India's death dance demonstrates Green Revolution failure (24/4/2006)

In the main article in India's largest selling daily paper, Devinder Sharma points out how the huge number of suicides occurring among India's farmers is a testimony to the the failure of the Green Revolution.

Yet while, as Devinder notes, the serial death dance continues unabated, India's policy makers and agricultural scientists are busy laying the foundations for a second Green Revolution - one guided by the likes of Monsanto.

This is an English version of the article in Hindi.

Second Green Revolution
Pushing Out Farmers
Devinder Sharma
From: Dainik Bhaskar, April 24, 2006.

Forty years after the first Green Revolution was launched, Indian agriculture is faced with an unprecedented crisis farm incomes plummeting, soil gasping for breath, water table plummeting, and farmers being pushed out of agriculture.

For the past two decades, agricultural production had almost stagnated, then began the downslide. By ignoring the critical connection between agricultural production and access to food, policy makers had failed to take any corrective measures to stop the destruction of the natural resource base the foundation for sustainable agriculture and livelihoods.

Green revolution has for all practical purposes collapsed. The unexplained number of huge number of suicides is a testimony to the entire equation going wrong. While the serial death dance continues unabated, policy makers and agricultural scientists are busy laying the foundations for a second Green Revolution.

Formally launched by the visiting American President George Bush at Hyderabad on March 3, the Rs 1000-crore Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agricultural Research and Education is for all practical purposes the soft launch of the second Green Revolution.

It is being put in place without first ascertaining the reasons behind the terrible agrarian crisis that exists, much of it the result of imposing environmentally-unfriendly alien technology, the government embarks on the faulty promise of a second green revolution.

Even before the ink dried on the technical cooperation agreement, news reports pointed out that two of the American multinationals, Monsanto and Wal-Mart, who are on the governing board of the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative, have already said they are not interested in research and development but on selling their products. Tailored on the objective of transferring the unwanted and risky technology of genetic engineering on plants and animals, which incidentally is not finding many takers worldwide, the US finds India an easy dumping ground.

In a country where land holdings are meagre, the biggest challenge is to ensure how can agriculture be made more attractive for these small and marginal farmers. At a time when the natural resource base has been devastated, and growing indebtedness drives poverty-stricken villagers to take their own lives in several parts of the country, the government is keenly following the poverty-mitigating prescription being doled out by the Indian industry -- to turn Indian agriculture into a ‘food factory’ and thereby uproot millions of subsistence farmers from their meager landholdings.

Although the land holding size is diminishing, the answer does not lie in allowing the private companies to move in by way of contract farming and corporate agriculture. Private companies enter agriculture with the specific objective of garnering more profits from the same piece of land. These companies, if the global experience is any indication, bank upon still more intensive farming practices, drain the soil of nutrients and suck ground water in a couple of years, and render the fertile lands almost barren after four to five years.

It has been estimated that the crops which are being promoted by the agri-business companies will on an average require 15 to 20 times more application of chemical inputs and will need to pump out at least ten times more water than what is being applied now by farmers. These companies would then hand over the barren and unproductive land to the farmers who leased them, and would move to another fertile piece of land.

What the farmers need desperately is an assured and remunerative income. This cannot be ensured by making farmers subservient to the private trade. Farm income can go up if the government lays out a roadmap that is based on the underlying parameters of sustainability and equity. There is an immediate need to provide higher procurement prices to farmers, extend procurement to regions which have remained outside its gambit, and at the same time extend the reach of procurement to crops which are important for country’s food security and nutritional needs.

Cropping pattern therefore needs to encourage multiple cropping with thrust on nutritional crops like pulses and legumes, and linked in an integrated manner with animal husbandry. At the same time no technology or programme that limits sustainability by further destroying the natural resource base should be allowed at any cost. Such a nation-wide programme however does not find place in the existing thinking. All that the policy planners are worried about is how to benefit the agri-business industry. Poor farmer has been very conveniently left out, once again.

No wonder, Economic Survey 2005-06 categorically talks of dismantling the minimum support price (MSP) and procurement-based food subsidy system. The two planks of the ‘famine-avoidance’ strategy that our planners had put in place, and which were instrumental in making the country food self-sufficient, are now on the hit list. This will enable the food retailers to directly purchase from farmers. In other words, Indian farmers will in future be faced with not only the vagaries of the monsoon but also the market.

It is being said that by allowing the private retail companies to purchase directly from farmers, not only the farm incomes go up but the number of middle-men is also removed. This is however not true. Even in America, the entry of retail chains in the agriculture sector have only shifted the profits to a horde of middlemen -- retailers, processors, certification agencies, quality controller and so on. The difference being that the dhoti-clad arhatia will now be replaced with a battery of smartly-dressed midllemen moving in swanky cars.

American farmers earn only 4 per cent from whatever they sell. In 1990, farmers earned 70 per cent of what they sold. From 70 per cent earnings to a mere 4 per cent income the drop in income is huge. The rest of the profits are shared by the chain of middlemen. In Canada, the National Farmers Union has in a study shown how the combined profits of 70 retailer and agribusiness firms have multiplied whereas the farmers have mounting losses. That is why the developed countries provide huge subsidies in the form of direct payments to farmers to compensate the loss.

The same model is now being shifted to India, but without compensating him with direct income support. The result is that in the name of second green revolution, the objective is to drive out farmers and instead create an enabling environment for the agri-business industries to produce food. #

(Devinder Sharma is a New Delhi-based researcher and policy analyst specialising in global food and agriculture).

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