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Wednesday, August 04, 2021

After the revolution

The Indian Express travels to Jaunti, the now largely forgotten village on the outskirts of Delhi, where the Green Revolution started and where parched fields today tell a story of decline

Written by Harish Damodaran |
Updated: December 6, 2016 12:18:39 pm
jaunti-759 (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Hukum Singh Chhikara hasn’t forgotten the time when he, along with 14 other farmers of Jaunti, first planted Sonora 64 wheat. They sowed the seeds of this Mexican semi-dwarf variety in some 70 acres of their village in north-western outer Delhi bordering Haryana. That was in November 1964, just over a year after scientists at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) had imported about 100 kg seeds of Sonora 63, Sonora 64, Lerma Rojo 64-A and Mayo 64 wheat varieties and planted them in trial fields at Delhi, Ludhiana, Pantnagar, Kanpur, and Indore during the 1963-64 rabi season. Encouraged by the results of the multi-location trials, it was decided to test out the performance of the high-yielding strains the very next season in actual farmers’ fields. And Jaunti’s farmers were the chosen ones.

What made the scientists led by M S Swaminathan, who was then heading the IARI’s botany division, opt for this quiet nondescript village — which it still is? One reason was its convenient location, in Delhi itself and only 30 km from the IARI’s Pusa campus. But why not any other Delhi village, including neighbouring Ladpur, Kanjhawala or Ghevra (which was where the famous Mere desh ki dharti song from Manoj Kumar’s 1967 box-office buster Upkar was shot)?

“Hum mehnati the. Woh log zyaada taash khelne wale the (we were hardworking; they were more the card-playing type),” says Khazan Singh ‘Master’ who, at 81, is three years younger to Hukum Singh. He, too, is a Chhikara, an exogamous clan (gotra) within the Jat community that makes up roughly 45 per cent of Jaunti’s 8,000-plus population and owns over 80 per cent of its 1,200 acres agricultural land.

Khazan Singh’s semi-serious assertion isn’t entirely disputed by Swaminathan. “We visited a number of villages in Delhi persuading farmers to try out the new wheat varieties. The first thing they would ask was whether there will be any subsidy for this. Our stock reply used to be that the government has no money and there was no need for subsidies anyway, as the higher yields from the seeds guaranteed increased incomes. Only Jaunti’s farmers seemed to appreciate our point,” recalls the venerable 91-year-old scientist.

Chaudhary Bhoop Singh and Norman Borlaug checking the crop at a field Chaudhary Bhoop Singh and Norman Borlaug checking the crop at a field. (Source: Indian Agricultural Research Institute)

One man who played a crucial part here was Amir Singh. A seed-testing officer who went on to head the IARI’s seed technology division, he belonged to Barahi, a village in Haryana’s Jhajjar district barely 12 km from Jaunti. “He was from our community and a related gotra of Chhillars. Just as Swaminthanji brought Borlaugsaab (Norman Borlaug, the legendary breeder of the Mexican semi-dwarf wheats) to India, it was Amir Singh who got Swaminathanji to our village,” notes Raghuvir Singh, the third surviving Jaunti farmer from that time. A couple of visits by Swaminathan with Amir Singh was all it took to convince the villagers — led by Chaudhary Bhoop Singh, who is no more — to literally sow the seeds of India’s Green Revolution in 1964-65.

demonetisation, demonetisation distress, demonetisation problems, jaunti, jaunti village, jaunti farmers, delhi-haryana, wheat, mexican wheat, india news, latest news Khazan Singh (extreme left) and Hukum Singh (holding hookah) with other village residents.(Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

“Farmers are generally observant and understand non-verbal communication best. When they saw us landing up even on Sundays, it probably occurred to them that we meant well,” says Swaminathan.

The other reason to select Jaunti was the profile of its farmers. The likes of Bhoop Singh, Khazan Singh, Hukum Singh and Raghuvir Singh owned between 15 and 20 acres each, which they tilled themselves. They had no tractors, power threshers or electric/diesel engine-driven tubewells. Their fields were ploughed by bullocks, which also treaded the crops to separate the grain from chaff and powered the rahat or Persian wheels to draw water from wells for irrigation (the Mere desh ki dharti song provides an excellent glimpse of these operations). That made them ordinary “khudkasht (self-cultivators)” rather than big landowning zamindars. “We wanted to demonstrate the efficacy of the new varieties even in the fields of resource-poor farmers. Had they been planted in fields of large landlords, the increased yields would have been attributed to affluence,” points out Swaminathan.

