Lessons of the Green Revolution could aid our climate transition

MS Swaminathan played a central role in the transition of our country from begging bowl to bread basket.
MS Swaminathan played a central role in the transition of our country from begging bowl to bread basket.


  • India needs a similar supply boost, this time of green power, to break today’s constraints of energy and balance-of-payments

Few individuals have a truly profound impact on their times. M.S. Swaminathan was a member of that small club. Soon after he died on 28 September, the former principal scientific advisor to the Indian government, K. VijayRaghavan, wrote on X, the social media platform that was formerly known as Twitter: “There are many scientists whose life spans roles as researchers, institution-builders, technocrats, policy-makers, and humanists. Swaminathan is unique in doing all these roles superbly and with elan."

The broad story of the Green Revolution is well known in India. Swaminathan played a central role in the transition of our country from begging bowl to bread basket. India would have faced unimaginable pressure in the 1970s but for the success of the Green Revolution. The subsequent economic acceleration would also have been difficult to pull off.

This column explores the possible lessons from the Green Revolution that are relevant for another big challenge, and one that is coincidentally of the same hue—the green transition. The spectre of unchecked climate change is as threatening today as that of mass starvation was six decades ago.

A US government report in 1967 had put it bluntly: “The scale, severity and duration of the world food problem are so great that a massive long-range innovative effort unprecedented in human history will be required to master it." Much the same can be said about climate change today. Governments, companies, financial systems and consumers will all have a role to play in dealing with it. Are there any lessons from the Green Revolution?

The first lesson is that India broke its food constraint through a revolution on the supply side rather than the demand side. For example, during the war against Pakistan in the winter of 1965, the US had decided to hold back food shipments to both countries. Then Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri urged citizens to eat just one meal a day, so that the country’s limited stocks of food could last longer. It was a temporary measure in exceptional circumstances.

However, that little episode of voluntary demand management offers a useful contrast to the subsequent success achieved through the production of more food, or an increase in supply. In our times, the issue is not just how to reduce our consumption of fossil fuels, but also thinking about increasing the supply of alternative forms of energy.

The second lesson is that the Green Revolution was supported by a package of policies to support the era’s transition to new ways of farming. These included input subsidies, price support for farm output, credit availability and complementary public investments in irrigation. Such policies created better incentives for the private sector, or the country’s farmers in this case, to shift to the new ways of farming.

Much the same will need to be done in the case of climate change. For example, the broad consensus till recently was that a carbon tax would ensure that users of fossil fuels would pay for the pollution that their activities generate. The higher relative prices of fossil fuels would then make newer forms of energy more attractive. As part of the global shift towards industrial policy, the balance of policy seems to be shifting to supporting investments rather than just depending on demand management through carbon taxes.

However, the advantage of a carbon tax is that it does not force governments to choose between the alternatives such as solar, wind, green hydrogen, etc. It only shifts the relative prices in their favour. Recent moves to support investments in effect mean that governments will have to choose the technology they want to back with fiscal subsidies such as tax breaks.

Just as the carbon tax versus investment subsidies issue is a tricky one, so is the problem of interest rates. Should central banks keep interest rates low to make investments in green energy more attractive or should they be wary of the fact that low interest rates will actually help keep alive companies in sectors with high carbon footprints? There are no easy answers. In the case of the Green Revolution, both higher credit volumes as well as interest rate subsidies to farmers were an important part of the policy architecture.

Finally, the Green Revolution had an arc of impact that was wider than improving India’s availability of food. The main achievement was undoubtedly minimizing the shadow of mass hunger that was stalking the country. But better food availability had three other effects. Higher food production helped India break the food constraint that was acting as a structural impediment to growth. The Revolution politically empowered an important part of the Indian peasantry as well. And the availability of domestic foodgrain helped India break its dependence on food aid from the US, and thus gain more degrees of freedom in its foreign policy. The upshot: The success of the Green Revolution thus was far wider than is commonly believed.

The green transition underway can similarly help India break its energy constraint, ease its balance of payments constraints, and have distributional/political consequences as some groups or regions benefit more than others.

History rarely repeats itself mechanically, but the past can help us understand what lies ahead of us. Some of the lessons of the Green Revolution should help us understand the challenges of the green transition.

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