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India: food enough and to spare

At eye level with the snowcapped Himalayas in the distance, passengers aboard Indian Airlines Flight 422 from the Punjab to New Delhi look down on India's astonishing success story: Farms that feed millions.

Down below lush green crops march across the countryside in such neatly formed squares, rectangles, triangles, and diamonds that the distinctive plots appear to have been sliced with a shart-edged knife. Acres of new wheat look like deep green velvet. Tufts of sugar cane resemble light green shag carpet.

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Somewhere along the path of the plane's speeding shadow Mohinder Singh Grewal in faded green turban and bright red sweater is urging his workers to week harder, harvest faster, and rush the planting of the next crop. He works all day and sometimes by moonlight as well.

Time, he inists, is valuable. For this burly Sikh farmer achieves what few farmers in the world can match: four, and sometimes, five crops on a single acre in a single year. "My parents grew only one crop. But those days are gone," he says.

How Mr. Grewal and the other Punjabi farmers work the fertile Indo-Gangetic plains of northern India is crucial to India's survival, since 49 percent of the country's entire economy is rooted in agriculture. No fewer than 72 percent of India's 652 million people receive their livelihood either directly or indirectly from farming.

With a population increasing at the rate of about 1 million a month, India needs more and more food to feed its huge population. The significant thing is that India is achieving that goal -- and with food to spare.

With a best-ever crop of 132 million metric tons in 1978, India actually exported surplus foodgrains to Bangladesh, North Vietnam, and the Soviet Union last year. Yet back in the 1950s India had appeared a "hopeless" case importing vast quantities of food.

India has moved within the last two to three decades from being the begging bowl of the world to the potential grain bowl of Asia.

Nowhere is the success of India's green revolution, which germinated back in the 1960s, more apparent than here in the Punjab, India's principal farming area. Tractors have replaced bullock carts and electric tubewells have supplanted ancient hand-drawn water wells.

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At the time of independence in 1947 the agricultural cupboard here was practically bare. Yet in the last 12 years rice production in this region has shot up 1,000 percent, from a meager 0.3 million tons to more than 3 million tons a year.

Wheat is another success story, up from 1.9 million tons in 1962 to 6.7 million tons in 1978.

Indian and Western agronomists are agreed: These Punjabi statistics are unmatched anywhere else in the world. And they were achieved during one of the worst droughts of the century, which still persists, leaving unirrigated crops weak and stunted.

What cushioned India was one of the largest international irrigation programs. Some 6 to 7.5 million acres are coming under irrigation every year.

According to Dr. J. C. Bakhshi, director of extension education at Ludhiana Agricultural University in the Punjab, a drought of the current magnitude would have shattered India 15 to 20 years ago. Now, apparently, India can take droughts in its stride.

Dr. Bakhshi is so optimistic about India's future that he believes India could even double its present annual output -- in excess of 120 million tons -- provided farmers get uninterrupted supplies of diesel oil, fertilizers, and insectides.

India now stands fourth in world grain production rankings. High yield wheat and rice that introduced the Green Revolution to India back in the 1960s have made the difference.

But extensive irrigation, increased fertilization (up 25 percent in 1978 over the previous year), mechanization, and consolidation of framented land holdings have also played significant roles in boosting India's food production.

Some of the credit also goes to the turbaned Sikh farmers in the Punjab, who are rated among the world's best. Hard work, perseverance, and innovation are prized attributes in the Sikh religion.

In that respect Mr. Grewal, that five-crop- a-year farmer, is an outstanding example.

Back in 1966 he purchased his present farm, just outside Ludhiana, with the help of a 20,000 rupee bank loan (just over $2,500 at present-day conversion). Fourteen years later he can say proudly: "Today I own a seed farm, a government-approved nursery, an orchard, a poultry farm, after repaying all the initial and subsequent bank loans."

With a house that would grace any American suburb, Mr. Grewal is today worth a maharajah's ransom. His 12-acre farm is bursting with rows and rows of luxuriant vegetables.

His plump cauliflower heads measure a full 12 inches across. "The head should be no less than seven inches in diameter," he says matter of factly. The cauliflowers have a distinct gray tinge to them as a result of recent spraying.

"I Mixed two separate fungicides here. I saw it in an American magazine. I thought if they can do it there, I can do it here."

Mr. Grewal is forever experimenting, trying to come up with the best intercropping combinations.

"So far I have done 33 experiments on this farm -- about 12 experiments on the intercropping of potatoes to see what crops I could sow."

Pointing to the plot under his boots he says: "In this one I have grown radish for seed production, cauliflower, onions, and turnips." Sometimes the crops are grown side by side, sometimes in rotation.

Time, he says, is the master. For instance, to achieve five crops a year, work must proceed virtually nonstop, day and night.

His carrot crop was harvested on June 22, 1979. By June 24 the plot was ready for his planting of short-duration rice. Harvesting took place Oct. 15. Then on Oct. 21 he was sowing potatoes. No sooner were those dug up than muskmelon took their place.

Mr. Grewal's farming is impressively well synchronized. He takes rice husks to provide nesting for his 1,800 hens. The hens, in turn, produce the manure he uses to fertilize his crops.

The emphasis, as with most other Punjabi farmers, is on efficiency and high productivity. It helps the visitor understand why India is surging ahead on the agricultural front.


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