Articles- Science and Society: An Indian Perspective
Science and Technology in Independent India

Green Revolution: A Historical Perspective

The history of modern agriculture in India begins in 1757. In that fateful year the Indians lost the Battle of Plassey to the East India Company of the British soldier-traders. As a consequence of the defeat, the revenue rights of one district in Bengal, the 24-Paragannahs, had to be ceded to the Company. The foothold thus gained by the British in the civil and revenue administration of India expanded rapidly. By 1765, large territories of India, particularly in the provinces of Bengal, Bihar and Orissa, had come under the control of the Company; and agriculture in India had become subject to the British administration and its modernising influences.

Pre-British period

Before this conquest, agriculture in India was a traditional way of life. It was not a mere economic activity. In the autonomous Indian villages agriculture was the basic life-activity of the people. Agriculture formed such an integral part of life in India that an early British officer, Col. Alexander Walker, observing agriculture in Malabar in 1820 could remark:[1]

In Malabar the knowledge of Husbandry seems as ancient as their History. It is the favourite employment of the inhabitants. It is endeared to them by their mode of life, and the property which they possess in the soil. It is a theme for their writers; it is a subject on which they delight to converse and with which all ranks profess to be acquainted¼ .

The major function of agriculture, if an integrated life activity can at all be analysed in terms of functions, was to fulfil the life-needs of the cultivators and the village community. The needs of the Government, of the market, of the industry were all secondary to that major function.

This independence of the traditional agriculture from external political or economic control was achieved through a social organisation that left the village largely autonomous. The obligation of the village to the external political authority was limited to the payment of a small proportion of the produce as revenue. On the basis of the revenue records of those times, Dharampal estimates that the proportion of the produce payable to the external authority around 1750 was as small as 5 percent.[2] Having met this obligation the village was left so autonomous that who actually ruled at the regional or higher levels did not much affect the routine life of the village. The Fifth Report of the Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company noted in 1812:[3]

The inhabitants [of the village] gave themselves no trouble about the breaking up and division of kingdoms; while the village remains entire, they care not to what power it is transferred, or to what sovereign it devolves; its internal economy remains unchanged. ¼

Within the autonomous village, the cultivator was quite independent. According to the estimates quoted above, the cultivator paid perhaps another 25 percent of his produce towards various heads of revenue. A large part of this 25 percent however, went towards financing the religious, cultural, educational and economic activities of the village. This share of the produce was often paid by the cultivator directly to the individuals or institutions responsible for the above mentioned activities. The political aristocracy and the militia ended up receiving only 1.5 and 6.0 percent respectively of the gross produce. Having received its share of the produce the aristocracy had no more rights on the land; in particular it had no right to separate the cultivator from his piece of land. Land was not the private property of the aristocracy; that concept was yet to arrive in India!

The political and economic independence of the village and the cultivator was further secured through the independence of the village from external industrial and market influences. This of course does not mean that in pre-British India there was no industry or no trade. For the first hundred years of British contact with India the British traders dealt only in the manufactured goods of India. Up to 1757, they imported large quantities of silver and gold into India to buy the Indian manufactures. Britain of that time had no manufactures to exchange with India. Even in 1840, Montgomery Martin, an early historian of the British Empire, could insist before a parliamentary enquiry: “I do not agree that India is an agricultural country; India is as much a manufacturing country as agricultural; ¼her manufactures of various descriptions have existed for ages, and have never been able to be competed with any nation wherever fair play has been given to them. ¼”[4] This manufacturing activity was closely co-ordinated with agriculture. Textile manufacture, the most important industrial activity of pre-British India, was carried out largely by the agriculturists in their free time. This close co-ordination between agriculture and manufacture, this ‘domestic union of agricultural and manufacturing pursuits’, was in fact, as Marx noted, the pivot of the village system.[5] It was this union that ensured the autonomy of the village, by making agriculture free of the demands of an external industry or market. That is why the spinning wheel (charkha) and the handloom - the basic tools of this union - became the symbols of the traditional Indian civilisation of independent cultivators and autonomous villages, for both Gandhi and Marx. But, for Gandhi these were also the symbols of a resurgent India, of an India made free again through the independence of its agriculture and its villages.

Notwithstanding the differing perceptions of Gandhi and Marx about the historical role of the pre-British Indian civilisation, for both of them its essential picture was the same. For both of them it was the civilisation of independent agriculturists, organised as autonomous villages, cultivating their land to fulfil their needs. These autonomous villages organised their own economic and political institutions, including the manufacturing activities. No external Government, no external industry, and no market dictated what they may or may not do or produce.

These autonomous and largely self-sufficient village communities had achieved high skill and technological efficiency in both agriculture and manufacture. All available accounts of the early British period suggest that the cultivators ‘had achieved almost complete perfection in the art of agriculture’, producing ‘the most abundant crops, the corn standing as thick on the ground as land could well bear it’.[6] The manufacturers of India were able to produce the finest specimen of not only textiles, but also of steel. The village communities had arranged for education so well that G. L. Prendergast, Member of the Governor’s Council at Bombay, remarked in 1821 that, ‘¼there is hardly a village, great or small throughout our territories, in which there is not at least one school, ¼there is hardly a cultivator or a petty dealer who is not competent to keep his own accounts with a degree of accuracy¼ .’[7] The village communities supported various arts, crafts, sciences and technologies so that great medical practitioners, astronomers, philosophers, literatures and artists could arise on the Indian soil. Such were the village communities and such was the agriculture that moved into British hands following the defeat of 1757.

British period

The British had no use for this Indian concept of agriculture as an autonomous way of life. In their eyes, the agriculture on which they acquired control was nothing but a source of revenue. And they set about the task of collecting more and more revenue with great zeal. R. P. Dutt records that, ‘In the last year of administration of the last Indian ruler of Bengal in 1764-65, the land revenue realised was £817,000. In the first year of the Company’s administration, in 1765-66, the land revenue realised in Bengal was £1,470,000. By 1771-2, it was £2,348,000, and by 1775-6 it was £2,818,000. When Lord Cornwallis fixed the permanent settlement in 1793, he fixed it £3,400,000’[8]. With more and more money flowing into the British hands the village and the producer were left with precious little to feed themselves and maintain the various village institutions that catered to their needs. According to Dharampal’s estimates, around 1750AD, for every 1000 units of produce, the producer paid 300 as revenue. Only 50 units of these 300 went out to the central authority, the rest remaining within the village; by 1830, he had to give away 650 units as revenue, 590 of which went to the central authority.[9] As a result of this level of revenue collection the cultivators and the villagers both were destroyed. But that was of little concern to the British as long as the agriculture kept on performing its new function of filling the British coffers. How far agriculture lost its previous position of being the provider of the life-needs of the people, and became merely the source of British wealth is tellingly brought out by the communication sent by Warren Hastings to the Court of Directors of the Company. Writing on November 3, 1772, a year after the great famine in Bengal that killed perhaps 10 million people, Warren Hastings reports:[10]

Notwithstanding the loss of at least one-third of the inhabitants of the province, and the consequent decrease of the cultivation, the net collections of the year 1771 exceeded even those of 1768¼ It was naturally to be expected that the diminution of revenue should have kept an equal pace with the other consequences of so great a calamity. That it did not was owing to its being violently kept up to its former standard.

The independent cultivator of yesteryears, who cultivated has land to fulfil his needs, thus had become a tool to produce revenues that would fuel the Industrial Revolution of England. He would eat only after the demands of that Revolution were met. And if after meeting those demands, nothing was left to eat, he may as well have died, as many of them did. He was no more important in himself. Latin American and African Civilisations had previously been sacrificed to prepare for this great event in ‘human’ history. Now it was the turn of the Indian Civilisation to come forward and be carried to the altar.

This change of view of agriculture from a source of life in India to source of ‘progress’ in England brought in its wake untold misery. Irrigation works fell into dilapidation. Vast tracts of cultivable land decayed into a state of jungle. Industry got uprooted. Education got destroyed. All philosophical, scientific and literary activity came to a standstill. People died and the culture stagnated. The story of that early plunder by the British and the consequent misery of India is well documented, though not so well known amongst the educated Indians. We shall not repeat that story here. It should be remembered that the important point about that sad chapter of Indian history is not the immediate destruction and misery of that period. There had been plunderers before, and perhaps they had spread an equal amount of misery. But there is a qualitative difference between the plunderers that visited India before, and the British. The earlier robbers, like the notorious Muhammad of Ghazani, looted the surplus accumulated in temples and with the aristocracy, leaving life in the villages more or less unaffected. The legalised plunder by Hastings etc., and their hordes, on the other hand, ravaged every hut in every village.

