National Geographic : 2009 Jun
• has lived long enough to remember one of the worst famines of the 20th century. In 1943 as many as four million people died in the "Mal- thusian correction" known as the Bengal Fam- ine. For the following two decades, India had to import millions of tons of grain to feed its people. en came the green revolution. In the mid- 1960s, as India was struggling to feed its people during yet another crippling drought, an Amer- ican plant breeder named Norman Borlaug was working with Indian researchers to bring his high-yielding wheat varieties to Punjab. The new seeds were a godsend, says Kalkat, who was deputy director of agriculture for Punjab at the time. By 1970, farmers had nearly tripled their production with the same amount of work. "We had a big problem with what to do with the sur- plus," says Kalkat. "We closed schools one month early to store the wheat crop in the buildings." Borlaug was born in Iowa and saw his mis- sion as spreading the high-yield farming meth- ods that had turned the American Midwest into the world s breadbasket to impoverished places throughout the world. His new dwarf wheat varieties, with their short, stocky stems supporting full, fat seed heads, were a startling breakthrough. ey could produce grain like no other wheat ever seen---as long as there was plenty of water and synthetic fertilizer and little competition from weeds or insects. To that end, the Indian government subsidized canals, fertil- izer, and the drilling of tube wells for irrigation and gave farmers free electricity to pump the water. e new wheat varieties quickly spread throughout Asia, changing the traditional farm- ing practices of millions of farmers, and were soon followed by new strains of "miracle" rice. The new crops matured faster and enabled farmers to grow two crops a year instead of one. Today a double crop of wheat, rice, or cotton is the norm in Punjab, which, with neighbor- ing Haryana, recently supplied more than 90 percent of the wheat needed by grain-de cient states in India. The green revolution Borlaug started had nothing to do with the eco-friendly green label in vogue today. With its use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to nurture vast fields of the same crop, a practice known as monoculture, this new method of industrial farming was the antithesis of today s organic trend. Rather, William S. Gaud, then administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, coined the phrase in 1968 to describe an alternative to Russia s red revolution, in which workers, soldiers, and hungry peasants had rebelled vio- lently against the tsarist government. e more pacifying green revolution was such a stagger- ing success that Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970. Today, though, the miracle of the green revolution is over in Punjab: Yield growth has essentially attened since the mid-1990s. Over- irrigation has led to steep drops in the water table, now tapped by 1.3 million tube wells, while thousands of hectares of productive land have been lost to salinization and waterlogged soils. Forty years of intensive irrigation, fertil- ization, and pesticides have not been kind to the loamy gray elds of Punjab. Nor, in some cases, to the people themselves. In the dusty farming village of Bhuttiwala, home to some 6,000 people in the Muktsar dis- trict, village elder Jagsir Singh, in owing beard and cobalt turban, adds up the toll: "We ve had 49 deaths due to cancer in the last four years," he says. "Most of them were young people. e water is not good. It s poisonous, contaminated water. Yet people still drink it." Walking through the narrow dirt lanes past pyramids of dried cow dung, Singh introduces Amarjeet Kaur, a slender 40-year-old who for years drew the family s daily water from a hand pump in their brick-hard compound. She was diagnosed with breast cancer last year. Tej Kaur, 50, also has breast cancer. Her surgery, she says, wasn t nearly as painful as losing her seven-year-old grandson to "blood cancer," or leukemia. Jagdev Singh is a sweet-faced 14-year-old boy whose spine is slowly dete- riorating. From his wheelchair, he is watching SpongeBob SquarePants dubbed in Hindi as his father discusses his prognosis. "The doctors say he will not live to see 20," says Bhola Singh.