Is the joyride over ?

There was fear in the 1960s. Would India continue to wait for food imports to feed itself? The scientific community came up with an answer that gave hope for all times to come: the Green Revolution. Yields began to rise. The country had surplus foodgrain. Punjab and Haryana became the granaries of India. More, greater, higher were the keywords, whether it was irrigation, energy, chemical fertilisers or pesticides. Four decades down the line, there is fear, still, but with an ironical twist: more has brought in more problems. Soils and water have been poisoned, challenging India's food security all over again. Quality of soil and water also reflects the quality of life, a factor that was ignored. As Indian agriculture stands at crossroads, Kumkum Dasgupta finds out if the fruits of the Green Revolution can be extended to other states without all the harms that have set in

Last Updated: Sunday 07 June 2015 | 21:11:47 PM

Is the joyride over ?

imageIt's been 50 years since politicians have been mouthing the slogan: Jai jawan, jai kisan (Long live soldiers, long live farmers). Now it has started to sound like a raucous chant, at least to the farmers struggling to survive. They till the soil harder, increase their spending to replenish their patch of land, but nothing helps. It is the marriage between science and farming practices that has failed. The more they try to revive it, the more they get mired in the labyrinth.

The maze encompasses the use of high-yielding varieties of crops, spraying pesticides to ward off uninvited guests from their fields and rejuvenating the soil with fertilisers. All this to ensure that their crops have all the ingredients for a good harvest.

The Green Revolution (GR) was what this practice was called when it started in the late 1960s. During the time GR was envisaged, India was reeling under a severe drought. Its dependence on imports to feed its rising population was unprecedented. "The GR is the best that could happen to India. The then agriculture minister, C S Subramanium, told me later that there was food stock only to last for the seven days," recalls Davinder Sharma, a New-Delhi based agriculture analyst.

The objective was met. Food production registered a phenomenal increase during the next two decades. From 10 million tonnes in 1967, food imports dropped to 0.5 million tonnes by 1977. Today, India imports very little wheat, and no rice. Unfortunately, though agricultural production has continued to increase, rate of yield per hectare has started to a decline (see graph: Falling rise).

Today, many stand disillusioned. With the benefit of hindsight, many are trying to understand where India went wrong. "At the time GR was adopted, sustainability issue was not the criteria. The only way out was to pump in the inputs so that production rises," says Abhijit Sen, chairperson, Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices, ministry of agriculture.

It was a strong 'reductionist' strategy, not a total one. It was not sustainable. It did not incorporate forward and backward linkages," says Pramod Kumar, director, Institute for Development and Communication, Chandigarh. Furthermore, it was a grain revolution, not a GR, he says. Wheat and rice became the kings among crops. These were not the traditional varieties. With GR came the water-thirsty, chemical-intensive hybrid varieties. Even M S Swaminathan, the father of GR and former director of Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi, had warned of the dangers when GR was adopted. Addressing the Indian Science Congress at Varanasi in January 1968, he has said: "Exploitive agriculture offers great possibilities if carried out in a scientific way, but poses great dangers if carried out with only an immediate profit motive. The emerging exploitative farming community in India should become aware of this. Intensive cultivation of land without conservation of soil fertility and soil structure would lead, ultimately, to the springing up of deserts. Irrigation without arrangements for drainage would result in soils getting alkaline or saline. Indiscriminate use of pesticides could cause adverse changes in biological balance and lead to an increase cancer cases and other diseases, through the toxic residues present in the grains or other edible parts. Unscientific tapping of water will lead to exhaustion of this wonderful resource left to us through ages of natural farming."

His words were prophetic. Without the management systems, agricultural disaster, rather than prosperity, has taken place in barely three decades. Increased demand for water led to over extraction of groundwater. Channeling of water from rivers or streams followed. The natural drainage pattern was destroyed. Now, some GR regions are turning to deserts due to water depletion while other places are suffering from severe water logging. The latter has also led to unproductive saline fields. David Seckler of the International Irrigation Management Institute, Sri Lanka, describes India as 'being on a free ride expanding on agriculture by depleting groundwater reserves. "At some point, this house of cards will collapse and when it does, India's grain harvest could fall by as much 25 per cent. In a country where the supply and demand for food is already precariously balanced and where 18 million people is added every year, this is not a happy prospect," he says.