Such open plunder could not last long. The British themselves soon realised that the type of destruction let loose by their early administrators in India was likely to kill the goose that laid golden eggs. Therefore, some semblance of order had to be restored. Cultivation was to reappear in the areas that had reverted to jungle. Some irrigation facilities were to be provided. Some of the industrial activity, all of which had been moved from the villages to the cities of Lancashire and Manchester in the early British phase, was to return to the Indian cities. Some education was to get reorganised, though only according to the patterns dictated by Macaulay - only to produce some lackeys, ‘Indian in blood and colour, but Englishmen in tastes, in opinions, in moral and in intellect’. Even some philosophical, scientific and literary activities were to restart, though in the English mould. But, and this is the important point about that phase of Indian history, India was never to be the same again. The villages and the agriculturists living there were never to become autonomous again. Never again would there be independent cultivators, cultivating their land to fulfil their needs. Their needs would always be subservient to the needs of the state, the industry and market - all of which were now severed from agriculture. Agriculture was never again to become a way of life. It had become a mere economic activity. It had been finally ‘modernised’.

The major instrument of this modernisation, besides the naked force used by the early British, was the system of landlords introduced in India for the first time. Independent cultivators, cultivating their own piece of land, were not likely to put external economic needs before their need to eat and clothe. A landlord, assured of his personal well being, could be relied upon to produce and sell what the industry or the state needed. He could be relied upon to respond to the market. He could be relied upon to divert good foodgrain land to opium, indigo and so on, while famines stalked the county. By making agriculture responsive to the market and the state, the landlord became the modernising force. Thus, Marx counted landlords as one of the few regenerative forces introduced into India by the British. ‘The Zamindari and Ryotwari themselves’, declared Marx, ‘abominable as they are, involve two distinct forms of private property in land - the great desideratum of Asiatic Society’.[11] Independent cultivators used to grow what they needed to live rather than produce what was needed to ‘progress’. They required the concept of private property in land, personified in the landlord, to teach them that it is more important to progress, to industrialise, than to eat and clothe. The British provided them with the landlord. And, ‘modernised’ them.

How successful were the British in modernising Indian agriculture - in making it responsive to the needs of the industry and the vicissitudes of the market - can be gauged from the crop output data of the last fifty years of the British rule. The Central Government began publishing such data by the late nineteenth century. The period before the First World War was marked by a favourable world market in all export crops and expansion in the domestic manufacturing capacity in textile and jute. Consequently we find Indian agriculture flourishing in this period and agricultural output rising at a rate faster than the growth of population. It is perhaps one of the best periods in British Indian agriculture, with per capita food availability hovering around 540 gm per day throughout this period, in spite of substantial exports of rice and wheat. Then came World War I, followed by the Great Economic Depression, and the World War II. Export markets contracted. Prices of agricultural produce crashed.[12] And, Indian agriculture took a nosedive. While non-foodgrain production merely stagnated, production of foodgrains started showing a declining trend even when population was rising. Per capita food availability for the quinquennium ending 1946 was down to 417 gm per day, in spite of some imports. Interestingly the only crop that showed expansion in this period was sugarcane, which was granted protection by imposing new tariffs on import. While famine was on the horizon, the area under this commercially favoured crop increased by about 40 percent between 1930-31 and 1938-39.[13]

Thus, in this fifty-year period we see Indian agriculture going up or down with the world-wide economic forces. These forces, and not the needs of the people, decided how much of what the Indian agriculture would produce. Economics won, life failed.

Independence phase

As noted above, independence came to India at a time when agriculture was passing through a particularly bad phase. Bengal had just passed through a major famine. Per capita food availability, at 417 gm per day in 1946, was dangerously low. Rural indebtedness had been increasing alarmingly. According to the Central Banking Enquiry Committee, rural indebtedness had nearly doubled between 1929 and 1936. Cultivators were finding difficulties meeting their fixed liabilities such as rent, land revenue, etc. Many of them were turning into land-less labourers.[14] Partition of the country worsened the situation further. The country was facing an acute shortage of both the commercial crops and the food crops.[15] Something needed to be done immediately to improve agriculture.

An obvious line of action was to concentrate on improving irrigation facilities that had been severally depleted with partition. Only 19.7% of the net sown area within the Indian Union was irrigated. In addition to improving irrigation it was necessary to take steps to put the cultivators back on the land and reduce rural indebtedness through land reforms. Some sort of land reforms had in fact become a political necessity, given the aspirations that people associated with independence. Action on both these fronts was started immediately after independence. Between 1947-48 and 1949-50 the net irrigated area increased from 18.9 to 20.2 million hectares; most of the increase came from increase in the area irrigated by wells and other minor sources.[16] Irrigation facilities kept on increasing at about the same pace, achieving an annual rare of increase of 0.67 million hectares of gross irrigated area for the period 1950-51 to 1968-69.[17] Land reforms were initiated by most states in the early fifties. These envisaged abolition of zemindari, security of tenure for tenant cultivators and fixation of reasonable rents; later some ceilings on land holdings were also introduced. Though carried out in a half-hearted manner, these land reform measures continued to provide some relief to the cultivators right through the fifties and early sixties.

Agricultural production responded well to the restoration of some just order in land relations and to the slowly increasing irrigation facilities. Aggregate crop output during the fifties kept on increasing at a rate faster than the population growth. Both the area under crops and the yield per hectare of almost every crop showed a rising trend.

However, Independent India also wanted to become ‘modern’ and ‘industrialised’. For the modernising and industrialising India, it was not enough that agricultural output should increase. It was also important that agricultural production should respond to the needs of the market. In particular, it was important that food should come to the market for sale. Because, as the Report of the National Commission on Agriculture noted, ‘The entire industrial sector depends heavily on the supply of food from the agricultural sector. Since a sizeable part of the wages of the industrial worker is spent on food items, a sustained supply of food from agricultural sector is a necessary condition for stability in the industrial sector. ¼’[18]

Though the slow expansion of irrigation and various land reform measures were leading to a sustained rise in agricultural production, yet this increased production was just not coming to the markets to reach the industrial sector. The National Commission moaned that, ‘The unique features of the food situation during the Second Plan period were the increasing demand for food grains and a steady decline in market arrivals despite higher production’[19] Part of the reason for this phenomenon was perhaps to be found in the ‘speculative holding of stocks by the grain trade’, as the Commission suggested. But that does not seem to be a complete explanation, since various experiments of introducing control in the food trade did not help matters and the urban industrialised sector had to be fed with increasing imports till mid-sixties. It seems more probable that the general improvement in the land relations and irrigation, which were the causes of the increased production, also improved the lot of the cultivators, and they simply ate more. This was inevitable in a situation where average per capita availability of food was low and a large proportion of rural population, nearly 40% in 1960-61, did not have sufficient purchasing power to buy the bare minimum of 2250 calories of food per day.[20] Any increase in production achieved over a wide production base under such circumstances is not likely to reach the market. This tendency was further encouraged by the fact that agricultural production in the fifties and early sixties was by and large independent of inputs from outside the agricultural sector. The National Commission on Agriculture noticed that production depended largely on the amount of labour the cultivator was able or prepared to put in. All inputs were farm produced.[21] Thus, agriculture was becoming independent of the urban sector both on the input side and the output side. To the extent it was being freed from the yoke of landlords, it was once again showing traditional characters of being self-sufficient.

The Indian planners were thus faced with the dilemma of increasing production and declining market arrivals, along with increasing independence of the agricultural sector from the urban sector. They saw the solution out of this dilemma in shifting attention from food-scarce areas and trying to make the areas that were already surplus in food, more surplus. The idea was to concentrate resources in those areas that were already well endowed. Such areas being already surplus would have no alternative but to bring their extra production to the market and transfer it to the industrial sector. In this scheme there was no danger of the producers consuming the increased produce, as was bound to happen when the resources were allowed to flow to the deficit areas. This line of approach in fact was introduced into Indian agricultural planning rather early. The National Commission on Agriculture noted that, “Instead of spreading the efforts thin all over the country it was decided in 1950-51 to concentrate such efforts in compact areas called ‘intensive cultivation areas’ which possessed assured water supply ad fertile soils.”[22] In 1959, ‘the Agricultural Production Team of the Ford Foundation recommended the intensive approach anew.’[23] And with the visible failure in the Second Plan to get the food to the market in spite of increasing production, a new Intensive Agricultural District Programme (IADP) was launched in the closing years of the Second Plan. The expressed objective of the programme was to concentrate resources and efforts in specially endowed areas to achieve a quick break-through in production. The programme was expanded in 1964 under the name of Intensive Agricultural Area Programme (IAAP) to cover more of the well-endowed areas. In these programs, it was always insisted that only areas with adequate production potential in terms of assured water and infra-structural facilities be chosen for project support, and that emphasis be directed towards profitability at the farm level.

