|CERES No. 105/109 - October 1985 (FAO Ceres, 1985, 50 p.)|
"Growth cannot be true development if it entails environmental degradation."
India is often held up as one of the countries where green revolution technology has had a significant impact, although there is some debate as to whether its benefits have been distributed fairly. On the basis of the Indian experience, how do you rate green revolution technology as an instrument for reducing rural poverty?
For several decades before freedom, Indian agriculture was stagnant. Even after India gained political independence, the economic consequences of colonialism continued. India had to import food to feed its people. In the mid- 1960s, Indira Gandhi took a decision that this dependence should end. The green revolution strategy was adopted. Its objective was to achieve self-sufficiency in agriculture, especially grain, in the shortest possible time. Obviously, the green revolution technology had to concentrate on areas and crops where all the supporting services and inputs were available and which offered the maximum scope for increasing output.
The green revolution closed the gap between demand and production. It enabled the country to become self-sufficient within a decade. Thanks to it, India was able to withstand the severe droughts of 1972 and 1980, which were among the worst in a century, without recourse to concessional imports. Between 1951 and 1984, annual grain production has gone up from 51 million tons to 152 million tons. The increase since 1966 has been of the order of 62 million tons. We today have large buffer stocks-of the order of 28 million tons- which enable us to cope with any possible setbacks. These stocks have also enabled us to create greater rural employment, using grain to pay a part of the wages.
However, right from the beginning, our planners and political leaders knew that the strategy of the green revolution could widen the disparities between the prosperous and the indigent farmers and also between the advanced and backward regions. What its actual impact on the distribution of incomes has been is a much debated subject. But, by and large, the Indian experience has shown that agricultural growth and incidence of rural poverty are inversely related. Concretely, wages have gone up. There has also been an increased demand for labour, and landless rural people have greater employment opportunities. Side by side with the green revolution technology, we initiated other complementary programmes for growth of agricultural output-new methods in dry farming, support to marginal farmers, encouragement to dairying and so on.
Our seventh five-year plan, on which we have just embarked, continues to emphasize intensive agriculture as a major plank of poverty alleviation. The earlier phase of the green revolution concentrated on wheat-growing areas. We have now taken up programmes also for rice, coarse grains, oilseeds and pulses. Scientific farming is being extended to the rural poor in the backward areas of the eastern region, where agriculture has remained stagnant for decades.
How critical are institutional and social factors in inhibiting progress toward more equitable income distribution in rural India?
The colonial agrarian structure inhibited growth. Lifting the burdens of the rural masses was one of the strong motivating factors of our freedom movement. On achieving independence, the country embarked on an extensive programme of land reforms. Intermediaries were abolished for over 20 million tenants. Besides, a countrywide extension service was built up.
The agrarian economy has made a particularly impressive advance wherever local institutions are fully developed. Cooperatives, particularly in the field of milk, sugar and oilseeds, are examples of what the "uneducated and low-skilled" Indian farmer can achieve.
On the social side, some inhibiting factors are low levels of education, which affect the capacity to seek and absorb modem technology, and caste handicaps, which retard mobility and initiative.
In spite of these handicaps, our rural people have shown that they can adjust to changes technology once its profitability is demonstrated. In recent years the growth of radio and television has enlarged the villager's access to information. This should also stimulate the emergence of a new leadership at the village level and adapt newer
Much of India's increased food production has been associated with the extension of irrigation. However, more than two thirds of all agricultural land is totally dependent on rainfall. What are the prospects, first, for extending irrigation, and second, for developing improved rainfed agricultural systems?
A good part of the increase in grain production is no doubt attributable to the expansion of irrigation. But it would be wrong to minimize the role played by other factors. Among these are the development of high yielding seed varieties and the establishment of credit facilities, a marketing infrastructure and an extension service. It would by no means be right to think that all these automatically accompany the expansion of irrigation. A mere enlargement of the irrigated area, without the development of the other components of the technological and economic infrastructure, would not have led to increases of the same order in production.
India is administratively divided into a little over 400 Districts. Nearly 75 per cent of these could be categorized as backward. Virtually all of them are in areas dependent wholly on rain. Not all these areas can be reached through irrigation. This means that the basic problem of removal of poverty requires the development of a scientific package of practices designed primarily for increasing per-hectare yields in rainfed areas. This is the reason why very great emphasis is being placed on the development of dry farming. The endeavour to bring more areas under irrigation will also continue, as will steps to ensure that irrigated areas are properly drained and will not turn into saline lands. Ultimately we have to propagate better water management practices.