Besides, indiscriminate use of chemicals and intensive cropping have robbed the soil of its nutrients, poisoned the groundwater and contaminated crops.

No other state illustrates the ugly face of GR more than Punjab, the state that supplies food to almost all the states in India. Unfortunately, the happy image of the turbaned, muscular man waving a kerchief while plying his tractor across lush green fields is but a picture of the past. While trying to feed the rest of the nation, Punjab has lost its prime land. Central districts face a desertification threat, while the southwestern districts are swamped in excess water. The state on which the rest of India relies on for foodgrains is in grave danger.

In 1997-98, Punjab and Haryana produced 12.8 per cent and 30.6 per cent of the total rice and wheat, respectively, in the country. Of the total 82.5 million tonnes total rice production, the two states accounted for 10.5 million. During the same year, of the total 66.3 million tonnes wheat production, the two states accounted for 20.3 million tonnes.

Their contribution to the Central food pool, particularly wheat and rice, also cannot be undermined. In 1999-2000 (up to July), these states were providing 49 per cent and 82 per cent of the total rice and wheat, respectively, to the Central food pool.

Unfortunately, the growth rate in productivity of rice and wheat has registered a decline in most of the districts in Punjab and Haryana. "From a state average of 8.97 per cent during 1965-74, rice productivity declined rapidly to 2 per cent in the mid-1980s. In the last decade, there was only 1 per cent increase per year," says a 1998 report, Decline in Crop Productivity in Haryana and Punjab: Myth or Reality?, by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research's (ICAR), New Delhi. Ludhiana and Ropar - key GR districts - have now negative growth rates, the report states. Meanwhile, the growth rate of wheat which was almost 5 per cent in the late 1960s has come down to 3.5 per cent in the late 1980s and to 2 per cent in the last decade. The situation in Haryana is slightly different. "However, if the experience of Punjab is any indicator, the growth rate in Haryana will also decline in this decade," notes the report.

Punjab: end of the revolution ?

-- Undoubtedly, GR made Punjab one of the richest states in India in terms of per capita income. From Rs 2,674 in 1980-81, the per capita income at current prices rose to Rs 19,770 in 1997-98. Compared to Punjab, Tamil Nadu's per capita income was only Rs 12,989, while that of Kerala is 11,936 in the same year. "It is not right to say that Punjab got a raw deal. They got massive investments as far as infrastructure is concerned. The farmers' lifestyle improved. No one can deny these benefits, which were direct results of GR," says Sen.

Farmers also agree. "It is true that our living standard improved after GR", says Joginder Singh, 60-year-old sarpanch (village head) of Plahi, a village in Kapurthala district. But, today, it is not GR that is sustaining them. Says Giana Singh, Plahi village priest, who has two sons working in Italy, "It is the money orders that are sustaining us now." There are many more like him in the state.

In recent years, the cost of production has risen dramatically. There has been a meteoric increase in the consumption of fertilisers - from 5,000 tonnes in 1960-61 to 1.3 million tonnes in 1998-99. The number of tubewells has gone up from 0.2 million in 1970-71 to 0.9 million today. Further, with the water table declining, farmers are forced to rebore their wells every year. This along with many other incidental costs has increased the cost of production. For instance, the cost of production of one tonne of wheat was Rs 1,370 in 1984-85. This had increased to Rs 3,660 in 1997-98. For rice, the increase has been from Rs 1,360 to Rs 4,120 during the same period. "Up to 1989-90, the cost of production was fairly stable. The increase has been phenomenal thereafter and is continuing to rise," says Sen (see graph: Costing a fortune).

The rate of increase in rice-wheat yield, however, does not match the rise in consumption of fertilisers (see graph: Neck and neck). During 1961-71, the production of wheat rose from 1.7 million tonnes (mt) to 5.1 mt, while rice production increased from 2.2 mt to 6.8 mt. The growth in the following decades, however, were not impressive. Wheat production rose to only 7.7 million tonnes in 1980-81 and further up to 12.1 million tonnes in 1990-91.

