Sunday, June 22, 2008
It was not supposed to be this way.
Forty years ago, a giant development effort known as the Green Revolution drove hunger from an
The problem has grown so dire that Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has called for a Second Green Revolution "so that the specter of food shortages is banished from the horizon once again."
And while Singh worries about feeding the poor,
Today Indian agriculture is a double tragedy. "Both in rice and wheat,
Experts blame the agriculture slowdown on a variety of factors.
The Green Revolution introduced high-yielding varieties of rice and wheat, expanded the use of irrigation, pesticides and fertilizers, and transformed the northwestern plains into
But since the 1980s, the government has not expanded irrigation and access to loans for farmers, or to advance agricultural research. Groundwater has been depleted at alarming rates.
The Peterson Institute for International Economics in
Family farms have shrunk in size and quantity, and a few years ago mounting debt began to drive some farmers to suicide. Now many find it more profitable to sell their land to developers of industrial buildings.
Among farmers who stay on their land, many are experimenting with growing high-value fruits and vegetables that prosperous Indians are craving, but there are few refrigerated trucks to transport their produce to modern supermarkets.
A long and inefficient supply chain means that the average farmer receives less than a fifth of the price the consumer pays, a World Bank study found, far less than farmers in, say, Thailand or the United States.
Surinder Singh Chawla knows the system is broken. Chawla, 62, bore witness to the Green Revolution and its demise.
Once, his family grew wheat and potatoes on 20 acres. They looked to the sky for rains. They used cow manure for fertilizer. Then came the Mexican semi-dwarf wheat seedlings that the revolution helped introduce to
Increasingly prosperous, Chawla finally bought his first tractor in 1980.
But he has since witnessed with horror the ills the revolution wrought: in a common occurrence here, the water table under his land has sunk by 100 feet over three decades as he and other farmers irrigated their fields.
By the 1980s, government investment in canals fed by rivers had tapered off, and wells became the principal source of irrigation, helped by a shortsighted government policy of free electricity to pump water.
Between 1980 and 2002, the government continued to heavily subsidize fertilizers and food grains for the poor, but reduced its total investment in agriculture. Public spending on farming shrank by roughly a third, according to an analysis of government data by the Center for Policy Alternatives in
Today only 40 percent of Indian farms are irrigated. "When there is no water, there is nothing," Chawla said.
And he sees more trouble on the way. The summers are hotter than he remembers. The rains are more fickle. Last summer, he wanted to ease out of growing rice, a water-intensive crop.
The gains of the Green Revolution have begun to ebb in other countries, too, like
Today, two staples of the Indian diet are imported in ever-increasing quantities because farmers cannot keep up with growing demand pulses, like lentils and peas, and vegetable oils, the main sources of protein and calories, respectively, for most Indians.
In April, in a village called Udhopur, not far from here, Harmail Singh, 60, wondered aloud how farmers could possibly be expected to grow more grain.
"The cultivable land is shrinking and government policies are not farmer friendly," he said as he supervised his wheat harvest. "Our next generation is not willing to work in agriculture. They say it is a losing proposition."
The luckiest farmers make more money selling out to land-hungry mall developers.
Gurmeet Singh Bassi, 33, blessed with a farm on the edges of a booming Punjabi city called
Meanwhile, Chawla's neighbors migrated to
Last year, on a small patch of that land, he planted what no one in his village could imagine putting on their plate: baby corn, which he learned was being lapped up by upscale urban Indian restaurants and even sold abroad.
At the time, baby corn brought a better profit than the government's price for his wheat crop.
This had been the Green Revolution's other pillar a fixed government price for grain. A farmer could sell his crop to a private trader, but for many small tillers, it was far easier to approach the nearest government granary, and accept their rate.
For years, those prices remained miserably low, farmers and their advocates complained, and there was little incentive for farmers to invest in their crop. "For farmers," said Swaminathan, the plant geneticist, "a remunerative price is the best fertilizer."
Swaminathan's adage proved true this year. After two years of having to import wheat, the government offered farmers a substantially higher price for their grain: farmers not only planted slightly more wheat but also sold much more of their harvest to the state. As a result, by May, the country's buffer stocks were at record levels.
Will greater demand for food and higher market prices enrich farmers, eventually, encouraging them to stay on their land? There is potential, but other conditions, like
How to address these challenges is a matter of debate.
From one quarter comes pressure to introduce genetically modified crops with greater yields; from another come lawsuits to stop it. And from yet another come pleas to mount a greener Green Revolution.
Alexander Evans, author of a recent paper on food prices published by Chatham House, a British research institution, said: "This time around, it needs to be more efficient in its use of water, in its use of energy, in its use of fertilizer and land."
Swaminathan wants to dedicate villages to sowing lentils and oilseeds, to meet demand. The World Bank, meanwhile, favors high-value crops, like Chawla's baby corn, because they allow farmers to maximize their income from small holdings.
The market may yet help