For nearly two centuries, the specter of devastating famines haunted the British Empire in the Indian subcontinent. The colonial era began with one of the worst famines in human history between 1769 and 1773, which killed more than 10 million people during the Bengal Presidency (later Bengal Province) in East India. Much later, the Great Bengal Famine in 1943 killed up to 3 million people.Amartya Sen, Poverty and Famines: An Essay on Entitlement and Deprivation (New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 52.
Colonial rule was largely to blame. In the late 18th century, Britain’s extractive revenue policies in Bengal left people with very little means to procure food grains. Two centuries later, millions of Indians died, not because of declining food availability,Sen, Poverty and Famines, 79.but because British economic expenditures during World War II created powerful inflationary pressure,Poverty and Famines, 75.leading speculators to hoard grain and sell it in the market at exorbitant prices, which the colonial government in Bengal failed to regulate.Poverty and Famines, 76. For an authoritative account of the famines, the role of the colonial state, and their impacts in peasant life in western India, see David Hall-Matthews, Peasants, Famine and the State in Colonial Western India (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005).
Colonial rule was marked by a deadly paucity of several essential things: democratic accountability, sound public policy, care for Britain’s “citizen subjects,” and commitment to a fair allocation of resources — what political philosophers have termed “distributive justice.”This term is associated with Rawls’s theory of justice. See, e.g., Samuel Freeman, “Rawls on Distributive Justice and the Difference Principle,” in The Oxford Handbook of Distributive Justice, ed. Serena Olsaretti (Oxford University Press, 2018). In this paper, we follow a capability theory of distributive justice as expounded by Sen as “fair distribution of capabilities and functionings.” See Amartya Sen, “What Do We Want from a Theory of Justice?”, Journal of Philosophy 103, no. 5 (2006): 215–238. In this way, one can make a comparison between different policy/social/political arrangements and the degree of injustice in them, and advance measures toward a less unjust society. See A. Sen, “Democracy as a Universal Value,” Journal of Democracy 10, no. 3 (1999): 3–17.One of the underappreciated benefits of Indian independence and democracy has been the end of famine.
With democracy, land reform, and public investment in infrastructure and technology, India’s agricultural productivity has skyrocketed, and the specter of famines has faded. In the years after independence, the Indian government ended feudal land relations in most regions and established a Public Distribution System (PDS) with a food-for-work program to ensure the food security of the rural poor.One of the last such initiatives was the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA, 2005), which ensured up to 100 days of work in rural India on demand as a justiciable right. See also Geof Wood, “Urban Poverty and Vulnerability in India: DfID’s Experiences from a Social Policy Perspective,” August 2001, https://www.researchgate.net/p...''s_Experiences_from_a_Social_Policy_Perspective''DfID.In the decades that followed, India’s technology-driven “Green Revolution” helped ensure durable food security through investments in agricultural research and development; subsidies for key agricultural inputs like fertilizers, water, and electricity; and a price guarantee for crops deemed critical for food security.
For India, food sovereignty and popular sovereignty have evolved together and have been mutually reinforcing. Against those who argue that the Green Revolution was a neo-colonial project imposed upon India by Western powers, the reality is that India’s Green Revolution was developed primarily by Indians for Indians. India’s postwar political leadership adopted and adapted Green Revolution technologies not at the behest of Western powers, but rather in a determined effort to break free of them.
The Green Revolution, in turn, was inseparable from the country’s continuing democratization, ushering in a sea change in the social, political, and economic structure of certain parts of the country. In particular, in Punjab (the northwestern state and the heart of the Green Revolution in India), the paradigm shift in agricultural production catalyzed a transformation in democratic governance.
Today, India’s agricultural sector is criticized by both neoliberals and the eco-Left. The former argue that continued price supports to ensure sufficient crop production for domestic needs are unnecessary and that India ought to shift more of its production to serve higher-value export markets. The latter argue that Western ideas about farming and technology have crowded out local knowledge and are antithetical to what the green-development advocate Vandana Shiva has called “participatory development.”Noel Keough, “Participatory Development Principles and Practice: Reflections of a Western Development Worker,” Community Development Journal 33, no. 3 (July 1998): 187–96.
