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Borrowed perspectives

When something as vast and complex as the social dynamics of the Green Revolution is depicted through the experiences of a handful, it is oversimplification

 
By Sevanti Ninan
Last Updated: Saturday 04 July 2015

Greendays are over: for Uttam< RIO MIGHT have been the biggest jamboree there was, but Doordarshan was not impressed. It preferred to depend on CNN and BBC for most of its live coverage of the event, even though it had a team there.

It needed Prime Minister Narasimha Rao's presence at Rio at the fag end of the deliberations for DD's cameras to really whirr. Kamini Sawhney, who had done the pre-Rio coverage for DD, did a competent job of it once DD got its act together. But it was a case of too little coming too late. Is it any wonder then that time and again we are subjected to western perspectives on issues that have a direct bearing on us?

The Brits are great patrons of radical Indian film-makers. Many a noteworthy documentary in India these days is made primarily for BBC or Britain's Channel Four, on subjects Doordarshan wouldn't touch with a bargepole. Subjects like family planning excesses, the effects of nuclear radiation on villagers living near atomic energy plants, the fallout of big dam conflicts, and so on.

Such films did not, however, get seen back home. But this was before satellite TV took over. Now things are different. When STAR TV's BBC channel chose to telecast in the fortnight of the Rio conference a rather damning film on India's Green Revolution, it was seen, literally, the world over.

Seeds of Plenty, Seeds of Sorrow, directed by Manjira Datta -- an independent film-maker who lives in Delhi -- is about the eventual fallout of this revolution. The tenor of the film is best described by BBC's publicity material on the subject which figured in its "Developing Stories" series: "Who has been the real beneficiary of this biotech package? The poor peasant? The big farmer? Or the multinational corporations? And what damage has the Green Revolution done to the social structure and ecology of Third World countries?"

That pretty much tells you what to expect. Through clever juxtapositions, cleverly-chosen quotes from Norman Borlaug -- the father of the Green Revolution -- on one hand, and disillusioned farmers in Punjab on the other, and evocative footage of migrating Bihari labour on the train to Punjab, Datta produces what is on the surface a provocative and eloquent film.

Yet it leaves one dissatisfied with the rather slight evidence presented. When something as vast and complex as the social dynamics of the Green Revolution is depicted through the experiences of a handful, it is oversimplification to say the least. It can be done, but the substantiation must come somewhere: at least through a passing citing of national statistics.

It is Datta's (and the BBC's) case that though Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Prize for the agricultural miracles his research catalysed in countries like India and Mexico, it is a revolution that eventually went awry. Worse, the farmers who prospered briefly from it are now having to turn away from the land because with the soil addicted to fertilisers and pesticides it costs more to just keep the same yields coming. The migrant labour who worked on the land are as poor as ever because they don't own it. (Did Borlaug say they would?) And to add insult to injury, the US (whose Rockefeller Foundation underwrote the research which triggered the Green Revolution) is now seeking to protect patent rights to seeds, which will result in a poor Third World farmer not having the right to use the seed from one harvest for the next.

The film is shot in the US, in Mexico, in Punjab and in Bihar. There is no commentary, but it does need one to make its damning point. Uttam Paswan, a Bihari labourer and others like him, have been going to Punjab for 20 years to work on the farms which ushered in the Green Revolution. But his family is still in and out of debt. Meanwhile, the Gurdaspur farmer, whose family the film focuses on, says the original benefits of Borlaug's miracle wheat strain have levelled off.

The film captures the labourer's family recounting what they did with one instalment of money that he sent home. Repaid small debts, they say. Cut to Norman Borlaug showing the awards he has received. Heavy irony and all that. But to contend that Borlaug and his Green Revolution eventually did this country and its people more harm than good, Datta has to marshal a good deal more evidence. Ironic juxtapositions are not enough.

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