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Hungry India, a nawabi US President, ‘Mexican blood’ — The real story of Green Revolution

I don’t ever want us to have to beg for food again, Indira Gandhi said after a call with US President Lyndon Johnson. Science, Swaminathan and Subramanian made sure she didn’t have to.

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When India was at war with Pakistan in 1965, Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri asked Indians to miss a meal on Mondays. The next year, a minister dug up his five-acre backyard in the heart of Lutyens’ Delhi to sow wheat – the same spot where Home Minister Amit Shah now lives. And America, busy with the Vietnam war and the civil rights movement, was plotting a giant Revolution in India.

As Indians chanted “Jai Jawan, Jai Kisan”, scientists from the Pusa Institute anxiously waited at Mumbai’s docks for a consignment of magic seeds that would end hunger.

Such was its power that by 1968, the US-aided Green Revolution had transformed India from a ship-to-mouth shortage economy to a country that shut down schools and cinema theatres to store surplus food.

Half a century later, India attempted another farm revolution in 2020. But this time, the farmers themselves took to the streets in protest and won.

A hungry nation with ‘ship-to-mouth’ economy

India won its war against hunger with its combined arsenal of science, diplomacy, and political courage.

The man who deployed these weapons was C. Subramaniam. Selected especially to be the Union Minister of Food and Agriculture in 1964 during a food crisis, Subramaniam faced an uphill battle. Time was running out for India — in a 1961 report, the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organization predicted that India’s population would outstrip its food production in five years.

Subramaniam enlisted the help of then-agricultural secretary B. Sivaraman, and the man who’d become synonymous with modern Indian agriculture, Dr M.S. Swaminathan. Together, they would herald the Green Revolution.

They were up against formidable challenges. The fear of losing sovereignty and a collective tendency to underestimate Indian farmers’ entrepreneurial spirit was placed against the backdrop of the Cold War and a prevailing anti-American sentiment in India. But the reality was far more urgent. Decades of growing only commercial crops for the British Raj to export had left Indian agriculture in shambles. Independent India had much on its plate, but next to nothing in its belly.

A spate of food emergencies and a tight supply chain of food reduced a newly independent India to a ship-to-mouth economy. In 1966, an average of three ships a day carrying grains and food supplies from the US would dock at Indian ports, and the food would be distributed and consumed immediately.

“The 1960s could be called a famine for India. We were dependent on international aid. The Green Revolution saved Indian democracy,” said S.S. Johl, an agricultural economist who was involved in formulating policy through this turbulent period.

Also read: How a surprise revolution in Chhattisgarh made it No. 2 for paddy procurement in India

To starve, or to beg

India was importing wheat from the US under Public Law 480, also termed the “Food for Peace” programme. Introduced by President Dwight D. Eisenhower in 1954 in the aftermath of World War II and rapid decolonisation, the law provided foreign food aid to countries in need. Subsequent presidents — especially Lyndon B. Johnson — began to use the humanitarian law as a diplomatic tool to protect American strategic interests.

The PL 480 law was described by historian Kristin L. Ahlberg as “Machiavelli with a heart.” It was the first American international food assistance programme of many, and provided both emergency and nonemergency food assistance. Since the end of the Cold War, PL 480 and the Food for Peace have shifted towards providing only emergency food relief and market-based assistance. Title II of PL 480, which allows the President of the US to donate emergency supplies to foreign countries to meet famine requirements, remains active today.

The Indian government at the time saw its dependence on external aid as humiliating. While Subramaniam was focused on India achieving self-sufficiency, the country suffered a setback when the monsoons failed in 1965 and 1966, leading to drought and more reliance on external aid.

K. Kamraj, president of the Congress at the time, reportedly said in December 1965 that he would prefer to starve than receive wheat from the Americans. In January 1966, The Hindu wrote that 30 million people in India are facing “dire distress.”

