After One Green Revolution, India May Need Another
Officials call for increases in irrigation and fertilizer use
PRABHU SINGH owns six acres in Daula, a village in India's fertile northwestern farm belt. Yet he moans as he speaks about his future, which he considers bleak.
Mr. Singh has no source of income except the six acres he inherited from his father. In good monsoon years, the land provides a small marketable surplus beyond what he needs to feed his family. When the rains fail - once in three years on average - the yield is so poor that Singh has to borrow from a usurious lender here.
Over the years, he has amassed a huge debt, the amount of which only the money lender knows. Singh has to take the lender's word for it, as he himself is illiterate.
"All I know is that I am constantly paying interest and the debt keeps mounting," Singh says.
His plight suggests the distance India must go to establish a viable rural economy for small farmers and to feed its burgeoning population.
Since 1960, the green revolution has transformed Indian agriculture with high-yield varieties of seeds, irrigation, and chemical fertilizers.
These efforts made the country self-sufficient in grain, with production more than doubling in 30 years.
But the progress was confined mainly to big farmers who owned more than 50 acres each (in defiance of India's land reforms, which aimed to bring down the size of land holdings and benefit small farmers with 15 acres or less).
The benefits did not percolate down to millions of farmers like Singh who are still using agricultural practices inherited from their forefathers.
Officials at the Ministry of Agriculture concede that production is no longer keeping pace with population, which is growing by 2.2 percent a year. Agricultural production has been averaging 1.7 percent growth.
Demand for food is also increasing as living standards slowly improve.
This year, India resumed wheat imports after more than two decades without. Although the imports are nominal - 1 million tons from both Canada and the United States and 500,000 tons from Australia - they mean the end of an era of self-sufficiency.
An official committee recommended 15 years ago that food-grain stocks should be at the level of 10 million tons for buffer purposes and another 7 million tons for operating the public distribution system of ration shops.
Stocks are at present at the precarious level of just under 10 million tons after the summer harvest. Because the population has grown, the minimum level of stocks needed is larger.
The stocks have to be supplemented by imports as a precautionary measure, since official agencies have been unable to buy enough from farmers for the last two years. Farmers see themselves as getting a bad deal and are demanding higher prices than those fixed by official agencies.
Officials now talk of the need for a second green revolution in India. This means spreading modern techniques to states outside the northwestern belt so that other states produce surpluses in addition to Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana (where Daula is located).
Better irrigation and greater use of fertilizers are part of the plan. Fertilizer consumption has been running about 12.6 million tons a year. But India's balance-of-payments problems have forced the country to borrow from the International Monetary Fund, which conditioned the loans in part on the removal of subsidies. Fertilizer subsidies have been slashed as a result.
About 21.2 million acres that some experts say ought to have been irrigated by now have not been, out of 205 million acres with irrigation potential. More than 60 percent of farms still do not have assured irrigation. Officials in India's Ministry of Agriculture admit that much of the country's agricultural performance depends on the monsoon.
Last year, Singh, with financial help from one of his six sons, bored a tube well that works fine, ending his dependence on rain. But Singh says he had to bribe local officials to get electricity to run the pump.
Singh's debts stem in part from the weddings of his three daughters. They had to be given what, by local standards, are lavish dowries. Singh's earnings from agriculture were simply not sufficient.
He sold his two bullocks and his plow three years ago to pay installments on his debts. Now he must hire a tractor to cultivate his fields.
Singh's fellow farmers in Daula tell similar stories and do not consider agriculture to be remunerative. But they know no other occupation and cling to their land. Some of the young men of the village are migrating to towns and getting jobs in factories. Most are unemployed or partly employed on family farms.
Many experts say part of the answer to India's food problem is a vigorous family planning program, accompanied by a more imaginative literacy program than has been adopted so far. Until then, millions of India's farmers will face the hurdles that Singh does.