Technical Change in Agriculture, 1952–2000

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TECHNICAL CHANGE IN AGRICULTURE, 1952–2000 The fragility of the Indian food production and distribution system was exposed after the disastrous Bengal famine in 1943. Then, following partition, about 32 percent of total irrigated land went to Pakistan. Consequently, food production in India had fallen short of demand and the prices of food grains surged significantly. In order to increase the food grain production levels, the cultivated area under food crops was expanded through special programs, even in the early 1940s, with such initiatives as the Grow More Food Campaign. Further, on the basis of the recommendations of the Food Grain Policy Committee in 1947, the reclamation of 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of land was undertaken to expand the cultivated area under food crops. But this singular focus on food grain production led to an acute shortage in cotton and other fiber production in the late 1940s, and this problem was addressed through an Integrated Production Programme initiated in 1950. The consequent increase in food production was largely achieved through expansion of cultivated area during the 1950s (see Table 1). However, due to the limited scope for further expansion in cultivated area, agricultural production soon became stagnant and even declined during the subsequent drought years. At this stage, the vital role of technology was realized, particularly the land-augmenting technology that enhances the yield per unit of land. The introduction of technical changes through improved seed, fertilizer, irrigation, mechanization, and plant protection have brought dramatic changes in agricultural production since the 1950s. These technical changes in agriculture have proceeded in a step-by-step manner; initially, the focus was on the development of land, irrigation, and other inputs; subsequently, the emphasis was on high-yielding varieties (HYVs) and improved "package of practices"; and finally, postharvest and marketing aspects were explored. Following this progression, technical developments in agriculture from 1952 to 2000 can be spread across three distinct phases, based on the nature and progress of technical changes: the pre-"revolution" period, the period of production revolution, and the period of market reforms.

Pre-Revolution Period (1952–1966)

Though the major breakthrough in agricultural production had come through the "Green Revolution," which introduced HYVs, steps toward land-augmenting technical changes were actually initiated in the 1950s. In order to address the problems of food shortage and the resultant rise in food prices, the agriculture sector was given the highest priority in India's first Five-Year Plan. Focus was placed on expansion of irrigation, land reclamation, and the domestic production of inorganic fertilizers.

Land reclamation and development

As a part of the Grow More Food Campaign, the reclamation of nearly 25 million acres (10 million hectares) of land was set as a target, and land reclamation was undertaken on a large scale across India. Nearly 188,000 acres (76,000 hectares) of land was reclaimed in the Tarai region itself, through a process of mechanized jungle clearing and provision of drainage, between 1948 and 1960. Consequently, the net area sown had gone up from about 297 million acres (120 million hectares) in 1952–1953 to about 341 million acres (138 million hectares) in 1966–1967, and the respective annual average growth rates (net as well as gross area sown) were the maximum during the 1950s, compared to any other period (see Table 1).


A number of major irrigation projects were completed during the first Five-Year Plan, including the Tungabhadra Project (1956), Maithon (1957), Konar (1955), Kakarpara (1957), Gandhi Sagar (1960), Lower Bhawani (1955), Ghataprabha Left Bank (1956), and Hirakud Dam (1956). In addition to surface irrigation, groundwater irrigation through tube wells gained popularity in the 1950s. Further, mechanization of irrigation operations, as reflected by the steep increase in number of diesel engines and electric pumps, picked up momentum in the late 1950s. As a result, the extent of irrigated area in the total cultivated area had gone up from about 17 percent in the 1950s to about 20 percent in the 1960s (see Table 1).

Mechanization and rural electrification

The mechanization of agriculture was also initiated in the early 1950s but was largely restricted to irrigation operation (diesel engines and electric motors) and included to a

Growth trends in land utilization from 1950 to 2000
(percent per year)
 Net area sownGross area sownNet irrigated areaGross irrigated areaPercent area irrigated
SOURCE: Compiled from Agricultural Statistics at a Glance, Department of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, New Delhi, August 2004.

limited extent the use of tractors. The number of electric pumps for irrigation purposes increased steeply, from about 56,000 at the end of first plan period to more than 500,000 by the end of third plan period, as a result of the expansion in rural electrification launched during the first plan period.