Across the globe, in December 1966, President Johnson’s daughter would implore him not to freeze food grain exports to India — especially not during Christmas. Johnson, who kept tight control over shipments of food to India, was unwilling to authorise another large-scale food operation and was bitterly criticised by the press for pushing India to the brink of famine yet again. Ultimately, his daughter, Luci, read the news reports and chastised her father. He authorised the shipment of wheat, averting the immediate crisis.

While making a call to Johnson to request him to release the shipment, Prime Minister Indira Gandhi reportedly clenched her fingers around the telephone receiver. When she hung up, she told her press adviser Sharada Prasad, “I don’t ever want us to have to beg for food again.”

C Subramaniam and MS Swaminathan | Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint

Seeds of change

To America, funding development through foreign aid was a new style of diplomacy. In his book, The Hungry World, historian Nick Cullather writes that Asian countries stopped being colonial subjects only to become “developmental subjects,” receiving aid and information from foreign experts.

Besides food, the major import India needed was scientific innovation. Specifically, a high yielding variety (HYV) of seeds that promised to increase agricultural productivity.

Norman Borlaug — the fourth horseman of the Green Revolution and future Nobel Peace Prize-winner — was an American scientist who developed a high-yield, disease-resistant variety of wheat. Funded by the Rockefeller Foundation, Borlaug had been working to introduce this variant of wheat in Mexico, where it found tremendous success.

Subramaniam and Swaminathan heard of Borlaug’s accomplishments in Mexico, and realised that it could be replicated in India. Borlaug visited India in 1963 and travelled with Swaminathan across the country — and while the science supported their hunch, Nehru had to be convinced. However, the Indian government could no longer support importing massive amounts of food grains, so the seeds began to look like a tempting alternative.

Meanwhile, the crisis worsened globally, and Johnson was even willing to overlook enmity with the USSR to address sending aid to India. Soviet aid supported some of the seed farms that multiplied Mexican wheat, and Subramaniam received Soviet advice on his agricultural reform package. “I’m not in the slightest concerned about your getting help from Russia,” Johnson told Indian officials, “Get every damn dime of it you can.”

Also read: Most Indian farmers faced erosion of their real incomes since 2012-13 but survey can’t tell

The district nawab and the good feller

Subramaniam described Johnson in an interview as “well-intentioned, but like the district Nawab, wanting to be the driving force behind whatever was happening” and not sharing responsibilities with other people. Johnson interacted with Subramaniam, and later Indira Gandhi, over multiple state dinners and parties. He reportedly enjoyed both Subramaniam and Gandhi’s company, even canceling or rearranging prior commitments to spend time with Indian delegations.

Johnson held the agriculture minister in high regard as an ally and strategic asset for the United States’ interests in India.

In his autobiography Nice Guys Finish Second, former India Ambassador to the US, BK Nehru, recalls how Subramaniam had “called on” and “impressed” Johnson. Johnson later said to him, “That Subber Mainyam of yours. He’s a good feller.”

This support for India’s agriculture minister seemed to be a common sentiment across the Johnson administration. In November 1965, the US Embassy in India sent a telegram to the State Department emphasising that Subramaniam needed to know the level of confidence the US had in him “personally”.

“He is by all odds the ablest Minister in cabinet, vigorously pro-American and with great amount of courage…he needs to feel that we are behind him. He has stuck his neck out politically in our behalf and his political career is committed to cooperation with the United States,” the Embassy said, adding that Subramaniam had responded “valiantly” to “left wing” accusations that the US was using PL 480 as a tool for political leverage.

Besides the scientists and government officials, philanthropic organisations were also involved behind the scenes.

Years prior to the formulation of the PL 480, the Rockefeller Foundation had been looking to implement its development programmes in India as early as the 1930s, with the goal of finding alternatives to working in China. However, India was only viewed as a feasible location after becoming independent. At this point, the foundation had pivoted from prioritising healthcare to agriculture in response to an internal assessment report on the global problems of hunger and malnutrition. As part of this, the Rockefeller Foundation had developed an agriculture programme in 1943 in Mexico, with Borlaug at the helm and significant participation from Mexican agricultural scientists and technicians.

The Foundation replicated this collaborative effort on fields in Punjab and Haryana by the 1960s, as Borlaug, New Delhi office head Ralph Cummings and scientists from the Foundation’s Mexico and Colombia programmes worked to optimise and expand the production of corn, wheat and rice.

Despite initial hiccups, such as most Indian scientists planting Mexican wheat seed varieties “without adhering to the [appropriate] fertilizer and weed control techniques”, two scientists who judiciously followed the Mexican programme’s methods under Borlaug’s instruction were rewarded with high crop yields

“People from the US came to Punjab and levelled land, advisory teams visited as well and trained our scientists and PhD students. There was deep cooperation between American universities and Indian universities like ours. Some were funded by Rockefeller [Foundation], others by Ford [Foundation],” Johl said.

US President Johnson and Indira Gandhi | Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint

Parliament puts up a fight

Indian Parliament wasn’t without its drama even then. Lal Bahadur Shastri’s short-lived government in the 1960s saw three no-confidence motions and adjournments galore.

Ministers debated the food crisis after a motion of no-confidence was introduced in August 1965. The issue wasn’t just with receiving wheat shipments under PL 480, the government was concerned about rising costs and if the agricultural sector was robust enough to weather new technological changes.

“I agree we are passing through difficult days,” said C. Subramaniam in Parliament. “We are more concerned with what we have to do today than the problem of tomorrow,” he added.

In the course of the debate, Subramaniam insisted that India “need not be ashamed” for importing food grains, given the country’s “stagnation for centuries under foreign domination and the great population increase.” He cited the example of Russia, a socialist country, and West Germany, a capitalist country, also importing food.

After a particularly pointed interruption from opposition member N.G. Ranga, Subramaniam said, “If we feel disappointed, then we should quit our country, and perhaps quit this life…if we say that we will never learn [from our lessons], then as a nation we will have to perish, that is all. If no programme would satisfy Acharya Ranga and the Opposition, the only thing which would satisfy them would be to sit here and speak.”

Ranga’s response was to say “quite right.” Subramaniam replied, “Unfortunately, the people are not prepared to take that risk.”

Shortly after, Subramaniam was dispatched to Rome to meet the American Secretary of Agriculture, Orville Freeman. They signed an agreement on 25 November 1965 that explicitly listed subsidies and price incentives for agricultural inputs like fertiliser.

The seeds were finally shipped by Borlaug in August 1965. The lifesaving shipment traveled through the Watts riots in Los Angeles, and was also delayed by the India-Pakistan war. The shipment arrived in October 1965, and the seed drives went ahead in 1966 despite the drought. Subramaniam sowed wheat in his own front lawn in an attempt to show parliamentarians that the crop would be successful.

After Shastri’s death, Indira Gandhi continued his diplomatic dance with the US. The 1966 kharif season had a better yield than previous years, but issues with distribution meant thousands of people continued to go hungry. The 1967 elections in India showcased the dissatisfaction of the people: Subramaniam lost his seat, but Gandhi secured re-election. When Subramaniam lost, Johnson reportedly said that India had lost its most capable minister.

The work continued, and the harvest of 1968 put all anxieties about the new seeds to rest.

Also read: How to climate-proof Indian agriculture through innovation – from fertiliser to farmer networks

From begging bowl to bread basket

No one was prepared for the amount of wheat harvested in 1968.

The surplus was so huge that the government had to store it in schools and theatres. Trains ran out of wagons to fill with wheat. The Philippines and Turkey — other benefactors of the seeds and American philanthropy — also had record high yields in 1968. Besides wheat, crops like cotton, tea and jute also had successful harvests.

The term “Green Revolution” was coined in 1968 by William Gaud, an administrator in the US Agency for International Development. Speaking at a conference, he talked about the “Green Revolution” spreading across Asia. The term stood in contrast to the Communist “Red” revolutions in Asia at the time.

In his 1969 essay on the bumper year, Swaminathan also alluded to how an increase in fertiliser consumption changed the colour of crops. High nitrogen content leads to more chlorophyll formation, resulting in a darker green colour. “It is this change of famished soils becoming better fed ones that led to coining of term ‘Green Revolution,” wrote Swaminathan.

The media played a huge role in generating enthusiasm for the agricultural reform. In a 2009 article in The Hindu, Swaminathan called for the media to resume their “active participation in revitalising our agriculture and in safeguarding our food sovereignty.”

Both national and international press covered the way the revolution unfolded. “India Plans for Survival” and “The Disaster That Never Was” proclaimed headlines in The Economist. “Food Ships are Streaming into Famine-Free India,” ran a London Times headline. The Times also published a piece “How the Indian Farmer is Living With His New-Found Wealth.”

“Country Going Through Dynamic Changes,” announced India News. 

Betting on the strong in Punjab and Haryana  

“The Green Revolution was about betting on the strong, which produced a certain kind of political economy,” said Mekhala Krishnamurthy, associate professor of sociology and social anthropology at Ashoka University.

The Green Revolution was betting on high-yielding crops. It was also betting on certain regions: regions with larger, irrigated land-holdings and educated and exposed farmers.

“We bet on the farmers and we bet on the crops, and it worked in terms of hugely spurring the production of paddy and wheat,” said Krishnamurthy. “The farmers also bet on social and economic mobility. They bet on growing in and of agriculture  — but their bet didn’t exactly work.”

The land of “five rivers”, ‘panj’ ‘aab’ became the home of India’s wheat production. Punjab had the social, political, and geographical wherewithal to embrace the revolution.

In 1966, when India imported 18,000 tonnes of seeds for Punjab and they arrived in Surat, Punjab was the one state that put all its hands on deck. It made state prison inhabitants spin bags for wheat dispersion once the seeds arrived. The state announced an early summer vacation to convert classrooms to granaries.

Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) Director A.K. Singh testified to the fact, and told ThePrint, “Punjab had the best irrigation channels and infrastructure. Where else could you find the same soil and support? You can’t plant anything just anywhere.”

It wasn’t just its geophysical location—Punjab was most receptive to embracing knowledge and technology, something that agriculturalists from the 1960s till today take massive pride in.

Established in 1962, Punjab Agricultural University had proved critical in adapting the new wheat varieties to local conditions. As a department head, Johl launched a farm management course that required students to spend entire Saturdays shadowing and working with farmers as a form of “practical training”.

In conversation with ThePrint, A.K. Singh pierced right into the success of the Green Revolution in Punjab by quoting Subramaniam’s terming of the revolution as a “Symphony Orchestra”, and adding that there were three cradles of the revolution: Policy, science, and farmers.

While both A.K. Singh and R.B. Singh named the completion of the Bhakra Nangal Dam as the single biggest factor for the Green Revolution taking place in Punjab and Haryana, Johl believes that the easier availability of water due to the dam is just one factor. Rather, he told ThePrint that Punjab’s farmers also benefited from having a greater number of independent land holdings prior to the land reform legislation enacted in the early 1970s.

“By 1972-74, we had 20 million tonnes of food grains so were self-sufficient. With the consolidation of land holdings, development had reached all of them. In Uttar Pradesh, you had to pass through someone else’s land to reach your own land, but in Punjab, farmers had independent access,” Johl said.

Also read: The story of Ramrao, a Vidarbha farmer who drank pesticide and lived

The problem of plenty

By all accounts, the year 1968 proved to be a victory for science. But it also created a problem of plenty.

The “sudden abundance created as much anxiety as scarcity had,” wrote Nick Cullather in his book The Hungry World.

The government stockpiled the surplus to store and distribute. Workers at granaries went on strike because they were overworked, and thousands of bags of wheat were left to be destroyed by rains and rats. The Public Distribution System (PDS), which had been expanded in the 1960s and now included the Agricultural Prices Commissions and the Food Corporation of India, struggled to keep up.

In July, Indira Gandhi released a postage stamp commemorating the Wheat Revolution of 1968. The Hindustan Times ran a cartoon of an alternate stamp, showing a rat eating the government stockpile.

By the early 1970s, some were wondering if the harvest of 1968 was a fluke. While the government maintained that its stockpile could withstand multiple failed harvests, sceptics began to question the efficacy of the Green Revolution. The CIA attributed the success of 1968 to lucky weather conditions.

There were concerns at home, too.

“As early as 1969, Swaminathan was already warning farmers about the careful use of chemicals,” said A.K. Singh.

Dr R.B. Singh, who was involved with scientific research at Pusa Institute in the 1960s, told ThePrint that farmers weren’t incentivised well. “They were given too much liberty. When you get something for free, you become careless,” he said.

The farmers’ became critically dependent on chemical fertilisers, which led to a massive depletion of soil quality and careless soil exhaustion.

In a 1969 report, then-Home Minister Y.B. Chavan hinted at the Green Revolution morphing into a “Red Revolution,” and that the new strategies rested on an outmoded agrarian social structure, bringing about instability and increased tension. While the authors lyrically termed the Indian village as a “complex molecule”, it mentioned that it “may end in an explosion”.

The home minister’s words were probably not even out in print, and a Pandora’s box popped open. In a Tamil Nadu village in 1968, a crop protest led to a mob burning 28 women to death. In 1969, Pakistan’s government collapsed amid riots. The USAID said that other fallouts of the revolution were “beyond” public policy.

Vandana Shiva, an ecofeminist and a staunch critic of the Green Revolution, wrote that during the peak of the food crisis, India had two solutions—indigenous and exogenous.

The homegrown, indigenous solution was to work on improving the indigenous varieties, following M.K. Gandhi’s call for self-sufficiency. But equity took precedence over productivity. Subramaniam’s predecessor K.M. Munshi had a bottom-up, decentralised approach, which was focused on developing indigenous, alternative fertilisers. No one wanted to displease newly Independent India’s socialist ideals. But no one wanted to go hungry either. And so India had taken the exogenous route, and opened its doors to international aid and expertise.

The chairman of Haryana’s farmers’ commission, Dr R.S. Paroda mentions that in all of India’s wheat, there is “some Mexican blood”. Swaminathan ensured that Mexican wheat was crossbred with Indian varieties, transforming India’s production from 12 million tonnes in 1969 to 109 million tonnes today. According to Paroda, it was only after Mexican wheat was crossed with Indian wheat that it became “chapati-ready.”

The gap between the landless and richer farmers also grew. Shiva called this a ‘technocratic response’ to the food crisis. For her, the Green Revolution’s rule of thumb was to “build on the best” — the best-endowed region and the best farmers. And Punjab was the ‘best’ — it was the state with the most advanced irrigation channels and cultivation infrastructure.

Illustration by Manisha Yadav | ThePrint

A sector stagnates

According to many who were involved at the time, the Green Revolution was never intended to be the sole period of reforms for India’s agriculture sector for over 50 years. It should have been the first fundamental step for a complete transformation for the sector in the subsequent decades. But instead, the sector stagnated.

Farmers in Punjab were more incentivised to grow paddy and wheat than other crops due to the higher Minimum Support Price (MSP) and free electricity guarantees. No other such large-scale changes took place between the 1960s and today, despite the likes of Johl and the Pusa Institute sounding the alarm over the years of resource depletion such as the Sutlej river basin and Punjab’s water table. Paroda, formerly at IARI, also said that India lacks the public policy to support new technology, unlike in the 1960s.