The cost of production, however, does not take into consideration the ecological cost, which is also manifesting itself in the rising expenses. The social cost - increase in suicide rates - is also spiralling. But there is no attempt to understand the link. The larger issue besides ecological cost is the human toll of GR. Incidence of cancer and other diseases are on the rise and despite numerous studies abroad to show the link between environment and good health, no epidemiological studies have been conducted in the state so far.

"During GR, government representatives went from village to village and cultivated sample fields. They gave us free fertilisers and free seed. We took it for granted and never thought the results would be so disastrous," says Joginder. "Now our soil is affected and the cost of production has increased, but there is not much we can do," says Jitender Pal Singh, another villager from Plahi.

Ecological cost
With the onset of GR, the area under wheat cultivation registered an exceptional increase. In 1960-61, area under wheat cultivation was 37.3 per cent of the total cultivated area. This rose to 78.1 per cent in 1998-99. Rice, which only occupied six per cent of the total cultivated area in 1960-61, registered a steep rise of 59 per cent by 1998-99. The area under pulses, meanwhile, declined from 24 per cent to 1.3 per cent during the same period.

The increased production of rice and wheat in the state has had a direct bearing on the increased demand of water to meet the crop requirements. This has been possible due to expansion of the irrigation network, initially through canals and recently through shallow tubewells. "The number of tubewells is much higher in the central districts of Punjab as compared to districts falling in the southwest part. At present, on an average, the area irrigated per tubewell is less than four ha in most districts of central Punjab," says G S Hira, senior soil physicist, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana.

"There are two basic issues in Punjab depletion of water resources and wrong pricing policy," says Inderjit Singh Jaijee, convenor, Movement Against State Repression, a Chandigarh-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). The policies of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal government are sucking the earth dry. In a bid to upstage his Congress rival Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal announced free power for farmers on the eve of the 1996-97 elections. "This is leading to more extraction of water," says a senior journalist of a local English daily. The loss in terms of revenue to the Punjab State Electricity Board is very high. Now 'free power' has become a political issue. Unfortunately, it is an issue only because of the economic losses, not what the policy is doing to the scare natural resource.

The policy of giving free electricity and water is not only shortsighted but also suicidal. Says Gurdev S Khush, an eminent agricultural scientist and winner of Wolf Prize, Israel's equivalent of the Nobel, in an interview to a national daily, "Anything given free is misused. Farmers are willing to pay for power. What they want is regular supply of electricity. The revenue lost by supplying free electricity could have been used to develop resources to generate more electricity."

Over extraction of water has led to a host of problems in Punjab. Some areas area hit by a severe water scarcity while, others suffer from a grave waterlogging problem (see map: Badlands).

WATER DEPLETION: "There is a misconception that Punjab has abundant water resources," says M Mehta, regional director, Central Groundwater Board (northern region). Out of the 118 blocks in Punjab, 62 blocks have overexploited their groundwater resources. "The water table has declined in 77 per cent of the state. Most of this area falls in central Punjab, which produces 67 per cent of rice and 56 per cent of wheat," says Hira. As a result, the water table has gone down in many districts, including Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Kapurthala, Sangrur, Patiala and Faridkot, by more than four metres.

A principal scientist, department of science and technology, on conditions of anonymity, says: "The government has no money to publish Punjab's State of Environment report. But from whatever data we have collected, I can safely say that there is a distinct possibility of aridity and the causes are warped government water and unsustainable agricultural policies."

Says S P Mittal, principal scientist, Central Soil and Water Conservation Research Centre, Chandigarh, "Aquifers are not recharged from the Shivalik range because the area is totally deforested. In extreme cases, almost 50-60 per cent rainwater is lost due to runoff. If there was a good vegetation, then 90 per cent of the rainfall could be stored."

According to G S Kalkat, vice-chancellor, PAU, only 40 per cent of the state has access to canals for irrigation. This has forced the farmers to look for an alternative. "Water is one of the basic needs and if we see our crops dying in front of our eyes, do you think we are going to sit back and wait for water?" questions a villager from Ropar.

Hira and his colleague Aneesh Chawla had submitted two suggestions that would reduce water use the period of paddy - one, transplantation should be between June 10-20 for medium duration and, two, June 20-30 for short duration rice varieties. Some farmers transplant it earlier though water requirement is the highest in the months of May and June. "Evapo-transpiration of rice planted on May 17 is 761 millimetres (mm) whereas it is just 564 mm for June 17 transplanted crop," he says. Unfortunately, the departments concerned did not take their suggestions seriously.

