A Revolution Comes Home To Roost...Leaving Hunger In The Midst Of Plenty

Dyal Singh knows that the soil of his 3.3-hectare farm in Punjab is becoming less fertile. So far, it hasn't hurt his harvest of wheat and corn. "There will be a great problem after 5 or 10 years," says the 63-year-old Sikh farmer.

Years of using high-yield seeds that require heavy irrigation and chemical fertilizers have taken their toll on much of India's farmland. Few farmers are willing to do anything to reduce their productivity, even though they know their practices are killing the land. So far, 6% of agricultural land has been rendered useless. India is producing enough to feed itself right now, but agricultural production is stagnating while the population grows at the rate of 2.1% each year. That's 19 million people.

The overcultivation of the land is a direct result of the so-called Green Revolution of the 1960s, say experts. India then was on the brink of starvation, and new breeds of high-yield seeds were produced to enable the country to feed itself. "The Green Revolution was the best thing that ever happened to India, but there were some flaws," concedes Devinder Sharma, an agricultural expert and author. The new seeds needed to be heavily fertilized, which today causes India to use 60% more chemical fertilizer per hectare than the U.S.

The revolution also contributed to land overuse by concentrating mostly on a small part of the country--Punjab, which accounts for less than 2% of India's land mass but produces 25% of its wheat. "A large potential in the rest of the country needs to be tapped," says Suresh K. Sinha, director of the Indian Agricultural Research Institute in New Delhi. But instead of trying to make land in other parts of India cultivatable, research centers have bowed to the clout of Punjab farmers--developing higher-yield seeds needing even more fertilizers and water.

Now, experts say one way to save existing farmland is to forgo crops such as rice that deplete soil nutrients and require heavy irrigation. But in the past year or so, Punjab farmers have found an export market for rice in the Middle East and continue to hike production.

Prime Minister P.V. Narasimha Rao says grain production must increase by 25% by the year 2000 if India is to continue to feed itself. But population growth alone is making that prospect unlikely. Farms are becoming smaller--not what's happening in much of the rest of the world--as they are divided among sons as inheritance. With no more than a few hectaress of land to till, farmers do all they can to increase productivity in the short term. "Nobody in the state of Punjab lets land lie fallow," says 76-year-old Gurnam Singh, whose three sons will inherit and split his 29-hectare farm. "We're getting crops only because of fertilizer. We know it's a problem, but it's a problem later. One day, we'll probably all be helpless," he says with a laugh.

Even though Indian granaries are overflowing now, 5,000 children die each day of malnutrition. One-third of India's 900 million people are poverty-stricken.

The problem, says K.N. Kabra, an economist with the Indian Institute of Public Administration, is the government's pricing of its huge buffer stock of food. It buys 15% of all food grains produced annually to be sold at 400,000 state-owned "fair-price shops." But these prices are as high as regular market prices. The government says it can't afford to lower prices. Critics say the government is too concerned about upsetting farmers to lower the prices.

Since grain sold on the open market tends to be fresher and can sometimes be bought on credit, as opposed to the cash-only state stores, the government is left trying to store millions of tons of foods. Some is rotting, and there is concern that rotten grain may find its way to public markets.

The Green Revolution of the 1960s may have increased Indian self-sufficiency, but the benefits to the poor have been meager. They now have more variety in their diets, but their caloric intake has barely increased. They're waiting for a second revolution.

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