The harmful effects of globalization on Indian agriculture
By Keerthana Annamanemi
Nimakura is a seemingly archetypal village in Andhra Pradesh, India. At dusk, families gather on a central porch and gossip about small town news: a local girl’s recent engagement, an upcoming local election, a spelling bee that the local child prodigy had excelled in.
However, beneath its idyllic facade, Nimakura is crippled by economic turmoil. Nimakura’s predominantly agricultural community suffers in the aftermath of the Green Revolution, a period in the 1960s and 70s during which Indian agricultural output increased due to new advances in agricultural technology. Today, economists have begun to examine the consequences of the Green Revolution, but debates about the nation’s rapid changes come too late for many farmers: in the 1990s, 221 farmers in the southern state of Andhra Pradesh committed suicide after being unable to pay off their debts and more broadly, compete in a market they could not adapt to quickly enough. Their suicides are not anomalies: today, the death toll of Indian farmers who have taken their own lives in response to rapid globalization stands at 300, 000 since 1995.
Prior to the Green Revolution, Indian farmers had used similar agricultural techniques for centuries, passing down antiquated methods through familial lines. Most districts lacked irrigation channels and canals, forcing farmers to depend on rainwater for their water supply. Additionally, farmers farmed just one season a year and rarely left their communities to sell crops due to unreliable road networks. Most farmers lacked electricity and mechanization and instead, used cattle to plow their fields. These seemingly outdated features of agricultural life allowed farmers to retain practices that their forefathers had used, tying them to a longline of ancestral traditions.
One such tradition, however, had particularly problematic economic consequences; before the Green Revolution, farmers relied on non-modified seeds that could not yield enough crops to feed India’s burgeoning population, leading to prolonged food shortages post-colonialization. However, after the Green Revolution, the Indian Council for Agricultural Research developed new strains of High Yield Value (HYV) seeds. Although HYV seeds require more water, fertilizer pesticides, and chemicals, HYV seeds yield twice or in some cases, even thrice the crops of their counterparts, allowing India to become a global grain exporter and a competitive agricultural nation.
Despite the immediate resounding success following the Green Revolution, Indian farmers feel its backlash today. HYV seeds require more water than natural water can provide, requiring Indian farmers to dig wells and irrigate their crops with groundwater. As a result, the water table in many rural communities across India is dropping rapidly—some areas are seeing declines of 3 feet each year. In order to tap into whatever remains of the water table, farmers find themselves digging deeper wells and building more advanced, powerful pumps to fuel their HYV seeds. However, these expensive pumps—some of which cost as much as $4,000—are out of reach for modest farmers, who turn to local moneylenders and accept exorbitant interest rates to continue using HYV seeds. If the farmers cannot pay back their debts, they fall into vicious debt cycles, paying upwards of 20 percent in interest rates and accumulating even larger debts.
However, HYV seeds leaves behind more than an unstable water supply; the seeds also devour key nutrients, such as nitrogen and iron, from soil, leaving the soil nearly unusable just years after HYV seeds are introduced. Consequently, farmers must use three times as much fertilizer as they did with non-high yield seeds, another expense adding to their financial instability and to their dependence on volatile moneylenders. And of course, HYV seeds themselves cost nearly twice as much as the paddy seeds Indian farmers used before the Green Revolution, leading farmers to unreliable moneylenders, unbearable debt cycles, and in some cases, suicide.
Even death, however, is a makeshift solution, as debts transfer to the farmers’ loved ones after their suicides. Thus, the Indian government would be hard-pressed not to prioritize finding a substantive, economically viable solution for its farming communities. To balance India’s push for globalization and its commitment to its agricultural districts that cannot yet compete with the world market, India might subsidize farmers’ use of HYV seeds, making purchasing these seeds more financially viable and accessible for agricultural districts. Moreover, state-sponsored initiatives to find economically viable irrigation methods and to find HYV seeds that do not deplete soil of crucial chemicals would make HYV seeds lucrative for the Indian economy as well as its farmers. True, India can no longer turn to its pre-Green Revolution agricultural traditions while remaining competitive in global agricultural markets. However, the more important cultural tradition—the fact that India is first and foremost, an agricultural nation, and will be, for the foreseeable future—must be preserved.
Keerthana “Keera” Annamaneni is a freshman in Timothy Dwight college. Contact her at email@example.com.