Globalization and Indian Agriculture: From Hope to Despair?

A Giridhar Rao

English version of a Paper presented at the World Esperanto Congress, Berlin, Germany, 5 Aug 1999
Last Modified: 4 Mar 2004

In my treatment of the vast theme of globalization, I will limit myself to the agricultural sector of my country, India. My thesis is simple. And although no one should believe a person who begins by claims to simplicity, I argue that until recently, globalization in Indian agriculture took the form of international cooperation. Further, this collaboration constructed the base for the recent entry of private, for-profit foreign investment. I also argue that this earlier globalization was indeed effective, together of course with steps taken within the country, in "cultivating peace" -– that is, in a country with many reasons for violence, agricultural prosperity indeed averted large-scale conflicts. In contrast to that period of internationality, the current globalization risks much if it does not include a strong, sustainable plan for those who are the most vulnerable in the processes of development.

The Earlier "Globalization". International collaboration in Indian agriculture had already begun in 1957 when the Rockefeller Foundation and the Indian Government began a program to improve maize. Because of this early link with foreign collaborators, the country received varieties of wheat and rice from, respectively, Mexico ( and the Philippines, ( in the early Sixties. Five years later in India, the Green Revolution ( was launched (which, alas, is not at all related to the Green of the Esperanto flag, I must quickly clarify! []). The technological package included better, higher-yielding crop varieties; use of chemical fertilizers; modern irrigation systems; and strengthened programs which supplied farmers with practical knowledge.

Also at that time was established in the southern Indian city of Hyderabad the institute where I now work, ICRISAT ( -- the English acronym for an internattional research institute for agriculture in the semi-arid tropics. This institute, with the 16 others which are members of the Consultative Group for International Agricultural Research (CGIAR []) have contributed much to agricultural growth not only in India but also in the rest of the developing world. For example, in the 25 years of its existence, ICRISAT's partnership with national agricultural systems developed around 370 varieties of grains and legumes for distribution in more than 70 countries; collected and conserved from 130 countries, the seeds of more than 113 thousand varieties of these six grains and legumes; and ICRISAT has trained more than 3000 scientists from 90 countries.

A Strong Infrastructure. This kind of successful collaboration presupposes the existence of a sufficiently strong infrastructure for agriculture, which India indeed possesses. Of course, in a country where about 65% of the population finds a livelihood in agriculture and related sectors, any general raising of standard of living must necessarily involve the rural sector. The so-called "Five-Year Plans" of the economy (from 1951 onwards) have, in fact, done exactly that. Much investment -– both human and financial -– was made in agriculture. The great part of this investment was capital investment, for example, roads, and large irrigation projects.

This large-scale construction of agriculture infrastructure too received much support from the "first world". For instance, in the 25 years between 1962 and 1987, just the irrigation sector received 3800 million dollars from the World Bank (

India also received help in the design and implementation of policies which aimed to protect the most vulnerable sections of the people. The main policies included: price-support for farmers; establishing "fair-price shops"; policies regarding the procurement of agricultural produce; controlling the flow of food across state boundaries; and a flexible import policy that allowed large imports when it became necessary.

This combination of infrastructure, science, and policy indeed averted both catastrophic famines of the earlier kind, and large-scale unrest. And reasons for unrest there were (and indeed are!) aplenty: India is home to 15% of the world's population; and to a quarter of the population of developing countries. As already mentioned, 65% Indians live in the rural sector where poverty is widespread: 53% of the inhabitants have less than 1 dollar a day to spend.

Unjust Land Distribution. The rural violence which did occur during the last 50 years of Independent India of course has complex roots in history and culture, but that violence also shows how easy it is for violent conflict to occur in underdeveloped regions. The "decade of chaos" from 1967 to 1977 in West Bengal was caused by a serious inequality in land distribution ( Almost half of the population either did not possess any land, or had less than a quarter of a hectare. The landlords constituted less than 7% of the population. Further, hordes of refugees entered the state during the war in East Pakistan. That caused acute food shortages in the state. The tragic violence of that period forced the communist government to change the policies of land distribution, and those changes brought many people out of the so-called "Naxalite movement" into the mainstream of civil society.

The process of just land distribution is far from done: less than 1% of the cultivable land in the country is fairly distributed. And this unjust land-distribution is only one of the many points in the so-called "unfinished agenda" of the developmental process. I will list other elements of that "unfinished agenda" later, but the point to emphasize here is that the current globalization offers no possibilities to address these social needs.

