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Monday, Sep 16, 2019

Worked like magic, spell breaking now

Battling food scarcity, nervous excitement gripped India when the first consignment of seeds of dwarf wheat variety from Mexico landed at the Calcutta port in 1963. It was billed to be the gamechanger based on research. Gurpreet Singh Nibber reports

chandigarh Updated: Apr 13, 2013 00:09 IST
Gurpreet Singh Nibber
Gurpreet Singh Nibber
Hindustan Times

Battling food scarcity, nervous excitement gripped India when the first consignment of seeds of dwarf wheat variety from Mexico landed at the Calcutta port in 1963. It was billed to be the gamechanger based on research.

The 18,000-tonne consignment was distributed across India, but germination results were below par. The first step towards boosting foodgrain production had hit a stumbling block.

Alarmed, the Centre summoned famed US scientist Dr Norman E Borlaug. Another consignment from Mexico followed. And Borlaug's cultivation suggestions lent the push that turned it around.

Wheat production in Punjab went up from 19 lakh tonnes in 1965 to 51 lakh tonnes in 1970. The term "Green Revolution!" came about in 1968, as William Gaud, the then director of the US Agency for Development, exclaimed on a visit to Punjab, amazed to see the dwarf variety growing abundantly in Punjab as it did in his country's neighbourhood.

The turn of the tide appeared quick, yet behind it were the massive drought of the '50s, the lost war with China in 1962, and the 1965 war with Pakistan that ended in victory but still took a toll. The then prime minister Lal Bahadur Shastri had led the country during the difficult hour, but realised the focus needed to be as much on border security as on food security.

As the plan rolled on, no longer was a ship-to-mouth model feeding India. By the time the assertive '70s dawned, the 50-crore plus population got enough indigenously grown food -- wheat from the rabi season (sown in winter, harvested by spring) and rice milled from paddy produced in kharif (sown in summer, harvested by the arrival of winter).

From 1963, it's been 50 years and the situation has evolved much.

While much of the credit goes to the experts from abroad, when Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, he made specific mention of MS Swaminathan: "The green revolution has been a team effort and much of the credit for its spectacular development must go to Indian officials, organizations, scientists and farmers. However, to you, Dr Swaminathan, a great deal of the credit must go for first recognizing the potential value of the Mexican dwarfs. Had this not occurred, it is quite possible that there would not have been a green revolution in Asia." Swaminathan has gone on to talk of "evergreen revolution".

When Punjab took the lead in wheat cultivation, the setting up of an agricultural university in Ludhiana in 1962 acted as catalyst. A decade later, the terai belt of what is now Uttarakhand (then part of Uttar Pradesh) also became the hub of wheat cultivation as a farm varsity in Pantnagar provided the boost. The two institutions created several new, high-yield varieties -- Kalyan-sona and PU-18 for wheat, and rice variety IR-8.

A key to encouraging farmers to become active partners in the revolution came in the form of assured procurement and minimum support price (MSP) for both paddy (rice) and wheat. This was supplemented by the 1,200 newly set-up grain markets. Increased availability of chemical fertilisers came as a welcome move too.

The state tubewell corporation was formed. And from 10,000 in 1960's Punjab to over 2 lakh in a few years, these groundwater pumps meant no dearth of water for the 30 irrigations of the year, eight for wheat and 22 for paddy.

Success reflected in the affluence of the farmer. Tractors in the field, children in schools, and pucca houses across villages. The country was watching.

In 1966, Haryana had been carved out of the original Punjab, and together both states took pride in being called India's granary - the contribution to national pool was 50- 78% in the early period of the revolution.

However, the obsession with the wheat-paddy cycle resulted in traditional crops like maize, sugarcane, cotton, groundnut and pulses being ignored. By 1985, Punjab contributed 65 lakh tonnes of wheat, 62% of the national pool, while the rice contribution was 42 lakh tones, or 43%.

Everything looked hunky dory, but farsighted farm-economist Dr Sardara Singh Johl raised the first red flag in his 1986 report, saying that paddy was not suiting Punjab. The dwindling water table was mentioned, and he repeated his theory five years later, making recommendations for crop diversification by replacing paddy with maize and other crops that needed less water in the kharif season. No one listened.

Incessant pumping led to drastic fall in the subsoil water table, and by early 2000 it was reported that of the 136 blocks in Punjab, 117 were 'dark and critical' with little scope to pump out more. Banned only in 2007, the quick-fix 60-day Sathi variety of paddy had done much harm, as had the early sowing otherwise. Only recently was the date for paddy sowing fixed for June 10, ensuring there's reasonable time for the soil nutrients to be replenished after the rabi season's end. For a second revolution, in fact, the Centre has asked Punjab to cut paddy cultivation by 40%.

By the third generation since the boost, landholdings have shrunk, hitting profitability of the 'revolutionary' model. In 2007, a report by the Punjab State Farmers' Commission said 36% of operational landholdings in the state measure less than 2 hectares, while 33% are between 2 and 4 hectares. Another shocking revelation was that farmers are under debt of Rs 35,000 crore collectively, leading to suicides -- unofficial figures put the toll over 2,000 in the past decade alone.

With the farmer now in extreme distress, the draft agriculture policy tabled by the Punjab commission has sought Rs 2500 crore to fund diversification from paddy to maize and overall rejuvenation of the fatigued farm sector. For a fund-starved Punjab, that's a lot to ask for.

Ironically, the problems and the suggested solutions remain the same nearly 30 years after these were first suggested. However, the powers-to-be seem to agree now. The key is whether the agreement in thought can lead to action on the ground.

Agriculture no longer sustainable
Family of Prem Singh (66) of village Panjkoha in Fetehgarh Sahib dirtrsict has earned a lot from farming. He has a pucca house, owns a Maruti car and a John Deere tractor is also parked in the courtyard.

But he is a worried man today. His thirteen acres of agriculture land is on the verge of division between his two sons.

As he said his father was a rich landlord owning about 80 acres of land. But it was divided equally among all six children. Now Prem Singh's sons would get 6.5 acres each.

"In mid sixties it was very simply life, there was no tractor, no tools, despite the farming was good and our family was very happy. Now we survive on debt from the money lender," said anguished Prem Singh adding that survival has become very difficult in such scenario. He wants to leave farming get involved in some other business. But everything is hazy.

"Trembles went down my spine when government's idea of doing away with the system of minimum support price is reminded," said worried Prem Singh further adding that he was ready to shift to maize crop instead of rice but lack of procurement system stops him.

First Published: Apr 12, 2013 23:38 IST