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Will PM Modi?s Israel visit bring the second Green Revolution to India?

With the help of Israel, India is hoping to diversify its food basket Photograph: (Others)

Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Jul 06, 2017, 12.45 PM (IST) Madhumita Saha

What do olive, mango and pomegranate orchards have to do with Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s ongoing visit to Israel? A lot it seems. 

These food items are fast emerging as important planks of diplomatic relationship between India and Israel. With India suffering from acute farm crisis, and farmers committing suicide as there is not enough return from the market, the country desperately needs a second Green Revolution, which needs to be very different from the first Green Revolution of the 1960s. While the latter helped to boost up yield of foodcrops, the next one needs to concentrate on better utilisation of  scarce resources. And that is where Israel can be of help to India. 

In his current trip to Israel, PM Modi has signed a MoU with Israel to undertake a 3-year long programme of agricultural development, stretching over the period from 2018 to 2020, to introduce “smart” technologies and practices to boost income and condition of farmers in the country. 

Decades back, it was the golden wheat fields of the US which fired the imagination of the agricultural scientists to introduce high-yielding varieties Mexican seeds among Indian farmers. Roughly forty-years later, the flowering tomato and olive plants of Tel-Aviv farms are capturing the Indian imagination again. From a cereal-centric poor man’s diet, which is rich only in carbs, India is ready to shift to more vitamins. It is the sign of rising opulence of the Indian middle-class.

Moving beyond the Green Revolution

Agricultural technology, or more specifically food production technology, has always been a crucial geopolitical tool. In the heydays of Cold War politics, helping India to grow more rice and wheat became an important aspect of America’s anti-communism drive. With millions going hungry in India, the US feared that it is creating the ideal breeding ground for communism in rural India. So, while the US send in shiploads of wheat aid to India as part of the PL-480 programme, it initiated through the Rockefeller Foundation scientists working in India a plan to revolutionise Indian foodgrain production. The culmination of the whole effort was the Green Revolution of the late 1960s. 

While the Green Revolution ensured that there is enough cereals for the Indian masses, the resource-intensive nature of the farming system opened up a pandora’s box of trouble. Critics soon started pointing out that the huge amount of fertilisers and round-the-year irrigation needed to grow the crop is a drain on the small farmers of India who are the numerical majority. Environmentally speak, the criticism ran that the Green Revolution technology is harming the soil, depleting the groundwater resources and chemically polluting the air. 

By the 1980s, the fertiliser and irrigation-induced high yield witnessed in the Indian farming sector reached a plateau. The hope of pumping in more inputs to raise the output proved to be unsustainable in the long run. Now, with increasing number of farmers committing suicide over the input costs and diminishing return from the market, Israel’s role in finding a solution in India’s farming problems is gaining increasing significance in the bilateral relationship. 

Olive trees in the desert

In the arid deserts of Rajasthan where farmers are struggling to meet ends, millions of olive trees have been imported in the recent past to transform the landscape. With affluent middle-class Indians fast taking to cooking and using olive oil in food, India needs to produce more olive. As of 2013, the country had been importing 11,158 tons of olive oil with Spain providing more than 50 per cent of this demand. Such has been the rate of profit from this growing oil market, which is both domestic and international, that the Spanish olive oil companies have started a campaign called, “Join the olive oil revolution”. 

Instead of allowing the foreign companies to ride the high crest of this wave, Indian and Israeli governments signed a three-year plan on agriculture that would introduce several crops associated with the Middle East and Mediterranean to India. So, olive was followed by pomegranates, dates and other citrus fruits. As did veggies, such as tomato, brinjal, seedless cucumbers and coloured capsicum. 

Much of the farming success of Israel is being attributed to the drip irrigation technology which the country has perfected. An arid land with very little fresh water resources, Israel had no option but to make better use of available water, even dirty and salinated water. Israel is land scarce too, a constraint which the country have been struggling to overcome through vertical farming. Both these agricultural innovations have great use in India, as the farmers are hard pressed to make maximum use of groundwater resources and shrinking acreages.

The diplomacy of “Green” technologies

MASHAV- Israel’s Agency for International Development Cooperation under the Ministry of Foreign Affairs has tied up with the Ministry of Agriculture of India since 2008 to introduce 28 Centers of Excellence whose two primary goals would be to develop a sustainable agricultural production technology for India and diversify the food basket of Indians. Maharashtra, Haryana, Gujarat and Bihar are the states where the centers are operating to best of their potential.

Mashav, for instance, reports 20,000 farmers visit the center at Haryana every year where vegetable production has gone up by 5 to 10 times. While production has gone up, the expenses incurred on pesticides and fertilizers have significantly gone down from INR 45 to 10 thousands and 25 to 12 thousands respectively.

So, drip irrigation and orchard management have become as crucial as buying fighter jets and sharing space technology between the two countries. With India and Israel bonding over agricultural know-how, the bilateral relations are entering a new constructive phase, involving the masses and civilian experts. This is a far cry from the militaristic posturing of the two countries where the sole goal is to collaborate over defense matters, incurring humungous expenses and working in total secrecy.  

Experts urge that for India, it will be diplomatically prudent to keep discussing and gaining from these soft diplomatic manoeuvres. The two countries, particularly India, should not confine their diplomatic narratives around defense strategies. In order to build a healthy, long-term and mutually beneficial economic front for both states, it is imperative that the two countries find areas that are of mutual interests beyond the highly-charged arena of anti-terrorism. 

In the murky waters of international diplomacy, alliances suffer through duress as political agendas of government change. The Palestine cause, for instance, will continue to be a thorny issue in India-Israel bilateral relation. The present Indian government may have put the Palestine issue in the back burner but future governments may not. Especially because the Congress-led governments in the past had been particularly sympathetic of the Palestine cause. Even PM Vajpayee of Narendra Modi's party followed the Congress's set path when it was in power. Under the circumstance, it is prudent to keep other avenues of dialogue and cooperation open, even if the two countries may not always agree on how Israel deals with the Palestinian people and their aspiration of freedom from "Israeli occupation". 

 

Madhumita Saha

The writer is an academic-turned journalist. She taught history at Drexel University and New York University before joining WION.

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