In our travels we have seen examples of India’s massive agriculture industry. Farmers selling produce on the side of the road, rice paddies covering the landscape, and agricultural research universities for example. Most of these developments are in some way the result of rapid agricultural industrialization during the 60s and 70s in what is now known as the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was a period of agricultural advancement which you could compare to the historic industrial revolution of the 1800s. America had its own Green Revolution, which led to the development of India’s own revolutionary advancement. The main goal was to provide food security by making India’s agricultural sector self-sufficient, with an added benefit of India becoming competitive on the world food market. The outcome of India’s Green Revolution is generally considered a good thing. Famine and food shortages became rare, grain prices dropped nationwide, and the development of the agriculture industry boosted the national economy to a new high (Shiva 2016). But one could argue that the outcome of the Green Revolution was not that great. The high yield variety (HYV) of grains requires using large amounts of water, pesticides, and fertilizers, a practice which is costly to low-level farmers and damaging to long-term soil health. The resulting water shortages and wealth disparity have left farmers all over India struggling to make ends meet. There are arguably more damages caused by the Green Revolution than benefits gained from it. Although it was a step forward in terms of agricultural development and national food security, the Green Revolution excluded and harmed low-level farmers, which has led to recent problems such as farmer debt, urbanization, and farmer suicide.
Implementation and Outcomes
Famines were problematic for India in the early 20th century as its population grew beyond its agricultural capabilities. The terrible Bengal Famine of 1943 was an example of India’s poor food security, and British negligence, which ended up costing a loss of about 2-3 million of its population. After giving independence, the British left India hungry and malnourished, as one author puts it (Saha 2013). India needed to develop a solution for its growing problem, as they had more mouths to feed and not enough food being produced. Quite a few American political commentators did not have faith in India’s plans to advance its agricultural system, which they believed to be backward, traditional, and not driven by evidence-based research (Goldsmith 1988). One has to wonder whether the motives of US involvement in India’s Green Revolution were not purely based on reducing world hunger in a fellow developing democratic nation, but on strengthening global political power and promoting Indian economic dependence in a Cold War era.
Recurrent famines and an all-time high import of grains in the early 1960s caused public frustration in India’s traditional agricultural development, a process which at first tried to rely less on capital/chemical-intensive methods and more on ancient, common knowledge (Saha 2013). In this frustration, traditional methods were put on hold and full attention was given to cutting-edge Western scientific farming practices. With the help of the Rockefeller Foundation and Dr. Norman Borlaug, the Green Revolution began in 1965 with the introduction of high yield variety of grains (wheat, rice, barley, etc.) that were previously developed in Mexico and the Philippines in partnership with scientists from the USA (“India – The Green Revolution” n.d.). One could argue that the promotion of advanced agricultural industry by the US Agency for International Development (USAID) could be a form of western imperialism and exploitation. People from the USA brought ideas on development that they believed to be superior to traditional Indian knowledge during a time when India was vulnerable after harsh famines. One author’s review on US foreign policy during India’s Green Revolution contains an argument that the USAID’s push for policy dialogue in the 1950s and 60s took a step too far in influencing other countries economic policies as a part of solidifying democratic allies during the Cold War (Goldsmith 1988). Part of that argument includes the claim that American fertilizer industries benefited from the rapid uptake of and dependency on agricultural practices that the USAID pushed for. The US gained political and economic power as their agricultural technology was accepted, and India eventually become self-sufficient in food production based on their methods, but internal competition left many people poor and few rich while the national economy benefited from industrial growth. While the benefits of using farming practices introduced by the Green Revolution seemed to be good for national food security, these industrial agriculture practices were not carefully introduced, leading to great disparity in farmer wealth and ecological damage in pursuit of national economic growth.
The benefits of the Green Revolution were abundant. According to a lecture from Dr. Moses at Bishop Heber College, average crop yield per unit area improved by 30% from 1947 to 1979. With the introduction of HYV grains came fewer famines and improved food security for the entire nation. According to an article on this topic from the Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, farmers with small plots of land had increased earnings compared to the time before HYV grains and multiple cropping techniques were used (Sarabhai 1972). These practices reduced wealth disparity between farmers who owned large plots of land and those who owned smaller plots of land. Indian agricultural institutions, such as the one we visited in Trichy, developed unique grains that fit the diverse Indian climate and palate. The economic benefits were abundant: the national GDP grew, new jobs were made, hydroelectric dams were built, and India paid back loans to the World Bank (Moses 2017). It is easy to see why the Green Revolution is considered a success in many people’s eyes, but it could be interpreted differently if we change how we measure success.
