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Green Revolution in India

Last week the NYTimes ran a story on the state of food production in India. The general gist of the story is that since there hasn’t been an increase in food production to match India’s growing population, the country has been forced to buy certain foodstuffs on the already stressed global market. This is A Very Bad Thing. The author of the piece, Somini Sengupta, seems to believe that it need not be this way, and argues that with a return to the Green Revolution India could not only feed its own citizens, but those of the world. At least, that seems to be the overarching thrust of the article, but it gets caught up in the internal tensions of Green Revolution — its tendency to strip the land of resources, its intense energy inputs, etc — and so the article as a whole comes off as ambiguous and unresolved.

Describing the current situation, where India has turned to the global markets for food, the author writes,

It was not supposed to be this way.

Forty years ago, a giant development effort known as the Green Revolution drove hunger from an India synonymous with famine and want. Now, after a decade of neglect, this country is growing faster than its ability to produce more rice and wheat.

Here we get the glimpse of the Green Revolution as liberator, as a force for good that eliminated hunger. We are told that its expanded use of fertilizers, pesticides, machinery, and irrigation lead to a near doubling of India’s production of cereal grains. Recently, however, this growth of production has began to taper off and even recede. The article traces this to a decrease in government support, and states: “But since the 1980s, the government has not expanded irrigation and access to loans for farmers, or to advance agricultural research.” If only we would increase the political and social support for Green Revolution policies, agricultural yields, it seems, would once again fill silos past brimming.

Oddly enough though, the immediate next sentence in the article is this: “Groundwater has been depleted at alarming rates.” On the one hand, the lack of further government investment in irrigation is decried as suppressing potential yields; on the other there is rapidly depleting groundwater. It does not seem like these two things can be woven into the same narrative. Either the rain-fed plots that most Indian farmers subsist on need to receive irrigation, and increase yields (1st narrative thread), or irrigation itself is rapidly degrading the lands capacity to produce foodstuffs (2nd narrative thread). The first tells the story of  the Green Revolution’s benefits; the second of its ills. Both are present in the articles account of the Revolutions effects on an Indian Farmer and his family:

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 India. Mr. Chawla’s wheat yields soared. A few years later, the same happened with new high-yield rice seeds.

Increasingly prosperous, Mr. 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.

The jarring juxtaposition of irrigation increased yields and groundwater loss begins to make more sense here, though the overall cohesion of the narrative the article wishes to construct becomes no more tenable. The narrative of the Green Revolution must be one of progress and abundance, even as it wreaks havoc on the ground.

There are other narrative tangles in the article as well, problematic assumptions about the market being a tool to increase production (of luxury items, like baby corn), and the tension between cash crop production and the ostensible thesis that India ought to produce enough food to feed itself so that it doesn’t strain global markets. But I think the opposing narratives of the Green Revolution are enough to make explicit at the moment. The article’s ideological skewing of facts is apparent through them: and we have to ask, to what end? when we seek to understand why and how it seeks to resolve their contradiction.

Categories: Notes.

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