The ‘Dark’ Green Revolution
Started with the noblest of intentions, the Green Revolution refers to the period which evolved India from a food-deficit nation into a foodgrain surplus country. It marked the debut of High Yielding Varieties (HVYs) of seeds in the Indian agriculture.
Under the leadership of Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri and mainly led by M.S. Swaminathan, the Green Revolution (1967/68-1977/78) led to the introduction of improved irrigation systems, deployment of modern technology, adoption of chemical fertilisers and pesticides by Indian farmers and hence, marked a shift from traditional agricultural practices.
Although the Green Revolution played a significant role in bringing food security and prosperity to the farmers, however, the social and ecological imbalance that it created in the region cannot be neglected and calls for immediate action by the Government of India (GOI).
A Brief History
Plagued by the horrors of the Bengal Famine of 1943 and a population which was growing at a much faster rate than the food production, the Government of India undertook various land reforms. However, these efforts proved to be inadequate in achieving food self-sufficiency. In the 1960s, India witnessed two severe droughts which further aggravated the problem of food shortages and famines.
The solution came in the form of the Green Revolution – a set of research technology transfer initiatives led by Nobel laureate Norman Borlung and his associates in Mexico that increased agricultural production worldwide, particularly in the developing world.
The Brighter Record
The Green Revolution tremendously contributed to boosting agricultural productivity. Its potential can be ascertained from the fact that India had become an exporter of food grains in 1978-79 and hence, the country was no longer dependent on foreign aid to feed its population.
Apart from enhancing the yield per unit of farmland, the GR also led to creation of new jobs. The manufacturing industries expanded as the demand for pesticides, fertilisers, machinery and other agricultural inputs kept on rising. With a fall in real food prices, the GR improved the fortunes of many Indians and supplemented the governmental efforts at poverty alleviation.
Additionally, the success of GR enabled India to pay back all loans that it had taken from the World Bank and its affiliates for the initiation of this revolution in the agricultural sector.
The Gloomy Side
The statement that India’s Green Revolution drastically increased the crop yield is no longer up for debate. According to agriculture ministry data, post Green Revolution era, the country’s foodgrain production rose from 82 million tons in 1960-61 to 284 million tons by 2018-19.
However, what can certainly be questioned is whether India achieved the status of being a self-sufficient nation at a huge social and ecological cost.
Indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides to improve the yield has led to loss of deterioration of soil – it is becoming more infertile, more eroded and more toxic.
Over-exploitation of water resources is another serious issue which, now thankfully, has caught the government’s attention.
Today, both Haryana and Punjab – the two north Indian states which have immensely benefited from the GR – are staring at a severe water crisis. With the groundwater levels depleting at a much faster pace, it is expected that the parts of Haryana and Punjab will turn into a desert in the coming years, if the trend continues.
According to Down to Earth, “during the late 1970s and early 1980s, which was the Green Revolution era, Punjab and Haryana shifted from their traditional crops (maize, pearl millet, pulses and oilseeds) to the wheat-paddy cultivation cycle. The change in cropping pattern was to ensure food security for the country and, therefore, neither the Centre nor the two states showed much concern for the sustainability of the resources.”
More specifically, paddy cultivation, because of its water-intensive nature, has created water woes for the inhabitants. If estimates are to be believed, one kilogram of rice requires 2,000-5,000 litres of water, depending upon paddy variety, soil type and the time of sowing. A rise in paddy production simply means a rise in tubewells which ultimately leads to overdrawing of water.
What’s more peculiar and worrisome about the whole situation is that an attempt to save water has turned out to be catastrophic for the air quality across northern states including Delhi. In his book The Great Smog of India, Siddhartha Singh explains that residue burning – which has been blamed for the poor air quality in the region – is the result of the evolution of farming operations, government policy, and changing labour markets, which were triggered by the Green Revolution of the late 1960s and 1970s and the agricultural policies that followed.
In addition, the fact that the success of the GR was confined to food grains only has been responsible for causing biodiversity loss in crops. Altogether, the Green Revolution has led to “agro-ecological” crisis – polluting the valuable resources of the planet, namely water, air and soil – which, in turn, has severe health implications for human beings and wildlife.
The introduction of the Green Revolution proved beneficial in reducing poverty and hunger in India. At the same time, it has further widened the regional and income disparities
- The GR remained limited to areas which had better irrigation facilities and infrastructure. This means only the states like Haryana, Punjab and parts of western Uttar Pradesh derived the benefits and experienced economic growth as compared to the rest of the states.
- The focus of the GR were the large and wealthy farmers who could afford to make significant capital investments in procuring HYVs of seeds, machinery and other inputs. On the other hand, small farmers, who were unable to easily access credit or subsidies for mechanisation, were further marginalised in the whole process, hence deepening the economic inequality. Another aspect of the problem was the replacement of poor and uneducated labourers by machines which meant loss of livelihood.
In Staying Alive: Women, Ecology and Survival in India, environmentalist Vandana Shiva points out how industrialisation of agriculture has displaced women from productive work on land. She cites this displacement, which has made women dispensable, as one of the reasons behind skewed sex-ratio in the traditional farming belts.
In the same tone, statistics reveal that more affluent segments of the population tend to commit sex-selective abortions since they have easy access to the diagnostic techniques. Experts have often linked the skewed sex-ratio in the affluent states of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi with the economic prosperity that followed the Green Revolution.
Overall, it won’t be wrong to say that the Green Revolution disrupted the social and economic lives of the people in ways that we can’t even possibly imagine.
Green Revolution 2.0
Various laws and legislations have been passed by the Government of India to tackle the problems that it was confronted with in relation to the Green Revolution. And the improvements can be seen in various areas. However, with the declining farm productivity, rapidly growing population and increasing cases of farmers’ suicide (due to poor availability of farm inputs, funds, no farm insurance, etc.,) in various parts of India, various stakeholders have called for reforms in the agricultural sector to herald the second Green Revolution.
An integrated approach to solve the farm crisis along with keeping the needs of the planet in mind is what needs to be developed. Precision agriculture has shown us the way forward. Yet, there is scope for more innovation. The challenges are enormous and the task may seem to be daunting, yet in the 21st century, nothing is impossible.
In the words of M.S. Swaminathan, the father of the Green Revolution in India, “An ever-green revolution implies the enhancement of productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm.”