India has particular reason to be conscious of environmental hazards that can be associated with providing modern inputs for agriculture. In a more general sense, do you consider that environmental hazards and degradation are an inevitable result of agricultural modernization? Is development of "softer" technologies for Indian agriculture necessary-or even possible?
Growth cannot be true development if it entails environmental degradation. The early stages of industrialization everywhere produced serious dislocations. Some of the damage was repaired with the acquisition of new scientific insights. The developing countries, by the very fact that they have started some of these hazards.
Poverty itself is pollution, as Indira Gandhi often remarked. Removal of poverty is essential if the environment is to improve. Planned growth helps to mitigate environmental degradation by balancing immediate and long-term considerations. We have in recent years enforced strict environmental criteria before industrial and other projects have been approved.
Increase in the population, the drive for higher food production and the growth of forest-based industries have unfortunately led to deforestation. Pesticides have also been used indiscriminately. We have now taken up a massive programme of tree planting. Our scientists are working on methods to meet the fuel needs of rural people and on alternatives to chemical pesticides.
There is one other danger from commercialization of agriculture that is not often recognized. In most advanced countries, it has led to a reduction in genetic diversity. It is said that in France there were more than 200 varieties of apples at the turn of the century, whereas now there are barely half a dozen. Such depletion of diversity is a costly price to pay for "development". India is a treasure house of plant varieties. Our scientists, I am glad to say, are making special efforts to ensure that this wealth is not lost. They have also been doing considerable work on the evolution and propagation of species which are resistant to various kinds of plant diseases and blights.
India has the world's ninth largest industrial economy, yet about three quarters of its population still lives on the land, and unemployment and underemployment are serious problems in many rural areas. What are the prospects for improving industry's absorption of surplus labour from the agricultural sector?
I doubt whether we should expect industry to absorb all the additions to the labour force, which, in India, are of no small order. Even in the advanced countries, industry is proving incapable of doing so. A challenge before our scientists is to create jobs through advanced technologies, which require less investment than conventional industrial jobs do.
We have rightly laid emphasis on the preservation of rural crafts along with the introduction of small industries in rural areas. It has been found that intensive agriculture itself creates greater job opportunities at a lesser cost than industry would.
In the past, India has been a major recipient of food aid. In recent years self-sufficiency in cereals has been attained. In view of the criticisms occasionally directed at food aid programmes as a form of disincentive to domestic food production, could you comment on the role food aid has played in the development of India's agriculture?
We should distinguish here between emergency food aid and long-term food aid. It would be perverse to argue that countries which require emergency food aid should be denied food in order to spur them to grow more.
The experience of India has shown that long-term aid stimulates greater production of foodgrains. Concessional food aid at a particular stage of development enabled India to make investments in agriculture which led to self sufficiency. In fact we are today providing aid to African countries in our own modest way.
With respect to other forms of development assistance, what have been the major lessons learned from Indian experience? What do you see as India's major needs for external assistance over the rest of this century?
The main lesson that I would draw from India's experience is that external assistance can play a valuable role in promoting development provided it is dovetailed with a well-designed and well-implemented development strategy. These strategies may vary from country to country, but, essentially, they should stress self reliance. External assistance can play a supportive role. This is our experience. India's recourse to development assistance has been very limited, much less than that of most other countries at similar levels of per caput income. In fact, over 90 per cent of our investment has been financed from domestic savings. Nevertheless, the development assistance we have received has been extremely important. It has supported our investment programme in many critical sectors, such as agriculture, irrigation, transport and energy. The availability of external assistance helped to ensure easier access to imports than would otherwise have been possible. We were also able to follow a comparatively liberal trade policy.
India will continue to require external assistance in the immediate future, as we shall undertake ambitious investment and modernization programmes over large sectors of our economy. Our domestic savings rate is high and will rise further. But domestic resources are not all that are required for investment. Foreign exchange is also needed. Some of this can be obtained through commercial borrowing, but much of it has to be in the form of external assistance for some time still. This is necessary if we are to avoid serious debt-service problems.