'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt In the 1960s and '70s, farmers in the Indian state of Punjab changed from traditional methods to American-style farming.
NPR logo

'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102944731/103070291" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript
'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt

'Green Revolution' Trapping India's Farmers In Debt

  • Download
  • <iframe src="https://www.npr.org/player/embed/102944731/103070291" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


Although food prices have dropped a bit since the highs of last year, the world still hasn't figured out how to feed its booming population. It looked like India had an answer. Farmers in the Punjab region traditional farming methods back in the 1960s and '70s and started growing crops the American way - with chemicals, high-yield seeds, and lots of irrigation.

They called it the Green Revolution and since then, India has gone from importing grain to often exporting it. But as we reported yesterday on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, studies show the Green Revolution is heading for ecological and economic collapse. NPR's Daniel Zwerdling reports.

DANIEL ZWERDLING: You can hear what's going wrong in the Green Revolution - in the middle of a wheat field.

(Soundbite of drilling)

ZWERDLING: It's a drilling rig.

(Soundbite of drilling)

ZWERDLING: We're standing near the village of Chotia Khurd. Farmers, like Sandeep Singh, have to pump huge amounts of groundwater to irrigate their fields. That's the only way they can grow these modern, high-yield crops. As a result, the water table keeps dropping - as much as three feet - every year. So, they have to keep drilling deeper and deeper just to reach it, which is what they're doing today. And that means they have to install much more powerful pumps, much more expensive pumps.

Sandeep's new one costs more than $4,000.

Mr. SANDEEP SINGH (Farmer): U.S. dollars. No farmer can afford.

ZWERDLING: So, that's a lot for a farmer.

Mr. PALWINDER SINGH (District Director, Agriculture Department): Yes, very expensive for a farmer.

ZWERDLING: That's the district director of Punjab's agriculture department. His name is Palwinder Singh - he's not related to the farmer. Most Sikh men have the same last name. And Palwinder says the water crisis has triggered a financial chain reaction. For instance, most farmers like Sandeep have to borrow money to keep drilling and buying new pumps. But they're in so much debt already that the banks are turning them away. So, they have to go to unofficial lenders. They're usually local businessmen.

Mr. S. SINGH: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: How much interest will you have to pay?

Mr. S. SINGH: (Through translator) Twenty-four percent.

ZWERDLING: Twenty-four percent is more than twice what a regular bank would charge. And Palwinder says come see another economic problem that the Green Revolution has caused. He starts walking toward another field. His bright- pink turban looks like a warning light bobbing down the path. The field looks like a motley green shag carpet, which somebody has sprinkled with white powder.

Mr. P. SINGH: This is salt (unintelligible).

ZWERDLING: This light powder, this is salt?

Mr. P. SINGH: Sodium salt, sodium salt.

ZWERDLING: He says the farmers have to drill so deep now just to find enough water that they can hit brackish pools, so when they irrigate, they poison the crops.

And you're pointing to the fact that this wheat field is very uneven. The wheat sort of looks like a man with some sort of skin problem on his head, where his hair is growing in patches.

Mr. P. SINGH: (Foreign language spoken)

Unknown woman: He was also saying that the salt causes root injuries. The root cannot take the nutrients from the soil.

ZWERDLING: Back at the village, I talked with roughly 20 farmers about these problems. We sat on plastic chairs across the path from piles of cow manure, and the farmers agreed the Green Revolution used to work miracles for a lot of them. But now, it's like financial quicksand.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: For instance, the farmers say they have to buy three times as much fertilizer as they used to, to grow the same amount of crops. Government studies show that their intensive farming methods destroy the soil. The high-yield crops gobble up nutrients like nitrogen and phosphorus and iron and manganese. So, the soil's getting anemic, like a patient with malnutrition.

Unidentified Man: (Foreign language spoken)

ZWERDLING: And the farmers said they used to spray pesticides on the crops only once or twice each season, and that controlled the bugs just fine. But now insects are becoming resistant, so some farmers spray a dozen times or more, and bugs are still destroying part of the crops.

A recent government report concludes that the Green Revolution in Punjab has become unprofitable and unsustainable. But farmers like Suba Singh don't need studies to tell them that.

He's taking us now through his wooden gates into his house. Hello.

Suba Singh has a long, curved nose. His face is furrowed like a field. He says, here's a perfect example of what the Green Revolution has brought to this village, good and bad. He says, see this house made out of mud and straw just inside his gates? Well, back when he was still making good money from the Green Revolution, he decided that it wasn't - well, it wasn't good enough.

Unknown woman: He's saying, I used to live in this mud house. It's 20 years old now.

ZWERDLING: In this mud house here, where the green door is?

Mr. S. SINGH: (Through translator) But then he saw that everyone was getting brick houses, so he took a loan to make a house, too.

ZWERDLING: And he built a bigger brick home for his own family right next door. He also brought a tractor and a cell phone. Another farmer in the village has a TV satellite dish. I asked Suba, so what'd you do with this old mud house?

Unknown woman: Now it's a cattle shed. He was saying something interesting. He was saying that everyone where we were sitting there, now, people in Punjab - they've become rats in a rat race.

ZWERDLING: Oh, rats in a rat race.

Unknown woman: Yeah, whatever they do have, they're all indebted right now.

ZWERDLING: What do you need to borrow money for?

Mr. S. SINGH: (Foreign language spoken)

Unknown woman: They're saying everything, even these plastic chairs - to their cattle machinery. They have to take a loan for everything now. It's like a disease that is catching on in the world, of building a life that is like a house of cards.

ZWERDLING: And some leading officials in the farming industry wonder when this house of cards might collapse.

Before I leave Punjab, I stop by the State Farmers Commission. They study farming issues for the government. And when you visit the headquarters, you see the dilemma facing the country. It's a modern building in Punjab's capital, and it's right next to a shantytown.

The commission has pulled heavy, blue curtains to block the view, but I push them aside. And I'm looking down on a sea of shacks. Some are cardboard, some are plastic scraps. Naked children play in the mud. India's population is growing faster than any country on earth, and people in the shantytown need cheap food.

But the head of the commission, G.S. Kalkat, says the Green Revolution is self-destructing.

Mr. G.S. KALKAT (Director, State Farmers Commission): It is just like kind of a suicide.

ZWERDLING: A kind of suicide.

Mr. KALKAT: Suicide for the farmers en masse.

ZWERDLING: He doesn't literally mean suicide, although studies show that thousands of desperate farmers have killed themselves across the country. Kalkat says farmers in Punjab are killing their futures by destroying their environment. They're destroying their livelihoods. And you can't really blame the farmers because India's government pushed them to farm this way. It still subsidizes the very methods that are causing the problems.

Kalkat says there's only one solution: India has to launch a brand-new Green Revolution, only this one has to be sustainable.

Daniel Zwerdling, NPR News.

MONTAGNE: And you can listen to the first part of Danny's series, and see pictures, at NPR.org.

(Soundbite of music)

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News.

Copyright © 2009 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at www.npr.org for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by Verb8tm, Inc., an NPR contractor, and produced using a proprietary transcription process developed with NPR. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.