By Ashok Gulati
India was in the grip of a food crisis in the mid-'60s. It was indeed a situation of a ship-to-mouth food economy. With domestic production of wheat hovering around 12 million tonnes, another 10 million tonnes were imported annually from the US under the infamous Public Law 480 during 1965-66 and 1966-67. The US administration often used this leverage of a life-saving handout to squeeze India. Besides, things looked so bleak that the Paddock brothers, William and Paul, declared India as an incurable case of a nation heading for a severe famine by 1975, which could claim as many as 10 million lives.
They had a point. Efforts were being made in India to raise foodgrain production since the early 1950s, but without any major success. In March 1963, Norman Borlaug visited India and sent in 100 kg of seed for each of the four high-yield varieties (HYV) of wheat for trials. Lerma Rojo and Sonora 64 performed best. But these were experiments, and like many such experiments, there were several ifs and buts with research and policy.
With the demise of Jawaharlal Nehru in May 1964, Lal Bahadur Shastri became the prime minister. C. Subramaniam, the minister for steel, mines and heavy engineering in Nehru's cabinet, was now given agriculture, a sector which was weak and under severe pressure because of low-yielding varieties of seeds and an exploding population. Subramaniam began to systematically set the stage for an overhaul of the way foodgrain was grown, sold and distributed. He started off with a remunerative price policy for farmers, which gave birth to the Agricultural Prices Commission and Food Corporation of India in 1965.
An officer, Ralph Cummings from Rockefeller Foundation met Subramaniam and told him about dwarf HYVS of wheat, but also conveyed that Indian scientists and bureaucracy were going very slow on these. So Subramaniam decided to reorganise agricultural research -- in other words, free it from bureaucracy -- and appointed Dr B.P. Pal, a renowned scientist, as director-general of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), got pay scales of scientists improved, and went in for targeted and time-bound research.
In 1965, 250 tonnes of Sonora 64 and Lerma Rojo were imported for seed multiplication, a technique that is standard practice, which yielded about 5,000 tonnes of seed. Subramaniam was now ready for his Big Bang.
But to play his final stroke, he wanted a greater quantity of these seeds than he had from domestic seed multiplication. He wanted to import a large quantity of these HYV seeds from Mexico to give the effort a single, massive boost. But there was severe opposition to his idea of importing these new varieties in Parliament as well as in public fora, especially from the Left parties, socio-logists, some economists and bureaucrats. And here lies the contribution of this man -- he steered through the political hurdles, the bureaucratic wrangles, and public debates, first with the support of Shastri and later with Indira Gandhi.
Finally, 18,000 tonnes of HYV wheat seeds were imported in 1966 -- and about a thousand national demonstrations were held all over India over that year and the next. It all dissipated as quickly; the result was a miracle. The new varieties had more than doubled the existing yields. Farmers in Punjab lapped up the new seeds. There was such a scramble for seeds that in some places, farmers are said to have paid Rs 10 for a single seed. When they did not get the seeds, some even tried to steal them.
India harvested 17 million tonnes of wheat in 1967-68, five million tonnes more than the previous best of 12 million tonnes. There was no place to store this sudden burst of grain. Schools in rural Punjab were closed down to store the new harvest in classrooms. A green revolution was ushered in.
Indian scientists quickly got down to the job of indigenising these Mexican varieties, especially their colour and baking qualities. M.S. Swaminathan, G.S. Athwal, S.P. Kohli, V.S. Mathur, to name a few, took a lead in this daunting task. Athwal and his team in Punjab Agricultural University brought out a cross called Kalyan, named after Athwal's village. At the same time, the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in Delhi, under the leadership of Swaminathan and Kohli, brought out Sona. Incidentally, Kalyan and Sona were from the same breeding material and therefore it was decided to release them together as KalyanSona. Sonalika was another wonder variety developed by Indian scientists from Mexican seeds. The rest is history, the present and the future. Today India harvests more than 70 million tonnes of wheat every year.
Whom do we acknowledge for this wonder on the food front? There is no doubt that Subramaniam's vision, dynamism and design to launch what is now called the new agricultural strategy was unique. Alas, his contribution was acknowledged only 30 years later when he was honoured with a Bharat Ratna. Swaminathan is perhaps the only scientist who has been honoured with a number of awards, including the Padma Shri and Padma Bhushan. This nation is yet to salute other scientists like Athwal, Kohli, Mathur and the like, who contributed in no less measure to this revolution that made India self-sufficient in food.
But the real unsung heroes of this green revolution, as Subramaniam himself puts it, were Punjabi farmers. He said, "They were the pioneers in this technology and, but for them, I am convinced we would not have made a success of it ... They had developed into a very hardy lot of enterprising people ... And therefore when this new technology was offered to them they took to it like fish to water. Everybody vied with one another to demonstrate that he was best able to utilise the new technology." These are the real people behind the Green Revolution.
Ashok Gulati is professor (NABARD chair), Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi.
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