The ostensible argument in favour of these ‘intensive’ approaches was that resources that are spread thin over a large area are lost, leaving no appreciable effect on production. It was suggested that only a package of practices involving concentrated doses of resources could be technological effective; and that increased production achieved in these areas with improved practices would have a ‘demonstration’ effect in other areas. The latter argument obviously had no weight - there were just not sufficient resources to spread such ‘intensive’ practices elsewhere, especially in areas which were not ‘well endowed’ to begin with. As for the other argument of technological efficacy of an intensive package the fact is that there were no agricultural technologies in use that could absorb and respond to intensive doses of resources. The thrust of the IADP and IAAP programmes was not on introduction of new technologies, but on the intensive application of resources like irrigation and fertiliser, etc.

Traditional technologies, evolved in a more egalitarian context, evolved in a context where the food needs of cultivators were more important than the needs of surpluses to support ‘progress’, were just not capable of making land absorb more than its due share of resources. Within that context, there was little that the experts of the Ford Foundation could teach the Indian farmers by way of possible improvements. Long ago, in 1889, Dr. J. A. Voelcker, deputed by the Secretary of State for India to advise on the application of agricultural chemistry to Indian agriculture had noted this perfection. He reported that:[24]

It must be remembered that the natives of India were cultivators of wheat centuries before those in England were. It is not likely, therefore, that their practice should be capable of much improvement. What does, however, prevent them from growing larger crops is the limited facilities to which they have access, such as the supply of water and manure¼

Therefore it is not surprising that the efforts of Indian planners to achieve increased production through ‘improved’ practices in areas which did have access to facilities like supply of water and manure should prove abortive. In fact, the attempt was a complete failure. According to official estimates, rice yields in the 12 rice districts and wheat yields in the 4 wheat districts under the IADP, averaged only 13.3 quintals and 13.5 quintals per hectare compared to the pre-package average of 12.4 and 10.2 quintals. As against these marginal increases in yields, the added costs of the recommended packages were equivalent to 10 quintals of wheat on the average, and 10 to 12.4 quintals of paddy for most of the districts. The efficiently of the package for other crops was even worse.[25]

Thus the intensive package approach to agricultural development being tried out in India since the fifties had really nothing to do with technological efficacy. The policy in fact only expressed a political wish for a technology that would respond to these measures - a technology that would allow the concentration of resources and production in a few compact and already surplus areas. The policy was asking for a technology that would achieve technologically what the British had achieved politically - namely, responsiveness of agriculture to the needs of the industry and the market in preference to the life-needs of the cultivators. The development sought for in the agricultural sector was not one that will primarily meet the needs of the rural population, but one that will provide the resources and capital needed for the industrialisation taking place in the urban centres. The planners were looking for ways to break the independence of the rural sector and bring it into increasing dependence on the urban sector. They were keen on making the agricultural sector enter into increasing exchange relations with the urban industrial sector, with the terms of exchange so manipulated as to enable the urban sector to extract the maximum possible surplus from the rural sector.

Since the fifties, the planners were in search of an agricultural technology that would bring about such a transformation. No such technology was available at the time the intensive approach policy was being formulated and implemented. By mid-sixties, however, such a technology became available in the form of new ‘miracle seeds’ that had proved successful in Mexico. These seeds were genetically selected to absorb huge doses of chemical fertilisers. Since these seeds had not evolved under natural conditions, they were susceptible to a number of pests and pathogens and needed to be grown under the protective cover of pesticides. The new seeds also required new sophisticated practices for irrigation, tillage etc. This was just the ideal technology to fit the bill. It would make the policy of concentration of resources economically and technologically viable. At the same time it would make the agriculture critically dependant on industrial inputs like chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and make the cultivator dependent upon the urban expert for the knowledge of the correct agricultural practices, thus removing the “dangerous tendency” of self-sufficiency in the agriculture sector for good.

This technology being highly expensive could not possibly be extended over the whole country. But that did not matter. All that was required was to make the surplus areas a little more surplus, so that the urban-industrial sector would be assured of its requirements. However there was a snag. Acceptance of this technology would involve import of large amounts of fertiliser and pesticides, for India did not produce these. In the initial stages even seeds would have to be imported. Providentially, there was a widespread failure of monsoon in 1965 and 1966 in India, as well as over the rest of South Asia and South East Asia. This failure led to the spectre of a major famine; foreign experts predicted doom, some of them even suggested the possibility of one million starvation deaths taking place in Bihar alone.[26] This situation removed all hesitation about accepting the new seeds even if it involved massive imports. The ever helpful attitude of the Ford Foundation and the Rockefeller Foundation further encouraged the acceptance of the new technology. And in 1966-67 the new strategy of agricultural development, with the programme of introducing the new technology mainly in the areas covered by IADP and IAAP was launched. Similar programmes were adopted in all of South and South East Asia at around the same time. The programme was declared an immediate success. This success is what came to be known as the Green Revolution. In the following we wish to look at this ‘success story’ in some detail.

We have given such a long historical introduction to this analysis of Green Revolution, because we feel that, without an appreciation of the continuous conflict of ‘tradition’ versus ‘modernity’ in Indian agriculture since the arrival of the British, it is not possible to assess the merits of this revolution. Without knowing this historical urge for modernity in agriculture - for making agriculture responsive to the needs external to the life-needs of the cultivator - it is impossible to see how this event, which did not increase the aggregate rates of growth of agricultural output, did not decrease import-dependence of agriculture, did not enhance per capita availability of food, came to be termed a revolution.

II. Green Revolution: Salient Features

The new technology of the ‘miracle seeds’ and associated practices was indeed successful in generating high yields, wherever sufficient resources to effectively implement it could be mobilised. For some especially endowed areas, the increase in yield could even be justifiably characterised as revolutionary. This was amply borne out by a number of studies carried out to make a scientific evaluation of the response of different crops in different areas under the High Yielding Varieties (HYV) Programme.[27]

However, our purpose in this article is not an evaluation of the Green Revolution technology as a breakthrough in the ‘science of agriculture’. We want to evaluate the Green Revolution as an event in the growth of Indian Agriculture. These two ways of looking at this new technology can give quite different results. For an evaluation of the Green Revolution as an event in the history of growth of Indian Agriculture, it is not sufficient to assess the success of a few crops in certain localised areas. What we need to look at is the aggregate response of Indian Agriculture to the event of Green Revolution.

Aggregate rates of growth

In Table 1, we have put together the compound rates of the important parameters of agricultural development for the periods before and after the Green Revolution. We have taken the year 1967-68 as the dividing line, when Green Revolution is supposed to have set in. The pre-Revolution period considered here runs from 1949-50 to 1964-65, and the post-Revolution period from 1967-68 to 1977-78, excluding the disastrous years of 1965-66 and 1966-67. There is some controversy about the correct dividing line for these two phases of post-Independence agriculture However, most of the results that we shall notice are quite independent of the variations in the dividing year. For an analysis with a different dividing line we may refer to a recent paper of George Blyn, where the rates of growth for the period 1949-50 to 1973-74 are studied taking 1960-61 as the dividing year between the new and old phase of Indian agriculture.[28] In the following, we often use some of Blyn’s data.

Table 1: Compound Rates of Growth (in percent per annum)






to1977-78 (b)

1949-50 to1964-65

1967-68 to1977-78 (b)

1949-50 to1964-65 (a)

1967-68 to1977-78 (b)















All Crops




























(a) NCAR 1976 (Vol. I, Ch. 3, p.230-241)

(b) Estimates of Area and Production of Principal Crops in India, 1978-79, published by the Directorate of Economic Statistics, Government of India, New Delhi.