Both claims are misguided and ahistorical. Despite its flaws and unintended outcomes, the Green Revolution expanded the political participation of hitherto marginalized groups and played a critical role in India’s transformation during the latter half of the 20th century into a vibrant, multiparty democracy. Far from a Western conspiracy, the Green Revolution was undertaken precisely to break India’s dependence on American food imports during the middle of the 20th century. India’s hard-won food sovereignty was a product of centralized policy making and strong state intervention — an achievement that neoliberal reformers would sacrifice on the altar of market efficiency and globalized capitalism.
The seeds of India’s Green Revolution lay in the creation of a class of farmers who owned sizable plots of land to cultivate for their livelihood, free from both feudal tenancy and colonial exploitation. Before British colonial rule, farmers were tenants to feudal lords, but the British consolidated the feudal system, bestowing royal titles and property rights on elites, thereby strengthening the system of farmers’ subjugation.
In most of India, feudalism formally ended in 1950, three years after independence, with the passage of the Zamindari Abolition Act. This was followed by a host of land reforms and land ceiling acts, the goals of which were twofold — first, “to eliminate all elements of exploitation and social injustice within the agrarian system, to provide security for the tiller of the soil and assure equality of status and opportunity to all sections of the rural population.” Second, and relatedly, they were intended “to create conditions for evolving as speedily as possible an agricultural economy with high levels of efficiency and productivity.”Planning Commission Government of India, Five Year Plans, “Third Five Year Plan,” Chapter 14, “Land Reform: Objectives for the Third Plan,” https://niti.gov.in/planningcommission.gov.in/docs/plans/planrel/fiveyr/3rd/3planch14.html.With the passage of the Zamindari Act, these reforms liberated farmers from the hands of an exploiting feudal elite in most of India.
Within a decade of independence, tenancy rates fell from 60 to 25 percent, and farmers owning land parcels between 2.5 and 15 acres went up from 40 to 75 percent.Christophe Jaffrelot and Pratinav Anil, India’s First Dictatorship: The Emergency, 1975-77 (New York: Oxford University Press, 2020).India’s independence also led to land reforms that eventually created a class of land-owing farmers with moderate holdings — “citizen farmers” in the Punjab region who would become the heart of India’s Green Revolution.
With the end of British colonial rule, the subcontinent was divided into two countries along religious lines. Following the Partition of 1947, the majority-Muslim regions of western Punjab and eastern Bengal became Pakistan, and majority-Hindu and Sikh regions of eastern Punjab and western Bengal became two states of the Republic of India. Splitting up the country’s territory by religion catalyzed reciprocal genocide and mass migration — more than six million Muslims left their homes for Pakistan, while an almost equal number of Hindus and Sikhs settled in India.
The land that Muslim farmers abandoned in India were systematically distributed to the refugee farmers, many of whom were freed from the debt they carried with moneylenders and feudal lords in Pakistan. For the sake of equity, the distribution scheme was carried out with the creation of standard units of land (annas) based on both size and productivity, to ensure that even the smallest land holdings were sufficiently large and productive to be economically viable. This increased the number of land-owning farmers, who shared a common bond, united by their ancestors’ survival of colonial rule,The British treated Punjab as a province with a high prospect for agricultural development. Between 1886 and 1940, the British built a network of nine canal colonies in western Punjab (now in Pakistan) in the tract that lies east of the rivers Beas and Sutlej and west of the Jhelum River. Historians have regarded this as one of the “grandest projects of social engineering” that the colonial government had undertaken in the Indian subcontinent. Thus, the average area irrigated rose from 943,000 acres in 1886 to about 4,123,500 acres by 1899 (Neeladri Bhattacharya, The Great Agrarian Conquest: The Colonial Reshaping of a Rural World [Ranikhet: Permanent Black, 2019]: 385).The colonial government mobilized huge populations (mostly Punjabi Sikhs and Hindus) from the eastern part of the province (now in India) to these colonies and granted them parcels of agricultural land. One-fifth of all these refugee farmers were from the canal colonies. Although dispossessed of land and property, these refugees brought with them the knowledge and experience of entrepreneurial farming. And, once settled in Indian Punjab, this experience became valuable social capital for them.two world wars, and a brutal civil war. Simultaneously, the reforms decreased absentee landlordism, as refugee landlords had to accept smaller plots than they had in Pakistan and were forced to take up farming themselves.