Fertilizer use

Though the role of fertilizers as an important source of nutrients and a substitute for organic manures was recognized, their use was not widespread and was restricted to commercial crops in southern regions of the country until 1950. In order to create awareness among farmers about the importance and methods of fertilizer application, a number of programs were created, such as the Agricultural Technical Assistance Programme (1951) and the Fertilizer Demonstration Programme (1954–1956). Soil-testing laboratories were also established to collect and analyze soil samples and to prepare a nutrient status map of the villages. As a result, the application of fertilizers increased, with an average annual growth rate of about 20 percent in the 1950s and 25 percent in the 1960s. The consumption of phosphatic and potashic fertilizers was almost negligible until the 1950s but started rising in the subsequent period; the growth in phosphatic and potashic fertilizer application outpaced that of nitrogenous fertilizers during the 1950s and 1960s, although the use was judicious in absolute quantities.

Package of practices

Following an increase in the first plan period, the food grain output actually declined in the second plan period as the result of successive drought years. As a result, the gap between the targeted and actual production became more pronounced. In view of the serious food deficit situation, the government of India invited the Ford Foundation Team to study India's food production problems and to help in shaping proposals for a coordinated effort to increase food production on an emergency basis. Based on the recommendations of the team, the Intensive Agricultural Development Programme (IADP) was initiated, which featured a "package of practices" for each crop, based on recent research findings. According to the team, the package of practices, which included irrigation, improved seed, mechanization, fertilizers, and pesticides, could lead to a remarkable increase in crop production only if all practices were adopted in particular combination with one another. Though the program was successful in increasing yields to some extent during the early 1960s, the success was restricted to resource-endowed areas that accounted for only 5 percent of the total cultivated area in the country. Further, severe drought in 1965–1966 and 1966–1967 led to a sharp fall in food grains, to 71 million tons (72 million tonnes) from 87 million tons (89 million tonnes) in 1964–1965. Consequently, food grain imports reached more than 9.8 million tons (10 million tonnes) in 1966–1967.

Period of Production Revolution (1966–1990)

The IADP program, or package of practices, could not, however, solve the problem of shortage in food grain production completely, despite the hope for increasing yield levels through better practices. The reason for the program's limited success was recognized to be an inherent problem associated with the traditional improved varieties of wheat and rice. After the application of high doses of fertilizers, those varieties grew taller, with slim stems, and had a tendency to fall over at the time of maturity, notwithstanding the grain weight. Hence, the immediate focus was to find a technology through which vertical growth of improved varieties could be restricted.

Green Revolution (1966–1980)

During the same period, U.S. agronomist Norman E. Borlaug (often called the "father of the Green Revolution"), director of the Cooperative Wheat Research and Production Program in Mexico, was successfully incorporating dwarfing

Area under High Yielding Varieties (HYVs)
(million hectares)
 PaddyWheatJowar Bajra Maize
SOURCE: Compiled from Fertilizer Statistics of India, Fertilizers Association of India, New Delhi, 2004.

genes in high-yielding wheat varieties by crossing the short-stemmed germ plasm from Norin 10 with high-yielding Mexican wheat varieties capable of responding to high doses of fertilizers and irrigation. The Mexican dwarf wheat varieties recorded increases as high as 400 percent in their yields in 1965 over that in 1950. Soon, India had imported the dwarf germ plasm (Lerma Rojo 64 and Sonara 64) from Mexico, and Indian scientists developed high-yielding, pest-resistant, and input-responsive dwarf wheat varieties by crossing these lines with local high-yielding varieties.

Similarly, the first semidwarf indica rice variety, Taichung Native 1, was developed by crossing a semi-dwarf indica variety, Dee-gee-woo-gen, with a drought-resistant variety, 'sai-Yuan-Chung, at the Taichung District Agricultural Improvement Station in Taiwan in 1956. Subsequently, the rice breeders at the International Rice Research Institute made several crosses of Dee-geewoo-gen and ultimately developed new semi-dwarf rice varieties (IR 8, IR 5, IR 20, IR 22, and IR 24) with heavy stalks, responsive to high fertilizer doses and capable of maturing in 100 days instead of 160 days. India, being the world's largest source of rice germ plasm, had actively participated and cooperated in developing the new rice varieties. The high-yielding semidwarf rice breeding lines were introduced, and numerous improved varieties were developed with the active participation of the Central Rice Research Institute, the All-India Coordinated Rice Improvement Programme, and various state agricultural universities. Finally, high-yielding rice varieties were released for large-scale commercial cultivation all over India in 1966. In addition, high-yielding varieties of coarse cereals, including sorghum, bajra, and maize, were also developed through hybridization and were released for large-scale commercial cultivation during the late 1960s.

