HT Archives: Implications for India
"The Green Revolution has raised new hopes for the hungry and poor world"
[MS Swaminathan (August 7, 1925 - September 28, 2023) wrote several articles for the Hindustan Times over five decades, from the late 1960s to the 2010s that touched upon the Green Revolution, how the revolution should continue, the harmful impact of food inflation and the country's food policy. This article was first published on August 24, 1969.]
Until recently there was a widespread feeling that the production potential of the soils of India was very low. This assessment was not without reason since studies on response to fertilizer application conducted prior to 1962 had revealed that an economic response was seldom obtained in crops like wheat and rice when the dose applied exceeded 20 kgs of nitrogen per hectare. Also, it is well known that because of various forms of erosion, Indian soils, in general, have a poor structure and topography. The yields of crops in such hungry and eroded soils were naturally poor and this created the impression that the production potential itself was low.
Such a situation was a scientific enigma since the tropics and subtropics have abundant sunlight and weather conditions conducive to crop growth throughout the year. Further, due to monsoons and high hills, the water resources of several of these regions are also considerable. An analysis of the factors responsible for low yields even in irrigated areas conducted about ten years ago revealed that the primary defect lay in the varieties then cultivated having an architecture more suited to growth and survival under poor conditions of soil fertility and water management than for performance under good’ agronomy.
Research has shown that to get one tonne of grain from wheat, the plants have to be supplied with about 25 kgs of nitrogen. Similarly to get one tonne of rice, the crop has to be fed with at least 15 kgs of nitrogen. In other words, if a yield of wheat of about 5 tonnes per hectare is to be obtained, about 125 kgs of nitrogen will have to be made available to the crop. When wheat varieties having the Japanese “Norin” dwarfing genes were introduced from Mexico in 1963 and rice varieties with the Chinese “Dee.Gee.Woo-Gen” dwarfing gene were introduced from Taiwan and the Philippines in 1964, the first requisite for breaking the yield barrier was fulfilled, namely a morphological frame permitting the cultivation of the crop under well-fed conditions. Such dwarf varieties were found to give an economic response to fertiliser dosages even exceeding 100 kgs of nitrogen per hectare in all parts of India. The old myth that Indian soils have a low production potential was thus proved incorrect and it has since become clear that what is needed to increase production is alleviation of the hunger of the soils and better water management.
The new high-yielding varieties and hybrids of wheat, rice, sorghum, maize and pearl millet, which were released in rapid succession during the years 1961 to 1965, acted as catalysts in transforming the outlook of the farming community and provided the psychological base and the political and administrative support necessary for the production and supply of the necessary inputs. This psychological transformation and the self-confidence which it generated in our agricultural capabilities are the most important gains of the High Yielding Varieties programme.
Slowly but surely the yellow colour of the seedlings of various crops started turning green, due to increased development of chlorophyll as a result of better nutrition and this change in colour is popularly referred to as the “Green Revolution.”
India is now in the early stages of this revolution and hence it would be wise to consider its implications. I shall group them into three major categories.
It is well known that every action generates several reactions. Some are favourable and others are not. When conditions for the growth of plants become better, conditions for the growth and spread of pests and pathogens coincidentally improve. Varietal diversity and a rapid replacement of varieties is hence essential for avoiding disease epidemics. When soils which have yielded less than one per hectare per year are made to yield over five tonnes, not only the major nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorous and potash get depleted but also the minor elements like zinc and boron get scarce. The biological and physical properties of soils are affected due to the inadequacy of organic matter. Continuous cropping and unscientific rotations lead to the accumulation of soil-borne diseases like nematodes, as happened in Europe during the Second World War. In crops like rice, lack of drainage rather than lack of water depresses yield. Therefore, what is essential to sustain the Green Revolution is a vastly expanded tempo of scientific effort designed to anticipate and find prior solutions to many of the new problems.
Another important need for sustaining increased production through a higher income incentive is greater attention to all post-harvest problems. Processing, storage and marketing need much more attention. Remunerative price is the only foundation upon which the edifice of scientific agriculture can be erected. In India, a few million tonnes of foodgrains usually makes all the difference between acute scarcity and an uncomfortable glut. This situation necessarily calls for a considerable degree of attention to crop planning. Alternative land-use and crop-use patterns have to be developed in order to maintain prices at remunerative and at the same time reasonable levels.
An important need for increasing the efficiency of farming, as reflected by an increased return from the investment on inputs, is the spread of knowledge concerning the new technology. Many traditional ideas and habits will have to be altered. For example, to get the best return from the fertiliser and water applied to dwarf varieties of wheat, changes are necessary in the time and depth of sowing, the time and the depth of irrigation and the time and manner of application of fertiliser. The qualitative aspects of input application need urgent attention to reduce the cost of production and to make Indian produce competitive in world markets. The number of people possessing knowledge worthy of communication is very few, in contrast to the huge number of farmers to whom this knowledge has to be communicated. Therefore, every effort will have to be made to develop and exploit mass communication media including television. Training programmes at all levels should be extended and intensified. The farmer has to be trained in the better handling of the harvested produce, because when agricultural production becomes slightly surplus to the immediate needs of the country. quality considerations will occupy a pre-eminent position in determining the price and marketability of the produce. The Government will have to use every means available to it for expanding such educational programmes and extension media.
Pricing is a very potent instrument for changing unscientific ideas on quality. A very important step towards changing the market classification of wheat from unscientific to more rational lines was taken this year by the Government of India when it decided to offer a uniform price to grains irrespective of white or red colour. Protein malnutrition is a serious danger facing India and it is now well established that malnutrition in the first year of a child’s life could do irreversible harm to brain development. In the coming years, the widening gulf between the intellectual potential of the people of the developed and developing nations partly due to the malnutrition of children in the latter category, could become the most dangerous form of the “two cultures.”
Thanks to the development of techniques such as relay cropping whereby four crops can be cultivated in a year, the income potential of an irrigated farm in India has been greatly increased. In contrast, little has been done to improve the income potential of unirrigated farms which constitute the vast majority of the cropped area. The technology developed by scientists for unirrigated areas such as water harvesting procedures and aerial application of fertiliser are yet to be used in practice. Many social scientists and political leaders have been concerned with the growing gap in the relative economic position of the irrigated and unirrigated farmers. The solution to this problem naturally lies in taking steps immediately to increase the scientific activity relating to dry farming and the widespread adoption of the practices already developed. If there is a great time lag in initiating action in this field, there could be serious social and political consequences.
The Green Revolution has raised new hopes for the hungry and poor world. It has also generated new attitudes and destroyed many beliefs. If the hopes are to be fulfilled and serious social and political problems are to be avoided, attention is urgently called for on some of the problems indicated earlier.
The most vital change that is yet to be developed is the outlook towards agricultural development. It is yet to be fully realised that the serious poverty, unemployment and under-employment problems facing India can be overcome only through the scientific exploitation of the plant and animal wealth of the country and that agricultural development is not merely a tool for achieving food self-sufficiency but is the most feasible and speedy method of economic growth. India must plan to develop itself into a nation providing those parts of the world which are not so favourably endowed for crop Growth with agricultural produce of the highest quality. Otherwise, the socio-economic problems may render the euphoria created by the “Green Revolution” short-lived.
Here are the other articles that MS Swaminathan wrote for the Hindustan Times