You can’t pick very much cotton

When I was a little bitty baby there was a Green Revolution in my home country …

But much before that, there was a famine where 4 million people died of hunger. The year was 1943. India was then still under British-rule and Britain was too preoccupied with the war to worry about food supplies in a far-flung corner of her Empire. Add to that a fatal mix of a failed monsoon and greedy grain traders who hoarded food in order to sell it for higher prices and you had the world’s worst famine in India’s eastern province of Bengal.

Four years later, the British left and India gained her independence. The leaders of the fledgling democracy, still haunted by the Bengal famine, made abundance of food their top priority. They put in place plans to bring more land under cultivation, to have farmers rely less on variable monsoons and more on irrigation with canals and dams to harness the waters of India’s mighty rivers. They encouraged farmers to grow two crops per year, one that would be fed by the monsoons and the other fed by the newly built irrigation system. But most importantly Dr.M.P. Singh, working at the Indian Council for Agricultural Research, developed high-yield value seeds for farmers to grow abundant crops of wheat, rice, millet and corn.

With these, the Indian farmers went to work on their newly irrigated fields, sowing their new high-yield seeds of wheat, corn, rice and millet and listening to India’s sole radio station at the time, All India Radio that instructed them on the new farming methods they must employ.

Thus began the Green Revolution.

Between 1965 and 1978 India became one of the world’s largest agricultural producers and a food grain exporter! The Green Revolution in turn, spurred on Industry. Fertilizers and pesticides plants were built to meet farmers’ requirements, the building of dams meant vast-scale engineering projects that in turn created jobs. The dams generated hydroelectricity that boosted more industry.

India has come a long way since the Green Revolution. With 52 resident-Indian billionaires she is set to overtake the United States in laying claim to the most number of billionaires in a country. In October 2010, businessmen in a backward region of India bought 150 Mercedes Benz cars for a total value of US dollars 14.4 million. The local bank offered the businessmen a loan at 7% interest.

But that’s the story of the Indian businessmen. How are the farmers who first helped turn the country around fairing?

Farmers do not get access to 7% interest loans. In fact most times they cannot get any loan from their bank. In order to buy high-yielding seeds or to buy a tractor, they have to go to the village money-lender who gives them their money, but not before extracting his “pound of flesh” – a hefty interest rate of 40% or more.

In the last ten years, nearly half of all Indian farming households are so deeply in debt they can never hope to repay their loans. And whatever they are able to grow, they are unable to sell for a decent price. That’s because market prices, rigged by powerful traders and corporations, have crashed to a fraction of what they used to be.

Cotton, an important cash crop for at least four Indian states, now sells at one-twelfth the price it commanded 30 years ago. Trouble also came when in 1997 the Indian government removed cotton subsidies and introduced genetically modified varieties of cotton developed by Monsanto a biotech firm. It’s modified Bt Cotton caused crop failure and poverty because it requires the heavy use of pesticide and fertilizers.

Since 1995 it is estimated that a 250,000 farmers have committed suicide. That’s a quarter of a million who have chosen to die rather than lead their lives the way it is … According to latest reports over 17,000 farmers have killed themselves in the past year in the same rural region where a handful of businessmen bought 150 Mercedes-Benz cars … Of the remaining, 45% want to quit farming.

“Every suicide can be linked to Monsanto,” Vandana Shiva, a scientist-turned-activist told The Independent. But truth be told, in the land where the Green Revolution was such an abundant success, the farming sector is now in serious crisis. M.S. Swaminathan, chairman of the National Commission on Farmers says,”Unless we revitalize farming and make our farmers enthusiastic, it is (going to be) difficult to feed 1 billion people.

Can a super power allow to let history of the great famine repeat itself? Shame on her, if she does!


5 responses to “You can’t pick very much cotton

  • JV

    I like this very succinctly put together and hard hitting piece.I wouldn’t blame monsanto so much as mans overreaching ambition and greed… if not Monsanto there would have been some other. What is so true is the shameful way the Farmer has been used to hoist India out of sheer poverty and then discarded like a soiled dish cloth. There is a ray of hope however in the growing concern of the thinking people, to wit your article .
    There are a large number of Non govt organizations in India taking up the cause of farmers and rural development in general . My 24 year old US citizen daughter quit her corporate America job come home and joined Bharti foundation doing rural development projects in rural Punjab and Tamil Nadu

  • Keya Majoomdar

    Thanks for your comments. I am proud of your daughter!
    Regarding NGO’s and other organizations working in rural development – I know there are many people in India equally concerned and much work is being done, but so many lives already been lost already and no matter what development we achieve, it is still a matter of shame – that a country that is gloating on its fast progress has allowed such deep economic injustice to continue.

  • Arati Shahani

    This is a very interesting and authentic article.Despite the fact that India is the second largest in farming & is still the largest economic sector in the country, it is very unfortunate & also shameful to know the plight of Indian farmers today. Hopefully your blog will reach out to people and become an issue. The Government will then be forced to come up with schemes to raise investments in farming and help the poor farmers to lead a life of dignity and pride they deserve.

    • Keya Majoomdar

      Arati, while the plight of the farmers is getting a lot of attention in India, it is mostly a sensational story dealing with numbers and percentages. The farmers’ story was depicted well in Aamir Khan’s Pipli Live. Have you seen it? You should … but at the time I did not understand why Khan promoted it as a comedy… it is very dark comedy, one that actually highlights the hopelessness of the farmer as he was turned into a “hero” and a pawn by the media and the local political goons. But I think I get it now. I think he hoped more of urban India would watch it if he called it a comedy. And it is the urban India, so taken up with making more money and buying things that prove they’re wealthy, that need to be sensitized to what is happening to their less fortunate brethren. And we, the Indian diaspora, needs to be sensitized to what is happening in India as well.

  • Ashok Sinha

    The wiki gives a good insight into the Bengal famine. I quite agree that the history is being repeated. There is not so much shortage of food as there is the lack of purchasing power. Businessmen are making a killing with the rising prices of onions but the poor farmer is still getting the same price for his crop. Till there is a semblance of governance, things will not and cannot get better.

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