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Green-revolution epistemologies in China and India: technocracy and revolution in the production of scientific knowledge and peasant identity


This paper juxtaposes the epistemological challenges raised by new agricultural technologies in India and China during the mid- to late twentieth century. In both places, the state actively sought to adopt the ‘improved’ seeds and chemical inputs of what USAID triumphantly called the ‘green revolution’; however, in neither country did this imply an unproblematic acceptance of the technocratic assumptions that undergirded the US programme. India and China's distinct ideological contexts produced divergent epistemological alternatives to the US vision, with particularly important differences in the perceived relationship between the sociopolitical and technoscientific realms and also in the understanding of what constituted a ‘modern’ farmer. In India, critics persistently challenged the technocratic state to consider social, political and economic aspects of agrarian modernization, but radical leaders in Mao-era China went considerably further in attacking the very notion that technological change could be divorced from social and political revolution. Leaders in both India and China sought to overcome ‘backwardness’ and ‘superstition’; however, the Indian state held up examples of farmers who exemplified capitalist ideals of modernity through their willingness to take risks in pursuit of profit, while Chinese leaders valorized peasant technicians who combined experience in labour, new technical knowledge and faith in socialist revolution.

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1 William Gaud, AID Supports the Green Revolution, address before the Society for International Development, 8 March 1968, Washington, DC: Agency for International Development, 1968. The discussion of the coining of the term ‘green revolution’, together with the material below relating to the green revolution in China, draws from Sigrid Schmalzer, Red Revolution, Green Revolution: Scientific Farming in Socialist China, Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2016.

2 On the green revolution in a Cold War context see especially John H. Perkins, Geopolitics and the Green Revolution: Wheat, Genes, and the Cold War, New York: Oxford University Press, 1997; Nick Cullather, The Hungry World: America's Cold War Battle against Poverty in Asia, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010. Other important works on the political dimensions of US promotion of the green revolution include Andrew Pearse, Seeds of Plenty, Seeds of Want: Social and Economic Implications of the Green Revolution, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1980; and Jack R. Kloppenburg Jr, First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology, Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2004; first published 1988.

3 We have consciously adopted the term ‘agrarian modernization’ rather than ‘agricultural modernization’ to underscore the point that the impact of green-revolution technologies, like that of all technologies, was never limited to realms of production, but rather always necessarily involved the social, political and cultural spheres.

4 Indian agricultural scientists were among the many experts who travelled to China during the Mao era to identify aspects of Maoist approaches to development that might work for India. See, for example, Netra Pal Jain, Rural Reconstruction in India and China: A Comparative Study, New Delhi: Sterling Publishers, 1970; and Kalyani Bandyopadhyaya, Agricultural Development in China and India: A Comparative Study, New York: Wiley, 1976.

5 Srirupa Roy, Beyond Belief: India and the Politics of Postcolonial Nationalism, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007, p. 117.

6 Tania M. Li, The Will to Improve: Governmentality, Development, and the Practice of Politics, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2007, p. 7.

7 James Ferguson, The Anti-politics Machine: ‘Development,’ Depoliticization, and Bureaucratic Power in Lesotho, New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990, pp. xiii, xv.

8 Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity, Berkeley: University of California Press, 2002.

9 Gabrielle Hecht, The Radiance of France: Nuclear Power and National Identity after World War II, 2nd edn, Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2009, p. 11; Li, op. cit. (6), p. 11.

10 Akhil Gupta, Postcolonial Developments: Agriculture in the Making of Modern India, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 1998, p. 41.

11 Li, op. cit. (6), p. 10.

12 Mitchell, op. cit. (8), p. 52.

13 C. Subramaniam, ‘Message’, Indian Farming (1965) 15(7), p. 2.

14 Indira Gandhi on Science, Technology and Self-Reliance: Inaugural Addresses to the Indian Science Congress, Calcutta: Indian Science Congress Association, 1985, p. 10. Both Shastri and Indira had been hailed by the green-revolution scientists for the support they gave to the introduction of the technology in India.

15 Gupta, op. cit. (10), p. 35.

16 Detailed discussions of the social, economic and political impacts of green-revolution technologies in India can be found in Francine Frankel, India's Green Revolution: Economic Gains and Political Costs, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1971; Biplab Dasgupta, Agrarian Change and the New Technology in India, Geneva: UN Research Institute for Social Development, 1977; and Ashutosh Varshney, Democracy, Development and the Countryside: Urban–Rural Struggles in India, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

17 Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘Building new India: talk given at All India Radio on December 31, 1952’, cited in Frank Moraes, Jawaharlal Nehru: A Biography, New York: Macmillan, 1956, p. 44.

18 On the Nehru administration's commitment to keeping the ‘experts’ of the Planning Commission away from the political process see Partha Chatterjee, The Nation and Its Fragments: Colonial and Postcolonial Histories, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1993; Gyan Prakash, Another Reason: Science and the Imagination of Modern India, Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1999; Roy, op. cit. (5).

19 Francine Frankel, India's Political Economy, 1947–2004: The Gradual Revolution, New York: Oxford University Press, 2005, p. 95.