WATERLOGGING: Ram Pal of Kalalwala village, Bhatinda district in south Punjab, has his eyes cast down perpetually. The air he breathes is heavy with sadness that infects everyone around. He has a family of three to feed; a debt of Rs 50,000, too. All from the 3.6 ha farm he owns. But his only asset has turned saline. Lamenting his loss, he says: "What is the use of living when our only source of income has been lost?"

Ram Pal is just one of the many villagers whose land is swamped with saline water. "Almost 2,350 sq km of Punjab's total area is waterlogged, whereas 5,000 sq km is prone to it," says Mehta. Waterlogging happens when the amount of water added through deep percolation and seepage from irrigation systems becomes more than water that is drained out of the region either through lateral flow or tubewells. Along with waterlogging comes the problem of salinity. Water brings underground salts to the surface. This affects the crop growth adversely.

In a study conducted by PAU in Muktsar-Malout area in southwest Punjab, one of the worst-hit areas in terms of salinity, the estimated waterlogged area in 1997 was 115,000 ha. This had increased to 180,000 ha in 1999.

Among other things, Mehta suggests courses to divert runoff from the problem area; construction of open ditches and field drains to drain away the excess water; planning and adoption of rational agricultural practices; and, adopting judicious water management practices.

"Ironically, the foremost reason for encouraging rice cultivation in central Punjab was to get rid of waterlogging. But with new varieties, water requirement increased. Then came the tubewells," says Hira.

Bikramjit Singh, secretary, irrigation and power, Punjab government, says: "We are utilising whatever resources we have to clear waterlogging but there might still be some areas left." Counters Ram Pal: "Pumps are trying to clear the fields. But they are only removing the surface water? The moment it rains, everything will be flooded again," he says.

SOIL PROBLEMS: The fertile soil, where everything seemed to prosper, is also turning barren. "In the last six years, only two crops was good. I took a sample of the soil and water to the district laboratory and they said that everything was fine. But the next year, again I lost my crop," says 45 years old Hardev Singh of Malkana. The state has set up a soil-testing lab in every district, but the farmers find them inadequate and inefficient. The fact that even on a busy weekday, the Bhatinda lab was found totally unattended with samples scattered on the floor, as this correspondent found, goes well with the farmers' reasoning.

"The soil problems in Punjab are the direct results of intensive cropping, to meet the growing needs of an increasing population. To sustain the present level of production and to further increase it, conservation and upgradation of soils and better water management practices are required. But that is not happening," says Ramji Lal, chief conservator of soils, Punjab Soil and Water Conservation and Waste Land Development. "It has been estimated that 1.5 million ha of land is already faced with various types of soil degradation," he says. Sub-mountainous areas falling in Ropar, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur and a part of Patiala district have an annual soil loss of about 25 tonnes per ha, according to Lal. In Ferozepur, Faridkot, Muktsar, Mansa, and Sangrur districts in the southern zone the rising water table has resulted in salinity and alkalinity problems. In the central zone comprising Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Amritsar, Ludhiana and Fatehgarh Sahib, soil erosion is not as acute as groundwater depletion. Excessive cultivation of rice has led to another problem, that of selenium toxicity (see box: Soiled earth).

Besides, there is a severe micronutrient deficiency in the soil, according to the ICAR report. In the major rice-wheat regions, the organic carbon content of soils was found to be less than 0.5 per cent in 1960s. This had gone down to 0.2 per cent by 1998. Lack of organic carbon reduces water and nutrient-holding capacity of the soil. Furthermore, in the absence of adequate organic matter, soil organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and earthworms are reduced or lost, notes the ICAR report.

