Who’s Choking Dilli? It’s Green Revolution in India, Not Punjab’s Farmers

Punjab's farmers not the culprits behind the pollution crisis in the capital. At the root of the problem is the Green Revolution in India. Here's an Empire Diaries report.

Green Revolution in India: The root cause

Ratna and Nadim Siraj
Empire Diaries

November 14, 2023: It’s November, and like every year this time, pollution in Dilli is back in the news. As usual, everyone is blaming the farmers of Punjab for burning stubble and sparking air pollution. But at the root of this mess, farmers are not at fault. Instead, they are themselves the victims, just like the people of Dilli. The actual culprits of this annual pollution drama in Dilli are sitting far, far away. They are the foreign players who once crafted the Green Revolution in India. To be precise, the Green Disruption – whose costs we are still counting, on multiple fronts.

In this special report, we will look at how foreign forces tampered with India’s farming sector since the 1960s. It is because of their interventions that we have farming catastrophes, and also the sickening pollution crisis in Dilli. Stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana has been going on for years now. It’s not something new, but it seems to have been cherry-picked by the mainstream media for special attention in recent years.

Every year around mid-October onwards, the farmers of Punjab, and also in Haryana, need to burn paddy straw, so that they can quickly prepare the farmland for cultivating wheat It is part of their routine annual farming cycle. Rice farming is followed by wheat farming, and the cycle is repeated.

The farming families of Punjab don’t want to deliberately create smoke clouds and send them towards Dilli. No, it’s not some callous or grand plan to disrupt good living in the national capital. Instead, they are forced to burn stubble at a time of the year precisely when the wind coincidentally blows from Punjab towards Dilli.

In 2009, on a bid to preserve groundwater due to excess water-use during paddy farming, the Punjab government created a law, called the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act. It forces farmers to delay the planting of paddy until the monsoon rain arrives in Punjab. Due to this law, Punjab’s farmers can start paddy farming only in mid-June. Earlier, they used to start paddy cultivation in April and finish it in September. The 2009 law made them start rice farming in June and, therefore, finish it not before October.

During mid and late October, they start clearing the fields. Since there is a rush to make the farmland ready for wheat cultivation, which is the next farming cycle, the farmers burn all the paddy straw quickly. Unfortunately, October onwards, the pre-winter northern wind blows from Punjab towards Dilli. It carries the smoke from the burning stubble all the way into the national capital region.

So, shall we conclude that the Punjab government, therefore, is solely responsible for this annual pollution mess in Dilli every November? No, it is not the sole culprit. The story goes far deeper than Punjab’s 2009 law. In fact, you need to dig into the past to know the actual origin of Dilli’s pre-winter air pollution. To get to the root of the problem, let us look at a timeline of events, starting with the launch of the highly overrated Green Revolution in India.

Everything goes back to the 1960s. That’s when the western powers decided to launch the most devastating attack on indigenous farming around the world. They cleverly called it the Green Revolution. In reality, it was nothing short of a Green Disruption.

Green Revolution in India: The chilling plot

The plan was simple and devastating. Western agri-tech and agrochemical companies would use influential international institutions to literally break into various countries’ farming sector. They would disrupt their indigenous, sustainable, and simple farming practices. They would superimpose chemical-based and machine-driven farming techniques. The official objective was to increase the production of crops and profits for farmers.

In reality, the so-called Green Revolution ended agricultural self-sufficiency in many countries, a fact that is well documented by now. It impoverished small farmers by making them rely on costly chemical inputs, like fertilisers and pesticides. It poisoned the soil. It ensnared small farmers into loan traps, triggering suicides related to financial distress. It ensured local farming industries slowly went into the hands of foreign businesses.

The marquee project of the global initiative was the Green Revolution in India. The plot by western powers to disrupt Indian agriculture involved the efforts of two spin doctors. Norman Borlaug was the American commander-in-chief of the global project. In India, they selected scientist MS Swaminathan to disrupt the culture of natural farming.

The primary target of the Green Revolution in India was Punjab, a state rich in agricultural diversity and fairly self-sufficient at that time. Four foreign institutions were involved at various times starting in the mid-1960s in the disruption of Punjab’s farming industry. All four are American institutions: the World Bank, Ford Foundation, Rockefeller Foundation, and the United States Agency for International Development, popularly known as USAID.

Dr Vandana Shiva, a leading food rights activist, says the western push to target Indian farming started well before the 1960s. She writes that since the 1950s, the World Bank, Ford Foundation, and USAID had been working under the influence of various western agrochemical companies. The three institutions were on a strategic mission to introduce chemical fertilisers in India.

By 1969, Dr Shiva says, Rockefeller and Ford foundations came together to create international centres for tropical agriculture in two countries: Colombia and Nigeria. Two years later, former US defence secretary Robert McNamara joined the initiative. When McNamara was the World Bank president, he helped set up a research body to fund these agricultural centres. All these moves were part of the overall project that also led to the Green Revolution in India. Much later, the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation also joined the drive to intervene in various countries’ farming systems.

Disrupting Indian farming

From the 1960s, MS Swaminathan, captained by Norman Borlaug and the four American players, carried out the western mission of Green Revolution in India. What was it? To mechanise and chemical-ise the vast farmlands of Punjab, and later, other Indian states. Punjab was the Asian champion of wheat production. It also produced oilseeds, pulses, corn, and millets. Punjabi farmers traditionally practised wheat-focused farming. They didn’t deal with paddy during those days. Therefore, they didn’t need enormous volumes of water on their farmland, as paddy farming requires plenty of water.

