Undeniably, securing self-sufficiency in foodgrains is one of the most glorious achievements of independent India. And Green Revolution was at the core of this, by raising farm yields substantially, making up for the loss of sizeable wheat-growing acreage in the west and large tracts of rice-producing areas in the east, due to partition.
Actually, by mid 1960s, before the Green Revolution, India had to literally survive “from-ship-to-mouth”, as there wasn’t enough food in the country until the next ship showed up. There was a growing imbalance between the rising demand from increasing population and near-stagnant production interrupted by intermittent droughts.
Ushering in Green Revolution
Around this time, elsewhere in the world, agri scientist Norman Borlaug developed high-yielding wheat seeds through a pioneering technique called ‘shuttle breeding’. Soon the method was applied to rice and maize. The resultant crops had shorter and sturdier stems making them more resilient to stress; higher grain to straw ratio thereby improving net productivity. They could grow faster, enabling more crops to be planted annually; and responded well to irrigation and fertilisers. As a result, a dramatic rise in foodgrain production was achieved.
India did an outstanding job of bringing Green Revolution into the country through a well-conducted orchestra of purpose-built institutions and innovative policy instruments. The network under National Agricultural Research System worked on adaptation of the improved seeds for local conditions, while a mammoth extension infrastructure was established to disseminate technologies to the farmers, irrigation capacities were created to make precious water available, fertiliser and other inputs were subsidised and made affordable, outreach of formal credit was expanded, output prices were assured and procurement guaranteed.
This not only helped in attaining self-sufficiency in foodgrain production, but also laid an institutional architecture for the subsequent growth and development of agriculture, pulling millions of farmers out of poverty. On the other hand, government procurement of these grains supported the public distribution of food, thereby taking care of the basic needs of the low-income consumers.
Too good to be true? Then, after a couple of decades, two types of unintended adverse impacts came to the fore.
Firstly, the farmers who stayed away from the Green Revolution became poorer compared to those who participated. To an extent this is understandable, but that these farmers were too resource-poor to join in the first instance meant that the resultant economic disparity became unacceptably wider. The urgent need for raising food production required government to direct its support to well-endowed areas – whether water or soil – to get quicker results. Even within these regions, because the new technologies were resource-intensive, the better-off farmers, who could access irrigation and other inputs more easily, were the ones who really benefited.
Secondly, rather ironically, those who participated ended up becoming even more vulnerable due to the environmental side effects. Soil nutrients depleted due to high yielding varieties, with repetition of the crop cycles adding to the problem; burning of agricultural residue to catch the planting time for the next crop released greenhouse gases – often polluting far-off cities too; soil organic matter dropped with crop residues not getting returned to the soil; excessive usage of fertilisers and pesticides led to an unacceptable level of heavy metals in the soil, irrigation support to water-intensive rice and wheat crops naturally decreased water availability and increased soil salinity.
If you are trained in solving problems using the “SA-PA-DA-PPA” framework of HBS case-method, this was a classic case of Situational-Analysis, Problem-Analysis, Decision-Analysis done exceedingly well, but completely ignoring the Potential-Problem-Analysis.
Raising yield with less damage to soil
As we approach Amrit Kaal, it is critical to raise farm productivity of grain crops and release that land to cultivate more fruits & vegetables and other high-value crops to raise farmer incomes by aligning with emerging consumer demand. This needs to be done without harming the soil and using less water, and in ways that are resilient to climate change. The only caveat is that we need to solve all of them together, using systems thinking. In other words, we should not subordinate any of these goals to any other, as done in the Green Revolution era.
To do that, we need to re-imagine the orchestra. Yesterday’s institutions and policy instruments have outlived their utility and need to be re-purposed. For example, free water and power don’t go hand in hand with more crop per drop, unless they are creatively restructured to serve all the four objectives. Corporates need to anchor the value chains to make them demand responsive. Otherwise, post-harvest food losses will mount. Farmer collectives will have to be at the centre of any delivery mechanism, to get them a fair share of consumer price. Digital technologies need to be harnessed to personalise solutions to individual farmers on a pan-India scale.
I close by proudly sharing that ITCMAARS (ITC’s Metamarket for Advanced Agriculture and Rural Services) has taken the first step in this journey towards Amrit Kaal.
S Sivakumar is Group Head, Agri, IT and Sustainability, ITC Ltd