Looking at Table 1, the first thing we notice is that the rate of growth of aggregate crop-production is lower in the post-“Green Revolution” phase as compared to the earlier phase. While total agricultural production rose at a compound rate of 3.20 percent per annum in the earlier period, the rate declined to 2.50 percent per annum in the later period. The decline was visible in both the foodgrain output and non-foodgrain output. George Blyn, covering a slightly shorter period of 1949-50 to 1973-74 and dividing it at 1960-61, finds an even sharper decline of the trend rate in the later period.[29] Keith Griffin analyses crop-output trends over the entire underdeveloped world, taking 1965 as the dividing year between the pre- and post-Green Revolution phases. He finds the trends declining after the Green Revolution in all of the major regions except the Far East, where the growth rate is found to be practically the same in the pre- and post-Green Revolution periods.[30]

The decline in the rate of growth of agricultural production is often explained away as a consequence of the declining availability of additional area that could be brought under cultivation. There is considerable statistical evidence to show that the decline in the growth rate of production must be to some extent attributed to the decline in the growth rate of area under the crops. From Table 1 we see that the total area under all crops grew at a rate of 1.60 per annum during 1949-65, but the rate fell to 0.55 during 1967-78. An interesting aspect of the trend rates of area that should be noticed is that throughout the period 1949-78, during which food situation in the country remained precarious, area under non-foodgrain crops rose at a rate much faster than the area under foodgrains. In the later period the trend rates of growth of area under foodgrains and non foodgrains were 0.38 and 1.01 respectively, a difference of about 3 times.

The decline in the rate of growth of area does explain part of the decline in the rate of growth of production, but it does not explain all of it. As a matter of fact, the rate of growth of yield, production per unit area, itself declined during the post-Green Revolution phase. As shown in Tale 1, while the aggregate yield rose at a rate of 1.60% annually during 1949-65, the increase was only 1.40% annually during 1967-78. Interestingly, on disaggregation into foodgrains and non-foodgrains, we find that while for foodgrains there is a slight decline in the rate of growth of yield, non-foodgrains show a slight improvement. Yet HYVP was supposed to have revolutionised production of foodgrains! Further dis-aggregation of foodgrains in to the major crops of rice, wheat and pulses shows more interesting features. We find the rate of growth of rice declining sharply from 2.09 to 1.46 and that of pulses, which was already negative, going further below, from -0.24 to -0.42. Only wheat shows an improvement in the trend rate. Keith Griffin notices the same trend of increasing wheat production and decreasing rice production all over the under-developed world, except Africa.[31]

It is tempting to try to explain the decline in the growth rate of aggregate yields by referring to the law of declining marginal productivity. What it means in simple terms is that with the given technology and resources the productivity during the years before the Green Revolution had reached a saturation level, and without a technological change, maintaining the earlier rates of growth would have been impossible. If the new technology had not been introduced, the rates of growth of productivity, which admittedly declined a little after the Green Revolution, would have plummeted. But, to prove that this law had started operating around 1964-65, one must show that by that period the possibilities of expanding irrigation and improving land relations, which were responsible for the increasing yields till then had been exhausted in India. At a later stage in this paper we shall examine whether such a situation had actually arisen. For the present let us only look at the statistical evidence, if any, in favour of the assumption that the Indian Agriculture in 1964-65 had reached saturation level. If this had happened, we should be able to observe a declining trend in the rates of growth of productivity in the years preceding the Green Revolution.

In Table 2, we display plan-wise rates of growth of agricultural production, area and productivity. We find that during the Third Plan period (1961-62 to 1964-65), i.e., during the period immediately preceding the years when the decision to implement the HYVP was made, agricultural productivity in India had reached an all time high rate of growth. Rate of growth of productivity in this period was 2.7% per annum, as compared to the annual growth rate of 1.4% and 1.8% achieved during the First and the Second Plan periods. The productivity graph, far from having reached a plateau, was actually moving upwards in the years before the Green Revelation. During the Fourth Plan (1969-70 to 1973-74), i.e., during the five year period immediately following the introduction of the Green Revolution technology, the rate of growth of productivity, however, touched an all time low of 1%. Thus the decline in the growth of productivity after the Green Revolution cannot be trivially explained by taking recourse to the law of declining marginal productivity.

Table 2: Plan-wise Compound Rates of Growth of Agricultural Production, Area under Crops and Yield in Percent Per Annum*

Plan Period




First Plan
(1951-52 to 1955-56)




Second Plan
(1956-57 to 1960-61)




Third Plan
(1961-62 to 1964-65)**




Fourth Plan
(1969-70 to 1973-74)




Source: NCAR, 1976, Vol. I, Table 3.16.

* Growth rates have been calculated on the basis of triennial averages with the base and last year of each plan as the midyears. For the Third and Fourth Plan, instead of the triennial periods, the years 1964-65 and 1973-74, respectively, were taken as the end-years to avoid including especially bad years at the end.

** 1965-66, being an exceptionally bad year, has been excluded.

There is no way to escape the fact that, notwithstanding highly visible increases in production and yields of a few crops in a few areas, both agricultural production and agricultural productivity in the aggregate showed a lower rate of growth after the Green Revolution technology was introduced. Even if one doubts the statistical significance of small changes in the trend rates, it is still impossible to maintain that there was any improvement in the growth rates of aggregate production and productivity. There definitely was no revolution in the Indian Agriculture with the introduction of the new ‘revolutionary’ technology.

It must however be admitted that maintaining a growth rate of about 2.5% per annum for aggregate production and above 1% per annum for aggregate productivity over a period of about 3 decades is no mean achievement, even though the growth rates did decline a little in the later period as compared to the earlier period. If we have pointed out this decline, it is only to establish that no revolution occurred in Indian agriculture with the onset of the so-called Green Revolution. What we want to criticise however are the several deleterious features associated with the attempt to achieve this growth through the new technology in the later period. It is to those features that we turn our attention now.

Costs of Production

The rate of growth of production and productivity of Indian agriculture declined with the advent of the new technology. What is worse, however, is the fact that a high price had to be paid to achieve even this reduced rate of growth. The HYV technology is known to involve high costs in terms of energy, soil-fertility, environment and money.

Much data is available on the energy costs of the new technology of agriculture. And it clearly indicates that, evaluated in terms of energy use, the HYV technology is highly inefficient compared to the traditional technologies. If all outputs from and inputs into agriculture are converted into equivalent energy units and output to input ratio is analysed, then the new technology invariably turns out to be inferior to the traditional technologies. For the traditional technologies the output/input ratio is often greater than one, indicating that these technologies are efficiently fixing the freely available solar energy. For the new technologies this ratio is always less than one. The ratio of energy efficiencies of the old and new technology can be as large as 50 to 250.[32]

The new agricultural practices are known to have a deleterious effect on the environment and soil-fertility. Chemical fertilisers change soil flora and destroy the equilibrium of soil. Consequently, more and more of chemical inputs become essential to get the same yield from a piece of land under this type of cultivation. This process of increasing chemical inputs year after year can lead to permanent damage to the soil. Pesticides, an essential component of the new technology, form another component of the ecological costs. These pesticides have a way of being carried from food to man and other living beings, and form an almost permanent health hazard. All these ecological and energy costs of the new technology are important in any evaluation of the Green Revolution. However, in this paper we are mainly concerned with the economic costs of the new technology.

The new technology of agriculture is capital intensive. Since this technology depends critically upon industrial inputs like fertilisers and pesticides, it commits the nation to large investments in these sectors. Thus in nitrogenous fertiliser alone the indigenous capacity had to be increased from 0.37 million tons (mT) of nutrients in 1967-68 to 2.23 mT in 1979-80.6[33] Generation of 2.23 mT of nutrients capacity requires an investment of Rupees 6000 crores in today’s (1980) prices. Even such a heavy investment in fertilisers has not been sufficient to meet the fertiliser requirements of the Green Revolution, and in 1979-80, 1.3 mT of nitrogenous nutrients alone had to be imported. Besides, production capacity had to be generated for tractors, diesel-sets, etc. In addition to this capital investment in the industrial sector, every farmer adopting the new technology had to invest in acquiring the necessary machines. This capital also often came through the public financing agencies.