***
For Jaunti’s farmers, the Sonora 64 and Lerma Rojo 64-A seeds were, in every sense, their first ever introduction to modern agricultural technology. And they adapted quite effortlessly to it. The traditional wheat cultivars were 4.5-5 feet tall and slender, rendering them not very receptive to fertiliser or water application. The plants simply grew taller and ‘lodged’ — fell flat on the ground — when their earheads were heavy with more grain produced in response to higher nutrient doses. Borlaug’s Mexican wheats were shorter in plant height, at 2-2.5 feet, and yet had normal size grain-bearing panicles. They tillered profusely, with stronger stems that made them less prone to lodging. Since the changed plant architecture permitted more fertiliser and water use, the new wheat strains gave higher grain yields per acre.

In the 1964-65 season, the Jaunti farmers grew the Mexican varieties in accordance with the IARI’s recommended package of practices under the supervision of Amir Singh and fellow extension scientist M D Nandkeolyar. They were told to work towards achieving a minimum yield of 40 mun an acre or 4 tonnes per hectare (one mun=40 kg; one hectare=2.47 acres). That target was met by many; Chaudhary Bhoop Singh alone harvested over 45 mun or nearly 4.5 tonnes per hectare. “Yeh to chamatkar tha (this was a miracle). Previously, we were hardly getting 10-15 mun an acre. It totally changed our lives,” recounts Hukum Singh, who was Jaunti’s pradhan in the early 1970s.

Soon, the enthusiasm spread beyond Jaunti. A host of farmers, both within and outside Delhi, descended on the village in March-April 1965 to see the “chamatkar (miracle)” that was being harvested. Among them were Mahendrapal Singh and his sister Amteshwar Anand (also the mother of Union Women and Child Development Minister Maneka Gandhi); their father Sir Datar Singh farmed 1,500 acres in Punjab Khor village, just 4 km from Jaunti, which he had got from Pakistan’s first prime minister Liaquat Ali Khan in exchange for lands owned by him in Montgomery district of West Punjab pre-Partition. “For a change, we had the big zamindars coming to the fields of ordinary farmers and deciding to grow the new varieties,” remarks Swaminathan.

farmer-759 The old seed processing centre at Jaunti which now houses a Delhi government dispensary. (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Seeing the clamour for the high-yielding seeds — including from politician-landowners wanting to plant these in their fields — Swaminathan felt that the next step should be to develop Jaunti into a ‘seed village’. The IARI would supply the basic foundation seed material to its farmers. They were to, then, multiply these into seeds — usually in a 1:25 or 1:30 ratio — that other farmers could use for producing grain. In November 1965, the Jawahar Jounti Seed Cooperative Society Ltd was formed which, in the next two years, got over 50 farmer-members. When regular wheat grain fetched a minimum support price of 76 paise per kg in 1968, Jaunti’s farmers were selling its seeds at over Rs 3/kg. The buyer-farmers did not mind paying this because for every mun of seed sowed per acre, they would obtain at least 40 mun of grain. And since these were varieties, not hybrids, they could store part of the grain for reuse as seed in the next season. The rabi season of 1966-67 witnessed the fullscale launch of the Green Revolution, when Indian farmers planted 2,40,000 hectares under Mexican wheats, whose chamatkari had already been revealed at Jaunti.

Then prime minister Indira Gandhi inaugurates a processing centre of the Jawahar Jounti Seed Cooperative, which now houses a Delhi government dispensary (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal) The then prime minister Indira Gandhi inaugurates a processing centre of the Jawahar Jounti Seed Cooperative, which now houses a Delhi government dispensary (Source: Indian Agricultural Research Institute)

On September 26, 1967, Swaminathan got Prime Minister Indira Gandhi to inaugurate a seed processing centre of the society at Jaunti. It had facilities for grading, fungicide treatment, bagging, and fumigation storage of the seeds produced by the farmers, who made hay in the early Green Revolution period right through the 70s.

Indian scientists had, by this time, bred their own semi-dwarf varieties, ‘Sonalika’ and ‘Kalyan Sona’, through selection of segregated material from the original Mexican lines. These varieties produced amber-coloured grains with better chapati-making quality than the imported red wheats. The Jaunti farmers took up their multiplication as well. “We supplied to farmers across Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh. There was a lot of demand for these seeds as farmers suddenly saw their yields double or triple,” says Om Prakash Chhikara, the 61-year-old grandson of Chaudhary Bhoop Singh, who as a young lad used to serve chai-nashta (refreshments) when Borlaug, Swaminathan and other dignitaries came visiting.