The heavy withdrawal of essential plant nutrients from soils through bumper harvests and intensive cropping patterns has brought down the levels of micronutrients to a point of deficiency, says a PAU study entitled, Micronutrients in Soils and Crops of Punjab. Among the micronutrients, zinc deficiency was first noticed in 1969-70, that is within 4-5 years within the introduction of GR, in the state. Zinc is now considered the third-most limiting nutrient after nitrogen and potash and has become a household word with farmers of the state. "The adoption of rice-wheat rotation on vast areas of non-traditional rice-growing soils of the state caused an increase in iron deficiencies also and affected crop yields particularly of rice," notes the study. Besides, zinc and iron deficiencies, the extension of rice cultivation has brought in its wake the constraint of manganese deficiency. "We are losing micronutrients because we are not applying desi khad (manure) and farmers are pursuing wrong cropping pattern and use poor quality water," says V K Nayyar, senior soil chemist, department of soils, PAU.

Micronutrients along with nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) is the deciding factor for the success or failure of a crop and/or maintaining the sustainability of the soil-cropping system at higher levels of productivity, states the PAU study. In recent years, Punjab has also registered a sharp increase in the use of NPK fertilisers. Before GR, only nitrogen was used but later nitrogen and phosphorus were used in a ratio of 1:0.5, particularly in wheat. This ratio was maintained till 1989-90. But after the government decontrolled phosphorus and potash, increased prices resulted in reduced application of phosphorus and potash. Farmers made more use of nitrogenous fertilisers to cover the limited application of phosphorous and potash. This led to an imbalance. There are now indications that Punjab farmers have started applying recommended doses of phosphorus although many farmers still apply nitrogen much more than recommended doses.

Studies carried out by various experts show that high nitrate content of groundwater is related to use of nitrogenous fertilisers. Depending on the application, crop, soil and climate, 35-60 per cent of the applied nitrogen is usually recovered by the crop and 10-20 per cent may be converted to nitrogen gas, nitrous oxides or ammonia. The remaining nitrogen may leach into the groundwater.

According to the status paper, Punjab at a Glance, of the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), out of 332 samples from all over Punjab, 55 samples have shown nitrate levels much more than the permissible limit. The districts of Banewal and Ferozepur, particularly, show nitrate levels of 880 parts per million, almost 20 times higher than the permissible limit.

Social problems
Social problems and ecological devastation come hand in hand. The flipside of Punjab's meteoric rise to fame is the growing despair and discontent.

A 1988 study entitled Rural Credit and Indebtedness In Punjab by H S Shergill paints the horrific picture of indebted farmers. Some of the findings are: 90 per cent of farmers in Punjab were found to be taking short-term loans to carry out their crop production operations; the average amount borrowed per operated 0.405 ha is Rs 3,950; 35 per cent of the farmers borrowing short-term crop loans failed to repay the amount borrowed after harvesting and sale of their crops.

Suicides only followed the indebtedness. A study, Suicides in Rural Punjab, conducted by the Institute of Development and Communication, Chandigarh, states that the crisis is one due to overall stagnation of the economy. According to the study, in 1992-93 suicides in Punjab increased by 51.97 per cent. By contrast, the all-India average registered an increase of 5.11 per cent only. In subsequent years, this trend has continued. In 1994-95, the increase in the case of Punjab was 57 per cent whereas in India as a whole there was a decline in suicides. "It is a matter of concern that the number of suicides per 100,000 people (suicide rate) has been steadily increasing from 0.57 per cent in 1988 to 2.06 per cent in 1997," notes the study.


A notice cautions the resident Gian kaur, 50, is a breast cancer patient. But in her village her ailment does not make her unique or get her visitors to check on her health. Almost every house in her village Giana in Bhatinda district has an ailing patient to tend to. Cancer or less fatal diseases have taken their toll on Gian's 3,500-odd population. Most of the people do not have the means to fight the diseases, too. "I have already spent Rs 10,000 and I can't spend anything more. We haven't had a good harvest in the last seven years," Gian laments.

Many people in Giana are suffering from Giana. "In the last decade, there has been more than 50-60 deaths," says a villager. Shocked out of its apathy, the government was forced to take note of the problem. It instituted an inquiry committee under the district civil surgeon to probe into the rising cancer incidence. Though the committee closed the case saying it was 'a case of coincidence', the villagers refuse to take the matter lightly. They believe it is water that is killing them.

"The water is so hard that even after rigorous washing it is difficult to rinse the soap," villagers say. The same water is used for washing, bathing and drinking. The water comes from a nearby waterworks. But the transportation is done though canals, not pipes, which passes through agricultural fields. The water has a very high chance of getting contaminated through agricultural runoff, among other things.