Local, bottom-up efforts to equitably and democratically reform land relations worked hand and hand with state and national efforts to raise agricultural productivity. Local village governments called Panchayats created committees to implement the new farmland distribution scheme, while the central government pumped enormous resources into the development of irrigation and power infrastructure in Punjab.Inderjeet Singh and Kesar Singh Bhangoo, “Irrigation System in Indian Punjab,” Munich Personal RePEc Archive (September 29, 2013), https://mpra.ub.uni-muenchen.de/50270/1/MPRA_paper_50270.pdf.
The benefits for the region’s agricultural productivity were dramatic. On the second anniversary of the “Partitioned Independence,” officials reported “a mood of subdued optimism” prevailing over the state: “The campaign against scarcity of food grains has succeeded beyond our most sanguine expectations.”Cited in Tai Yong Tan and Gyanesh Kudaisya, The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia (London: Routledge, 2000): 137.And the following year, in 1950, Punjab declared itself a food surplus state. On the eve of the third anniversary of independence, Chief Minister Dr G. C. Bhargava announced, “the tragic story of partition is a matter of history.… The brave Punjabis, by their unremitting toil and steadfastness of purpose…are now pulling themselves together through a unique effort of will.”Tan and Kudaisya, The Aftermath of Partition in South Asia, 138.
The ground had been laid for India’s Green Revolution.
Two successive years of little monsoon rains in 1965–1966, coupled with the effects of wars with China and Pakistan, brought northern India — especially the state of Bihar — to the brink of famine once again. Food grain production declined by one-fifth in those years and failed to recover in 1967.Sukhamoy Chakravarty, Development Planning: The Indian Experience (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1987); M. H. Suryanarayana, “PDS: Beyond Implicit Subsidy and Urban Bias — The Indian Experience,” Food Policy 20, no. 4 (1995): 259–78, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/0306919295000259.India’s inflation rate, which had previously remained very low, at around 2 percent, shot up to an average of 12 percent between 1965 and 1968.
Faced with tremendous scarcity, India was compelled to import grain from the United States. With India desperate and vulnerable, the United States took advantage, pressuring India to devalue the rupee, open its agricultural market,India’s story of economic liberalization dates back to the crisis of 1965–1966. The structural reforms that were suggested in 1966 included deregulation of imports and a thorough rationalization of export subsidies (it was believed that devaluing the rupee would protect domestic producers from the resultant shock), reducing the government’s control over private investment through licensing, encouraging private and foreign investment in crucial sectors including agriculture, decontrolling fertilizer production and distribution, reducing the government’s share in heavy industry, etc. See Ankit Mital, “India and Liberalisation: There Was a 1966 Before 1991,” Mint 24 (January 24, 2016), https://www.livemint.com/Sundayapp/h4nQPwoxX2j8HnftPQt2BI/India-and-liberalization-There-was-a-1966-before-1991.html. For a more authoritative account of the 1966 deal, see David Denoon, “Cycles in Indian Economic Liberalization, 1966-1996,” Comparative Politics 31, no. 1 (1998): 43–60.and revise its criticism of the US military policy in Vietnam, among a host of other coercive demands. President Johnson instructed his officials to keep India “on a short leash” so that India had no choice but to accept America’s terms. In effect, wheat was used as a Cold War weapon. The experience was humiliating. As journalist Inder Malhotra recollected, “those of us who lived through that era swallowed a measure of humiliation with every morsel of American food.”Inder Malhotra, “Indira Gandhi’s Leftward Swing,” The Indian Express (June 10, 2013), http://archive.indianexpress.com/news/indira-gandhi-s-leftward-swing/1127048/.