We had a discussion at the Visthar Institute (which focuses on sustainable development, social justice, and peace) with Dr. Udayakumar and other experts on the success of the Green Revolution and whether we can truly call it a success for India. One piece of wisdom we learned at Visthar was to seek the knowledge of those who are marginalized or victimized in society, who are usually not given a voice, to generate a holistic understanding of a problematic situation. The understanding of the Green Revolution for farmers is different from how scientists and academics in agricultural universities see it. When we visited an agricultural university in Trichy, we saw advances in HYV seeds and farming techniques, which they consider a success in terms of the development of India as a nation. But we can claim that the Green Revolution was not a total success if we assess the various outcomes on modern-day farmers in terms of financial stability and overall well being. Short term success and rapid economic growth in the 70s and 80s gave way to slower growth and increasing disparity between big industry farmers and small-scale farmers in the 90s and 2000s. Throughout our trip to India, I’ve read how the plight of the modern-day farmer is brutal and has given way to disturbingly high rates of suicide (Merriott 2016). A group of scientists did a review of the literature to try and come to a conclusion on why farmers are committing suicide at an alarming rate. They found that although there is no single factor, financial debt was the biggest predictor of suicide. Alcoholism and was another correlated factor, but mental illness, originally thought to be the primary reason, was not (Merriott 2016). Dr. Moses’ lecture included a section on the outcomes of farmers. He says that they became dependent on state subsidies to maintain agricultural production each year. This has been exacerbated by global climate change which is affecting the monsoon rains, making them less frequent and more intense, flooding out crops and increasing drought frequency. Heavy pesticide and industrial strength fertilizers take a toll on the topsoil, changing the composition to be less fertile, reducing crop yields each season. Dr. Moses talked about the problems that the industrial system left behind, but there were also political and cultural changes that caused these issues.
Vandana Shiva argues in her book that the green revolution brought about systematic and cultural change that disrupted traditional Indian societies (Shiva 2016). Mutual interdependence and small community relationships were devalued as big agricultural change swept over India, changing farming into a business that promotes economic interests above all else and relies on external inputs from banks and big industries. She also claims that the economic change promoted competition and violence, breaking down cultural norms and identity. She gives an example that relates the violent discrimination against Sikhs in Punjab to the “polarized thinking” that was provoked from frustrated communities who were politically marginalized during the development of the Green Revolution (Shiva 2016). Placing economic gain above traditional and community values and not taking farmers’ ideas into account is one way of thinking about how the Green Revolution may have failed the farmers. We learned about the problems these farmers face today in modern day India, where the government seemingly propagates the vicious cycle of debt and urbanization.
The Plight of the Modern Day Farmer
Water scarcity is one of the cyclical problems that farmers face. For example, we read an NPR article on how farmers are struggling in Punjab despite using advanced HYV seeds. The HYV requires pesticides, fertilizers, but most importantly water, and lots of it. So much water is being used that the water table is dropping about 3 feet each year, forcing farmers to dig deeper and buy new pumps to reach the water (“‘Green Revolution’ Trapping India’s Farmers In Debt” n.d.). Heavy machinery like tractors can be out of the question for many farmers, but because surface water is not available they must buy groundwater pumps to survive in the agriculture industry. Many take out loans from banks to pay for work related expenditures like water pumps, but also for basic, daily necessities. Poor crop yield and high industry costs make it easy for them to become indebted, forcing them to turn to money lenders (that charge high interest rates) for cash to pay back the bank, and ultimately get stuck in a vicious cycle of borrowing and paying off money that many studies attribute to the high suicide rate of Indian farmers in recent decades (Merriott 2016) (Jodhka 2001). We can also extend the outcomes of the Green Revolution to the increased rate of urbanization. According to our lecture from Dr. Crystal, indebted farmers go into the city to make money for their families and pay off debt as daily wage laborers. This is why we see many workers sleeping on the street, because they can’t afford to commute daily.