20 Ford Foundation, Report on India's Food Crisis and Steps to Meet It, New Delhi: Government of India, 1959, p. 6.

21 Ministry of Food and Agriculture, Department of Agriculture, ‘Agricultural development: problems and perspectives’, April 1965, Appendix I.

22 India, Lok Sabha Secretariat, Lok Sabha Debates, Third Series, vol. 49, No 24, 7 December 1965, 6075. Quoted in Frankel, Francine, ‘India's new strategy of agricultural development: political costs of agricultural modernization’, Journal of Asian Studies (1969) 28, pp. 693710, 693.

23 He was not alone in thinking along that line; the agricultural specialists and economists, especially American experts with the Ford Foundation, the Rockefeller Foundation and the US Department of Agriculture, gave him similar advice. Frankel, op. cit. (22), p. 693.

24 Dorris D. Brown, Agricultural Development in India's Districts, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1971, p. 8.

25 B. Sivaraman, Bitter Sweet: Governance of India in Transition, New Delhi: Ashish Publishing House, 1991, p. 318.

26 On the impact of selective application of green-revolution technology see J. Mohan Rao and Servaas Storm, ‘Distribution and growth in Indian agriculture’, in Terence J. Byres (ed.), The Indian Economy: Major Debates since Independence, Delhi: Oxford University Press, 1998, pp. 193–248.

27 E.C. Stakman, Richard Bradfield and Paul C. Mangelsdorf, Campaigns against Hunger, Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1967, pp. 207–211.

28 Das, K.K. and Sarkar, D.R., ‘Attitude of farmers toward ‘Taichung Native I’, a high-yielding variety of rice’, Indian Journal of Agricultural Science (1970) 40, pp. 5964, 61–62.

29 Arguably, the expression ‘green revolution’ posed a major ideological obstacle to the recognition of people's potential creativity, as it implied breaking with old farming systems and techniques. Pierre Spitz, ‘The Green Revolution re-examined in India’, in Bernhard Glaeser (ed.), The Green Revolution Revisited, London: Allen & Unwin, 1987, pp. 56–75, 58.

30 When Subramaniam undertook the reorganization of ICAR as part of his new strategy on Indian agriculture, he appointed B.P. Pal as the first scientist to be the director general. M.S. Swaminathan, ‘Dr. B.P. Pal and India's agricultural renaissance’, in V.L. Chopra, R.P. Sharma, S.R. Bhat and B.M. Prasanna (eds.), Search for New Genes, New Delhi: Academic Foundation, 2007, pp. 39–53, 26.

31 Sivaraman, op. cit. (25), p. 309.

32 Sivaraman, op. cit. (25), p. 310.

33 David Ludden, ‘India's development regime’, in Nicholas Dirks (ed.), Colonialism and Culture, Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, pp. 247–288, 270.

34 Bernhard Glaeser, The Green Revolution Revisited: Critique and Alternatives, London: Routledge, 1987, p. 19.

35 Glaeser, op. cit. (34), 28.

36 The officials associated with the Consultative Group on Agricultural Research were apprehensive that addressing rural proletarianization (a fallout of the green revolution) in terms of distribution and equity would ‘narrow its technological mandate’. They preferred research programmes that made farming ‘attractive and profitable for the resource-poor farmer’. Glaeser, op. cit. (34), pp. 26–27.

37 ‘Zhengzhi jingji weiji riyi jiashen’, Renmin ribao, 25 October 1969, p. 5.

38 A systematic overview of the green-revolution technologies adopted in Mao-era China can be found in Leslie T.C. Kuo, The Technical Transformation of Agriculture in Communist China, New York: Praeger, 1972.

39 ‘Chanming nongye kexue gongzuo renwu’, Renmin ribao, 22 February 1963, p. 1. In January, Zhou Enlai had referenced the ‘four modernizations’ at a Conference on Scientific and Technological Work held in Shanghai, but had not explicitly spelled out what they comprised. See ‘Zai Shanghai juxing de kexue jishu gongzuo huiyi shang Zhou Enlai chanshu kexue jishu xiandaihua de zhongda yiyi’, Renmin ribao, 31 January 1963, p. 1.

40 Lü Xinchu and Gu Mainan, ‘Shi kexuejia daxian shenshou de shihou le: Quanguo nongye kexue jishu gongzuo huiyi ceji’, Renmin ribao, 6 April 1963, p. 2.

41 ‘Ba puji xiandai nongye kexue jishu jianli zai qunzhong de jichu shang’, Renmin ribao, 21 May 1964, p. 1.

42 ‘“Yangbantian” shi nongye kexue wei shengchan fuwu de zhuyao zhendi’, Renmin ribao, 25 October 1964, p. 1.

43 Guangdongsheng keyan lingdao xiaozu zhu Hainan, ‘Jieshao yige nongcun kexue shiyan xiaozu’, 23 November 1969, Guangdong Provincial Archives, 306-A0.02-7-28, p. 7.

