Commemoration of Swaminathan Calls for a Revisit of Green Revolution

Dr M S Swaminathan

In commemoration of Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, who is acclaimed as the “Father of Indian Green Revolution”, the standard mainstream explanation is that at a time when India had been passing through an acute food crisis in the 1960s, it was Swaminathan’s close work with the then Indian regime that paved the for a quantum jump in production of wheat and rice through adoption of “chemical-biological technology”. As an agriculture scientist, Swaminathan’s  admirers and corporate media are stressing on the innovative use of technology of mutation for various crops and application of genetics that resulted in the  increase in food production under his initiative. Some even go to the extent of highlighting how Swaminathan’s “farmer-centric” approaches resonated far beyond India’s borders, serving as an inspiration to agricultural communities worldwide especially in his capacity as Director General of Philippines-based International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) sponsored by biggest US neocolonial funding agencies such as Rockefeller and Ford Foundations. And the UNEP went a step further calling him as “the Father of Economic Ecology”.

However, these and other tributes to Swaminathan highlight only a miniature microcosm of the broader macrocosm of the entire transformation during the immediate postwar neo-colonial world order led by US in which the so called Green Revolution itself was an integral part of a global project. In this broader scheme of things, Swaminathan’s role had been that of an Indian facilitator. When India’s President Droupadi Murmu interprets Swaminathan’s legacy as a “guiding light to steer the world towards a safer and hunger-free future for humanity”, or when Prime Minister Modi eulogises Swaminathan’s “ground-breaking work in agriculture” and for being “powerhouse of innovation”, an objective evaluation makes it amply clear that Swaminathan was only part and parcel of a postwar global agricultural project formulated and implemented by US, starting from Mexico (Latin America) to Philippines (Asia-Pacific).  While Swaminathan is called “the Father of Indian Green Revolution”,  a glance at the actual course of events will make that claim really doubtful.

In fact, the term “Green Revolution” itself was first used by William S. Gaud of the US Agency for International Development (USAID) in a speech on 8 March 1968. Explaining the “Green Revolution” which was formulated and superimposed across the world by US imperialism as part of its post-war political agenda of freeing the world from Communist danger and to effectively tackle the challenge raised by the program of “agrarian revolution” by Communists  that called for a fundamental transformation in land relations in Afro-Asian-Latin American countries, Gaud said: “These and other developments in the field of agriculture contain the makings of a new revolution. It is not a violent Red Revolution like that of the Soviets, nor is it a White Revolution like that of the Shah of Iran. I call it the Green Revolution.”

Much before transplanting Green Revolution to India and other neocolonially dependent countries, during the1940s itself when US imperialism was set to replace Britain as the supreme arbiter of the postwar world order, US Department of Agriculture (USDA) together with two of the world’s biggest American funding agencies, Rockefeller and Ford foundations had selected Mexico, its backyard as a testing ground of Green Revolution. The agronomist Norman Borlaug from Midwestern US State of Iowa acted as the key agricultural scientist in this mission. It was he who provided the scientific and technical guidelines for Green Revolution. Norman Borlaug is honored as the “Father of Green Revolution”. Revealingly, in 1970, Borlaug was awarded Nobel Prize for peace and, not for his direct contribution to scientific research or its technological application, but duly acknowledging the political relevance of his contribution in averting what US think-tanks often call a “Red Revolution” with its outcome of a revolutionary transformation in land relations.  Later the United Nations, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and many neocolonial institutions led by World Bank became the propagators of Green Revolution.

It took almost two decades to develop Green Revolution as a workable model to be transplanted to Afro-Asian-Latin American countries. In Mexico, for instance, the work that started in the 1940s continued and  it was in 1963 that the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Centre (CIMMYT) was established there. In the meanwhile, both Rockefeller and Ford foundations together had collaborated with neocolonial regimes such as India to transplant this new agricultural technology to them. In 1959, both  Rockefeller and Ford  took initiative to establish the IRRI in Philippines. Both the CIMMYT and IRRI became the technology-disseminating centres for Green Revolution and in the beginning wheat and rice seeds were respectively supplied from Mexico and Philippines. The Green Revolution got a further boost with the establishment of USAID in 1961 as the coordinating agency for American ‘developmental’ efforts in neocolonial countries. In 1961 itself, through the combined initiative  of World Bank, USAID, Ford and Rockefeller Philanthropies, the Nehru government invited Norman Borlaug to draw out a blueprint for Green Revolution in India. In 1971, the World Bank with the co-sponsorship of FAO, UNDP and International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD) established the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) as the apex body for coordinating neocolonial efforts such as Green Revolution in agriculture.

