South Asia: The Continuing Challenge of the Food Supply
We’ve noted that there are two main regions in the world where there is still extensive, extreme poverty. Sub-Saharan Africa, with investments in agriculture and infrastructure, and a rapid reduction of fertility rates can break free of extreme poverty. So to can the second region, South Asia. Indeed, South Asia’s been making notable progress, but there are still around 400 million poor people in South Asia. And still major challenges of poverty in both the rural and the urban areas.
What distinguishes South Asia from other regions? Of course, many aspects of wondrous culture traditions and physical environment. But the one that I would want to underscore is the extraordinary population density of South Asia. Consider India, with its 1.2 billion people out of 7.2 billion people total in the planet. That’s roughly 15% of the world’s population, yet India has just 2.5% of the world’s land area. And many parts of that land mass of India are very dry, or even desert. Have a look at the map of population density where countries are shaded according to their population density. And you see that India and its next door neighbor, Bangladesh are indeed shaded as two of the most densely populated parts of the world. The numbers indeed are quite staggering. Bangladesh has on average 1,200 people per square kilometer, India about 410 people per square kilometer. The nited States by contrast has about 32 people per square kilometer. And so, the population density in India is more than 10 times higher than in the United States. And the implications of this throughout India’s history have been adverse. Indian farms are very, very small. Indian farmers traditionally have been able to grow only a small amount of food. And have eked out an existence of poverty in the thousands of Indian villages from time immemorial.
The cities, too are extraordinarily dense and crowded as India’s and South Asia’s cities more generally have increased. Many people thought the situation was hopeless for South Asia looking in the 1950s and 1960s. They said population is already so large and it continues to rise. India and its neighbors don’t have a chance to feed itself. People forecast that there would be mass dying from mass starvation. Bangladesh, when it gained independence in the early 1970s as notoriously called a basket case, absolutely hopeless. Now thank goodness this has not proven to be the case. And indeed India has been one of the best economic performers in recent years. And it has taken a pride of place as one of the leaders of the information technology revolution with wonderful engineering wonderful innovation in using information technology for economic development. And through IT it has become integrated into the whole world economy. Often in cutting-edge industries using information technology with great programming and systems developed by India’s engineers, some of the world’s finest. How did this happen? How did India avoid the fate that was so widely predicted for it? Well there we have to start naturally with agriculture, because once again India was overwhelmingly a small holder, peasant society living in villages and living in poverty.
It was a great breakthrough in technology that enabled India to begin this lift off into sustained rapid economic growth. And that breakthrough in technology has been given a famous name that is the green revolution. The revolution in crop yields that really started in Mexico and India in the 1950s, and then has spread to most of the developing countries, still to be enjoyed by Sub-Saharan Africa. What is the Green Revolution?
Well the Green Revolution starts with the individual pictured here a great hero of mine, Norman Borlaug. A Nobel Peace Prize winner who, as a highly skilled agronomist, a seed breeder, using his great ingenuity developed high-yield seed varieties for wheat, working in Mexico in the 1940s and the 1950s. Norman Borlaug was invited to India in the early 1960s. His counterpart was another absolutely wondrous a, agronomist pictured here, another hero of mine, M S Swaminathan. The two of them took seeds that Norman Borlaug had developed for Mexican conditions and planted them in Indian soils and Indian conditions. First year didn’t work out that well. They looked again. They decided on a different approach The second year proved that lo and behold, Mexico’s varieties developed by Borlaug for Mexican conditions worked beautifully in the Indian conditions. And they decided from that point on, that a green revolution for India could be within technological reach. To make it happen they had to add a third to this great triumvirate, and he’s shown here.
The minister of agriculture of the mid-1960s, Minister Subramaniam. The idea was to multiply the Sonora, Mexico seeds that Norman Borlaug had developed and that M S Swaminathan had helped to prove would work in India. To combine them with fertilizer and irrigation and transport facilitation, so that India could begin to experience a major takeoff of crop yields. Now, the picture you’re looking at here shows the green revolution for the whole developing world. You see that yields up until the mid 1960s were still under 1,000 kilograms per hectare of arable land. That is one ton per hectare. But then, look what happens after that.
The march up the yield curve to the point where in recent years, yields on average in the developing world have been between 2.5 and three tons per hectare. With many parts of the developing world achieving more than three tons per hectare. Well fortunately, India is one part of that overall green revolution. It hasn’t had the most stupendous of the results but it has had important beneficial results, as shown in this picture. First you see Mexico’s take off. That’s where Norman Borlaug first developed the high yield seeds. India and Pakistan lagged far behind Mexico already by the early 1960s. Mexico had jumped to two tons per hectare, whereas India and Pakistan were averaging still under one ton per hectare of land. Then came India’s green revolution, also undertaken in Pakistan. And the average yields start to rise of all of the feed grains: wheat, rice, maize, and of other grains where improved variety seeds were also developed and combined with fertilizer and good water management. Well, India and Pakistan did not catch up with Mexico, which went on to more than four tons per hectare planted. India and Pakistan have reached more than two tons per hectare. Well over doubling the average yields of the pre-green revolution crops. This has been the key to India feeding itself. To defeating those pessimistic forecasts of mass hunger. And of helping to set off a process of more rapid economic growth. But, there’s a problem.
