Then came the green revolution. In the mid-1960s, as India was struggling to feed its people during yet another crippling drought, an American plant breeder named Norman Borlaug was working with Indian researchers to bring his high-yielding wheat varieties to Punjab. The new seeds were a godsend, says Kalkat, who was deputy director of agriculture for Punjab at the time. By 1970, farmers had nearly tripled their production with the same amount of work. "We had a big problem with what to do with the surplus," says Kalkat. "We closed schools one month early to store the wheat crop in the buildings."
Borlaug was born in Iowa and saw his mission as spreading the high-yield farming methods that had turned the American Midwest into the world's breadbasket to impoverished places throughout the world. His new dwarf wheat varieties, with their short, stocky stems supporting full, fat seed heads, were a startling breakthrough. They could produce grain like no other wheat ever seen—as long as there was plenty of water and synthetic fertilizer and little competition from weeds or insects. To that end, the Indian government subsidized canals, fertilizer, and the drilling of tube wells for irrigation and gave farmers free electricity to pump the water. The new wheat varieties quickly spread throughout Asia, changing the traditional farming practices of millions of farmers, and were soon followed by new strains of "miracle" rice. The new crops matured faster and enabled farmers to grow two crops a year instead of one. Today a double crop of wheat, rice, or cotton is the norm in Punjab, which, with neighboring Haryana, recently supplied more than 90 percent of the wheat needed by grain-deficient states in India.
The green revolution Borlaug started had nothing to do with the eco-friendly green label in vogue today. With its use of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides to nurture vast fields of the same crop, a practice known as monoculture, this new method of industrial farming was the antithesis of today's organic trend. Rather, William S. Gaud, then administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, coined the phrase in 1968 to describe an alternative to Russia's red revolution, in which workers, soldiers, and hungry peasants had rebelled violently against the tsarist government. The more pacifying green revolution was such a staggering success that Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.
Today, though, the miracle of the green revolution is over in Punjab: Yield growth has essentially flattened since the mid-1990s. Overirrigation has led to steep drops in the water table, now tapped by 1.3 million tube wells, while thousands of hectares of productive land have been lost to salinization and waterlogged soils. Forty years of intensive irrigation, fertilization, and pesticides have not been kind to the loamy gray fields of Punjab. Nor, in some cases, to the people themselves.