G S Preet, director, health services, Punjab, however, does not believe that "water can cause cancer". "This is a case of coincidence. We can set up a committee if the need arises in the future," he says.

"There is nothing special about Giana case. There has been no sudden spurt in cancer incidence. Cancer happens everywhere in India, it's the same for Giana also. I agree that pesticides can cause cancer, but nothing of that sort has been reported in Giana," says B R Gupta, chief medical officer, Bhatinda.

Cancer is the fourth largest killer in the Punjab, after heart attacks, malaria and respiratory disorders. With a high level of pesticides contamination in wide ranging commodities and increasing nitrate levels in water, Ludhiana also makes an ideal case study for health effects of chemical use. "In Ludhiana, there is a severe water pollution mainly due to the polluted Buddha Nullah and the numerous dyeing and nickel-plating industries," says A Mitra, a physician based in Ludhiana. The water from Buddha Nullah is used for agricultural purposes.

"In the last five years, in Ludhiana, cases of allergy, chest pain, breathlessness, skin problems, gastrointestinal problems have risen by 20-25 per cent," says Karmvir Goel, medical specialist, Ludhiana Civil Hospital. Gagandeep Singh, an orthopedic surgeon with the Civil Hospital also points out a 25-30 per cent rise in arthritic cases. He concedes that this rise could be due to pollution.

Sharing a similar view is Y K Marakan, senior medical officer at the Civil Hospital. "We are getting many more cancer cases and incidence of kidney failure is also on rise by 10-20 per cent. Previously, dialysis used to cure, but now only kidney transplant works. As a society we will have to take stock of the situation. Eating urea (through fertiliser contamination) is definitely going to harm the body," he cautions. Meanwhile, Rajesh Vashista, senior consultant, department of radiology at Oswal Cancer Hospital, Ludhiana, says the rise in breast cancer cases in Ludhiana alone is 15-20 per cent over the last few years. "This could well be due to pesticides," he says tentatively.

The scenario of cardiovascular cases is no different. "There is definitely a rise in cardiovascular diseases. But what is of concern is that many youngsters between the age 25 and 35 are suffering from heart diseases," informs R Calton, reader in cardiology at Christian Medical College (CMC), Ludhiana.

R Daniel, professor emeritus, department of ophthalmology, CMC, feels even the number of cases are an underestimate. "People who are mostly exposed to pollution are middle and lower class. They take it (suffering) as destiny. Only those who can afford treatment come.So whatever figures we have is also an underestimate,"he says.The Post Graduate Institute of Medical Education and Research, Chandigarh, records show a significant rise in certain diseases. For instance, there were no cases of Non-Hodgkin's Lymphoma registered in 1985, but by 1997, 141 cases had been registered. There has also been a 10-fold rise in rheumatoid arthritis and 12-fold rise in the number of patients suffering from hypertension.

All this do not augur well for the people of Punjab. It is difficult to link the diseases with the rising use of pesticides because epidemiological data is totally wanting.

The escape route

Punjab alone cannot feed the c A few months, India was besieged by a drought. But the drought did not lead to a famine. A comfortable grain reserve of 26 million tonnes -11 million tonnes more than would be required in a normal year to stave of the famine. But this may be the last time India can ride over a crisis of this proportion. Future droughts may well lead to famine, for frontline agricultural states such as Punjab is on the edge of a grave environmental crisis, say experts.

But with the problems in Punjab surfacing, solutions have also come by. From the demand for a thorough agriculture policy catering to the local requirements to doing away with 'mindless' subsidies, experts have been crying hoarse their suggestions to keep away from the imminent doom. To stick with the status quo will invite environmental and social disaster.

REPLICATING GR: Experts contend that there is an enormous potential for propagating sustainable agriculture in India. "Increasing population and declining production will not be a grave problem if we extend cultivation outside Haryana and Punjab," says Sen. He, however, feels that replicating gr in its entirety is not the answer. "Instead, we need to improve our marketing facilities, road connection, bring the Gangetic plains into the scope of cultivation; popularise region-specific varieties; give irrigation support; and, stop monoculture. Private agencies can also be used in marketing but the state should work as a police to see nothing goes wrong," says Sen.