With an established network through IADP, the cultivation of high-yielding varieties spread rapidly across the country. Technological changes in the form of high-yielding dwarf wheat varieties became an instant success in India. Thus began the golden period in Indian agriculture called the "Green Revolution." The spread of HYVs of rice was relatively slow compared to that of wheat. The area under HYVs of wheat reached more than 60 percent of total wheat cultivated by the mid-1970s, while it took fifteen more years (until 1990–1991) to reach the same level (64 percent) for rice (see Table 2). The expansion in cultivated area under HYVs led to a steep increase in rice production in the subsequent years, from about 31.5 million tons (32 million tonnes) in the triennium ending in 1968 to about 49 million tons (50 million tonnes) in the triennium ending in 1980. However, the increase in production was much steeper in the 1980s, rising to 71.8 million tons (73 million tonnes) in the triennium ending in 1991 (see Table 3). Adoption of HYVs of jowar, bajra, and maize was slow, and most of the expansion took place after the mid-1980s. Consequently, the growth of food grain production was the highest during the 1980s, compared to any other period.

Considering the frequency of drought, a characteristic of Indian agriculture, assured irrigation has become a prerequisite for intensifying agricultural production in India, particularly following the introduction of HYVs. A number of major irrigation projects were completed, and the area under irrigation expanded rapidly in the 1960s and 1970s (see Table 1). Apart from major irrigation projects, emphasis was also placed on increasing minor irrigation projects through groundwater exploitation. Consequently, the total area under irrigation grew from about 55.8 million acres (22.6 million hectares) in 1950–1951 to about 123 million acres (50 million hectares) in 1979–1980. Most of this increase was brought about through minor irrigation projects that tapped groundwater to provide assured irrigation.

Considering the limitations to expanding irrigation through canals as well as groundwater, agricultural scientists and planners started promoting rain-fed agriculture through a promising "watershed" technology during the 1980s. A number of watershed projects emerged in the subsequent period, sponsored by domestic as well as external sources. The amount invested in watershed development reached U.S.$500 million by the late 1990s. Further, in order to conserve soil and water, particularly in rain-fed areas, technical changes in the form of sprinklers and drip irrigation methods were also promoted through the provision of subsidies in the 1980s and 1990s.

Plant protection, though practiced in Indian agriculture since ancient times, became more vital with the introduction of HYVs. The HYVs, due to their responsiveness to fertilizers, particularly to nitrogenous fertilizers, have a tendency to grow succulent and become susceptible to pests and diseases. With increasing irrigation and fertilizer application, the growth of weeds also increased. As a measure of plant protection, the first Pest and Disease Surveillance Service was organized in 1969 in selected districts of the IADP. The service was extended to other parts of the country in the subsequent period. With the growing awareness of pests and their control, the application of chemicals for plant protection increased sharply, from about 13,800 tons (14,000 tonnes) in 1960–1961 to about 59,000 tons (60,000 tonnes) in 1978–1979. Application of pesticides became an important component of crop production, particularly in the case of commercial crops like cotton, tobacco, and sugarcane.

Similar to the other inputs, a steep increase in farm mechanization was observed in the production revolution period. Mechanization of irrigation operation expanded rapidly and resulted in a multiplier effect on crop production through crop intensification. This led to the mechanization of other farm operations to ensure timeliness. A steep growth in the number of tractors and other major farm machinery was evident during late 1960s and 1970s.

Yellow (Oilseed) Revolution (1986–1990)

The Green Revolution could be called a "cereal revolution," as the thrust was to increase food production to meet the domestic consumption demand. As a result, other crops (oilseeds and pulses [legumes]) were left untouched, and their output levels remained stagnant in the 1970s. In view of the dismal performance of oilseeds during the 1960s and 1970s, the government of India created the Technology Mission on Oilseeds (TMO) in May 1986. The objective of the TMO was to achieve self-sufficiency in edible oils; to achieve this, the TMO implemented the introduction of HYVs of oilseeds, together with the adoption of improved production technology, a better supply of inputs, and extension services and postharvest technologies. Consequently, a major increase in oilseed production was achieved; the production of oilseeds increased from 10.7 million tons (10.83 million tonnes) in 1985–1986 to 24.6 million tons (25 million tonnes) in the late 1990s. Following the success in oilseed production, other crops, including pulses, oil palm, and maize, were brought under the TMO in 1990, 1992–1993, and 1995–1996, respectively.