Even more important than the capital costs are the unit costs of incremental production obtained through the HYV technology. It is difficult to put a uniform value on these costs since there is much variation from place to place and year to year. To have some idea of the costs involved, we may look at the evaluation studies of 1967-69 referred to earlier.[34] From these studies, we find that additional costs per quintal of additional wheat produced through HYV varied between Rs.25 to Rs.45. On the average the costs of fertiliser application per hectare alone were around Rs.230, which at best would have produced an incremental response of 10 quintals. These costs look favourable given the 1968-69 wheat procurement price of Rs.76 per quintal. However, the procurement price of wheat in 1968-69 had been almost doubled from its pre-Green Revolution level, and most of the inputs were heavily subsidised. These subsidies and price changes, in fact, make any evaluation of the economic feasibility of the new technology meaningless.[35] Once the decision to implement a technology is made, output prices and input subsidies can always be manipulated to make the new technology economically feasible. The high costs of production can however be inferred from the rising prices and the fact that there is perhaps no country in the world where the new technology of agricultural production is economically feasible without subsidies and price supports. It is an indicator of the high costs of HYV production that procurement price of wheat, the major crop to come under HYV, has been rising at a much faster rate than that of paddy, which has largely remained under traditional cultivation. Demand for higher paddy prices got some force only when the surplus Green Revolution farmers took to HYV cultivation of Rabi paddy.

External dependence

It is commonly believed that the Green Revolution made India self-reliant in agricultural production. This belief is based on the impression that foodgrain imports after the Green Revolution substantially declined. In fact, however, the amount of import of cereals in the decade before the Green Revolution, i.e., between 1956-65, at 43 mT was only slightly more than the imports of 38mT that took place in the decade of 1968-77, following the Green Revolution.

It is true that the imports did not rise with the increasing population. But, as we have seen, the rate of growth of foodgrain production actually declined after the Green Revolution, while the population growth did not show a corresponding decline. Under these circumstances, what could the declining imports really mean? Imports of cereals in India have always been resorted to in order to feed the urban sector. Reducing the imports for this purpose became possible after the Green Revolution because more food began flowing in to the Government stocks, not because there was more food per capita to go around. This increased availability of food with the Government was caused by skewed growth on which we shall comment in the next subsection.

The important point to remember, however, is that decreased imports of cereals did not imply a decreased foreign dependence of agriculture. What was gained in terms of reduced imports of cereals was lost in terms of increased imports of agricultural requisites, especially fertiliser. Before Green Revolution, expenditure on imports of agricultural requisites used to be almost nil. In 1950-51, seven crore rupees were spent on this head, in 1960-61 the expenditure was thirteen crores. In 1970-71, this expenditure rose to 102 crores, and in 1973-74, it doubled to 201 crores. Then came the spurt in fertiliser prices, and in 1974-75, expenditure on import of fertilisers alone stood at 532.5 crores. Thus the import dependence of Indian agriculture had in fact been rising quite fast. Let us look at this data in a different perspective. The price of nitrogenous fertiliser on a rough average remains around 3 times the price of wheat. In the decade of 1967-76, on the average 0.72 mT of nitrogenous fertiliser was imported per year.[36] This is equivalent to the import of 2 mT of wheat per year, implying that the equivalent wheat imports in the post Green Revolution decade had actually increased by 50%. And we have not yet counted the imports required to build up indigenous capacity in fertilisers and tractors etc., which should also be counted under this head.

Thus, after the Green Revolution, dependence of the agricultural sector on foreign inputs increased in diverse ways. While earlier food alone had to be imported now a variety of inputs had to be brought in. While the Government had to depend on foreign countries for a large proportion of the new requisites of agriculture, the agriculturist had to depend even more on the Government and the industrial sector. There was an increased external dependence all around.

In addition to this dependence for tangibles like fertilisers, pesticides, seeds, etc. of the farmer on the Government and of the Government on foreign suppliers, an intangible but not any less important, external dependence for knowledge of the agricultural processes appeared. The farmer, who till now was the expert on agricultural technology, became ignorant in one sweep. He had to look up to the university expert to acquire knowledge of the correct processes. And those experts themselves looked up to the so-called international community of agricultural scientists.

Disparities in growth

Vast disparity in growth, from crop to crop and from area to area, was an in-built feature of the new technology. While a few crops in a few areas showed enormous increase in production and productivity, most of the crops and most of the cultivated areas in the country stagnated, and perhaps actually deteriorated.

(a) Crop to crop disparity

We have already noticed that of the major foodgrain crops only wheat showed an increased rate of growth of production and productivity after 1967-68. To show this disparity of growth amongst various crops a little more concretely, we have, in Table 3, displayed the absolute figures for the area, production and yield etc., of the three main foodgrain-crops of India (viz., rice, wheat and pulses) for every fifth year since 1950-51. In 1950-51, of the total foodgrain production of 52.58 mT, 21.81 mT was rice, 6.34mT wheat and 8.33 mT pulses. In 1963-64, towards the end of the first phase of post independence agriculture, foodgrain production had increased to 83.38 mT. Of this 36.17 mT was rice, 10.96 mT wheat and 11.34 mT pulses. The production of the three crops had thus increased at about the same pace. In 1950-51, rice, wheat and pulses formed 41.5, 12.1 and 15.8 percent respectively of total foodgrains production, in 1963-64, their respective share was 43.4, 13.1 and 13.6 percent. The relative importance of the three crops in the total foodgrain production of the country remained almost unaltered, except for a small decline in the share of pulses. Interestingly, though the area under wheat increased at a faster rate than that under rice, the difference was made up by a higher growth of yield in the latter.

In 1970-71, after the Green Revolution, we find wheat production jumping from 10.96 mT to 23.44 mT, while rice moved from 36.17 mT to only 41.91 mT, and pulses remained static. The share of wheat in the total production of foodgrains rose from a mere 13% in 1963-64 to 22%, at the cost of rice, pulses and other crops. While yield of rice and pulses remained almost unchanged, yield of wheat rose by 62%. Of the 6.35 million hectares (mha) of additional area brought under irrigation 4.89mha went under wheat. The same trend continued in 1975-76. Of 3.6 mha of additional irrigated area under foodgrains wheat accounted for 2.84 mha and of 6.41mT of additional foodgrains wheat accounted for 3.88 mT. Output of pulses remained unchanged, while that of rice increased only slightly. All the benefits of growth thus went to the relatively prosperous wheat areas, while paddy growers, who formed the vast majority of the small cultivators, were left to stagnate.

Table 3: Area, production and Yield of various Foodgrain Crops







Prod. (Yield)


Prod. (Yield)


Prod. (Yield)


Prod. (Yield)





























































Units: Area in mha, production in mT, yield in kg/ha. Source: Various issues of Estimates of Area and Production of Principal Crops in India, Directorate of Economic Statistics. HYV area is taken from Economic Survey, GOI, 1980-81.

*All figures refer to triennial averages with the year indicated as the mid-year.

** 1963-64, instead of 1965-66, has been chosen in order to avoid including the two abnormal years 65-66 and 66-67 in the average.

One reason for this disproportionate growth of wheat is simply that the Western countries, where the new technology evolved, are no rice producers. Long Ago, in 1820, Alexander Walker, describing the failure of an experiment to introduce English technology in an Indian village, had commented, “¼It should also be well considered how far our agricultural process is suited to the cultivation of rice the great crop of India, and of which we have no experience.”[37] The problem is now solved simply by making the great crop of India the less important.

However, the explanation of the phenomenon of the spurt in wheat production does not lie merely in the fact that the countries where the technology was developed are producers and consumers of wheat. It was also convenient to increase wheat production to meet the policy objectives that had in the first place led to the acceptance of this technology. There were already areas that were somewhat surplus in wheat, and well-linked with the urban market economy.[38] By increasing wheat production therefore it was easier to meet the policy objective of bringing more food to the urban market. Hence it seems no accident that out of the 10 mha of additional irrigation potential generated from 1963-64 to 1975-76, 7.73 mha has gone to wheat areas. What is more, the Government has taken pains to supply a favourable market to the wheat growers. While the wheat prices were maintained around the international market prices, the price of rice was kept substantially below the international price. For instance, in early 1978, ex-farm price of rice in India was $165 a ton, less than half the U.S. price of $335 a ton, which also represented the international price, since USA is major rice exporter.[39] On the other hand ex-farm price of wheat at that time was $135 a ton, compared to the US price of $ 110 a ton. The policy of encouraging wheat production in the food-surplus areas proved extremely successful. In January 1978, the country had 18 mT of surplus stock of wheat while above 300 million people in the country were below the poverty line, not having enough purchasing power to eat the food that was lying surplus.