44 Zhuangzu guniang xue Dazhai: Kexue zhongtian duo gaochan’, Guangxi nongye kexue (1975) 7, pp. 3235.

45 Shanxi sheng Xinxian diqu geweihui, Nonglin shuili ju keji xiaozu (eds.), Xinxian diqu nongye kexue shiyan, n.p., 1971, p. 36.

46 Joel Andreas, The Rise of the Red Engineers: The Cultural Revolution and the Origins of China's New Class, Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2009.

47 See, for example, Tianyuan, Chen and Kaijian, Huang, ‘Canyushi zhiwu yuzhong yu kechixu liyong shengwu duoyangxing: yi Guangxi yumi wei li’, Zhongguo nongxue tongbao (2006) 22(7), pp. 490494; Schmalzer, op. cit. (1), pp. 219–225.

48 M.S. Randhawa, ‘The miracle of nitrogen’, Indian Farming, June 1965.

49 Agriculture service report from senior agricultural attaché to the Department of Agriculture, Washington, 7 July 1956, 469.7, Records of the International Cooperation Administration (NARA), Box 1.

50 Max Weber, The Religion of India: The Sociology of Hinduism and Buddhism, New York: The Free Press, 1958, 326; Weber, The Protestant Ethic: The Spirit of Capitalism, Los Angeles: Roxbury, 2002, p. lxiv.

51 Norman Borlaug to Mr J.A. Pelissier, 26 July 1965, Iowa State University, Special Collections, Norman Borlaug Papers, Box 5, Folder 20.

52 Indira Gandhi, Indira Gandhi on Science, Technology and Self-Reliance, Calcutta: Indian Science Congress Association, 1985, p. 10.

53 B. Sen, ‘Opportunities in the green revolution’, Economic and Political Weekly, March 1970, p. A-33; ‘Mexican wheats and the Punjab farmers’, Progressive Farming, September 1971 (Punjab Agricultural University), Norman Borlaug Collection, ISU, 15/12, pp. 15–18.

54 ‘Mexican wheats’, op. cit. (53), p. 18.

55 ‘Mexican wheats’, op. cit. (53).

56 ‘Mexican wheats’, op. cit. (53), p. 17.

57 Mitchell Dean, Governmentality: Power and Rule in Modern Society, London: Sage Publications, 1999, pp. 20–27.

58 ‘Mexican wheats’, op. cit. (53).

59 Das and Sarkar, op. cit. (28), pp. 63–64.

60 Sudhir Sen, A Richer Harvest: New Horizons for Developing Countries, New Delhi: Tata McGraw-Hill, 1974, p. 49.

61 Sen, op. cit. (60), pp. 69–72. For a list of publications during this period on food and population discourse see Sterling Wortman and Ralph W. Cummings Jr, To Feed This World: The Challenge and the Strategy, Baltimore and London, Johns Hopkins University Press, 1978, pp. 85–87.

62 Sen, op. cit. (60), p. 72.

63 Alex Inkeles and David H. Smith, Becoming Modern: Individual Change in Six Developing Countries, Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1974, pp. 22–23.

64 Sivaraman, op. cit. 25, p. 318.

65 Peter Seybolt (ed.), The Rustication of Urban Youth in China: A Social Experiment, New York: M.E. Sharpe, 1975, pp. 60–63. This is a translation of a Chinese collection entitled Reqing guanhuai xiaxiang zhishi qingnian de chengzhang, Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1973. See also Heilongjiang sheng Binxian Xinlisi dui keyan xiaozu, ‘Bai ying dadou wang de xuanyu’, Nongye keji tongxun (1973) 12, p. 4; Renpeng, Zhang, ‘Houlu duizhang Yang Liguo kexue zhongtian chuang gaochan’, Xin nongye (1974) 14, p. 26.

66 Henan sheng Nanyang zhuanqu kexue jishu xiehui (ed.), Quanguo nongye kexue shiyan yundong jingyan huiji, vol. 1, n.p., 1966, p. 5.

67 Kexue zhongtian de nianqing ren, Beijing: Zhongguo qingnian chuban she, 1966, pp. 29, 37–40.

68 Nongcun zhishi qingnian kexue shiyan jingyan xuanbian (Beijing: Renmin chubanshe, 1974), p. 36.

69 Henan sheng, op. cit. (66), p. 18.

70 Henan sheng, op. cit. (66), p. 4–5.

71 Hua xian Jiang Qizhang. ‘Pinxia zhongnong yao dang kexue shiyan de chuangjiang’, 1965, Guangdong Provincial Archives, 235-1-365-047~049, pp. 3–4.

72 The richest documents on resistance and efforts to convince peasants come from 1965 and 1966, when the scientific-experiment movement had just taken off and before the Cultural Revolution dramatically changed the political stakes.

73 ‘Yige shehui zhuyi jiaoyu yundong hou chengzhang qilai de keji xiaozu: Tongxian Xiji gongshe Zhaoqing dadui keji xiaozu’, 15 November 1965, Beijing Municipal Archives, 2.22.31, pp. 42–49. This source details a number of similar examples.

74 Henan sheng, op. cit. (66), pp. 4–5.

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