After the situation stabilized, India’s new Prime Minister, Indira Gandhi, instructed the agriculture and irrigation minister of her cabinet, Babu Jagjivan Ram, to accelerate moves toward ensuring India’s food self-sufficiency.
Punjab was chosen as a potential grain bowl for the entire nation. To help Punjabi farmers increase productivity, the Indian government subsidized agricultural inputs such as fertilizers, water, and electricity. But it also mobilized enormous resources to develop its physical and agricultural research infrastructure, including irrigation facilities, rural electrification, and newly founded agricultural universities to develop fertilizers and high-yielding seeds. The first large-scale irrigation and power project in postcolonial India, known as the Bhakra Nangal Dam on Sutlej, became operational in 1963. Although it irrigated hectares of land in Haryana, Western Uttar Pradesh (UP), Rajasthan, and Gujarat, it was built primarily to supply water and cheap power to farmers in Punjab.Surinder S. Jodhka, “Changing Modes of Agriculture in Punjab,” The India Forum (May 31, 2021), https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/changing-modes-agriculture-punjab.
However, the real trigger for India’s Green Revolution was a price incentive to encourage farmers to grow crops deemed necessary for national food security. The newly created Food Corporation of India (FCI) would purchase these crops from farmers at Minimum Support Price (MSP) and procurement prices,Shreya Sinha, “The Agrarian Crisis in Punjab and the Making of the Anti-Farm Law Protests,” The India Forum (November 28, 2020), https://www.theindiaforum.in/article/agrarian-crisis-punjab-and-making-anti-farm-law-protests.which were set high enough to ensure that farming communities could support themselves. This arrangement rolled out for the first time in 1966–1967; it initially covered only wheat but eventually incorporated rice and other grains.Unnati Sharma, “What’s MSP and How Is It Determined? The Issue at the Heart of Farm Protests,” The Print (December 8, 2020), https://theprint.in/theprint-essential/whats-msp-and-how-is-it-determined-the-issue-at-the-heart-of-farm-protests/562172/.
The price guarantee ensured that farmers had an incomeSinha, “The Agrarian Crisis in Punjab.”and provided a safety net to protect against unpredictable monsoon rain. Further, it helped simplify and clarify farmers’ decisions about which crops to grow and how much. Importantly, the system was voluntary — farmers were under no obligation to shift their production or sell any amount of their crops to the FCI. There was no mechanism for “enforcement.”Prabhat Patnaik, “Free Market Solution of Centre Is Against Interests of Indian Farmers,” The Leaflet (December 11, 2020), https://www.theleaflet.in/free-market-solution-of-centre-is-against-interests-of-indian-farmers/.
The government also ensured that consumer food prices remained low. The PDS had to sell food grains to consumers at a sufficiently low price, and a food subsidy compensated for the “gap” in the government’s budget. On the other hand, a large food stock in the FCI warehouses acted as a cap on speculative spirals in the market, as had occurred during the Great Bengal Famine in 1943.
These new policies and institutions were a resounding success, raising both agricultural productivity and economic prosperity. The annual growth rate of food-grain production in Punjab between 1966 and 1986 was more than double that of the country as a whole. Owning a tractor became a symbol of power and economic prosperity for the farming households. According to one estimate, Punjab had 17,459 tractors per 1,00,000 [sic] holdings, compared with an average of 714 for all of India.Surinder S. Jodhka, “Beyond ‘Crises’: Rethinking Contemporary Punjab Agriculture,” Economic and Political Weekly 41, no. 16, 1530.Agricultural science became a lucrative field of study. The graduates from the agricultural universities found employment in the grassroots state bureaucracy, rural banks, and research laboratories. In Punjab, Haryana, and UP, hundreds of children from farming families received university educations for the first time.
