Revisiting the Green Revolution
: Irrigation and Food Production in Twentieth-Century India.

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


This is a new history of irrigation and food production in twentieth-century India. It seeks to challenge the known story of Green Revolution, to question the role of plant breeding in the history of twentieth century agriculture and to de-centre the big dam from our picture of water and modernity.
This thesis argues that there is no evidence of a breakthrough in Indian food production the 1960s and 1970s where a Green Revolution is typically placed; this was in fact a period of relatively slow growth in foodgrain production and yields within an era of high growth that had actually begun around 1950. Wheat, which was a small part of India’s food basket was an exception to this general trend of slow growth in the 1960s and 1970s. I argue that High Yielding Varieties of seeds had little to do with this leap in productivity; this was driven by a quick expansion in irrigation facilitated by private tubewells.
Tubewell irrigation was initiated by the colonial state and interwar India had the world’s largest tubewell programme. The ability of tubewells to deliver quick results put them on the central government agenda during the Second World War and emphasis on public irrigation (whether from tubewells or dams) increased during the Nehruvian period. The mid-1960s however saw an emphasis on the private tubewell, based on a vision of the peasant as a rational profit-maximizing being who was in conflict with public irrigation systems and their equity objectives. The private-profit motive was put at the centre of agricultural policy, and aided by the World Bank, the government mounted a programme of cheap loans to promote private tubewells which quickly became the most important means of irrigation in India.
Putting the tubewell at the heart of my study allows me to re-conceptualise late twentieth-century Indian agriculture. By showing how the World Bank and elite development actors favoured private tubewells, I argue that rising inequality was built into technology choice. This thesis traces the new centrality of the private motive in agricultural policy to Theodore Schultz’s theory of the poor but efficient peasant and argues that ideas of peasant rationality were also central to the adoption of the HYVs which merely justified appropriation of inoptimal quantities of fertilizer by large farmers to produce super-normal yields even as higher overall production could have resulted from spreading fertilizer thin on tall Indian wheat varieties
Date of Award2015
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorAbigail Woods (Supervisor) & David Edgerton (Supervisor)

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