The decline in the growth of pulses resulted from the same reasons that caused the spurt in wheat. Pulses, grown largely in rain-fed conditions, were not commercially viable. And the Western countries, where green-revolution technologies were perfected, had little interest in pulses. They derive their protein requirements from meat procured through the expensive process of feeding good corn to cattle and pigs.[40] In largely vegetarian India, however pulses form the main source of proteins. Yet the availability of pulses per head per day declined continuously from 64 gm in 1962, to 58 gm in 1964, 48 gm in 1971, 45 gm in 1976 and only 40 gm in 1979.[41] The planners saw the solution to this problem in trying to make the Indians to change their food habits and shift to commercially more profitable non-vegetarian proteins. Let us give an example of the ridiculous extent to which the idea of changing the food habits of Indians was carried. The Literacy House in India is a component of World Education Inc., a corporation that had, with the help of World Bank, USAID and some other multinational agencies, taken up the task of preparing the rural masses in the Third World for Green Revolution. This house in 1978 brought out an adult literacy primer, Aao Charcha Karen. In that primer one finds the explicit message:[42]

Eating just rice has a bad effect on health
Eat eggs to make up for protein deficiency.

So, Indians were malnourished because they had the silly habit of being vegetarians! If a commercialising society fails to produce vegetarian proteins that the Indian civilisation has taught them to prefer, then the Indians should learn to shift to other things.

(b) Area to area disparity

Wheat and rice in India are traditionally grown in different areas. The fact that only wheat increased in production and productivity gives an indication that the much vaster rice areas must have suffered stagnation after the Green Revolution. However, we can form a clearer idea of the type of disparities that arose in HYV and non-HYV areas by closely looking at Table 3 above.

Let us start with the assumption that all increase in yield in 1970-71 was due to the marginal productivity of HYV, and of irrigation at the official yardstick of 0.5 ton/ha, (i.e., irrigating one hectare of land increases the output by 0.5 ton), which almost certainly is an underestimate. Now after subtracting the contribution of the marginal productivity of irrigation from the productivity shown in Table 3, we find that from 1963-64 to 1970-71 productivity of rice (after subtracting the contribution of irrigation) rose from 827 kg/ha to 922 kg/ha, and that of wheat from 634 kg/ha to 1034 kg/ha. If we assign all this increase in marginal productivity of HYV, then we get a figure of 1.12 ton/ha for the marginal productivity of HYV wheat and 0.62 ton/ha for HYV rice. For wheat this implies that yields per hectare of un-irrigated, irrigated and HYV-irrigated land were 634 kg/ha, 1134 kg/ha and 2254 kg/ha respectively. The 1968-69 PEO studies based on field data from HYV areas gave average yield of HYV wheat to be near 2560 kg/ha.[43] This means that our estimate of marginal productivity of HYV is probably an underestimate. And this implies that the assumption that productivity in non-HYV areas remained unchanged is not entirely correct, it must have slightly declined!

Let us repeat this analysis for the growth that took place between 1970-71 and 1975-76. Once again we subtract the contribution of irrigation from the entire production and obtain the productivity of rice and wheat in 1970-71 at 932 kg/ha and 1065 kg/ha, respectively. Surprisingly these figures are not much different from the corresponding figure of 922 kg/ha and 1034 kg/ha in 1970-71. But the area under HYV-rice has increased by 7.3 mha and that under HYV-wheat by 5.9 mha, between 1970-71 and 1975-76. Where did all the expected increase in production from these additional HYV areas go? Some increase in productivity over the 1970-71 figures can be observed, if instead of comparing 1970-71 yields with 1975-76, we compare with 1976-77 so as to include an abnormally good year 1977-78 in the triennial average. Productivity, after subtracting contribution of irrigation of rice and wheat, then comes out to be 1018 kg/ha and 1106 kg/ha respectively, with total HYV area under the two crops being 13.77 mha and 14.50 mha. Yet the marginal productivity of additional HYV rice and wheat does not approach anywhere near the earlier figures of 0.62 ton/ha and 1.12 ton/ha.

One way to explain this phenomenon is to assume that as HYV areas were expanded, all the necessary resources could not be made available, and hence additional HYV areas did not show appreciable response to the new technology. Alternatively, one must assume that productivity in the non-HYV areas had declined to balance the increased productivity in HYV areas. In practice, both these processes are likely to have operated. Since bringing an area under HYV involves considerable expenditure it is not likely to be done unless there is some corresponding increase in productivity. What is more, the consumption of nitrogenous fertiliser almost doubled from 1.4 mT in 1970-71 to 2.4 mT in 1975-76. This increased use of fertiliser must have produced some response in the HYV areas. If the aggregate productivity still did not show any appreciable improvement, the only plausible explanation seems to be that as more and more resources got diverted to HYV areas, the productivity in non-HYV areas actually declined. Micro-level studies will be required to isolate the detailed causes of this phenomenon, but the aggregate trend of declining productivity in non-HYV areas seems unmistakable. And it is not very surprising. As prices rise all around and even ordinary inputs become expensive, those whose inputs are not protected by subsidies and those who do not gain by the increased prices of the outputs are likely to stagnate and deteriorate.

To conclude this section, then, it is clear that no revolutionary improvement in the production and productivity of Indian Agriculture as a whole occurred with the so-called Green Revolution. If any thing happened, it was that the rates of growth of Indian agriculture declined. What looked like a revolution was merely a spurt in the growth of a few commercially important foodgrains in a few areas that were already surplus. This growth too was achieved at a very high cost of resources, and at the cost of an enormously enhanced dependence of agriculture on external, often imported, inputs. The increased costs pushed up prices all around, and left the subsistence farmers - who were not protected by input subsidies and were not helped by higher output prices, since in any case, they had no surpluses to sell - further impoverished. The yields in those subsistence farms consequently seem to have declined below the pre-“Green Revolution” levels. From the urban-industrial perspective, however the change was truly revolutionary. With the growth concentrated in already surplus areas, more and more food flowed into the urban market and the Government kitty, and the urban industrial sector became self-sufficient in food, even though large numbers of people still could not generate sufficient resources to get 2400 calories of food. That is the official poverty line for rural areas and more than 300 million people are still below this line. Improvement in the food availability in the urban-industrial sector was however so revolutionary that today the leading economists can already advise resistance to the demands of surplus farmers for higher prices on the ground that we do not need more food. It is now being declared that the country has already lost enormously by producing more food than what is necessary, that the prices of foodgrains should now be kept low so that the surplus farmers are forced to more essential commercial crops. This is being advocated at a time when 300 million people in the country are still hungry! Such are the achievements of the so-called Green Revolution.

The salient features of the Green Revolution - decline in the aggregate growth, increased production in localised areas at high costs of often imported resources, decline of production in less favoured areas and control of production by a small sector etc. - seem to be typical features of all modern technologies. The theory and practice of modern science and modern technology were evolved in the seventeenth and eighteenth century Europe. The driving concern of that evolution was, as clearly stated by Bacon, the prophet of the Scientific and Industrial Revolution, power - power through control of nature, of production, and of people. Resource efficiency, ecological prudence and distributive justice, etc., were nowhere in the minds of the people who initiated this development. All ethical injunctions, ensuring justice were in fact dismissed as obscurantism with which the scientist or the technologist could have nothing to do. He was to expend all his energies in increasing control, and hence profit. Justice and equality would, it was assured, follow as a result of that single-minded search for power and control, through some inscrutable dialectical process. Resource efficiency, of course, was something about which the technologist of that era could not have cared much. All the resources of the colonies were there to be taken, almost free. The scientific and technological task was to device processes that would consume these resources, efficiently or otherwise, within the mother country. It was under such conditions and such considerations that the science and technology that we call modern, emerged and it still carries its birthmarks with it.

iii. Alternatives to Green Revolution

Was there an alternative to Green Revolution? The answer to that question depends upon what one expects a revolution in agriculture to achieve. If what is expected to be achieved is only a steady flow of food and resources to the urban market and the government stocks, then Green Revolution was perhaps the best way to achieve it. The HYV technology with its high requirement of commercial resources was designed to be applicable to only those areas that were already surplus in food. By making these surplus areas more surplus, it ensured that all additional outputs will find their way into the market. If, however, our expectation from a revolution in agriculture is that first of all it enables the millions of subsistence workers living below the poverty line to produce their essential requirements, then of course there would have been no question of even considering the Green Revolution technology. In some form, our subsistence farmers already had an ‘alternative’ to the Green Revolution technology. Even a cursory, but sympathetic study of their agriculture would have led to the conclusion that what was needed was not new technology but immediate action to remove the various resource constraints which were putting tremendous pressure on their agriculture. The subsistence cultivators were not lacking in agricultural know-how, but simple resources such as water, manure, fodder and of course land. However any step in providing “free” access to such locally available resources to our cultivators, would have meant reversing the policy of achieving ‘progress’, the policy of appropriating all the resources our people have for the ‘industrial revolutions’ in the international and national metropolises. Let us consider, for instance, two of the major requirements for traditional agriculture: access to water and access of labour to land. As we shall see below, India had, and still has, a vast untapped potential of these resources.


