Time for a Second Green Revolution

Published: 26th June 2015 06:00 AM  |   Last Updated: 25th June 2015 10:53 PM   |  A+A-

Green Revolution in India began in 1963 through the introduction of a high-yielding wheat crop variety by American agronomist Dr Norman Borlaug. However, the term Green Revolution applies to the period from 1967—when it was widely adopted by the Indian farmer—to 1978, when it resulted in record grain output of 131 million tones, ranking India as one of world’s biggest agricultural producers and a member of an elite club of nations exporting food grains. It was a quantum leap from the bleak and humiliating years of our dependence on PL 480 wheat sent by America.

Although India had become self-sufficient in basic food grains—wheat and rice—after Green Revolution, in recent years we have been facing recurrent spells of shortages in essential items like lentils, edible oil, sugar and onions resulting in their knee-jerk imports at exorbitant prices. Experts feel that if we do not focus immediately on increasing food production by rationalising priorities in the agriculture sector, we may be in for a rude shock of unmanageable food scarcity.

It is really a multi-dimensional problem. Firstly, our population is growing exponentially and so is the demand of food. Secondly, under pressure of population and industrialisation the land under cultivation is continuously decreasing. Thirdly, in spite of all the development not only our agriculture but also the food distribution system is almost entirely dependent on climate. Come drought, excessive rains, floods, hailstorms or any vagaries of weather, and there are prophets of doom mushrooming all over with predictions of food scarcity and rising prices. Fourthly, we are still unable to provide assured irrigation cover to a large part of our culturable land. And lastly, in spite of Green Revolution, we have not been able to sustain the growth of agriculture production to match our requirements and limitations of inputs, and sadly there has hardly been any remarkable research by agriculture scientists to achieve it.

The last mentioned factor holds the key to solving the problem. Time has come to launch a second Green Revolution to provide long-term food security to the nation, and it is the direction in which agriculture scientists and institutions need to focus. But here arises a pertinent question. Is it fair to say that with all the infrastructure and expertise available to agriculture institutions and universities, they have not contributed to the technology of agriculture? Yes, they most certainly have—by developing new seed strains, equipment, techniques etc. But all this was done before also, during first Green Revolution. What we really need now is to accept that some crucial inputs of traditional agriculture are getting scarcer—after and as a consequence of first revolution—and we have to reduce our dependence on them and research on increasing productivity with this handicap. These inputs are very basic in nature, they are land and water. Their shortage will pose the real challenge to another Green Revolution. And we will do well to remember that it was precisely these inputs, especially water, which was taken for granted and exploited to the hilt with improved seeds and chemical fertilisers, during Green Revolution.

In the present scenario not only is cultivable land shrinking, water availability is also on premium. We have almost dried our rivers and are emptying groundwater reservoirs by reckless extraction. Extensive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides is polluting not only surface water resources but groundwater, too. It sounds a paradox, but agriculture is now creating an unprecedented crisis for environment. This trend has to be reversed.

The road map for the next Green Revolution is, therefore, quite clear. We will have to develop techniques which would deliver more crop for each drop of irrigation as well as more yield per field of cultivated land. Although land available for agriculture is declining there is still scope to increase productivity from it, mainly because we are far behind most countries in per hectare yield. With new technology, improved seeds, rationalised crop rotation and balancing soil chemistry etc., we can obtain much more crop from the available land. Genetically improved seeds, which are being scoffed at—due to lack of proper education and information—can enhance productivity greatly.

But the problem on the water front is acute. We use about 73 per cent of our available freshwater in agriculture. This share from an already stressed resource is so high that not only important user sectors like industries, sanitation, environment, fisheries, etc. suffer, but there is crisis even for the basic need of drinking water. Traditional system of over application of water by flooding the fields is still practised by most farmers, who are not yet ready to rationalise it through water-efficient techniques like sprinkler and drip irrigation. The result is gross wastage of water and low productivity. This is a lose-lose situation and has to be addressed urgently.

So what will be the benchmarks to meet this challenge to a second Green Revolution? First, agriculture scientists should start their research by accepting that whatever water is available for irrigating crops is not only limited but also mostly polluted. Their target should be to obtain maximum production from frugal use of this water in irrigation. Of course, reuse and recycling of unclean water would be attempted after treating it to acceptable parameters for agricultural application. Researchers should focus on alternative organic fertilisers and pesticides which will need less water. Irrigation should aim at giving only the required amount of water in the root zone of plants for which drip and/or sprinkler system must be applied in the entire cultivable area—through subsidy, wherever necessary. The new government is committed to provide water to every field. This has to be done by making field channels, wherever terrain permits. At all other places sprinklers with minimal extraction of groundwater should be used to meet the target of total irrigation coverage to cultivated land.

Perhaps these targets would appear difficult and impracticable now, but it is not so. Israel is practising them successfully for a long time. We have seen sprinkler irrigation of rice in Japan 25 years ago, and their productivity at that time was 2.5 times of ours. Our agro-scientists, irrigation engineers and farmers can certainly bring a water-efficient second Green Revolution—only they would have to get rid of the mind-fix that we have unlimited water resources. Once upon a time it was so, but now they are just pleasant memories which should not come in the way of facing a stark reality. And the reality is that we will have to collect and store each drop of water, check its misuse and wastage, and use it frugally yet efficiently—especially in agriculture, because that is the biggest user sector of water. This should be the target of the second Green Revolution.

Yogendra Narain is a former chief secretary of Uttar Pradesh. S K Kumar retired is a former chief engineer, irrigation, UP

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