When Norman Borlaug and M. S. Swaminathan introduced the new high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice to India, they focused their initial efforts in Punjab, a traditional wheatgrowing region on the border with Pakistan. The result was a staggering surplus of grain. In 1960-61, Punjab farmers harvested about 3 million tons of wheat and oilseeds—not even enough to feed all Punjabis. In 2004-5, they harvested more than 25 million tons of grain, virtually all of it highyielding varieties of wheat and rice—enough to feed Punjab and much of India as well.
Punjab was singled out for the new kind of agriculture because it had the plentiful water that Borlaug's highyielding varieties needed. The word "Punjab" comes from the Persian root panj ("five") and aab ("water"). It is the land of five rivers: the Jhelum, Chenab, Ravi, Beas, and Sutlej gather meltwater from the snowy Himalaya and Pir Panjal mountains to the north and east and carry it across fertile but arid floodplains southwest toward Pakistan, where they feed the Indus.
This is the land of the ancient Harappans, some of the world's earliest irrigators, whose agricultural prowess 4,500 years ago sustained a civilization larger than Egypt and Mesopotamia combined. They were the first farmers to cultivate cotton, gin it, spin it, and weave it into cloth, which they traded to the neighboring Mesopotamians. Though invading Aryan herders destroyed much of the Harappans' hydraulic works, the British eventually recognized the agricultural potential of the region, and during the late 1800s they sought to create a "model agricultural province" amid a network of irrigation canals. They settled these new canal colonies with loyal Hindu and Sikh farmers who had formed the backbone of the Indian Army for decades. With access to water, these farmers turned 6 million acres of desert into what is now the agricul tural dynamo of India and Pakistan.
When the Indian government saw the potential of Borlaug's wheat varieties in 1968, it spent millions on agricultural development. Over the next decade, India's leaders funneled the money into the five states that they thought had the greatest potential: Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Gujarat, Rajasthan, and Punjab. The highly literate Punjabi farmers quickly adopted the new package of seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides—especially the larger, wealthier farmers, who reaped the greatest rewards. But even the smaller farmers prospered. The government subsidized cooperative banks, making farm credit incredibly cheap. Small Mahindra, Farmtrac, and Eicher tractors were soon crawling over the Punjab, becoming status symbols among even the smallest landowners, who either ignored or never heard the warnings of economists from Punjab Agricultural University that it would take at least 15 acres of land to make such a machinery investment pay off. Most had far less.
It didn't matter. The government was buying every grain of wheat and rice at a decent support price, and subsidizing nitrogen fertilizer as well. Only about a quarter of Punjab was serviced by the old British canals. So with help from the World Bank, the primary funder of national irrigation schemes, the Indian government also subsidized the installation of tube wells—smalldiameter steel pipes attached to electric pumps—so that farmers could tap the shallow and abundant groundwater. The government helped farmers install 200,000 tube wells in just two years in the early 1970s and provided the electricity to run the pumps for free. Today, nearly 1.3 million tube wells pierce Punjab's aquifer in the central and northern parts of the state.
With a steady stream of water, subsidized fertilizer, and high support prices, farmers were virtually guaranteed a good return on their harvest. In a few years Punjabi farmers went from growing more than 200 different crops to growing just 3: wheat and rice for grain, and cotton as a cash crop. Rice farming was new to Punjabis, who traditionally ate wheat. But with high yields and a guaranteed price, the thirsty crop quickly replaced traditional pulses, oilseeds, mustards, and millets in the rotation of Punjabi farms.
"Punjab state, like the rest of India, was in deficit in food grains at Partition," said Dr. P. S. Rangi, a longtime economics professor at Punjab Agricultural University, and now a consultant for the Punjab State Farmers Union. "Yet in 20 years these farmers were able to make India selfsufficient in food grains. The [annual] growth rates have been very high, as much as 11 percent. There is no comparable example in the history of the world where the growth rates have been so high for 20 years. In this way the states of Punjab and Haryana have become the food basket for the country."
Rangi, a tall distinguished Sikh, sat at a simple desk in a corner office in the farmers union building in the modern city of Chandigarh, an open concrete structure that smelled vaguely of Sevin dust. He ruffled through a stack of papers until he found the one he sought, and then continued what would soon become a less happy tale. "In the early period of the green revolution, 1965 to 1985, farmers were getting a very good price. The cost of inputs was low, total production quite high. Both public and private investment in the farm sector was high. Net returns were quite high. Farm ers made quite a big profit from this enterprise. However, during the late 1980s and early 1990s, the price of inputs increased at a higher rate than the base rates of commodities. Consequently, net returns declined, so farmers began feeling the pinch."
Prices weren't the only problem for farmers. The once fertile alluvial soils and the abundant, easily accessible river and ground water began to falter under the endless wheatrice or wheatcotton rotations. Before the green revolution, a third of the Punjab's cropland lay fallow every year. Afterward, cropping intensity (the number of crops harvested during a given year) rose to 190 percent—nearly two crops a year—one of the highest cultivation rates on Earth. The intensive irrigation required for this level of farming caused the water table to plummet in areas served by tube wells, while areas serviced by canals have since been plagued with waterlogging and salt buildup that have made more than 80,000 hectares barren.
