Apres Le Green Revolution

this is the second of three stories i wrote for et’s 50th anniversary. on what should succeed the green revolution. i cannot find the link on the website. till i find that, here is the text.

This happened three years ago. At that time, this reporter was doing rural research in Madhya Pradesh. And he had chanced to speak to four farmers growing soya in Malwa. What were their earnings like, he had asked, from the cash crop?

The answer was illuminating. Five acres will yield 20-25 sacks of soya. Five acres need 2 bags of seeds, 3 bags of fertilizer, pesticide, labour for weeding, sowing, harvesting and threshing. Add

all that up and you get input costs of Rs 12,000. At Rs 1,500 for each of the 25 sacks, the farmers were making Rs 37,500. Take out the costs. And they were left with 25,000. Or, Rs 5,000 per acre. Further, thanks to electrification and the advent of groundwater pumps, this part of malwa plants two crops a year. Wheat is usually the second crop. Its yields range between 18-20 sacks per acre. Each sack fetches between Rs 1,100-1,200. Which translated, in a best case scenario, into a gross income per acre of Rs 24,000. Costs ranged between Rs 12,000-14,000. So, say, a net income of Rs 12,000 per acre. Add earnings from soya to this, and you have farmers making Rs 17,000 per acre per year!

Now, in their village, 25 farmers had less than one acre. 75 had between 1-2 acres. Another 180 had between 2-5 acres. 20 had between 5-7 acres. Just 5-7 farmers had over 7 acres of land. It didn’t paint a very affluent picture. Further, none of that arithmetic factors risk in. Rs 17,000 an acre was something of a best case scenario — if rain and global commodity markets behaved themselves.

On the whole, marginal existence appeared to be the objective reality in the village. In response, farmers were diversifying livelihoods. Most households in their village had at least one member working in the industrial township of Pithampur, a mere six kilometres away.

In the last two years, travelling on work, this reporter has heard similar tales from other parts of the country. In Thanjavur, the rice bowl of Tamil Nadu, a groundwater crisis and a labour shortage have resulted in farmers starting to move away from the crop they have grown for generations. Farmers blame the current economics of paddy — with its need for lots of labour, chemical inputs and water. The result? The area under tree crops (like coconut) is rising. The area under rice is falling. Travel to chhattisgarh and you hear a similar refrain of steady impoverishment. In Punjab, farmers have begun selling their land to settle in UP and MP. Land in their state is becoming too saline, too infertile.

That is the first point I wanted to make. The benefits from the green revolution — which, at one time, with its emphasis on higher-yielding varieties, irrigation and chemical inputs, made this country food secure — are winding down.

Periodically, alluding to this, our statemanesque leaders say the country needs a second green revolution. Yes, but the question is: what form should it take?

One option leads us further down the path we have been travelling since the green revolution began — more technology. higher yielding varieties, hybrids, genetically-engineered crops, and so on. The other road, embraced by the minority, advocates a return to natural farming — to indigenous crops like jowar and bajra, natural fertiliser, what have you.

What should we do? It is a question that takes my mind towards the exciting emergent discipline of resilience. Every natural system, it says, has the ability to withstand a certain amount of shock and survive unchanged. Take a grassland. It will have two sorts of species. Some that grow slowly but can withstand harsh conditions.

And, another lot which is more efficient at converting, say, the sun’s rays into biomass, and consequently can grow faster, etc. However, as resilience theory says, there is a tradeoff between efficiency and flexibility (or dealing with external change). And that ecosystems are shaped by fast, intermediate and slow variables. The second set of species, while efficient, are not capable of handling changes in slow variables. For instance, if all the grass species in a rangeland were replaced by one species with the highest growth rate, production would be higher and more efficient in normal years, but the system itself would be much more vulnerable to droughts, pests, fire and so on. The system might be stable. But that stability is narrow.

The analogy with Indian agriculture is perfect. Bajra and Jowar are hardy crops. Even if the rains are poor, they will still yield something. The high yielding varieties, on the other hand, cannot. In good times, of course, the HYVs will vastly outperform the millets. On the whole, given the advent of increasingly mercurial weather patterns, commonly blamed on climate change, it is time we took a second look at whether millets et al can indeed feed this burgeoning nation.

In the budget this year, the FM finally expanded the government’s grain policy beyond rice and wheat to include millets. The amounts are modest. But it is a start.

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