Says Swaminathan: "Punjab and Haryana alone cannot feed our country. We must make every part of our country self-sufficient so that diversification of farming will be possible. Assam is now on the road to self-sufficiency in rice. The remarkable progress being made by Assam in rice production is triggered by shallow tubewells. We need a million shallow tubewells in Assam to enable the state to make the flood-free season into a major cropping season. Similar strategies will have to be developed on an eco-regional basis."

In the coming years we have no option except to produce more from less per capita arable land and irrigation water, says Swaminathan. "gr is another name for productivity improvement-based production increase. What we require today is an evergreen revolution rooted in the principles of ecology, economics, gender, equity and employment generation," he adds. The problem is the right people are not in the right places and such an extension needs political will that is obviously lacking in this country, feels Sharma.

AGRICULTURAL POLICY: There should not be one policy for the whole country but different policies based on the ecological needs and situation of the area, say experts. "Policies should be different for different states depending on their stage of development.I do not consider it appropriate for all states to follow a standard guideline for agriculture developed by policy makers in New Delhi," says Gurdev S Khush. "In Punjab, for instance, pulses, which are nitrogen fixers, should be given importance and the government should provide higher prices for pulses," says Sharma.

Where subsidies are concerned, the pricing policies for fertilisers, water and power should have a long-term sustainability dimension. "It should not be based on immediate socio-economic, technological and political concerns," says S K Sinha, former national professor, Indian Agricultural Research Institute, New Delhi. For instance, even though in the short-term, potash application may not show good response, pricing policy should be such that the farmers are encouraged to apply this to ensure continued good soil health.

Similarly, water pricing policy should be changed to ensure that water excess of recharge capacity is not pumped out. Policies like free power that encourage tapping of groundwater should also be done away with, says Swaminathan.

One of the main drawbacks is the failure to provide adequate incentive to other crops. The minimum support price of wheat, for instance, is currently Rs 580 per quintal, which is much higher than the world prices. Other crops do not enjoy the same status. "Rice-wheat cultivation has become an opium. Because it is lucrative, people do not want to produce any other crop," says Sen. To undo the damage done in the last 30 years, India needs to do two things - reduce the area under rice cultivation and encourage production of leguminous crops, for which the government can start a subsidy system. "Pricing power will also make people break from the water-intensive rice-wheat cropping pattern," he adds.

AGRICULTURAL RESEARCH: "Research is around 10 years behind in India. Today research is designed on the funding it gets. There is no understanding of field problems and this gap is a big setback," Sharma says. What is required then is a paradigm shift from commodity-centred to ecologically-sustainable farming systems, says Indian Council of Agricultural Research director general R S Paroda. For this, scientists will have to generate and implement new technologies. Technologies like biotechnology, meteorology and microelectronics are "powerful tools to meet the emerging challenges, but they need to be used with great scientific care and discretion", says Paroda.

Sinha had suggested that more research is needed to develop rice and wheat varieties, which have a higher yield potential, for areas in the country where the yield is less. "Efforts should be made for effective use of appropriate germplasm or parent materials so that good varieties with higher yield and disease resistance are available to meet the local demands," says Sinha.

UNDOING THE DAMAGE: Meanwhile, only community mobilisation, education and regulation can repair the damage that has taken place. "We have not an opportunity to implement Schedule 11 of the Constitution Amendment 1973, which entrusts responsibilities for natural resource conservation to panchayats," says Swaminathan. For instance, farmers can be taught about the benefits of organic farming along with integrated soil healthcare systems involving the use of green manure, biofertilisers, composting and the minimum essential mineral fertilisers. "The majority of our farmers have holdings of 1 ha or less. They often do not own cattle, therefore, organic manure alone will not be adequate to meet the needs of our hungry soils," says Swaminathan.

With inputs from Raj Kishore Khaware in Ludhiana and Indira Khurana

Subscribe to Weekly Newsletter :
We are a voice to you; you have been a support to us. Together we build journalism that is independent, credible and fearless. You can further help us by making a donation. This will mean a lot for our ability to bring you news, perspectives and analysis from the ground so that we can make change together.

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.