The Current Globalization. The current globalization started in 1991 during a financial crisis in the country. A new government stabilized the economy, simplified investment in the country, removed many trade barriers, and reformed the tax-system. On account of this liberalization of the economy, direct foreign investment in the country increased more than 10-fold between 1991 and 1996. Further, in the agricultural sector, this opening up of the economy combined with a series of good monsoons causing rapid agricultural growth from –2.3% in 1991 to 4.9% in 1995.

But this financial blessing evidently happened only for the relatively rich farmers. The fate of the poor did not improve. For rich farmers globalization means, for example, that they have access to new hybrid seeds. Since these hybrids cost much more than the traditional low-yielding varieties, only the rich agriculturists can buy them.

Further, none of the private firms "waste" money in improving the so-called "orphan plants" -- grains like sorghum, and legumes like chickpea. Globalization -- the opening up of the market -- does not mean improvement in the lives of marginal farmers.

The Dangers. There are also other, more general, dangers for agriculture in the current globalization. I will quickly touch on only two, namely, intellectual property rights, and biotechnological considerations.

Intellectual Property Rights in agriculture are supposed to protect both the rights of firms which improve crops, and the rights of agriculturists who possess crop-varieties with valuable traits. In practice, however, there is almost no awareness in rural India about the rights of farmers. Meanwhile, private firms patent crop varieties, as happened recently when researchers in Australia applied for a patent for varieties of chickpea. They claimed that although they had obtained those varieties from the ICRISAT genebank, they improved the seeds and so have a right to patent them. Only the alarm sounded by a nongovernmental organization woke the institutions of the CGIAR and the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO []) of the United Nations which immediately placed a moratorium on the patenting of these crops, defining them "international public goods".

Biotechnology firms present another aspect of the dangers of the current globalization. These firms invest much in the testing and introduction of new hybrids which both cost a great deal and whose ecological consequences are insufficiently known. Further, these firms protect their investment in ways which are ethically indefensible. The American biotechnology firm, Monsanto, for example, recently found itself in the center of a political storm on account of its attempt to introduce rice seeds containing the so-called "Terminator" gene; that is, that high-yielding rice hybrid contains a gene that makes sure that seeds from this season’s rice crop will not germinate when they are sown the next season: the farmers therefore must again buy seeds from the firm.

Well, once again, a nongovernmental organization sounded the alarm, and a gravely embarrassed Monsanto hastily declared that the firm was only testing the possibilities of the Terminator gene, and had in fact no plans to use it.

In both cases, then, nongovernmental organizations played an important role. On the one hand this emphasizes the role of a free media, and thus, a democratic society (a point which the economist Amartya Sen stresses). But on the other hand, this phenomenon also indicates a disturbing abdication by the state of its duty to protect the most vulnerable sections of the population.

The Heart of the Problem. And that takes us into the heart of the problem with globalization. The state continues to have an important role in a globalizing world -- arguably an even more important role than in earlier times when, for example, India was economically impenetrable. But the current economic climate does not encourage one to hope that this realization will be generally accepted. Further, the political instability of coalition governments, and extremely costly "distractions" such as for instance the recent "almost-war" with the neighbor Pakistan, make the task of the state in the developmental process even more difficult.

Meanwhile, one out of three Indians does not have access to safe water; almost one out of two illiterates in the world is an Indian; the largest number of the absolutely poor live in India; the country has more registered unemployed than the total unemployed of the 24 countries of the OECD; and 44 million children in India work.

The list of this "unfinished agenda" continues. Meanwhile, as the 1999 Human Development Report ( of the UNDP says: "when research priorities are defined, money, not need, rules -- cosmetic drugs and slow-maturing tomatoes appear higher in the priority list than drought-resistant crops and vaccines against malaria."

Only if a democratic government both fulfills its role and forces private firms to participate actively and positively in the process of social development, will globalization not have catastrophic, violent consequences. Only then will be realized the UNDP’s aim of "Globalization with a Human Face." (


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International Fund for Agricultural Research (IFAR). Agriculture in India: The Role of International Agricultural Research Centers. IFAR Country Report # 14. Arlington, USA: IFAR 1994.

Sainath, P. Everybody Loves a Good Drought: Stories from India’s Poorest Districts. New Delhi, India: Penguin 1996.

World Bank. India: Five Years of Stabilization and Reform and the Challenges Ahead. Washington, USA: World Bank 1996.