Pumping excess water (using government subsidies) to maintain their crops that they are sustaining with high-interest loans from money lenders to sell on a competitive market where they will make little profit is keeping the farmers in a cycle of debt and leading them to get part-time jobs in the city or commit suicide. Sustainable development of irrigation and farming practices need to become a standard practice in rural communities. Institutes like Visthar are trying to promote these sustainable practices, while research centers like Gandhigram Rural University are developing new sustainable practices that can be applied in rural communities. Soil Vasu, a lecturer at Visthar, gave us a presentation and interactive demonstration on how to assess soil to determine its quality without any special technology or training. He also showed us how to make a sustainable, green fertilizer using mostly products from cows (dung, urine, curd, milk, ghee, etc.) which is an effective and accessible alternative to industrial fertilizers which tend to reduce soil fertility over time. Gandhigram Rural University is doing research and development on microbiology and chemistry that is applied to rural life and farming. They are making sustainable microbe-generated bricks for house making, nanotechnology for supporting plant/soil health, and many more projects that are being applied to nearby rural communities. Sustainable development and sustainable farming practices necessary to reduce water shortages and farmer plight. Additionally, there are government schemes in recent five-year plans such as PURA (Providing Urban Amenities to Rural Areas), which bring the benefits of healthcare, education, employment, etc. to rural communities to improve quality of life and reduce urbanization (Dr. Merlin Isaac 2017). Providing rural areas with education on sustainable farming and development could drastically improve living conditions for farmers and hopefully solve the urbanization issue as well.
To conclude, the Green Revolution was not as great of a success as it seemed. The developers, both US and Indian, didn’t incorporate the farmers’ traditional sustainable practice wisdom and instead accepted the Western idea of agricultural development to attain massive growth and food security. Although they achieved the goal of becoming nutritionally self-sufficient and food secure, a large disparity in wealth eventually appeared, leaving small farmers struggling in the 21st century. Perhaps if the US didn’t influence Indian agricultural development as much, India could have incorporated advanced sustainable practices with traditional farmer knowledge and experiences to make its industry unique to India rather than a copy of Western ideas. A sustainable, India-specific agricultural industry perhaps could have spared small-scale farmers the hardships they are facing today. We can do our best to promote sustainable development in modern times to reduce the problems that plague farmers in rural communities. For example, we met a student in Hyderabad that is going to rural communities in the surrounding area and teaching them sustainable and effective farming practices that they previously had no knowledge of. She is teaching methods that can help them become self-sufficient and not reliant on industrial methods that the Green Revolution instilled in the national farming community. Finally, I hope that the Providing Urban Amenities in Rural Areas scheme will be effective in reducing urbanization and help those living in the rural setting have access to education, healthcare, and economic opportunity, but we will have to wait for the next five-year plan report to assess its effectiveness.
Goldsmith, Arthur A. 1988. “Policy Dialogue, Conditionality, and Agricultural Development: Implications of India’s Green Revolution.” The Journal of Developing Areas; Macomb 22 (2):179–197.
“‘Green Revolution’ Trapping India’s Farmers In Debt.” n.d. NPR.org. Accessed November 25, 2017. https://www.npr.org/2009/04/14/102944731/green-revolution-trapping-indias-farmers-in-debt.
“India – The Green Revolution.” n.d. Accessed November 26, 2017. http://countrystudies.us/india/104.htm.
Jodhka, Surinder S. 2001. “CRISIS, CRISIS, CRISIS . . . RURAL INDEBTEDNESS AND FARMERS’ SUICIDES IN THE POST-GREEN REVOLUTION PUNJAB (INDIA).” International Studies of Punjab Studies 8 (1):117–25.
Merriott, Dominic. 2016. “Factors Associated with the Farmer Suicide Crisis in India.” Journal of Epidemiology and Global Health 6 (4):217–27. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jegh.2016.03.003.
Saha, Madhumita. 2013. “The State, Scientists, and Staple Crops: Agricultural ‘Modernization’ in Pre-Green Revolution India.” Agricultural History 87 (2):201–22. https://doi.org/10.3098/ah.2013.87.2.201.
Sarabhai, Vikram Ambalal. 1972. “India and the Green Revolution.” Address, August 1971 28 (September):8–10.
Shiva, Vandana. 2016. The Violence of the Green Revolution : Third World Agriculture, Ecology, and Politics. Culture of the Land. Lexington: The University Press of Kentucky. https://ezproxy.lib.davidson.edu/login?url=http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=985560&site=ehost-live.
Dr. Crystal, lecture on Economic Policy in India at Women’s Christian College, October 9, 2017
Dr. Merlin Isaac, lecture on Urbanism in India at Madras Christian College, September 24, 2017
Dr. Moses, lecture on the Green Revolution at Bishop Heber College, October 28, 2017
Soil Vasu, lecture on Soil Health and Sustainable Practices at the Visthar Insititute, November 22, 2017
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