White Revolution (1970–1996)

Technical changes in the livestock sector, including cross-breeding, frozen semen technology, and artificial insemination, were initiated in the 1950s. But the performance of livestock as a whole, and the dairy subsector in particular, was disappointing, with near zero growth during the 1960s. In light of this, the government initiated a massive dairy development program, popularly know as Operation

Trends in output of various crops
(millions of metric tons)
 PaddyWheatJowar Bajra Maize
SOURCE: Compiled from Agricultural Statistics at a Glance, Department of Economics and Statistics, Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India, New Delhi, August 2004.

Flood, in 1970. Veghese Kurien was the principal architect of the program, which was implemented in three phases from 1971 to 1996, with support from the European Economic Community, the World Food Programme, and a soft loan from the World Bank.

The aim of the program was to expand milk production through processing and marketing facilities. Toward this objective, milk producers' cooperatives were organized to collect, process, and sell milk to achieve a secured market and remunerative prices. Further, in order to enhance milk production, inputs such as better feed and fodder, breed improvement through artificial insemination, and disease control measures were also arranged through cooperatives. This coordinated effort led to an increase in milk production and ushered in an era of "White Revolution." During this period, milk production increased at an annual average growth of about 5 percent. Consequently, milk production in India increased from 21.6 million tons (22 million tonnes) in 1970 to 29.6 million tons (30.1 million tonnes) in 1980–1981 (first phase) and to 78.7 million tons (80 million tonnes) in 2000–2001 (following the second and third phases).

Blue Revolution

Fishing has been practiced traditionally in the coastal states of India since ancient times. The importance of introducing scientific fishing to increase productivity was recognized, and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) implemented an All India Coordinated Research Project on Brackishwater Fish Farming (1973–1984). The objective of the program was to develop and test various farming technologies under different agro-climatic conditions of the country. The main center of the project was located in West Bengal; other centers were located in Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, and Goa for demonstrating the technologies to small-scale farmers. In addition, shrimp hatchery technology was also introduced into the country, and two commercial hatcheries were established in the late 1980s with an initiative from the Marine Products Export Development Authority. As a result, the production of fisheries, particularly of inland fisheries, increased significantly, at an average annual growth rate of 7.1 percent and 6.2 percent during the 1980s and 1990s, respectively. By 2002 India had become the third largest producer of fish. The growth of inland fisheries outpaced the growth in marine fisheries, primarily due to a rapid expansion of shrimp farming in the coastal states of the country.

Period of Market Reforms (1991–2000)

There were no significant economic reforms directed toward agriculture, except the removal of the quota system with the inception of the World Trade Organization. However, the devaluation of the rupee in 1991, as part of the financial reforms, triggered the growth of agricultural exports. Among agricultural products, exports of fruits and vegetables, meat, and marine products recorded a significant increase throughout the 1990s as a result of growing international trade in these products, underscoring the significance of postharvest and agroprocessing technology in promoting exports.


The growing market reforms and commercialization of agriculture has created a need for processing and postharvest handling of agricultural produce. Processing adds value, enhances shelf life, and minimizes losses. As the productivity levels of almost all crops reached near stagnation in the 1990s, processing technology emerged as an alternative for increasing the availability of food products through minimizing losses and enhancing shelf life. In addition, growing urbanization has also led to a significant increase in domestic demand for processed and packaged agricultural products. In order to encourage food processing, the government of India has taken a number of steps, first creating the Ministry for Food Processing Industries in 1988. The ministry has taken many initiatives, such as integrated food law, the creation of cold storage facilities, and the establishment of food parks (centers for distribution of all the processed grains and horticultural products across the country). As a result, the food processing industry expanded significantly in 1990s. Recognizing the potential and comparative advantage that India has in the agroprocessing industry, a number of agro-export zones were established across the country. Thus, it is the changes in postharvest technology that have dominated Indian agriculture since the 1990s.

Genetically engineered crop varieties

Near stagnation in yields of all field crops in the 1990s created the need to look for alternative technology that can further boost crop yields. In this context, genetic engineering appeared to be a promising choice. Genetically engineering has been widely used in the pharmaceutical industry, but its entry into the agriculture sector has been surrounded by apprehensions. In India, the efforts initiated in the late 1990s to release the first genetically engineered crop, "Bt cotton," were not successful until 2002, due to strong protests from environmentalists. On the other hand, several research units under ICAR and state agricultural universities have been working to develop genetically modified crops suitable for Indian conditions. However, the dilemmas concerning the commercial cultivation of genetically engineered crop varieties still persist, owing to the serious concerns of biosafety and biodiversity.

See alsoAgricultural Growth and Diversification since 1991 ; Agricultural Labor and Wages since 1950 ; Economic Reforms of 1991

L. Thulasamma


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