Obviously, Green Revolution was a superimposed international program by which global corporate capital, modern technology and agribusiness MNCs penetrated into the entire agricultural sector of neocolonially dependent  countries even under the umbrella of public sector during the welfare era that lingered on till the onset of neoliberal globalisation. More precisely, Green Revolution was a smart neocolonial move on the part of global finance capital led by US to penetrate the “fossilized” agriculture sector of dependent countries making effective use of the latest agricultural technologies thereby developing and controlling the entire input-output market for agriculture monopolized by MNCs. In India, when the Green Revolution involving a series of imported agricultural technologies, high-yielding hybrid seeds, chemical fertilsers, pesticides, irrigation infrastructure, management techniques, etc, started since the 1960s, Swaminathan backed by his links with USDA since the early 1950s as a researcher in the US and his connections with other neocolonial centres became its chief technocrat.

Along with the superimposition of new technologies, American think-tanks as codified in the Bell Mission Report (during the time of Truman) had already given their proposals for appropriate changes in land relations paving the way for the emergence of a new agricultural class replacing the decadent feudal forces who were reluctant to experiment with new agricultural technologies and capital investments in agriculture. The Bell Report was followed by the recommendations of 13 American agronomists who were sent to India  as part of World Bank-USAID-Ford-Rockefeller initiative towards making Green Revolution a success. The spirit of their suggestions was the need for the emergence of a class of rich farmers as its firm social, political and economic base.  This made it imperative on the part of ruling regimes in dependent countries to restructure the feudal land relations through superimposed legislations such as Zamindari abolition in India. However, this in no way was intended to entrust land to the vast majority of  landless poor, marginal and small farmers who form the “real tillers of the soil”.  As such, the land reform laws that came in to being in India during this period led to the emergence of a class of capitalist farmers who were ready to integrate themselves with the ideology and technology of Green Revolution.

Along with the concentration of land in a new agricultural ‘bourgeois class’, this process also led to the displacement of millions of poor peasants from land altogether who became agricultural workers available for work in big holdings and farms at the lowest wages. The total neglect of the land question of poor peasants, real the tillers of the soil has later prompted even the FAO to question what was happening in India. In its widely quoted publication titled “Agriculture Toward 2000”, FAO commented thus: “Redistribution of only 5 percent of farm land in India, coupled with improved access to water, could reduce rural poverty level by 30 percent under what they would otherwise be, so that in Indian conditions land and water reform would be a key approach.” However, any move in this direction was a virtual impossibility given the class character of Indian ruling classes and in view of their subservience to global corporate capital.

In fact, while the corporate elite who celebrates Green Revolution and eulogizes Swaminathan as its so called Indian architect, the experience of common people are really horrific. Along with poor people’s loss of small holdings to large commercial farms, there were many harmful social repercussions associated with Green Revolution-induced “unsustainable” practices such as mono cropping, crop homogeneity, etc. which were more prone to diseases and pests leading to the intensifying use of pesticides and herbicides. Studies conducted even by experts from Western agricultural research institutions have recognized  the multi-dimensional social and ecological consequences emerging from Green Revolution. Peter Rosset, an expert from the Institute for Food and Development Policy, for instance, commented: “First, where farmland is bought and sold like any other commodity and society allows the unlimited accumulation of farmland by a few, super farms replace family farms and all of society suffers. Second, where the main producers of food – small farmers and farm workers- lack bargaining power relative to suppliers of farm inputs and food marketers, producers get a shrinking share of the rewards from farming. Third, where dominant technology destroys the very basis for future production, by degrading the soil and generating pest and weed problems, it becomes increasingly difficult and costly to sustain yields.”