Irrigation is the most important input for the traditional agricultural technologies, It insures the cultivator against the vagaries of the climate. It opens up the possibility of multiple cropping. It considerably enhances the employment potential of the land. And it almost doubles the productivity of individual crops.[44]

Costs of irrigation are difficult to work out because there is large variation from area to area. For peninsular India, where irrigation costs are relatively higher, National Irrigation Commission estimated in 1972 that the cost of irrigating one hectare was roughly equivalent to the price of a quintal of foodgrains, which would give a return of 5 quintals of foodgrains.[45] On the other hand, as discussed earlier, to bring one hectare of crop under HYV costs 2-3 quintals of foodgrains, and the return expected is about 10 quintals. Thus, in terms of economic efficiency, irrigation competes well with HYV cultivation, though HYV can be successfully implemented only in irrigated areas. We, therefore, had the option of enhancing irrigation, rather than making further investments in the already irrigated areas to grow HYV crops there. According to NCA estimates, our country has enough water resources to irrigate 110 mha of crops, whereas, in 1965-66, the year before HYV technology was launched, the gross irrigated area was 32.2 mha.

Since mid-sixties, some additional irrigation facilities have of course been generated. But it has been seen as only one of the inputs in the HYV technology package; the stress has been on providing more irrigation in those areas which already had irrigation and had adopted the new technology. This is obvious from the fact that of the additional 10 mha of foodgrain crops brought under irrigation between 1963-64 and 1975-76, 7.73 mha consisted of wheat, the major HYV crop, and only 1.44 mha consisted of the much vaster rice crops (Table 3).

It is true that the massive schemes of modern irrigation launched in India have proved to be problematic in various respects. However, one can conceive of alternative strategies for irrigation. In our country irrigation has historically been the responsibility of the community and the state; and there has been a tradition of using community labour and locally available materials for creating and maintaining irrigation capacity. If we could revive the tradition, much cheaper and more efficient irrigation could be possible. Growth of production achieved through growth in irrigation, especially irrigation created and maintained through the labour and initiative of the village communities, would benefit small and marginal farmers; it would put their agriculture on sounder footing, instead of making it economically un-viable as the Green Revolution technology has done. Irrigation, in fact, makes all the difference between prosperity and hunger, between a living thriving culture and stagnation.

Access of labour to land

Besides irrigation, the other major prerequisite of traditional agriculture is labour. Productivity of traditional agriculture depends largely upon the amount of labour that the farmer is willing to or is capable of putting in. This fact is confirmed by the well-known observation that almost everywhere in the developing world, small farms, even farms of size less than one hectare, on which labour is necessarily intense, are able to obtain much higher productivity than larger farms. The first series of farm management studies carried out in 1954-57 showed that the gross output per hectare of the farms in the smallest size group was almost always higher by at least 30% than that of the farms in the highest size group. This observation did not hold only in U.P and Maharastra (Akola and Amravati Districts), where the districts studied were largely under cash crops, and in Orissa where the productivity was rather low irrespective of the size. In Tamil Nadu (Salem and Coimbatore) the difference between the productivity of smallest and highest size group farms was as large as 170%, in Maharastra (Nasik) 109%, in Andhra Pradesh (West Godavari District) and Punjab (Ferozepur and Amristar) around 40%.[46]

That the smaller holdings were able to utilise the available resource much better, was also brought out in the Agriculture Census of 1971.[47] The data is reproduced in Table 4 below. Out of 33.8 mha commanded by holdings of less than 2 ha, 30 mha was sown, 7.7 mha of it more than once, giving a cropping intensity of 125. Holdings of size less than one hectare fared even better, with cropping intensities of 134 and 123 respectively for un-irrigated and irrigated land. On the other hand, larger holdings, of size greater than 10 ha, sowed only 38.64 mha of the 50.07 mha commanded by them, and on the sowed area achieved cropping intensity of only 109. Another study carried out at the ANS Institute for the Kosi Command Area in Bihar showed that on introduction of irrigation, large farms of size greater than 8 ha irrigated during the Rabi season only 26.5% of the area they irrigated during Kharif; the ratio was 102.5% for small farms of size less than 0.8 ha.[48] Yet according to the 1971 census, the most wasteful of farms, of size greater than 10 ha, command 30% of the total areas, while small efficient farms of size less than 1 hectare and constituting more than half of the operational holdings commanded only 9% of the total area.

Table 4: Size-wise Distribution of Area

Size Group

Operational Holdings (million)

Total Area

Net Area Sown (mha)

Gross Area Sown (mha)

0-1 ha





1-2 ha





2-4 ha





4-10 ha





> 10 ha










Source: Agricultural Census of India 1971.

By making commercial cultivation with new technology economically more viable –though at the cost of subsidies and price support – green revolution seems to have partially neutralised the advantage of the small farms. Thus in Punjab (Ferozepur) while the farms above 20.0 ha showed the lowest gross output per hectare of all sizes in 1954-57, in 1967-70, the farms of 24.0 ha and above showed the highest output of all sizes. However, in most of the country the small farms still retain their advantage.[49]

Improving the access of labour to land and improving the availability of water thus offer a vast potential for a widespread and genuinely revolutionary improvement in agricultural production and productivity. This offered an obvious alternative to the Green Revolution driven by a new, expensive and elitist technology. The existence of this alternative is well known to anyone who has any knowledge of agriculture. The National Commission on Agriculture itself had recognised that “¼small farms as a class are more efficient units of production compared to large farms when considered from the point of view of productivity and employment potential.”[50] It had also recognised that providing water to these small farms “would have by and large solved their problems”. If in spite of this a choice was made in favour of a technology that improved the fate of only already surplus farmers and yet did not accelerate agricultural growth, then it can only be surmised that solving the problem of small farmers was not the most important policy objective. That in a commercial society, the ‘point of view of productivity and employment potential’ is not the correct point of view.

By bringing out the viability of the non-technological alternative, we do not wish to imply that in agriculture no technological change will ever be required. But it seems that technological changes which will emerge from well-fed farmers with a view to improve their own lot will have to be qualitatively different from the technological changes advocated by elite practitioners of the Baconian science of control with a view to commercial viability. The analysis above makes us agree with Lappe and Collins that, “Once it is manipulated by people, nature losses in neutrality. Elite research institutes will produce seeds that work perfectly well for a privileged class of commercial farmers. Genetic research that involves ordinary farmers will produce seeds that are useful to them.”[51] It shall also, perhaps, produce a Genetic Science that incorporates their view of nature. But then ordinary farmers in traditional cultures have been carrying out such research for centuries.

Alexander Walker, Indian Agriculture, 1820, reprinted in Dharampal, Some Eighteenth Century European Accounts of Indian Science and Technology, Biblia Impex, Delhi 1971; Reprint Delhi 1983, p.230.

[2] Quoted in Claude Alvarez, Homo Faber: Technology and Culture in India, China and the West 1500-1972, Allied Publishers, Delhi 1971.

[3] The Fifth Report of the Select Committee on the Affairs of the East India Company, 1812, Reprint Delhi 1984, p.158.

[4] R. P. Dutt, India Today, Victor Golllancz, London 1940, p.129-30.

[5] K. Marx, The British Rule in India, New York Daily Tribune, June 25, reprinted in M. Marx and F. Engles, On Colonialism, Progress Publishers, Moscow 1968, p.35-41.

[6] Alexander Walker, reprinted in Dharampal cited earlier, p. 244.