The green revolution left a heavy chemical legacy as well. Punjabi farmers apply more fertilizer and pesticides per hectare than do any other farmers in India. Annual fertilizer use increased eightfold from 1970 to 2006, when it reached nearly 1.7 million tons, while pesticide use has more than doubled since 1980. Most of the pesticides (75 percent) are sprayed on the expensive cotton crop, which is grown in rotation with wheat in a wide swath of southern Punjab known as the Malwa Plains. Since the late 1980s, the rising cost of fertilizers, pesticides, and labor, along with the cost of deepening tube wells and installing expensive submersible pumps to handle the greater depths, has left the average Punjabi farmer deeply in debt. The average amount owed is about 41,576 rupees—$800. It doesn't sound like a lot, but for the 63 percent of Punjabi farmers who cultivate 4 acres or less, it amounts to four years' worth of income. It's also four times the average debt owed by farmers in other parts of India.
As their production costs and debts grew, Punjabi farmers began to be squeezed in an economic vice. In the early 1990s, the phenomenal increase in yield that they'd enjoyed for two decades began to slow. Instead of the blistering 11 percent yearly growth in the 1970s and 1980s, the average annual rate of growth in wheat yield from 1990 to 2000 fell to 2 percent, while the rice yield grew just 1.3 percent yearly. In the last decade, wheat yield growth has fallen to less than 1 percent, while rice production has flatlined.
India's annual population growth rate is falling as well, but the country is still growing faster than its agricultural production. From 2001 to 2011, India added 181 million people—nearly equal to the entire population of Brazil, the world's fifthmostpopulous country. Though its urban middle class now tops 160 million and is the fastestgrowing segment of the Indian population, more than 60 percent of Indians still make their living from agriculture, and 80 percent live on less than two dollars a day.
Most of India's poor live in rural villages like Chottian, a dusty brown collection of mud houses in the Sangrur district of southern Punjab. Kartaro Kaur is one of them. Her family once grew a variety of food crops, but after the green revolution they grew only cotton in the summer and wheat in the winter. Her eldest son, Dulla Singh, borrowed money to buy a tractor and to pay for his sister's marriage. Then the American bollworm hit the Punjab with a vengeance. Farmers who had once sprayed their cotton for insects 10 or 12 times a season were soon spraying it 2030 times with some of the most toxic pesticides on the planet. Singh borrowed money for better seeds and chemicals, and still the crop failed three years in a row. Then one day in 1988, his family found his lifeless body hanging from a tree near the field. He was 22 years old.
Dulla's younger brother Bhatti took over the farm after that, and things got a little better. He sold the tractor to pay off the debt. Then he, too, paid for the wedding of a sister and eventually bought another tractor—not because he needed one, Kaur said, but simply because he wanted one. For 16 years they could not break even. And one day in the mid1990s, they found Bhatti hanging from a tree as well.
When I spoke with her, Kaur was 70 years old and wore a white head scarf, her face as lined as the surrounding fields. She sat on the rope bed of her simple mudbrick home with her two widowed daughtersinlaw and her grandsons by her side. She told her story without emotion. Only when I asked her what her life had been like when she was young did her voice begin to waver.
"When I was young we grew mustard and chickpeas," she said. "We made more profit because the costs were much less. Those were such prosperous times forty years ago. I had so much gold then. Cotton has ruined everything."
"Why not plant other crops?" I asked.
"You can't plant the old crops, because there are so many insects that attack them," she replied. "It is very difficult."
Dusk had fallen while we spoke, and her grandsons opened their cell phones to provide light so that I could continue to take notes. I asked Kaur if she wanted them to be farmers. "No," she replied firmly. "They should get office jobs."
Kaur's sons were not alone, but rather part of a wave of farmer suicides that has shaken rural India since the late 1980s—about the same time the green revolution began to lose its glow. Exact numbers are hard to verify. Suicide is a crime in India, requiring a police investigation and a postmortem report that the victim's family must pay for. It also carries a significant social stigma, so suicides are often simply recorded as "sudden" deaths. But a recent investigation by Indian journalist Palagummi Sainath, the rural affairs editor of the English-language paper the Hindu, reported that according to the National Crime Records Bureau—the official source of suicide figures in India—nearly 257,000 Indian farmers took their own lives over the 16 years between 1995 and 2010. That means that, on average, an Indian farmer committed suicide every 32 minutes during the last decade and a half. Despite much press attention, the problem seems to be getting worse. The num- ber of suicides in the last eight years was actually higher than in the previous eight. Even a $15 billion loan waiver for India's farmers in 2008 didn't stanch the deaths.
"The first thing to go is the wife's jewelry," says Inderjit Singh Jaijee, a human rights lawyer and former member of Punjab's legislative assembly who has been pressuring the government for an accurate account of rural suicides in Punjab for years. "Then the land is pledged. They lose 2 acres this year, 3 acres next year, until they lose all 15 acres. Then they become agricultural laborers. It's a great shame to mortgage the land. A great loss of status and respect. [The farmer] goes from being called 'sir,' to being called 'hey you!' So he commits suicide." The most common method is by drinking pesticides—the very chemicals that purport to protect the farmers' livelihoods.
The second part of the extract will be published online on November 20, 2015.