By Sharone Daniel:
Back in 1966, India was on the brink of mass starvation. The production of food grains had not kept up with an exploding population and the last few years had seen “back to back droughts”. To save the nation from widespread famine, 20-50 thousand tons of US grains had to be imported daily. One of the main reasons that India found itself in such a precarious state was due to the negligence of the central government. In 1959, an American team of researchers had shown the courtesy of warning the Indian government of the impending crisis, and while Jawaharlal Nehru and his cabinet gave the report “respectful attention in New Delhi”, their reaction was not “the hoped-for galvanizing of resolve”.
It was therefore left to Lal Bahadur Shastri, elected in mid-1964, to take action. With widespread hunger snipping at his heels, Shastri urged farmers to plant more than one crop per year and pleaded with the populace to save food and turn their backyards into food sources. Sadly, Shastri lost the race against time, in more ways than one. He was able to avert a large famine, but the failure to put homegrown food on Indian plates paved the road for the Green Chemical Revolution. The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations stepped in to ‘save India’, bringing ‘high-yielding’ rice and wheat varieties, chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and increased irrigation with them (not to the drought affected areas, of course, but to water rich Punjab).
As the Chemical Revolution grew in importance, agrarian reform, a mainstay of the independence movement, took a back seat. Though Punjab had passed the PEPSU Tenancy and Agricultural Lands Act (1955), which improved tenant-farmers rights and set land ceilings, its implementation was dismal. Consequently, during the 1970’s, as the Chemical Revolution settled in, land became more concentrated in the hands of large and extra-large holdings, while these same parties increased the amount of land they leased. This made tenancy more and more the domain of large operators instead of the traditional poor peasantry. Continued attention to reforms that could have brought long-lasting and deep rooted food sovereignty to India’s small farmers were given scant attention.
That Punjab’s ‘Green Revolution’ has turned pallid is no secret. Soil is depleted, water tables are sinking, debts are rising, and farmers are committing suicide. You can read more about these phenomena here, here and here. How the government feels about the revolution’s chemical based technologies and monocultures, however, is far less discernable. ‘Progressive Punjab’, CM Badal’s project for attracting investment, is somewhat oxymoronic. It’s calling on big corporations to save them from the effects of big corporations.
The state recognizes the problems that, in their words, the “over-exploitation of natural resources such as soil and water” have caused. It just organized an Agricultural Summit in order to, among other things, “catalyze the process of improving the sustainability and economic viability of farming”. The buzzwords are present, but their commitment lacks panache. Badal sounds less like a CM intent on revamping a state and more like a confused but yappy puppy stuck between a rock and a hard place. It takes time to heal the soil and replenish water sources. It takes patience, practice, and a great deal of ‘un’ and ‘re-learning’ to wean oneself off of push-button pesticide and fertilizer solutions and on to the complex management of an ecosystem. If Punjab wanted to go the way of sustainability quickly, the government would need to be loud and proud about this commitment. But it apparently doesn’t have the money to put where its mouth ought to permanently be.
Nonetheless, Badal is overflowing with excellent public policy ideas. He believes that “the need of the hour is to completely overhaul the center’s policy in order to safeguard the interest of farmers”. He’s talked about low interest loans to farmers, increasing the budget allocation for agriculture from 3.7% to 10%, disaster relief, remunerative MSPs for alternative crops, and diversification of agricultural activities. In virtually the same breath though, Badal has told investors that their desires are his desires and that he will do what it takes to see them come to fruition. This has translated into providing “exemptions from regulatory checks to certain industries” , as part of the ‘Business Environment’ “package”, as well as vesting “powers of multiple boards in one person” in order to simplify the “approval system for setting-up business in Punjab”.
Despite the avalanche of red flags precipitated by such actions, the scanty bit of information available seems to indicate that the agricultural sector might not be hit too badly in Badal’s drive for investment. It might even come out as a little bit of winner. Just a bit. Five of the MOU’s listed on the ‘Progressive Punjab’ website, and four of the largest MOU’s, are for renewable energy projects. One of the projects is focused on solar energy, another on biomass in general, while three will be using agricultural ‘waste’ for energy production. Unfortunately, all twelve of the MOU’s are concerned with potatoes, rice or wheat, so diversification won’t exactly be encouraged. It’s a bit like fixing a problem with one hand while entrenching it with the other, but I’ll take it.
Less exciting than renewable energy companies are the large food and beverage businesses that “Progressive Punjab” has already brought in and will continue to bring in. These corporations are not new to Punjab, but this makes their habitation no less worrying as their growing presence is likely to be of little help in working towards the more lofty goals of sustainability and sovereignty. Large corporations tend to require huge quantities of a few low-cost foods. They also tend to exercise considerable power over the supply chain because of their size and bargaining power. As such, they often work against handing power over to small farmers or enabling them to enrich their land and protect their livelihoods through growing and selling a diverse range of grains, millets, nuts, and produce for a just price. Not ideal, to say the least.
Had Badal used the surpluses from the years of plenty to wean Punjab’s farmers off chemicals and implement all the reforms that he is now discussing, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. But like Nehru before the food crisis, Punjab chose to party on. While that lesson has been wasted, Punjab can still learn that the complex, multi-faceted crisis it was and is faced with cannot be solved with a simplistic solution, be it chemicals or investors. Let’s hope that Badal is not just paying lip-service to small farmers and the environment, and that his obeisance to the private sector is not as zealous as it appears.