India’s Green Revolution, which once staved off famines, is now threatening lives

Sieve out the bad.
Sieve out the bad.
Image: Reuters/Munish Sharma
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What’s common between India’s deadly smog, its high levels of child malnutrition, growing obesity and diabetes, farmer suicides, and falling water table? The answer lies in the 1960s.

Till then, the country had to import food to stave off famines, jeopardising its economic and strategic security and sovereignty.

The “Green Revolution” turned India into a food-surplus economy. Imported high yielding varieties (HYV) of seeds and new technology were used to produce rice and wheat in gargantuan quantities. Poverty and hunger were reduced through subsidised wheat, rice, and sugar, while farmers began enjoying higher and stable incomes.

However, having served its purpose, it is now time to undo the Green Revolution.

India needs to reduce its dependence on the HYV rice and wheat, and make its people eat the coarse grains they replaced such as millets and the older, traditional varieties. In our farms and on our dinner tables, we need diversity.

Here’s why.

Water table

First, paddy consumes a lot of water: 5,000 litres to produce just a kilogram in north India. Under political pressure, some state governments have provided subsidised, and sometimes even free, power and water to farmers. Electricity is used to draw water from borewells to irrigate fields.

Crops like rice and sugarcane are water-guzzlers. Since India produces more rice than it consumes, it exports a lot of rice. Thus, it also exports a lot of groundwater.

All this together is a leading reason for the drop in groundwater tables across India. The increasingly erratic annual monsoon rains are often unable to make up for this depletion. The situation is not sustainable and India has no choice but to reduce the amount of rice it grows, consumes, and exports.

Air pollution

Second, yesterday’s Green Revolution has become today’s air pollution, as experts have been pointing out for the last few years.

To make sure that groundwater isn’t used up fully before the monsoon, the states of Punjab and Haryana decreed a few years ago that farmers cannot sow rice until just before the rains. This has helped reduce the depletion of the water table. However, it has also meant that farmers have very little time to harvest rice and sow the next crop, wheat, in time for the brief winter rains.

This short period of about a fortnight, beginning the last week of October, has given a push to mechanised harvesting. Instead of hiring expensive manual labour to harvest, farmers hire cheaper and quicker “combined harvester” machines that do the twin jobs of cutting and threshing the crop, producing the finished grain in no time. The stubble they leave behind, though, is rooted in the ground. It takes a lot less time and money to simply burn it than have it removed manually, or even using a machine.

This happens at a time when the monsoon is receding from northern India, leaving behind depressed air that traps the pollutants. The result: a blinding, suffocating smog overwhelming the region, including cities like Delhi, Meerut, Mathura, and Agra.

The solutions provided till now to tackle farmers’ dilemma have not helped yet. Subsidising the machines that can remove the stubble or creating a demand for the stubble in the form of biogas plants are solutions that haven’t yet scaled up.

The long-term plan has to be to make fewer farmers grow rice and wheat.

Millets, maize, pulses, some fruits, and some indigenous varieties of rice consume less water, and can help space out the sowing and harvesting season for many farmers. The policy jargon for this is “crop diversification” and the Indian government has been struggling with it.

“There was a time when we hardly grew any rice in Punjab and Haryana,” says Ramandeep Singh Mann, a farmer activist in Bathinda, Punjab. “Different varieties of different crops grew across the region, overtaken by the green revolution.”

Having enough potable water and keeping the air clean are only two reasons to rethink the Green Revolution. A third is nutrition.

Healthy food

Despite the Green Revolution, India has battled the persistent problem of malnutrition and stunting among children. Around the time of the Green Revolution, the idea was to address hunger, so the focus was on calories through carbohydrates. This, however, has deprived the poor of enough protein, calcium, and other nutrients. It has also led to over-consumption of calories among the affluent, leading to obesity and diabetes.

Through the subsidised public distribution system and the meals provided in government schools and child-care centres in rural India, the government has a lot of leverage over what much of India eats. That is why it can quickly increase demand for pulses, and nutritious millets such as jowar (sorghum), ragi (finger millet), korra (foxtail millet), arke (kodo millet), sama (little millet), bajra (pearl millet), chena/barr (proso millet) and sanwa (barnyard millet).

“Delhi can prevent its annual health catastrophe by creating markets for these nutritious millets. What if Punjab and Haryana included millets in their mid-day meals in schools?” suggests Bharati Chaturvedi of Chintan, an environmental non-profit.

Farmer welfare

A fourth reason is the farming economy. Farmers complain their input costs are too high. Irrigation costs, fertilisers, pesticides, labour, and machinery, together, make farming a capital-intensive business. Anything going wrong with even one factor puts the farmer instantly under a mountain of debt.

If even in Punjab, the heart of the Green evolution, farmers are committing suicide, you know it’s not a revolution anymore. “You have to appreciate that it was the government which asked us to grow water-guzzling rice. It is the government which is deciding when we sow and when we harvest,” says Manpreet Romana, a farmer in Faridkot, Punjab, who used to be a photographer in Delhi but has returned to his village, partly to escape Delhi’s polluted air.

Farmers understand the problems of the Green Revolution better than anyone else. They are ready to shift to different crops provided their incomes, and their stability, don’t change. The government’s efforts at weaning them away from rice and wheat have been failing partly because farmers don’t trust it.

“The government is designing policies to prevent stubble burning by talking to everyone except farmers,” says Romana, who doesn’t burn the stubble on his farm.

The government buys an assured amount of rice and wheat from them at a fixed minimum support price. If the government buys more of other crops at fixed prices and in large quantities, working with farmers to make sure they continue to earn profits, crop diversification would have better chances.

We cannot undo history, but we can at least come out of the Green Revolution mindset—we don’t have food scarcity anymore. We need a new agriculture policy that thinks of the next few decades in terms of sustainability, nutrition, and exports.

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