The problem is that India’s population growth remained rapid as well. Have a look at India’s population growth. In 1950 India’s population was about 400 million, a huge and already densely populated country. By today, that population has tripled. So while grain production has roughly increased four-fold, population has tripled, not undoing all of the gains per person, but unfortunately undoing many of them. And measuring India’s feedgrain production per person shows what this has meant. Have a look at this graph which shows the feedgrains per capita from the beginning of the 1950s til close to today. The curve was rather significantly rising up until the mid 1970s. The spikes in the curve come from the fact that some years are good monsoon years and others are bad monsoon years. So, some years are extra good yield, and other years are crop failures and even disaster.
But on average the curve was rising up to the early 1980s. It’s really then that the population increase started to bring the whole burden, because the increase of output per person essentially stopped. And from the early 1990s onward India is now producing less feedgrain per person than it did 20 years ago. This has created a new round of troubling hunger. So, when one takes the combination of a green revolution that produced great results. But not as strong as in some other parts of the developing world. And then, a still fast growing population that continues to grow rapidly today.
Because the United Nations forecasts that today’s population of 1.2 billion could still reach 1.6, even 1.7 billion Indians within a few decades. We have a problem that India’s rapid development, while very real, is still burdened, held back by problems in the countryside. And we can see this by looking at one stark indicator, and that is childhood stunting. Childhood stunting is an indication of chronic undernutrition of young children. When young children don’t get the nutrients they need, they don’t achieve their potential height for age. And stunting signifies a significant reduction of height per age relative to the potential of a population. When you look at where stunting is in the world today, alas, it is in many parts of tropical Africa. And it is, alas, continuing throughout South Asia, and with India being the country with by far the largest number of children that are stunted.
What’s the conclusion? Well, one could talk about many wondrous aspects of India’s development and its rapid growth in information technology and in areas of manufacturing. Its leadership in global engineering, and India’s real potential. It’s also true to say, as M S Swaminathan has emphasized repeatedly in recent years, India needs a second green revolution. Not exactly like the first one because this time it’s going to have to be oriented not only towards more yields, but it’s going to have to be oriented even more consciously towards protecting the natural environment. India is going to need to get more crop per drop of water, more efficient water use. It’s going to need to get more output per input of fertilizer. Because the extent of pollution caused by the runoff of nitrogen and phosphorous-based fertilizers has also become very large. India is going to have to focus on higher yields on the existing farmland, because further expansion of farmland means the elimination of remaining forest areas and encroachments on very endangered ecosystems. So India needs a second green revolution. That’s going to have to be science based and dependent on very ecologically focused strategies to economize on water, on fertilizer on land use to get the maximum output per unit of input to ensure environmental sustainability. India and South Asia more generally, also face the continuing challenge represented by MDG 3, and that is gender equality. In traditional society women face massive burdens.
Not allowed to, to be in the labor force. Very subservient, not allowed to own or inherit property. Not allowed to manage money often. And the burdens of gender inequality of course, were passed traditionally from mother to daughter. One of the great breakthroughs therefore to note in India’s and South Asia’s recent advances is the continued empowerment of women and girls, gender equality in the South Asian context. And one of the greatest ways that this has been accomplished started in next door Bangladesh a country that was viewed as a hopeless basket case in the early 1970s, but pioneered one of the greatest grassroots directions to unlock the poverty trap. And that has been through women’s groups of empowerment and microfinance. You know the famous non-governmental organizations that arose in Bangladesh, Grameen Bank of Mohammad Yunus, the Nobel laureate, Brock and other great NGOs which pioneered women’s empowerment in the villages, and undertook a massive expansion of microfinancing through a group lending process. And it’s because of that, that microfinance spread throughout the world as a new powerful tool for grassroots empowerment, for gender equality, and for a breakthrough out of extreme poverty. One of the notable features of these women’s groups and the microfinance has been that by empowering young women in Bangladesh, it also gave these young women the sense and the incentive to reduce the fertility rate, to have fewer children. After all, the mother’s now in the labor force. She’s earning her own income. And she knows now through knowledge gained through her peers that having fewer children will enable her to invest more in each of her children so that they have a chance for a better life. And when you look at the decline of the fertility rate in Bangladesh, it is wonderful, good news. Back at the time of independence, Bangladesh’s total fertility rate was around seven, meaning that on average, a woman would have seven children. On average that would mean half of them of course, girls. For every 100 women they would be having 700 children, 350 of whom would be girls, and so in one generation 100 mothers would be raising 350 future mothers. You can imagine how rapidly the population would be growing. But because of microfinance, because of women’s empowerment, you see that the fertility rate on a voluntary basis came down extraordinarily rapidly, so that as of today the fertility rate is at the so called replacement level. Each woman on average is having two children, one of them a daughter. Each woman therefore is you could say, replacing herself with a daughter who will become a mother of the next generation. Leading over the longer term to a stabilization of the population and a much, much better chance for economic development. South Asia, like Sub-Saharan Africa therefore has the end of extreme poverty within reach. But it will require a major effort. Another green revolution, focused investments in infrastructure, empowerment of women, and especially completing the demographic transition as well so that India, like Bangladesh, reaches the replacement rate sooner rather than later. Gives itself that added opportunity to combine its wondrous capabilities in services and information technology in industry with a newly renovated ecologically friendly agriculture. And with a society that is running on the full empowerment of its women alongside its men. Go back to start of transcript.