The Green Revolution profoundly transformed India’s economic, political, and social structure. A new class of wealthy farmers began to exercise their newfound political power as a form of rural unionism emerged.Rajan Pandey, “Agrarian Change and Peasant Politics: A Case Study of Western Uttar Pradesh in the Post Green Revolution Period,” PhD Dissertation, Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, 2016.As a result, successive governments were reluctant to tax them.Sudipta Kaviraj, “A Critique of Passive Revolution,” Economic and Political Weekly 23, no. 45/47, 2439–2444.This transformation was integral to India’s “silent revolution,” in which lower castes — its former “silent majority” — developed a voice in society and politics. In the 1970s and 1980s, this complex system of economy and polity — of food sovereignty and popular sovereignty — created a new social contract between the citizens and the Indian state.
Farmers gradually developed a stronger voice within national parliamentary politics.Kaviraj, “A Critique of Passive Revolution.”In Lok Sabha, the lower house of India’s bicameral parliament, the percentage of members who had previously been involved in agriculture grew substantially. From the first Lok Sahba in 1952–1957 to the twelfth in 1998–1999, the percentage swelled from some 22 percent to nearly 50 percent. Simultaneously, the percentage of self-identified “landlords,” who had been ubiquitous in Parliament in the 1950s, fell to zero by the 1980s.B. L. Shankar and V. Rodrigues, The Indian Parliament: A Democracy at Work (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2011).
Thanks to rising agricultural productivity, this new class of leaders hailed from economically prosperous, landowning castes that had previously lacked political representation — including Jat Sikhs in Punjab and Haryana, Yadavs in UP, and Kammas and Reddis in Andhra Pradesh. Previously, in the first two decades after independence, their representatives in Congress had been exclusively educated, upper-caste urban leaders.
State politics in Punjab and other centers of the Green Revolution also shifted. New regional political parties came into being, such as Charan Singh’s Bharatiya Kranti Dal (BKD) in UP and the Telugu Desam Party in Andhra Pradesh, as did farmers’ unions like the Bharatiya Kisan Union. These new parties began to perform remarkably well, challenging the local dominance of the Congress Party. In 1967, for example, Gurnam Singh from the Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) party became the Chief Minister of Punjab, ending the 20-year run of the Congress Party in the state.
The new chief ministers consistently represented the interests of prosperous farmers and advocated on their behalf at the national level. The SAD-led government in Punjab, for example, successfully lobbied the Agricultural Prices Commission to freeze the procurement price of grain for five years rather than reduce it.Suhit K. Sen, The Paradox of Populism: The Indira Gandhi Years, 1966–1977 (New Delhi: Primus, 2019): 197.
The rising power of these regional parties effectively ushered in a new coalition era in the national Congress in the late 1970s. India’s Green Revolution, created by the Congress Party would, ironically, eventually bring an end to its dominant position in Indian national politics.
At the same time the Green Revolution empowered wealthy land-owning farmers, it sharpened the class divide between them and smaller farmers and landless agricultural laborers.Jodhka, “Changing Modes of Agriculture.” See also Francine R. Frankel, India’s Political Economy, 1947–2004: The Gradual Revolution (2nd edition) (New Delhi: Oxford University Press, 2005).These kisans (rich and middle farmers) had been the harbingers of change in rural India. Moreover, as the political scientist Francine Frankel has observed, “the presence of small pockets of affluence raised the prospects of establishing an enclave economy in the rural areas with a permanent separation between a small, high-productivity section and the majority of the work force.”Frankel, India’s Political Economy, 581.
This widening divide had a caste dimension. The political narrative of the Green Revolution celebrated hardworking and enterprising kisans belonging to the Jat or other middle-caste communities. They were positioned against, on the one hand, the parasitic upper-caste urbanites and landowners, and on the other, the lowest caste Dalits, who made up the majority of the agricultural labor force.Jodhka, “Changing Modes of Agriculture.”
