notes the report.

The Escape Route
With problems surfacing in Punjab, solutions have also emerged. From the demand for a thorough agriculture policy catering to the local requirements to doing away with ‘mindless’ subsidies, experts have been crying hoarse their suggestions to keep away from the imminent doom. To stick with the status quo will invite environmental and social disaster.

Replicating GR: Experts contend that there is an enormous potential for propagating sustainable agriculture in India. "Increasing population and declining production will not be a grave problem if we extend cultivation outside Haryana and Punjab," says Sen. He, however, feels that replicating GR in its entirety is not the answer. "Instead, we need to improve our marketing facilities, road connection, bring the Gangetic plains into the scope of cultivation; popularise region-specific varieties; give irrigation support; and, stop monoculture. Private agencies can also be used in marketing but the state should work as a police to see nothing goes wrong," says Sen.

Says Swaminathan:
"Punjab and Haryana alone cannot feed our country. We must make every part of our country self-sufficient so that diversification of farming will be possible. Assam is now on the road to self-sufficiency in rice. The remarkable progress being made by Assam in rice production is triggered by shallow tubewells. We need a million shallow tubewells in Assam to enable the state to make the flood-free season into a major cropping season. Similar strategies will have to be developed on an eco-regional basis."

In the coming years we have no option except to produce more from less per capita arable land and irrigation water, says Swaminathan. "GR is another name for productivity improvement-based production increase. What we require today is an evergreen revolution rooted in the principles of ecology, economics, gender, equity and employment generation," he adds.

Agricultural Policy:
There should not be one policy for the whole country but different policies based on the ecological needs and situation of the area, say experts. Where subsidies are concerned, the pricing policies for fertilisers, water and power should have a long-term sustainability dimension. "It should not be based on immediate socio-economic, technological and political concerns," says S K Sinha, former national professor, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. Similarly, the water pricing policy should be changed to ensure that water excess of recharge capacity is not pumped out. Policies like free power that encourage tapping of groundwater should also be done away with, says Swaminathan.

One of the main drawbacks is the failure to provide adequate incentive to other crops. The minimum support price of wheat, for instance, is currently Rs 580 per quintal, which is much higher than the world prices. Other crops do not enjoy the same status. "Rice-wheat cultivation has become an opium. Because it is lucrative, people do not want to produce any other crop," says Sen. To undo the damage done in the last 30 years, India needs to do two things — reduce the area under rice cultivation and encourage production of leguminous crops, for which the government can start a subsidy system. "Pricing power will also make people break from the water-intensive rice-wheat cropping pattern," he adds.

Agricultural Research:
"Research is around 10 years behind in India. Today research is designed on the funding it gets. There is no understanding of field problems and this gap is a big setback," Sharma says. What is required then is a paradigm shift from commodity-centred to ecologically-sustainable farming systems, says Indian Council of Agricultural Research director general R S Paroda. For this, scientists will have to generate and implement new technologies. Technologies like biotechnology, meteorology and microelectronics are "powerful tools to meet the emerging challenges, but they need to be used with great scientific care and discretion", says Paroda.

Sinha had suggested that more research is needed to develop rice and wheat varieties, which have a higher yield potential, for areas in the country where the yield is less.

Undoing The Damage:
Meanwhile, only community mobilisation, education and regulation can repair the damage that has taken place. "We have not an opportunity to implement Schedule 11 of the Constitution Amendment 1973, which entrusts responsibilities for natural resource conservation to panchayats," says Swaminathan. For instance, farmers can be taught about the benefits of organic farming along with integrated soil healthcare systems involving the use of green manure, biofertilisers, composting and the minimum essential mineral fertilisers. "The majority of our farmers have holdings of 1 ha or less. They often do not own cattle, therefore, organic manure alone will not be adequate to meet the needs of our hungry soils," says Swaminathan.

source: http://www.oneworld.org/cse/html/dte/dte4_14.htm 10dec01

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