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In the backdrop of the food crisis that gripped India in the 1960s and 1970s (and few years earlier to that too) the Government of India initiated the ‘Green Revolution’ program. This was an attempt to become self-sufficient in production of food grains. Traditional farming methods gave way to farming with high-yield seeds, fertilizers, and pesticides.

Grain production and population in India. Image source: http://www.iisc.ernet.in

The Green Revolution nearly quadrupled the production of rice and wheat, transforming India’s fertile areas into ‘granaries’. India was no longer dependent on the foreign grain and food aid shipments from the United States. With increased production, India repaid her loans, while progressing on the path to self-sufficiency. A few decades down the road, it is evident that the benefits of the Green Revolution are associated with unanticipated harmful effects of chemicals.

Numerous studies have linked the use of pesticides and chemicals to diseases such as cancer. Researchers attribute an increase in stillborn babies, and ailments such as renal failure, to the misuse of pesticides. Widespread use of pesticides has contaminated drinking water supplies and is linked to other life-threatening diseases. Source: Time Magazine.

A more painful reminder is the scene at the Bhatinda railway station in Punjab. At 9.20 pm everyday, a passenger train leaves Bhatinda town for Bikaner in Rajasthan. The train is known as the Cancer Train as it carries patients and their families to the cancer treatment center.The patients are bound for the Acharya Tulsi Regional Cancer Treatment and Research Center.

Pesticide companies blame farmers for not adhering to prescribed quantities and not using protective gear. Workers who spray the chemicals blame landlords for not investing in protection, and companies for not properly informing them of the dangers of exposure. Farmers claim it is greedy dealers who push them to spray more, and also blame the government’s failure to change its policies after the harmful side effects of the Green Revolution began showing.

The rampant poisoning of soil and water due to excessive use of pesticides and chemicals has left the once fertile regions barren. Unable to bear the predicament of a lost livelihood and inability to repay huge loans, farmers are committing suicides.

If India intends to avoid another food crisis in the near future, it has to address these issues now. What India needs is a farming system that is sustainable. A system that produces good yields, protects the environment, and is safe.

Earlier this year, in his budget speech, Finance Minister Mr. Pranab Mukherjee announced a Rs. 400 crore scheme to take the Green Revolution to the eastern India. The practices to be followed in this second Green revolution will determine if the country learnt any lessons from the past. We cannot afford to risk the health and lives of another generation. For the farmers of Punjab and their families though, there is little respite, as they continue on their journey from Bathinda to Bikaner hoping for a cure.