ROBERT SIEGEL, host:
From NPR News this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.
The whole world is preoccupied with the economic meltdown, understandably. But there is another crisis looming: how can developing countries feed their booming populations? Well, now we bring you a cautionary tale about one of the biggest countries in trouble, India. World leaders often hail India as an agricultural miracle. People there were starving just a few decades ago, and then scientists and aid groups taught Indians in one region to farm the American way, with chemicals and high-yield seeds. So now India can often export food.
But evidence suggests its miracle is unsustainable and India's farmers are heading toward disaster.
NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.
DANIEL ZWERDLING: Our story begins in a village called Chotia Khurd. Twenty farmers are sitting on plastic chairs in a circle on a stone courtyard. They've come to explain why everything they've achieved over the last 40 years could be about to collapse. But first, they have to wait while I sip tea with hot milk and sugar, and they serve me platters of hot snacks. You can't talk in India until you've had tea and snacks.
Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) You kindly come as guest to our house, so there are some side fish. Yeah. And then there's a (unintelligible)...
ZWERDLING: This village is in the state called Punjab in northern India. The farmers are all wearing bright beautiful turbans: some are blue, some are purple, some are orange. This courtyard is like a bowl of crayons. All the men have big bushy beards. They're Sikhs and they all tell the same, troubling story.
Until the 1960s and '70s, their families lived pretty much like their ancestors did. They worked the fields that surround the village by hitching their bulls to plows. Their houses were one step up from shacks.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) So there use to be mud houses.
ZWERDLING: And the streets were dirt paths.
Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) They were totally unpaved.
ZWERDLING: The fact is, back in the '60s and '70s, India was a basket case.
(Soundbite of NBC news clips)
Unidentified Man #3: The people of India are caught in a tragic crisis. Less food and more children...
Unidentified Man #4: In some villages the people have been reduced to eating grass and leaves...
ZWERDLING: These newscasts were on NBC. But life in Chotia Khurd was about to get better, because a loose coalition scientists and philanthropists and government leaders got together in India and the United States, and they said we have the solution. India and other poor countries can solve their problems if they grow crops the American way. Stop growing old fashioned grains and beans and vegetables, and just grow high-yield wheat and rice instead. Use chemical fertilizers instead of cow dung. Plow with tractors instead of bulls.
They called it the Green Revolution. And it meant if you farmed the modern way, your fields will turn green with crops. It also meant if countries like India can stamp out hunger, they're less likely to have a real revolution and go communist.
President LYNDON JOHNSON: If we're to win our war against poverty and against disease...
ZWERDLING: That's President Lyndon Johnson in 1966.
President JOHNSON: ... and against illiteracy, and against hungry stomachs, then we have got to succeed in projects like this.
ZWERDLING: They launched the project in India in Punjab and the Green Revolution worked wonders, for a while. The U.S. sent India lots of money. India's government showered Punjab with low-cost chemicals and seeds, and they paid the farmers, in effect, to use them. And pretty soon villages, like Chotia Khurd were growing four times as much food as they use to. A lot of the farmers were making money. So they paved their roads. They tore down their mud houses and now most of the village is bricks and cement.
I sort of imposed on a family that lives nearby.
Would you be willing to take me on a quick tour of the house?
Unidentified Man #5: (Foreign language spoken)
(Soundbite of laughter and conversation)
Unidentified Man #5: (Through Translator) He's saying there's no problem. But he's saying we haven't really cleaned it up yet.
(Soundbite of laughter)
ZWERDLING: This house is poor by American standards. It's small and dark. They cook on a gas burner in a shed. This whole village looks poor on the face of it. Some families still get around on bullock carts. In fact, there goes one down the street, pulled by a bull with a humped neck. But Chotia Khurd is on a different planet than it used to be.
(Soundbite of television)
One farmer has a TV satellite dish. And as the farmers and I have been talking, we keep getting interrupted.
Unidentified Man #6: Hello.
ZWERDLING: This gentleman, he's getting a call.
I'm just wondering, how many of you have mobile phones?
Unidentified Man #6: (Through Translator) Everyone has one.
ZWERDLING: And they pull out their cell phones and play me their rings. Some are from Bollywood movies.
(Soundbite of ring tone)
ZWERDLING: Others are from religious chants.
(Soundbite of ring tone)
And then one of their teenage daughters shows.
Do you have your own mobile phone, too?
Unidentified Woman: Yes.
ZWERDLING: But now it's finally time to see why this whole system is heading toward collapse.
(Soundbite of slamming doors)
ZWERDLING: It's time to head for the fields. When the government told farmers to start growing miracle high-yield seeds, it said there's a catch: you can't grow these special seeds just with rainfall. You're going to have to irrigate from now on. So farmers dug wells and they started pumping groundwater onto their fields. And on the surface, the results looked great.
The spring wheat crop has taken off and the countryside is a lush green in every direction. But farmers have sucked up so much groundwater over the past few decades that Punjab's supply is running out.
(Soundbite of a drilling rig)
ZWERDLING: As wade through the wheat, we head toward a huge contraption, like a steel praying mantis. It's a drilling rig. A young farmer name Sandeep Singh(ph), is standing next to it and he looks unhappy. He says he had to hire a drilling company because the groundwater under these fields has been sinking, as much as 3 feet every year. So they have to dig his well deeper and deeper and deeper, just to reach it.
My guide this particular morning was the district office of the Punjab Agriculture Department. His name is Palwinder Singh. He's not related to the farmer, most Sikhs have the same last name. And Palwinder says the water table is plunging across the region. In fact, a government study calls the situation "grim."
Mr. PALWINDER SINGH (District Director, Punjab Agriculture Department): (Through Translator) About 15 years back, the pumps were producing at ground level.
ZWERDLING: In other words, you could put the pump right on the ground and it could pump enough water.
Mr. SINGH: (Through Translator) With the depletion of groundwater, slowly it went to 10 feet, then 20 feet, then 30 feet, and 40 feet. And now it's (speaking foreign language). So the new one will either be 220 feet or 300.
ZWERDLING: Wow. This well is so deep it scares me to even look over it. Hello.
Unidentified Man #7: Hello. Hello.
ZWERDLING: Nobody was surprised when environmental activists said the Green Revolution is crashing. But people were stunned when government officials agreed.
If farmers don't listen, you're saying to them, you are destroying, you're killing your future as a farmer.
Mr. G. S. KALKAT (Director, Punjab State Farmers Commission): That's what we are telling them.
ZWERDLING: That's one of the best-known voices in the farming industry. G.S. Kalkat runs the Punjab State Farmers Commission. They study agriculture issues for the government. Kalkat says if the Green Revolution keeps on mining the groundwater, it'll cause an environmental and economic disaster.
Mr. KALKAT: We'll have no water for irrigation, as what it was in USA in mid '30s.
ZWERDLING: You're saying that if farmers don't make dramatic changes in the way they farm, you seriously think that the Punjab, the bread basket of India, could become like the Dust Bowl in the United States in the 1930s?
Mr. KALKAT: Yeah, I strongly believe it could become Dust Bowl, as it was in the mid '30s in USA.
ZWERDLING: Kalkat says there could be another scenario and this one's optimistic. Scientists will develop new ways of watering crops. They'll invent genetically modified seeds that don't need so much water. Science will save the day. Of course, that's what they said 40 years ago.
Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.
SIEGEL: Tomorrow on MORNING EDITION, Danny continues his reporting on the Green Revolution with sick soils, voracious bugs and crippling debts.