A direct fall-out of the Green Revolution has been the loss of indigenous varieties of seeds across the country. In India, for example, there were about 30000 rice varieties prior to the Green Revolution. Today there are around ten only. This enforced “monoculture” and crop homogeneity further led to increased need for chemical applications and technological inputs and heavy reliance on imperialist centres which are linked with agribusiness. Only the “elite” farmers who are capable of purchasing new commercial varieties of seeds, pesticides, fertilizers, etc. could survive. Other grave issues, though least discussed in mainstream media , in relation to Green Revolution are also there. During the initial years of Green Revolution, the incapacitation from machine accidents and acute poisoning from pesticides in India were so great that it caught the attention of international agencies though Indian regime tried to cover them up. This was not a specifically Indian phenomenon. A report of the International Development Research Centre, Ottawa, based on a random study of the Green Revolution areas of the world in the late 1970s identified 7,50,000 cases of “acute poisoning” from pesticides alone. The agricultural sector also became an important consumer of industrial goods and agricultural inputs produced by multi-national agro-industrial corporations, while the agriculture sector in general remained retarded and distorted following Green Revolution.

To be precise,  Green revolution, as the agricultural modernization strategy, was a postwar global neocolonial project that was imposed on all dependent countries from Latin America to Asia-Pacific primarily under US diktats. For instance, in the case of India, the final and strategic decision to launch Green Revolution was clinched during the 1965 Washington visit of C Subramanian, the then Union minister of agriculture. And, as an incentive and as a gesture, the US pumped nearly 11 million tons of food grains in to India in the same year. The US intervention  was reflected in the planning process itself with a shift in emphasis from industry to agriculture in the Fourth Plan document, the basic guidelines of which were reportedly formulated in Washington.

Of course, many well-meaning people have pointed out the growth in the output of food grains in India.  No doubt, food grains production in India rose from 50.8 million tons in 1951 to 218.2 million tons in 2010. However, the per capita availability food grains has been experiencing a long-run decline. With around 20 crore out of 142 crore people (around 55 percent of world total) still under extreme and multi-dimensional poverty, India has now become the “citadel of global poverty”. More than one -third of the rural population is landless and homeless.  A notable, feature of the Green Revolution in India has been the rapid growth of a parasitic and speculative trading class who appropriate fabulous wealth by indulging in black-marketing in food grains. The growth of the market for food grains and commercial crops has enhanced the power of this parasitic class in the economy and polity. The immense clout of this class became evident in the early days of Green Revolution itself when in 1974 Indira Gandhi had to withdraw from her populist move of nationalizing wholesale trade in food grains due to the resistance from speculative wholesalers.

Market transactions in food grains and other agricultural outputs and various inputs including seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and modern agricultural equipment reinforced widespread credit and cash transactions throughout the country. These have become a lucrative source of wealth for corporate capital – an indirect fall-out of Green Revolution. Obviously, private capitalistic form of land ownership and documents pertaining to that were indispensable for loan and credit transactions. The large-scale need of credit has necessitated the growth of  banking transactions and it was the green revolution-induced credit requirements and the need for more growth in rural branches that led to the 1969 bank nationalization in India. Feudal remnants like usurers and money lenders though persisted, rural India was also dragged into the vortex of financialisation integrated with global capital. And the emergence of microfinance  in recent years as part of the internationalization of finance capital has also become a device to fully integrate the countryside with global market.

Today, under neoliberalism,  as the Green Revolution under ‘state-led development’ has lost its steam, now under what is called ‘second green revolution’, full-fledged corporatisation of agriculture led by agribusiness is gathering momentum with its manifold repercussions.  But under neoliberalism, the mask of public sector and self-reliance being redundant as state becomes a mere corporate facilitator, all the agricultural research institutions are fast becoming open appendages of imperialist agribusiness companies. In the so called ‘second green revolution’ that is now flourishing under the intellectual property regime supervised by WTO,  patent rights are extended even to plants and animals.  The new developments in biotechnology including genetic engineering that are taking place under the aegis of agribusiness MNCs are now taking corporatiisation of agriculture to its farthest limits with its concomitant landlessness deprivation, destitution and marginalization of the peasantry.

Today, while Swaminathan is being held responsible for the “ill-effects” of  Green Revolution including its social and ecological damages, it would be in order here to identify his role as an implementer of a corporate project initiated by global capital. However, in the ultimate analysis, the whole project of Green Revolution is to be situated in the postwar laws of motion of imperialist capital in which the US played the decisive role.

P J James is General Secretary, CPI (ML) Red Star

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