In the 1960’s, India had launched an ambitious program called the Green Revolution to end years of food scarcity and minimise its dependence on, what was seen as humiliating, food aid from the US. Technology-driven agriculture was introduced and farmers were provided hybrid seeds and fertilisers and pesticides to help them produce more. In the northern state of Punjab, which was yet to recover from the brutal wounds of partition in 1947, farmers took to farming with renewed vigour. The state’s wheat production went up from 1.7 million tons in 1960-61 to 15.5 million tons in 2000-01 and Punjab, whose name means the land of five rivers, came to be known as the food bowl of India.
There was, of course, a cost to be borne. Heavy reliance on fertilisers to boost yields has robbed the soil of its fertility. Bore wells dug to irrigate the endless fields of gold have sucked every aquifer dry. New kinds of pests now attack crops, ostensibly because of climate change, and wreak large-scale damage. Farmers say they now spend more on every crop than in the previous season, but still produce less. Facing the insurmountable challenge of making farming sustainable, an estimated 16,000 farmers killed themselves in the last 15 years.
Overuse of fertilizers and pesticides has also been linked to a rise in cancers reported in the state. Farmers say they have no choice but to borrow large sums of money for medical expenses, thereby sinking deeper into debt traps. A train that many patients take to reach a hospital in the neighbouring Rajasthan is now popularly called the Cancer Express. The state is also in the grip of a major drug crisis as dealers find easy targets in depressed farmers and out-of-work youth.
Was it a short-term solution that has run its time or was it the greed to produce more than the land can bear that tipped a delicate balance and caused the current crisis? The project hopes to find some answers as it seeks out the many faces of this unprecedented situation- declining yields, rising indebtedness, spread of cancers, farmer suicides, drug addiction, migration and irreversible social changes caused by the Green Revolution in Punjab.