In order to succeed and govern, the new political parties had to tread a slippery path to build consensus around agrarian issues that cut across the class–caste divides. Issues such as input subsidies, “remunerative pricing,” and farm income-tax exemptions consolidated the rural vote because these issues constituted a lifeline for all kinds of interest groups in the villages.Jaffrelot and Anil, India’s First Dictatorship.
Those who prospered economically during the Green Revolution consequently gained a political voice and were able to persuade subordinate classes to accept their political leadership. The new agrarian political formations and farmers’ unions in the 1970s and the 1980s were able to aggregate the interests and preferences of different social groups more efficiently than a nationally dominant singular political formation like the Congress Party, primarily through support for state price and input subsidies and infrastructure investments.
During these years, India witnessed a deepening of democracy as competitive electoral mobilization touched every household. This democratization process evolved hand in hand with a “tactical extension of the state from the narrow confines of the propertied and largely urban middle classes”Partha Chatterjee, I Am the People: Reflections on Popular Sovereignty Today (New Delhi: Permanent Black, 2020), XV.into the “interior of everyday peasant life.”Partha Chatterjee, “Democracy and Economic Transformation in India,” Economic and Political Weekly (April 19, 2008): 54.Because no strong ideology united these political formations with their supporters, political parties competed to woo voters with more subsidies and other advantageous policies.
This arrangement had long-term implications (both intended and unintended) for a more equitable distribution of the advantagesSeveral workers, contributing to the “farm size–productivity debate,” concluded that the new Green Revolution technology had proven beneficial for the farmers of all classes, even though middle-class and rich farmers accrued more benefits than did marginal and small farmers. Prannoy Roy, “Transition in Agriculture: Empirical Indicators and Results (evidence from Punjab, India),” Journal of Peasant Studies 8, no. 2 (1981): 212–41.and burdens of “social cooperation.” These were sustained and safeguarded by a multiparty competitive electoral democracy as politically marginalized communities gained a voice in the country’s political system.
Inclusion built trust between the government and the governed, and competitive electoral politics around subsidies improved the bargaining position of vulnerable farmers and laborers from lower castes. From the time of the Green Revolution, popular demands for subsidies both increasingly determined India’s political future and were social justice–enhancing and redistributive.
Owing to their higher productivity and greater scale, large farmers benefited much more than did small farmers. Also, inter-caste violence, especially targeting the Dalit laboring class, remained a reliable feature of rural life, especially in states such as Bihar, UP, Haryana, and Rajasthan, where the landholding castes retained armed militias to keep the local Dalit and migrant labor force “under control.”
Despite these setbacks, the Green Revolution created and sustained a significant consensus across rural regions for many decades. Small farmers benefited from the MSP, which protected them from speculators and moneylenders.Sinha, “The Agrarian Crisis in Punjab.”Moreover, the whole arrangement expanded the horizon of consent and institutionalized it, enfranchising the rural masses and creating strong incentives for the state to extend welfare-enhancing entitlements to those newly empowered constituents.
Critics of India’s Green Revolution — from the eco-Left to the neoliberal Right — have largely forgotten this history. Neoliberal scholars attack the pricing system as state interference in the market.Ashok Gulati and Anil Sharma, “Subsidy Syndrome in Indian Agriculture,” Economic and Political Weekly 30, no. 39 (1995): A-93–A-102.They argue that it serves no purpose because India is not just food secure but produces more than the population can consume. They point out, for example, that every year the FCI stockpiles and wastes millions of tons of food grainsPatnaik, “Free Market Solution.”and that, during the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, the government decided to divert potentially wasted rice grains to produce ethanol.Siraj Hussain and Ajit Ranade, “Diverting Rice to Produce Ethanol During Pandemic Is Unethical,” Indian Express, May 6, 2020, https://indianexpress.com/article/opinion/columns/rice-to-produce-ethanol-hand-sanitisers-coronavirus-6395644/.They argue that India could improve its balance of trade and raise incomes for farmers by importing cheap grains that many advanced capitalist countries overproduce and instead growing higher-value crops for export that are in high demand among these countries.Patnaik, “Free Market Solution.”
