Reflections on the Green Revolution

What is revolutionary about the Green Revolution?

Published on 13 June 2019

The dramatic increase in yields of wheat and rice in the 1960s and 1970s in India, along with many other countries in the post-colonial world, was framed as a technological breakthrough made possible by miracle hybrid seed varieties. This breakthrough ostensibly averted mass scale hunger and was central to realising substantive national sovereignty in newly independent India. We now know after decades of extensive research that the yield increases were not all that dramatic – that expansion of monocultures, extensive use of agrochemicals, groundwater extraction, pricing and procurement policies were all equally, if not more critical, than hybrid seed varieties for enhancing yield productivity.

Recent revisionist histories have further upended the simplified technological revolutionary narrative by showing how Cold War geopolitics engineered a systemic but deeply contested shift toward energy and water intensive agriculture. The so-called Green Revolution (GR) can be seen as another moment of incorporation of new sites in the long-standing and ongoing expansion of the industrial food system, albeit in the name of the small farmer and alleviating hunger.

My encounter with the GR has been through life stories of farmers in two regions, Punjab and Tamil Nadu, which have been the epicentres of agricultural intensification since the 1960s. Yet, the social and material landscape has been transformed in distinctive ways, and unevenly for farmers and workers who inhabit and have constituted these spaces. In the south-west cotton-belt of Punjab, where I have interacted with farmers and agroecology activists since 2012 for doctoral research, pests and pesticides dominate everyday conversations. Chemical contamination of water and soils, deteriorating health, rising incidence of particular diseases -cancer, reproductive health issues, and persistent crop damage due to pest attacks is in the foreground.

In Northern Tamil Nadu, where I have been working since 2017 as part of Relational Pathways: Mapping Agency and Poverty Dynamics through Green Revolutions project, drying open wells, erratic rainfall and frequent drought in recent years occupy people’s minds. The practice of cultivating rice three times a year, inaugurated with the GR, has come to a halt for most farmers and has reduced the availability of work especially for women workers. With narratives articulated by farmers and workers in these two regions, I suggest that the GR needs to be interrogated in four ways at the current political conjuncture in India:

1. What drives the calls for an Evergreen/Second Green Revolution?

In recent years scientists and politicians have emphasised the need for transitioning toward sustainable agriculture, often obliquely acknowledging the failures of the current model. These calls for the Evergreen and the Second Green Revolution make references to technologies, for example, drip irrigation, soil cards for judicious use of agrochemicals, biotechnology, digital platforms for market and knowledge access, as well as new regional locations (Eastern India) and high-value crops (moving from wheat and rice to vegetables and fruits for instance).

While arguing for sustainability through the adoption of a novel approach, they are replete with old logics –a Malthusian discourse to justify the need for closing productivity gaps in new regions. They invoke the same extractive logic that defined the Green Revolution – the strategy of ‘betting on the strong’ – which now means untapped water reservoirs, healthy soils and biodiverse landscapes. What happens to degraded, contaminated and water depleted landscapes of Punjab and Tamil Nadu, the granaries of the nation, as the Revolution moves east? Will the production of organic high-value crops cater to niche export markets and elite domestic consumers or be geared toward addressing the challenge of widespread malnutrition and raising farm incomes?

2. How is the Green Revolution invoked in narratives of agrarian crisis?

The pervasive narrative of agrarian crisis in India is centred on chronic indebtedness among cultivators and unprofitability of farming. Going beyond an economistic diagnosis that attributes the current distress to neoliberal reforms since the early the 1990s, A.R. Vasavi and others have stressed the need for a broader canvas for understanding the making of the rural socioecological crisis. This requires looking at the GR as part of the postcolonial development project, and the crisis as the failure of the promises it made. That is jobless growth in the non-farm economy coupled with the farming crisis has thwarted aspirations for mobility even as rural areas are becoming sites for further expansion of a consumer market. The systemic unevenness is underscored by the presence of farmers suicides in regions of capital-intensive agriculture, not those excluded from agricultural modernisation.

3. How do resistance narratives of contemporary agroecology activism and farmers movements help us rethink the Green Revolution?

Narratives of the agrarian crisis have politicised the GR model of farming in the mainstream public discourse. Agroecology activists (such as the growing Zero Budget Natural Farming movement) and farmers’ movements in different parts of the country are not only developing and mobilising alternative farming and food practices but have also constructed an alternative narrative of the GR. They are bringing long-standing critiques of the GR from the fringes to the centre of the political discourse – that challenge not just its impact but the fundamental underpinning assumptions about sovereignty, socio-ecological relations, knowledge production and development.

It is not only the historians who are situating the GR within Cold War politics. In their village meetings, agroecology activists from Kheti Virasat Mission in Punjab discuss the repurposing of Second World War ammunition factories for fertiliser production, fertiliser that was dumped on farmers in newly decolonised countries. The large-scale co-ordinated protests by various farmers’ and rural workers’ groups in the last two years reinforces the multidimensional but connected experience of rural crisis.

4. How do cultivators and workers who have lived through the GR think of it now?

Panchali, in her 70s now, has transplanted rice in other farmers’ fields for most of her life in a GR village in Northern Tamil Nadu that has also been extensively researched since the 1970s. She does not recognise the term ‘Green Revolution’ at all, but on further probing recalls the IR8 rice variety which did not last for long. She also remembers a song about IR8 that women used to sing while transplanting. The lyrics talk about how IR8 rice brought debt to farm households, a male farmer drinking poison, and his wife and children are wondering what they are supposed to do after his death. The song could just as well be a rendering of the present agrarian crisis.

Her neighbour, Sasidaran who owns 16 acres and is a retired government school teacher, is known to be a technologically savvy ‘progressive farmer’. Sasidaran procured hybrid rice varieties from the Philippines even before they were locally available through his contacts in the public extension system. According to him, the semi-arid North Arcot region had almost transformed into the Kaveri river delta in southern Tamil Nadu after the GR, but now he says, ‘it is turning into a desert, like your native place Rajasthan’. The water level in the well on his land is erratic depending on rainfall, and he is gradually shifting to tree plantations instead of cultivating rice. As rice cultivation becomes less frequent, older men and women workers dependent on transplanting sit on Panchali’s porch during hot afternoons on most days to pass time and incant ‘no rain, no work’. Another song that Panchali frequently sings for us on these afternoons is a lament to the rain gods, traditionally sung by widows, during an annual temple ritual in the summer months or during periods of drought.

For both Panchali and Sasidaran, the promise of postcolonial development encased in the GR narrative has been sucked out and displaced onto the many private educational institutions that are taking over agricultural lands along arterial roads and digging deep borewells. Farmers in this village attribute the drying of wells on their farms partly to the proliferation of these borewells that accompany real estate development.

After decades of studies on the GR in India, it is perhaps a truism to say that the diverse practices, experiences and adaptations by farmers and workers challenge any singular, linear GR narrative. But, if their experiences could be distilled into a counter-narrative, it would perhaps be that: IR8 and the deluge of rice varieties and agrochemicals will come and go, but the water is running out. And, they are not investing their hopes in drip irrigation and soil cards either.

This blog post is the fifth in a series of five that highlights the historical moments of the Green Revolution in India, Brazil and China and draws on a colloquium held at IDS in March. This was part of the ongoing project Green Revolutions in Brazil, China and India: epic narratives of the past and today’s South-South technology transfers.

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