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Punjab sticks to paddy amid depleting groundwater

Stable economic returns, free power for irrigation and procurement by the Central Government at minimum support price are some of the reasons why Punjab’s farmers are continuing to cultivate paddy, despite its impact on the groundwater levels in the state. There have been several government and other reports, over decades, on the need to diversify crops in Punjab which currently heavily depends on paddy and wheat cultivation. The new AAP Govt in Punjab has set up another expert panel to formulate a new agri-policy with crop diversification as its core focus. Paddy is currently grown over 87 per cent of the total area under kharif crops (June-October) in Punjab. Here is Vivek Gupta’s extensive report

Despite years of discussions to phase out paddy in Punjab, owing to its impact on groundwater, latest data shows that the paddy crop area still dominates agriculture in the state. Paddy is currently grown over 87 per cent of the total area under kharif crops (June-October) in Punjab, according to data shared by the Punjab Agriculture Department which notes that in the current 2022-23 kharif season, the area under paddy, was 3.13 million hectares out of 3.59 million hectares under kharif crops.

Over 35 years ago, in 1986, a government report on crop diversification, led by economist S.S. Johl, recommended at least 20 per cent area under paddy and wheat, the dominant crops in Punjab, should be shifted to other crops for ecological sustainability, primarily prevention of groundwater depletion. The predicted impact of a large paddy area on groundwater has come true – currently 80 per cent of the state is in the red zone due to the overexploitation of groundwater.

A water channel passes through a rice field in Punjab. The state is heading towards severe groundwater depletion if it continues with the existing cropping pattern.
Photo: Gill Prabhnoor/Wikimedia Commons

Punjab is currently the highest extractor of groundwater in the country and 97 per cent of it is being used in irrigation, mainly for paddy, as per Central Ground Water Authority’s last available Ground Water Estimation report 2020. The seriousness of the problem was apparent in a statement by the monitoring panel of the National Green Tribunal (NGT) under Chairman Justice Jasbir Singh (retd) when it stated last year in May that if the present rate of extraction continues, the state would be left with groundwater for 17 years, till 2039.

Paddy is a water-intensive crop and needs around 5000 litres to grow a kilogram of rice. Punjab had a diversified agriculture landscape before two cereal crops – paddy and wheat – were promoted as part of the union government’s thrust to attain food security, later pegged as Green Revolution. The area under paddy in the state, which was 0.2 million hectares in 1960-61, had increased almost five times to 1.1 million hectares by 1980-81, data taken from Punjab State Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Commission’s 2018 report revealed. The report has been removed from the public domain by the Punjab State Farmers’ & Farm Workers’ Commission after a new panel was announced recently. 

At the time of Johl’s report in 1986, the paddy area kept increasing and touched 2 million hectares by 1990-91, an addition of almost one million hectares in one decade. In an interaction with Mongabay-India, Johl, now 92, said he had advocated the promotion of alternative crops since he could foresee the fast depletion of Punjab’s underground water on which irrigation of paddy was mainly dependent.

However, farmers have been incentivised to stick with paddy production because of a few reasons, note various experts and government officials: there is almost 100% procurement of paddy at centre’s minimum support price (MSP); harvesting and sowing has become easier; and agriculture extension services have helped to increase per hectare production. With paddy being cultivated over 3.13 million hectares in the current kharif season (June-October) and wheat crop cultivated in 3.5 million hectares in the current rabi season (November-April), the two cereal crops occupy almost 84% of the total gross cropped area of 7.8 million hectares in the state.

The impact on groundwater
Punjab’s wheat-paddy cycle consistently contributed to the centre’s food security needs for the last several decades. In the 2021-22 procurement season, Punjab contributed more than 12.5 million tonnes or 20 per cent of total rice procurement of 56.81 million tonnes to the central pool managed by the Food Corporation of India. Similarly, the state contributed around 53 per cent of wheat to the central pool in 2022.

However, this high cultivation of paddy is fast-depleting groundwater in the state. As per the CGWA data obtained under the RTI Act in January, 119 out of 138 blocks in Punjab are currently in the over-exploited category as far as groundwater depletion is concerned. According to the agency’s reply, the situation is more serious in central and southern parts, including Patiala, Sangrur, Barnala, Mansa, Bathinda, Moga, Ludhiana and Jalandhar – where paddy is the dominant crop in the kharif season. The state’s average groundwater depth at which water is available has crossed 70 meters (200 feet). In the last decade (2011-2020), overall depletion was 2-4 metres.

Farmers in Punjab get free electricity for irrigation. Photo: Baljot.22/Wikimedia Commons

“There are areas in southern districts of the state where the groundwater is not available even at 150-200 metres (450-600 feet),” Punjab’s former Irrigation Secretary K.S. Pannu told Mongabay-India. He said if this trend is not reversed anytime soon, Punjab will be left with no groundwater to irrigate its crops. “If the water level drops below 300 metres in the next 18-20 years, water quality becomes highly contaminated and unsuitable for irrigation or drinking. Even the cost of extraction will be too high for farmers,” Pannu said.

While quoting from CGWA’s groundwater estimation report 2020, Pannu explained that the state is over-extracting 14 billion cubic metres (BCM) of groundwater annually. The annual extractable groundwater recharge in Punjab from different sources like rainfall, etc., is 20 BCM, but the state is using 34 BCM of groundwater, he said.