The Green Revolution in India changed all of that in one sweep. Paddy was artificially introduced widely across Punjab, and the farmers were told to deal with only wheat and paddy, and give up all other crops. As a result of this engineering, rice farming increased five times, and wheat farming two times.

Now, switching to large-scale paddy farming turned out to be a disaster because it demanded too much water. In Punjab, the original setup of irrigation water was only meant to serve as a back-up, if groundwater or the monsoon temporarily failed. So, to support water-hungry paddy farming, the state’s entire irrigation system had to be overhauled. Despite that, huge quantities of groundwater started getting pumped out just to feed the thirsty paddy farms of Punjab.

In the initial years of the Green Revolution in India, things went well. But a decade and a half onwards, Punjab started sinking into a crisis. Excess water-use for paddy turned into a nightmare. Groundwater started depleting quickly. Also, Punjab’s farming families were dragged into using costly chemical fertilisers and artificial pesticides.

The so-called high yield variety seeds of the Green Revolution in India turned out to be very expensive. The so-called miracle seeds didn’t give high production with existing inputs. Instead, they gave lower production with existing inputs. The new seeds gave high production only when a lot of expensive chemical inputs and enormous quantities of water were used. Therefore, as it emerged, the seeds of the Green Revolution in India responded well only when the farmers spent a fortune on chemical fertilisers, pesticides, and irrigation systems.

From the 1980s onwards, Punjab’s farmers were caught in a double trap. They are struggling to buy expensive chemical inputs. And they started getting blamed by the media for depleting groundwater through paddy farming.

A prominent foreign agrochemical company that played a key role in the Green Revolution in India was Monsanto. It was the leading producer of genetically engineered seeds at that time, and also produced Roundup, a controversial glyphosate-based chemical herbicide. The US company used to sell chemical pesticides, and had ambitions to launch genetically modified food crops in India. Dr Vandana Shiva believes Monsanto’s products and activities in Bharat harmed Indian agriculture. Monsanto introduced genetically modified (GM) cotton seeds in India, called Bt cotton. It turned out to be a failure in the long run.

In 2017, The Sunday Guardian published an article in which it claims USAID used to work on behalf of Monsanto. The article also says that a few years ago, Monsanto wanted to push GM corn in Punjab because paddy farming was causing a groundwater crisis. The plan to replace paddy with GM corn eventually didn’t take off. India doesn’t officially grow any GM food crops, as of now.

Monsanto repeatedly denied playing a negative role in India’s farming sector. It refuted the claims made by the controversial article. In 2018, German agrochemical company Bayer took over Monsanto. Bayer later agreed to pay several legal settlements involving Monsanto’s products. One of them is Roundup, the herbicide.

Coming back to the timeline of events, the fall of Punjab’s farming sector continued during the 80s, 90s, and after that. Finally, about 15 years ago, it was clear that paddy farming was draining Punjab’s groundwater very fast. It was a desperate situation. The Punjab government responded with a desperate measure, bringing in the much-debated law in 2009 – the law that resulted in smoke from Punjab’s burning stubble choking Dilli. Haryana also brought in a similar law to preserve groundwater.

Basically, both Dilli and Punjab are stuck in the mud, thanks to the long-term impact of the Green Revolution in India. First, Punjab was told to switch to paddy farming. But the state started losing its groundwater quickly. A law came into force, rejigging the cultivation cycles to preserve groundwater. But that coincided with a seasonal change in wind direction. As a result, Dilli became the sitting target of a pollution crisis. And so, farmers are getting demonised for doing what they are supposed to be doing – burning the paddy straw.

The big misconception

Folks sitting in the heart of Dilli need to realise that the farmers of Punjab are not doing anything criminal. They are burning the stubble so that wheat is not delayed – so that we don’t have to wait for the chapatis to land on our plate.

All along, mainstream narratives don’t tell you that the main culprit behind this poly-crisis is the Green Revolution in India. The purpose of this special report is to give you the larger picture of how the US-led Green Revolution self-sufficiency in Indian agriculture. And how it also gifted Dilli an annual pollution crisis.

You must be wondering that there should have been an easy solution to the problem. Why not ban stubble burning for good? That’s what many people in Dilli want and suggest. However, it is the long-term impact of the Green Revolution in India that caused this situation. An abrupt ban on stubble burning is not the answer.

What is the alternative for the paddy farmers if stubble burning is suddenly banned for good? If the straw is not set on fire, it will take the farmers months to clear the fields. That will delay wheat farming and upset Punjab’s cultivation cycle. Are you ready to wait with an empty plate on your dinner table? So, a ban on straw burning will definitely end Dilli’s pollution nightmare. But a bigger nightmare will balloon in Punjab’s farming sector. And with your food cycle.

The best way out for India, especially Punjab, is to take agriculture back into our own hands. A simple and practical solution is: Punjab should slowly return to wheat-focused farming and stop growing paddy – the transition should be slow and steady. It will return to the good old days before the Green Revolution in India. There will be a healthy balance of wheat, millets, corn, oilseeds, and pulses. Other parts of Bharat can grow the paddy necessary for the country.

Punjab’s groundwater crisis will end. With paddy out of the scene, there will be no requirement for stubble burning in Punjab and Haryana. And so, there will be no smoke-related pollution crisis in Dilli. Both the problems will be resolved: farming crisis in Punjab and pollution crisis in Dilli. To make this happen, authorities need to stop the foreign interventions and end the Green Disruption. That will be the start of the real Green Revolution in India.

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