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Agriculture in Punjab: Disastrous Monoculture

Image Credits: https://www.shutterstock.com/

In 20th century, Punjab has faced enormous discontinuity in terms of geography, demography, administration and politics. It is territorially stable since last fifty years but political stability it gained only in first decade of 21st century. But the legacy of discontinuity has resulted into huge backlog of economic, political and human resources development related problems. Punjab seems to be suffering from stagnation in terms of economic development . While parameters in agriculture show Punjab to be among the best performers of India, sustainability of this development seems to be hard to retain. Due to food security oriented agriculture policy of govt of India , Punjab has developed very stubborn ‘ Monoculture Syndrome.’ This monoculture is affecting the state in multi-pronged manner, and majority of the state’s maladies can be traced in it. Monoculture is proving bad economics and worse ecology.

Punjab’s name is historically dominantly linked with agriculture. It has remained its core strength and key source of crisis as well. One can say that Punjab became a victim of its own success in agriculture. While success in agriculture is linked with the policies of green revolution, Punjab was a farm success story even during colonial times. Farming and colonization went along with army recruitment leading to the modernization of the state.

After partition, newly independent India faced severe food-grain shortage because major wheat producing areas remained with Pakistan along with the best irrigation network in the world.

While majority of literature attributes success of green revolution to introduction of high yielding varieties, the fact can not be ignored that the state had gone for a complete overhaul of agrarian relations in the first ten years of independence. Many land reforms were introduced. Tenancy rights

were increased. Land ceiling was introduced. Peasants were freed from heavy burden of land revenue of colonial times. Consolidation of land holdings also called chakbandi was done at unprecedented scale. This created greater number of viable cultivable units . This also made private investment in land possible. A large pool of surplus land was created . This made community development of village possible. This land consolidation and resulting surplus was also an opportunity to create network of rural roads. Rural roads played a revolutionary role in opening the village society to modern society. The transportation of agricultural surplus was now easy, costs were cheap and it also encouraged the growth of small mandi towns. Mandi towns brought health services and colleges and polytechnics closer to village society. Higher education for rural youth was now nearer home and it proved more affordable because of cheap living costs. Number of rural girls with higher education degree increased substantially. This brought government employment to village society.

One can say that green revolution in Punjab was not responsible for agricultural growth only but it transformed the Punjabi society and changed the quality of village life to a large extent. Green revolution has long term effects on Punjab ecology, Punjab economy and its most important but harmful legacy is introduction of stubborn monoculture. Punjab is growing wheat-paddy crop cycle on 85% of its net sown area. This is the case when Punjab has 190% crop intensity. The following section looks at the strength of Punjab agriculture vis-à-vis countries from developed world.

Where We are far Ahead :

There are certain factors in agriculture ,where Punjab qualifies as a super-achiever even by world standards. In terms of total irrigated area, fertilizers use and tractor density , there is no parallel of Punjab in the world. This is evident from following two tables:

Table 1: Number of Tractors per 10,000 hectares

  Country/State  No. of Tractors
  United States of America  26
  Germany  65
  United Kingdom  76
  Punjab  122

Source: Sharma, 2016.

Table 2: Use of Fertilizers per hectare per year

  Country/StateQuantity of fertilizer per hectare (in kg)
  United States of America  103
  United Kingdom  208
  Japan  278
  Punjab  449

Source: Sharma, 2016.

When compared within India, Punjab has the highest tractor density of the country. This small state has 16% of country’s tractors. There is one tractors in India for every 62 hectare, whereas in Punjab, one tractor for every 8.7 hectares.

In terms of farm power, Punjab is number one in India. For every one hectare ,Punjab farmers get

2.6 kW power, the highest in India. Punjab is also the only state in India, that provides free power to all its farmers for running their 1.4 million tubewells. For last thirteen years ,Punjab government spent Rs. 40,538 crore on farm power subsidy , that was more than the budget of Govt of India’s ambitious MNREGA for one year. In 2016-17 annual budget of Punjab govt, