To most people, outside the circle of plant breeders, Green Revolution conjures up a picture of production of large quantity of food using special Mexican wheat varieties developed by the American scientist, Norman Borlaug, who was awarded a Nobel Prize for his work. In reality, Green Revolution was more than that.
It was a scientific revolution but also a people’s movement. As scientific revolution it required a high- yielding variety that could be adapted to varying climatic conditions and it is this quality that Borlaug had created in his wheat varieties using standard plant breeding methods.
As a people’s movement, on the other hand, it required a coordinated national plan, and a leader to implement it throughout the country. Coordination came from the agricultural scientists of India, especially plant breeders, and leadership from Dr. M.S. Swaminathan and his many able colleagues.
Add to this group the thousands of scientists from the agricultural sector and thousands of students who were training in plant breeding and food organizations. The general masses of India rooted for the scientists.
At no other time in Indian history, with the exception of the freedom movement, have the people of India had such a grand mission and come together united in their pride and resolve to fight hunger. Bengal and Bihar famines had shown what was in store for India if something was not done soon to increase food production.
The high-yielding varieties needed high input of water and fertilizers and good agricultural practices, and participation of farmers. However, Green Revolution also benefited from increase in cultivable land. Every inch of cultivable land was brought under farming; many green lawns were ploughed over and planted with wheat.
People may differ in their views of Green Revolution but two things remain non-controversial. First, the Indian Green Revolution owed its success to the foresight and leadership of Indian scientists—in particular, Dr. Swaminathan, without whom Borlaug’s miracle seeds would have remained in Mexico. Second, the enthusiasm of the hard-working farmers of Punjab ignited the changes that would sweep the country.
Scientists have made calculations and have concluded that that only about one-third of the high-yielding potential of the wheat varieties can be ascribed to their genetic potential; the rest is due to water, fertilizers, and good agricultural practices.
Thus, Green Revolution was two revolutions in one—a scientific revolution that required high-yielding varieties, and a people’s revolution that required will, resolve, and muscle power to make it succeed.
The high-yielding wheat varieties came from Mexico but the Green Revolution was an Indian phenomenon that became the basis of industrial agriculture that sweeps the world.
Norman Borlaug was awarded a Nobel Peace Prize for his scientific work. Many think that M.S. Swaminthan, the Indian general of the war against hunger, also deserves a Nobel Peace Prize for his foresight, dedication, and leadership.
Green Revolution and Gandhi’s charkha are probably history’s greatest constructive peace movements. Gandhi was denied a Nobel peace prize for his non-violence movement but he also deserved a prize for his revolutionary charkha economy. Some may see the charkha (spinning wheel) as a political move to pressurize the British but there is no doubt that charkha movement employed hundreds of thousands of rural poor and put money into their pockets. It continues to do so in some parts of the country.
Some have criticized the Green Revolution for its many direct and indirect ill effects such as loss of soil fertility, depletion of crop diversity, and low water table (as a result of heavy water usage). If one had the chance to sit down and think through the Green Revolution, one might have predicted the negative consequences. But then what? Would it have stopped the Green Revolution?
Hungry stomachs cannot afford to think about tomorrow. Revolutions—scientific or otherwise, and planned on unplanned—end up producing both good and bad results. This was also true of Green Revolution. If Green Revolution has taught us anything, it is the need for vision and planning and building a capacity for rapid response and remedial action.
Rama Singh teaches at McMaster University (firstname.lastname@example.org). This is a talk that Professor Singh delivered at Azad University in Kanpur, India.