However, these claims mistake maldistribution for surplus.Also, if India is a food-surplus country, why has it witnessed a five-year-high rate of retail inflation in 2019? For an illuminating analysis, see Siraj Hussain, “How Did We Go From ‘Food Surplus’ in 2018, to Five-Year High Retail Inflation Now?”, The Wire (January 15, 2020), https://thewire.in/economy/india-food-surplus-2018-retail-inflation-high.As of 2020, India remained in the “serious” category in the Global Hunger Index,India – Global Hunger Index (GHI), https://www.globalhungerindex.org/india.html.and the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization found that 14 percent of India’s population are undernourished.Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, The State of Food Security and Nutrition in the World 2020: Transforming Food Systems for Affordable Healthy Diets, Table A1.2, 182, https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/index.php?page=view&type=20000&nr=6909&menu=2993.Whatever surplus exists in FCI warehousesA recent estimate reveals that the total quantity of food grain currently stockpiled in FCI warehouses could provide a 20-kg monthly allowance of food grain per head for 8 months to 108 million Indians. For an illuminating analysis, see Shambhavi Sharma and Sourya Majumder, “Lack of Political Will, Not Grains, Is Why We Do Not Have Universal PDS,” The Wire (May 25, 2021), https://thewire.in/labour/migrant-workers-covid-19-universal-pds-food-subsidies.is the result of a distribution failure and lack of consumer purchasing power.Patnaik, “Free Market Solution.”It is a matter of national shame that hunger and malnutrition still haunt India even though it has escaped from the colonial era famines.
If anything, India’s Green Revolution stalled too early, as it began to lose momentum in the 1990s. In Punjab, between 1966 and 1980, agriculture grew by an average of 3.18 percent per year, and this growth rate rose to 4.87 percent during the next decade. However, growth slowed to 0.37 between 1991 and 1999 and fell to –2.38 in 2003.Jodhka, “Beyond ‘Crises’”: 1532.India still struggles to achieve a robust domestic market that can sustain high growth rates in agriculture.Frankel, India’s Political Economy.Indebtedness, shrinking farm size, and lack of access to agricultural technology and labor have even compelled many farmers to commit suicide.
Second, India is better suited to grow grains than many of the countries from which neoliberal critics want India to import them. Whereas North America’s wheat belt can grow only one wheat crop in a year because the soil remains under cover of snow for six months, in Punjab, farmers can grow three crops in a year. And in the deltas of South India, farmers grow two crops of rice and a crop of groundnut or beans (pulses).Frankel, India’s Political Economy. See also Prabhat Patnaik, “Farm Bills and Current State of Indian Agriculture,” invited/special talk organized by the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Indian Institute of Science Education and Research Mohali, April 10, 2021.
Third, if India entered the grain import market, food prices would increase as a result of greater global demand, further risking India’s food security.Prabhat Patnaik, “Free Market Solution.” See also Patnaik, “Farm Bills.”Speculators and hoarders would then descend on the country and raise prices further. It is only in view of current prices (which don’t reflect India’s hypothetical demand) that importing food grains seems to make economic sense, but this is an illusion. Further, diverting land to grow other crops might actually destabilize the agricultural labor market because new crops may be less labor intensive but more capital intensive. This could mean more unemployment and less purchasing power in rural India.
Finally, the neoliberal vision also raises the specter of neo-colonialism, once again leaving India’s food security at the mercy of foreign powers. This was also the case the 1960s, while converting India’s grain belt to produce specialty crops and placing Indian farmers at the mercy of Western consumers.
If the neoliberals would sell India’s hard-won agricultural productivity to the highest bidder, the eco-leftists would dismantle it entirely, returning Indian agriculture to the neo-feudal technologies and arrangements that predated independence. Whereas Vandana Shiva maintains that the Green Revolution was an external project,Keough, “Participatory Development Principles and Practice,” 188.nothing could be further from the truth. Instead, the revolution was implemented by the farmers themselves. Far from being victims or spectators, Indian farmers had agency in translating scientific knowledge into practice, fusing them through their own expertise. In failing to recognize this, Shiva ironically is guilty of the same post-Enlightenment binarism of science-versus-practice that she views as a cardinal sin.