Factors sustaining paddy in Punjab
Responding to a question by Mongabay-India, on why the state failed to phase out paddy despite its adverse impact on groundwater, Gurvinder Singh, director of the Department of Agriculture in Punjab, reiterates the reasons that farmers stick to paddy farming: 100 per cent procurement of the paddy at centre’s MSP and consistent economic returns for the farmers. While procurement data for the 2022-23 season is not officially available yet, the centre spent Rs 1.45 trillion on procuring 75 million tonnes of paddy in the 2021-22 season, followed by 89 million tonnes of paddy at Rs 1.69 trillion in 2020-21 season.

Gurvinder Singh said in the 2018 and 2019 crop seasons, the department convinced a section of farmers in districts most-affected by groundwater depletion, to grow maize in place of paddy. But the farmers returned to paddy the next season as there was MSP for maize. “Even if the government starts procuring alternate crops like maize or pulses at MSP, it will still be insufficient to match the income farmers get from paddy,” he said. He explained that farmers’ current earnings from paddy are between Rs 45,000 and 50,000 per acre. On the contrary, per acre income from pulses or maize, even after MSP realisation will be Rs 30,000 to 35,000. “The income gap is basically due to low yield in alternate crops and further lack of proper sowing and harvesting techniques,” Singh added.

Another indirect reason that paddy has been able to sustain is that water for its irrigation is highly accessible at no cost. Punjab offers free power for agriculture since 1997, allowed farmers to extract as much water from the ground through tubewells for free. The data obtained from Punjab Electricity Corporation’s Engineers Association revealed that power consumption in the agriculture sector in Punjab has almost doubled in the past two decades, an increase from 6,049 million units in 1997-1998 to 11,226 million units in 2018-19. This also increased the Punjab government’s subsidy bill from Rs 6.58 billion in 1997-98 to Rs. 72 billion in 2022-23, which is projected to touch Rs. 75 billion in the current fiscal year, data revealed further.

In 2017, Punjab State Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Commission recommended the withdrawal of free electricity to medium and large farmers and the use the money saved on subsidies to start an income support programme to promote alternate crops. The move, as per a report, could save at least half of the subsidy bill of the state government. But, these recommendations have not yet been implemented. Economist S.S. Johl told Mongabay-India that free power was one of the major hurdles why Punjab could not phase out paddy. “It led to wastage of groundwater and increased its consumption manifold. This must stop before it is too late,” said Johl. “Punjab’s problem is severe. We do have solutions to overcome them. But we lack political leaders who have farsightedness and can gather enough political will to take hard and strong decisions.”

Past failures
A contract farming programme launched by the Punjab government in October 2002 aimed to remove 10 lakh hectares from the wheat-paddy cycle over the next five years as part of the crop diversification programme as recommended by another Johl-led committee in 2002. A pilot project to divert area under wheat-paddy to other crops began on over 11,000 (29,000 acres) jointly by the Department of Agriculture, Punjab Agro Foodgrains Corporation (PAFC) and private companies.

The PAFC provided seeds purchased from reputed seed companies and promised to buy back the entire production at a fixed price agreeable to farmers and procurement agencies. But Sukhpal Singh, an agriculture expert from Indian Management Institute, Ahmedabad, wrote in a research paper in 2005 that towards the end of harvesting season for the contracted crops, the programme had run into rough weather. The contracted maize crop failed almost completely due to weather-related issues and poor-quality seeds. None of the companies procured the produce. After this failure, occasional efforts were made to promote maize as an alternate crop to paddy but these efforts were without any income support programme.

Last year in September, a special committee of Punjab Vidhan Sabha came out with a series of recommendations to save Punjab’s groundwater, which includes conserving water by agricultural zoning of the state and by metering groundwater. The committee also recommended reviving the canal water system in Punjab to reduce dependence on tubewells for irrigation.

Many such studies and recommendations have been periodically made regarding conservation of groundwater in Punjab.

Another panel to bring out a fresh report
The new Aam Aadmi Party government in Punjab, which won the election last year in March on the agenda of badlaav (change), recently announced another panel to formulate a new agriculture policy. On January 17, the state agriculture minister Kuldeep Singh Dhaliwal told media that the government is working on a new policy, aiming to save Punjab’s natural resources such as groundwater, soil health and geographical conditions. In this policy, aspects like crop diversification, agri exports, etc, would get special attention.

Former bureaucrat K.S. Pannu, criticising the announcement, told Mongabay-India that Punjab needs the right intention more than anything else. “There is no dearth of solutions. For instance, it can optimise areas under canal irrigation to reduce dependence on groundwater. The government can initiate an income support programme to gradually phase out paddy. It can push the food processing industry and align it with the purchase of diversified crops at MSP,” he added.

Economist Kesar Singh Bhangoo, from Punjabi University, Patiala, told Mongabay-India that Punjab could not succeed in crop diversification without the active support of the central government but currently it cannot afford Punjab to phase out area under paddy. “Look at what happened last year when the union government had to ban wheat and paddy export just after a decrease in food grain production in the country due to climate conditions,” he added.

On the contrary, economist Johl, who also served as vice chairman of the Punjab state planning board between 2002 and 2007, argues that centre can be convinced to help Punjab in its diversification programme. “After my second diversification report in 2002, I collaborated with the Union Food ministry. I convinced them for promoting oilseed production in Punjab, for which an initial grant of Rs 1600 crore was also approved. But later, no one from Punjab pursued this matter,” he added. Meanwhile, Darshan Pal, a member of Sanyukt Kisan Morcha, a joint body of the farmers union, told Mongabay-India that any diversification plan without assured returns would not work.

(Courtesy: Mongabay India)