Thursday, September 17, 2009

Revolution of a different kind…

One of the most dramatic moments in the history of Indian Prime Ministers was when Lal Bahadur Shastri, in 1965, went to Ram Leela grounds in Delhi and urged every Indian to skip a meal once in a week. This appeal came right in the middle of the 1965 war with Pakistan. And though the food crisis was looming large on the nation, the US threat to stop food aid to India prompted this dramatic appeal.

For most of the internet savvy, always-twittering, bothered-only-about-the-present generation, that such a situation existed where there was acute food shortage in the country just 40 years ago, might be incomprehensible. That it required the Prime Minister of the country to say that if you skip one meal of the day, another family will get their only meal of the day clearly establishes the depth of the crisis at that point of time.

The major contributing factor for this crisis was that the population was growing at a much faster rate than our food production was. Interesting hypothesis as to why the population of the world was also growing at a rapid pace at that time – after WW II, there was a huge effort to improve sanitation across nations to avoid the death rate. Expectedly, the death rate came down and also the birth rate increased!

Anyway, the first attempt made to increase food production was to increase the crop area. It was expected that with increase in the crop area, food production would also considerably increase. But it was not to be. India's agriculture minister, C.Subramaniam, then decided it was high time that we imported the high yield varities of the rice/wheat crops to increase productivity.

These high yield varities were first developed to overcome the massive food crisis in Mexico in the early 40's. The Mexican crop was primarily being damaged by fungus and the soil quality was rapidly decreasing. The aim was to first create a variety which will fight off the danger posed by the fungus, and after multiple experiments to cross different varities of seeds; this experiment became a huge success. Crop yield almost doubled by the late 40's and by the mid-50's Mexico was also exporting wheat to other countries.

Whilst this program was riding on its success, came the next big invention. Wheat crops tend to grow tall, and if the yield increases beyond a certain limit, they cannot take the weight and fall, thus damaging the entire crop. One of the wheat strains used in research contained an extra-ordinary gene, which had to capacity to shorten the plant but not the actual yield. This meant that if this gene was crossed with the variety being used till then, then a dwarfed version of the wheat plant would be created and the yield would just multiply! Infact, on the same amount of land, these short and stiff plants would produce 3-4 times more yield than the traditional variety.

However, importing these varities was no cakewalk for the minister. Though the results were there for all to see, critics continued to argue about the long term implications, how Parliament's approval was needed, how more study needs to be done etc. Agricultural minister cleared all bureacratic hurdles in quick time, and Punjab was first chosen as the state to experiment. The phenomenal growth in yields helped in expanding the project to most part of the country. Well, most part of the country might seem a little exaggerated, given that wheat is primarily produced in the Northern areas.

Government provided fertilizers at a subsided rate to encourage farmers to take up this crop. M.S.Swaminathan (then advisor to the Agriculture minister, now leading researcher on Agriculture in India) also said that revolutions are generally associated with the young, but for this revolution age was not a factor; intellect was not a factor; and being rich or poor was not a factor. All farmers were more than willing to be part of this revolution. The usage of high yielding variety seeds, increased use of fertilizers and efficient use of irrigation facilities thus showed this result – from being a food deficient nation in the early 60's to being food surplus by the early 70's!

The importance of political leadership assisting science and technology to achieve phenomenal results was clearly exposed when these same experiments were foiled in Africa due to corruption, lack of will, poor management etc. It is a tribute to our agriculture ministry that such a program was taken up and transformed into reality despite seemingly difficult hurdles being encountered at almost every stage.

The man who invented all these varities, thus alleviating millions of people from hunger, Norman Borlaug, passed away this week at the age of 95. Only his desire to overcome the hunger of the masses led him to leave his job and conduct pioneering research in the most enduring circumstances. He also showed us that science and research, when put to proper use, can make a positive difference to human lives. That is the best legacy he leaves for us. That his research could not be applied for the uplift of Africa is a sad reflection on how political interference can kill the best of ideas.

The Green Revolution, as it is aptly called, helped India, Pakistan and Mexico reach a different level in their sustainability. Indeed, we all should be proud that such men have walked/are walking on this planet.


Prachee said...

Well a nice article. Just to add about good leadership, the late PM Mr shastri, followed what he preached, he himself skipped one meal a week, infact he started it as a experiment from his family and then asked the nation. :)
Hey do write about White Revolution in India and AMUL brand.

Sandeep said...

Very informative article, enjoyed reading it thoroughly. Nice insight into an area which every Indian should be aware of.

Kudos to Mr.Norman Borlaug for making things happen. Till date I had just heard his name but did not know about the impact his work created not only to his country but my country as well.

Very good article indeed!!!!

vijay said...

Excellent sudhir good article. vijay

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