Khazan Singh and Raghuvir Singh bought their own Soviet-made DT-14 tractors in 1968, while Bhoop Singh went a step ahead purchasing a Massey Ferguson machine a year later. “There was a 10-year wait list for this tractor. My grandfather could jump the queue because he was personally known to Indira Gandhi,” claims Om Prakash. All these farmers now also had diesel-powered pumps drawing water from tubewells, in place of the old rahat. They regularly went to the IARI to learn about new agricultural practices and breakthroughs.

Some time before he died in 1980, Bhoop Singh received the prestigious Krishi Pandit award conferred to progressive farmers. Khazan Singh, who retired as vice-principal of the Government Boys Senior Secondary School at Begumpur, about 10 km from Jaunti, was presented a shawl and bouquet at a special function organised by the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of the Indian Green Revolution on November 27 last year. Swaminathan, too, was there.

***Jaunti has since moved on, although it retains the old rural ambience, quite unlike a Shahpur Jat, Munirka, Hauz Khas or Kotla Mubarakpur that are today villages of Delhi largely in name. Out of its total 1,916 acres land, 1,208 acres is still classified as agricultural. The village itself falls in the so-called peripheral green belt of the National Capital Territory, where only “low-intensity development” is allowed.

farming-jaunti-759 Weeds and grass have taken over the canal that once fed Jaunti’s fields(Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

Yet, the dependence on agriculture has reduced considerably in comparison to the heady years of the Green Revolution. Not many, including the families of the pioneering farmer-entrepreneurs, really rely on cultivation as a primary income source. Om Prakash retired only last year as a teacher from the Jawahar Navodaya Vidyalaya at Jhajjar. Raghuvir Singh’s second son Rajiv is a physical training instructor at a government school in Kirari, about 20 km away, while the youngest, Pradeep, is a driver with the Municipal Corporation of Delhi. The eldest one, Kuldeep Singh, manages the 20-acre family land, even while his own 28-year-old son Amit has no interest in farming and runs a business of hiring out five Escorts hydraulic mobile cranes.

Jaunti’s best-known name now isn’t Chaudhary Bhoop Singh or Hukum Singh, but the 1990 Asian Games kabaddi gold medallist and Arjuna Award winner Tirath Raj. The Jawahar Jounti Seed Cooperative, which folded up in the early 1980s, houses a Delhi government dispensary now.

“You cannot do much agriculture here, as there’s very little water. In my father’s time, groundwater could be tapped from 30-40 feet with shallow cavity tubewells. Our village was at the tail-end of a canal, which also had water. Today, the groundwater has gone below 100 feet. Even the water that is extracted through deep bore wells is khara (hard). The canal too has become dysfunctional, as the Haryana government has stopped releasing any water,” complains Kuldeep Singh.

“Till the late-1990s, things were fine and we were actually getting wheat yields of 55-60 mun per acre (5.4-5.9 tonnes/hectare). Now, even 35-40 mun is difficult,” reckons Khazan Singh ‘Master’.

jaunti-village-759 Farm labourers planting carrot at a field in Jaunti (Express Photo by Tashi Tobgyal)

So, was the Harit Kranti (Green Revolution) a mistake? “No. We were, after all, importing so much of wheat, much of it of third-rate quality. Harit Kranti made our country self-sufficient and we are proud to have played a role in that. But yes, it could have been managed better and we should have used water more carefully. Nobody told us about this at that time,” he admits.

In 1965-66, India produced 10.4 million tonnes (mt) of wheat and imported an almost equivalent quantity. With the advent of the Green Revolution, output crossed 20 mt by 1969-70 and hit 36.3 mt in 1980-81. Simultaneously, the scientists continued their breeding work, both for yield improvement and disease resistance. The IARI followed Sonalika and Kalyan Sona with ‘HD-2285’ and ‘HD-2329’ in the mid-Eighties. As farmers planted more of these varieties, production climbed further to 55 mt-plus in 1990-91 and peaked at 95.85 mt in 2013-14. By then, another blockbuster variety, ‘HD-2967’, had been released, which covered a record 12 million hectares area last year. Between Sonalika and HD-2967, the harvested yield potential went up from under 5 tonnes to over 7 tonnes per hectare.

But in Jaunti — the village that seeded it all — the Green Revolution had ended towards the start of the century. Bijender Chhikara, who has a two-acre holding with tubewell irrigation, is clear that using this water to produce wheat would be waste of a precious resource. He, instead, grows only vegetables — planting carrot in October and harvesting by mid-January, followed by either karela or lauki in February-May — to sell in Azadpur mandi, 25 km away, where prices move anywhere from Rs 2 to Rs 10/kg. For farmers like him, a Horticulture Revolution that extends to both production and marketing may be the real need of the hour.

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