The Green Revolution was emancipatory for both the nation and its farmers, allowing India to shed its dependence on Western powers to feed itself and giving farmers a political voice and economic agency that simply was not possible in the low-productivity systems that characterized both the pre-colonial and colonial eras. These hard-won freedoms should not be sacrificed at the altars of either Nature (as Shiva and environmental critics would have it) or the free market, as the neoliberals would have it.
Of course, India’s Green Revolution came with trade-offs and unintended effects. Even though it created more equity overall, women and lower castes continue to get the short end of the stick in India’s rural economy. For example, the partition of India and Pakistan solidified a class of low-wage agricultural laborers among lower-caste Dalits, many of whom migrated to eastern Punjab as refugees.The highest percentage of Dalit population can be found in Punjab (31.9 percent), followed by Himachal Predesh (25.2 percent) and West Bengal (23.5 percent). These three states (Himachal Pradesh was with Punjab at the time of Independence) witnessed refugee influxes after partition. See Dhirendra Kumar Jena, “Status of Dalit Women: A Human Rights Perspective,” https://www.iarconsortium.org/articles/718_Status_of_Dalit_Women_A_Human_Rights_Perspective.They were given entitlements to the nazul (government-owned) land and the village commons, but their share was so small that they had little opportunity to escape agricultural labor. Moreover, the high concentration of Dalits in villages after partition enabled these farmers to hire them for low wages.
In today’s India, conflict is growing between the land-owing middle castes and the landless Dalits in PunjabAs mentioned above, Dalits constitutes 31.9 percent of the state’s population but own only 2.3 percent of the agricultural land. Sandeep Singh, “‘We Are One’: Why Punjab’s Landless Dalits are Standing with Protesting Farmers,” The Wire (January 7, 2021), https://thewire.in/caste/punjab-landless-dalit-farmers-protest.over wages, migration, and control over common lands, leading to the death and murder of many Dalits. Further, the mechanization of agriculture has reduced demand for manual agricultural labor that other sectors of India’s economy have not been able to take up. The impacts have landed hardest upon women,In India, women are not culturally acknowledged as “farmers.” In farm statistics, they are often included in the column of housewives and widows. Anushika Srivastava, “Farmer Suicide Data Incomplete As Women Aren’t Considered Farmers,” She the People (February 2020), https://www.shethepeople.tv/news/women-farmer-suicide-data. According to a study, 42 percent of farm work is done by women, but they own less than 2 percent of farmland. National Council of Applied Economic Research, “Gender Gap in Land Ownership” (April 17, 2018), https://www.ncaer.org/news_details.php?nID=252&nID=252.for whom a smaller role in farming means less status and bargaining power within their families. This trend, in turn, has led to malnutrition, infanticide, and domestic violence amid rising drug use among men. There has been no outcry for social policies to protect these groups.
India’s natural capital also suffered with the environmental impacts of the revolution. Soil salinity and deforestation worsened, leading to massive soil erosion over large parts of Punjab, Haryana, and Western UP. Tragically, farmers were not given the proper scientific knowledge and technology to revitalize the soil.
Nonetheless, the solution to these problems is not to abandon the Green Revolution but rather to expand public investment, technology, and most important, the democratic inclusion to address them. India needs a second Green Revolution — one that includes massive public investments in natural capital commensurate with the investments India made in its physical and social capital in the 1950s and 1970s.Partha Dasgupta, “Creative Accounting,” Nature 456, no. 44 (October 30, 2008), https://www.nature.com/articles/twas08.44a.Punjab farmers have always proven themselves eager to adopt new practices, knowledge, and technology, and — with renewed trust between citizens and the public authorities — they can once again be at the forefront of the fight for a more just and sustainable society.