“By the early 1980s, we ran into surplus and had huge stocks. But the government was dragging their feet on reforms. There was a need for crop diversification,” Johl said.

Johl said that even though he advised the Punjab and central governments to diversify crops, they didn’t implement his recommendations. “I told them ‘I am irrelevant to you’ as they repeatedly did not pay heed to my team and I,” Johl added, telling ThePrint about his resignation from his position in the 2000s.

Ashok Gulati, agricultural economist and former chairman of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, told ThePrint that good policies can be harmful once they have passed their age. He pointed to growing rice in Punjab as an example — rice is purely a cash crop in the state, but is still produced in large quantities.

According to Gulati and Johl, vote bank politics should be blamed for today’s situation, and not the Green Revolution.

“Why do you blame the Green Revolution? Foolish policies that are shortsighted for political votes are to be blamed,” said Gulati.

Also read: Rich farmers dominate farm protests in India. It’s happening since Charan Singh days

No champion for the farm laws

Punjab experienced such abundance in the late 1960s and early 1970s that farmers became comfortable relying on input subsidies for agricultural production. The state provided them with a security blanket: Input subsidies would bolster them from high prices, but also make them reliant on government support. Subsequent governments were anxious to keep these structures in place to ensure farmers’ support.

This is why the next attempt to shake up the sector faced such resistance: The three farm laws proposed in 2020 by the Narendra Modi government threatened to pull the rug from under the farmers’ feet.

In his 2012 book Accidental India, political economy analyst Shankkar Aiyar explores how periods of harsh crises have been precursors to India’s most transformative policy changes, naming the Green Revolution as one among seven such policies.

But this idea comes with caveats, in the context of the 2020 farm laws. “Not all change requires a crisis and not all crises propel change…optics matters in politics. The perception is that farm laws would not have changed anything in the short term. Crises can bring change when that change has a visible immediate impact,” Aiyar told ThePrint.

Aiyar also pointed out mistakes made following Subramaniam’s departure from the Ministry of Agriculture that continue to this day. “Successive governments have mooted dismantling Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs) and collective contract farming but action on ground is scarcely visible. [Similarly] ask the government on how many Farmer Producer Organisations exist today — you won’t get a straight answer,” he added.

But according to Aiyar, last year’s agricultural reforms were doomed due to a lack of political buy-in from within the ruling party, and an absence of any singular “champion for the cause” that people could rally round.

“The fundamental difference between the Green Revolution and the 2020 farm laws is that the former had a champion for the cause. Everybody from Lal Bahadur Shastri to Indira Gandhi supported C Subramaniam,” Aiyar added.

Also read: Celebrations on farm laws repeal can wait. Time to write new manifesto for Indian agriculture

The next Green Revolution

Since the ’90s, the Father of the Green Revolution has been calling for an “evergreen revolution.” Swaminathan, who is now 96, has been advocating the integration of technology and ecology as the way forward.

The lessons of the Green Revolution tell us what needs to be addressed: it’s not enough to revisit the role the government plays in the agricultural sector, it’s necessary to underline the role the sector itself plays in India.

The Green Revolution took place in an India that had no option but to produce whatever would feed its people quickest. Now that India has attained a level of self-sufficiency, the natural progression is to produce nutritious food to nourish its people.

It’s time for India to move beyond producing calorie-heavy carbohydrate-dense foods such as wheat, rice and sugar, said Harish Damodaran, Rural Affairs and Agriculture Editor of The Indian Express and Senior Fellow at the Centre for Policy Research. Instead, Indian agriculture should focus more on foods that are rich in proteins and micronutrients such as pulses, milk, egg, meat, fruits and vegetables. Crops that are sustainable and require less fertiliser should also be prioritised.

Green or evergreen, India’s farmers have already proved they can bring about a revolution. The next one, says Damodaran, has to be smart.

“The first Green Revolution was about providing basic food,” said Damodaran. “The next Green Revolution should be about agriculture.”

(Edited by Neera Majumdar)

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