When in 1966, a high-yielding, disease-resistant variant of wheat was shipped into Punjab from Mexico, it was an epoch-making event, ushering India into the Green Revolution that would rescue it from an impending mass famine and also over-dependence on foreign aid that hindered diplomatic independence.
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This HYV wheat was the innovation of American scientist Norman Borlaug, whose accomplishments in Mexico had enticed the then Indian Minister of Food and Agriculture, C. Subramanian, and his adviser, M.S. Swaminathan. The two invited Borlaug to India in 1963 and the subsequent years saw deep collaborative efforts by American universities and Indian universities in levelling land in Punjab, the theatre of the Green Revolution.
Punjab, which enjoyed a steady supply of water owing to the Bhakra Nangal project and the pioneering efforts of the Punjab Agricultural University in adapting the HYV seeds to local conditions, was perhaps the only State in India at that time to take advantage of the new experiment. The State government purchased 90,000 diesel pump sets, dug a record number of tube-wells, and developed new practices required to manage the produce.
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In 1968, the efforts paid off brilliantly. From being a ship-to-mouth shortage economy, whose Prime Minister (Lal Bahadur Shastri) had once infamously asked Indians to miss a meal on Mondays, the country saw schools and cinema halls being shut down to make storage room for surplus foodgrains. Rice yields in India jumped from about two tonnes per hectare in the 1960s to six tonnes per hectare in the mid-1990s.
But equally, nobody anticipated the negative fallout of such an intensive planting programme: in a few decades, there was loss of soil fertility due to a focussed single crop, soil toxicity due to pesticide-dependent methods, soil erosion, and major depletion of ground water, effects that are still impacting later generations of farmers. While production of rice and wheat grew exponentially, indigenous rice varieties and millets declined, and many native crops were lost forever, impacting diet habits and decreasing natural resistance in the people.