[7] G. L. Prendergast, House of Common Papers, 1812-13, volume 9, p. 468, quoted from Dharampal, The Beautiful Tree: Indigenous Indian Education in the Eighteenth Century, Biblia Impex, New Delhi 1983, p. 12.

[8] R. P. Dutt, cited earlier, p.114.

[9] Quoted from Claude Alvarez, cited earlier.

[10] Quoted from R. P. Dutt, cited earlier, p.115.

[11] K. Marx, ‘The Future Results of British Rule in India’, New York Daily Tribune, August 8, 1853, reprinted in Marx and Engles, cited earlier, p.

[12] The general wholesale price index for Calcutta, which stood at 202 in 1920 (July 1914=100), declined to 173 in 1924, to 141 by 1929 and touched the rock-bottom of 87 points in 1933. Indices for cereals, pulses and oilseeds in 1933 stood at 66, 84 and 74, respectively. See, Report of the National Commission on Agriculture, Delhi 1976; volume 1, p.128. In the following we refer to this Report as NCAR 1976. The Report quotes these figures from Vera Anstey, The Economic Development of India, Longmans Green, London 1971. Later with the outbreak of the Second World War, food prices increased reflecting a general scarcity.

[13] George Blyn, Agricultural Trends in India, 1891-1947, Univ. of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia 1949. Also see, NCAR 1976, vol.1, ch.3, p. 204 and 211-13 and the corresponding appendices.

[14] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. I, p.199.

[15] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. I, p.219.

[16] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. I, p.221.

[17] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol.V, p.43.

[18] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. II, p.14.

[19] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. I, p.188.

[20] V. M. Dandekar and N. Rath, Poverty in India, Economic and Political Weekly, June 2 and June 9 1971.

[21] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. II, p.9.

[22] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. I, p.143.

[23] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. I, p.149.

[24] J. A. Volecker, Report on Improvement of Indian Agriculture, Calcutta 1893; second edition, 1895); reprint Agricol, New Delhi, 1986, p.10-11.

[25] NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. I, p.411. For evaluations of the IADP, also see, D. K. Desai, Intensive Agricultural District Programme, Economic and Political Weekly, June 28, 1969, pp.A-83-89, and, D. D. Brown, Agricultural Development in India’s Districts, Harvard University Press, Cambridge 1971.

[26] Speech of the Sri C. Subramaniam, Chairman, National Commission on Agriculture, NCAR 1976, cited earlier, vol. I, p. 27.

[27] This was how the programme to introduce new technologies in certain well-endowed areas was officially styled. The programme was monitored by the Programme Evaluation Organisation of the Planning Commission during 1967-69. The relevant figures on the yields of different crops in different areas under the HYVP given below have been gleaned from the various PEO evaluation studies and summarised in of NCAR 1976, vol. I, Appendix 4.2. A summary of a study on the relative economic returns from HYV and local varieties carried out by the Agro-economic Research Centres at various locations in the country in 1968-69 prepared by Ram Saran is also available in NCAR 1976, vol. 1, Appendix 4.3. The study was previously published as Ram Saran, High Yielding Varieties Cultivation: Some Economic Aspects, Agricultural Situation in India, August 1972. From these studies it can be said that HYV wheat faired rather well in almost all areas. The main kharif crop of rice, however, seems to have shown almost no response to HYV cultivation. This incidentally was the fate of the monsoon rice crop all over South and Southeast Asia. The studies also show a wide variation in the response to HYV from area to area.

[28] George Blyn, India’s Crop Output Trends: Past and Present, in C. H. Shah (ed.), Agricultural Development in India: Policy and Problems, Orient Longman, Bombay 1979.

[29] George Blyn, cited above.

[30] Keith Griffin, The Political Economy of Agrarian Change, second edition, Macmillan, London 1979. See, especially, his Tables 1.1 and 1.2.

[31] Keith Griffin, cited above.

[32] A 1968 comparison of the energy efficiency of British agriculture as a whole with that of shifting rice cultivation of Dyaks and Ibans in Borneo showed that while the efficiency of the former was only 0.20, that of the latter ranged between 14.2 and 18.2. A more relevant comparison is perhaps the one carried out by Lockeretz et al. (1977). They compared two sets of farms in the U.S. corn-belt that differed from each other only in the fact that one set used only organic manure and no inorganic fertiliser or pesticide while the other set used these inputs. They found that while the two sets of farms showed comparable economic efficiency, the organic farms used 2.4 to 2.5 times less energy per dollar of output. Incidentally, the organic farms were also able to employ 12% more labour, a commodity plentifully available in India. See, W. Lockeretz (ed), Economic and Energy Comparison of Crop Production on Organic and Conventional Corn-Belt Farms, Academic Press, New York, 1977.

[33] Economic Survey 1980-81, Government of India, Delhi 1981. Figures for 1979-80 are provisional.

[34] See footnote 27 above.

[35] Some idea of the level of subsidies can be obtained from the following: Naphtha, the major raw material for the production of nitrogenous fertilisers, is sold to the fertiliser industry at a controlled price of Rs.900/ton while for other users the price is Rs.2350/ton (1980 prices). The fertiliser produced is then further subsidised. While price support and subsidies are legitimate rights of the farmers, if they must produce through the new technology, it should be borne in mind that these measures help only a minuscule proportion of Indian farmers, who use the new technology and produce for the market.

[36] Figures in this paragraph are taken from NCAR 1976, vol. II, p.79 and Economic Survey 1980-81, cited earlier.

[37] Alexander Walker, reprinted in Dharampal cited earlier, p.233

[38] Notice that in 1950-51 total production of wheat in India was only 6.34 mT. Incidentally, wheat is also the major grain traded in the international market. In 1974, under-developed market economy countries imported 31.2 mT of wheat and only 2.0 mT of rice. See, Keith Griffin, cited earlier, Tables 6.7 and 6.8; also see his Tables 6.1 and 6.2 to get a profile of the international wheat and rice trade.

[39] Keith Griffin, cited earlier, p.170. Before the Green Revolution, Asia was a net rice exporter. After the Green Revolution this region had become a net importer. In 1964, 181,100 tons of rice was exported from Asia; in 1970, 1,135,000 tons of rice was imported into Asia.

[40] The process is so expensive that non-vegetarian USSR, imports about 50 mT of cereals every year to raise the domestic availability of foodgrains to about a ton per capita per year. Vegetarian India feeds itself with just about 1/5 of a ton per capita, though this level of availability of foodgrains is certainly not enough, and leads to a large proportion of Indians remaining half-hungry.

[41] Triennial averages calculated from data in the Economic Survey 1980-81, cited earlier.

[42] Ross Kidd and Krishna Kumar, Co-opting Freire: A Critical Analysis of Pseudo-Freire in Adult Education, Economic and Political Weekly, Jan 3-10, 1981. About the aims of the adult-literacy programme, launched by the World Bank etc. in late sixties, in conjunction with Green Revolution, the authors have the following to say: “The purpose of the new programme was to cover all aspects of a peasant’s life that would facilitate his initiation into a consumer society; aspects such as agriculture, health, sanitation, fertility and small-scale entrepreneurship¼”

[43] NCAR 1976, Vol. I, Table 4.4.

[44] A comparison of data based on NSSO crop-cutting experiments for 1970-71 and 1971-72 shows that yields of irrigated crops, compared to un-irrigated crops, were higher by about 80-95% for paddy and 105-115% for wheat. According to a statistical analysis based on aggregated crop-production in fifties, quoted in NCAR, the irrigated and un-irrigated yields were 1.28 ton/ha and 0.46 ton/ha respectively for wheat, and 1.47 ton/ha and 0.47 ton/ha for paddy. Official yardstick for the marginal productivity of irrigation is, however, 0.5 ton/ha. See, NCAR 1976, vol. I, pp. 437-8.

[45] NCAR 1976, vol. I, p.437.

[46] NCAR 1976, vol. I, Appendix 4.1. Similar data on other developing countries such as Indonesia, Thailand, Taiwan, etc., is available in Keith Griffin, cited earlier.

[47] Quoted in NCAR, vol.I, Table 4.1 and 4.2

[48] Quoted in NCAR, vol. II, pp. 37-38.

[49] NCAR 1976, vol. I, p. 431; also see, NCAR 1976, vol. II, p. 42-43.

[50] NCAR 1976, vol. I, pp. 431.

[51] F. Lappe and J. Collins, Food First, Houghton Miffins, Boston 1977, p.123.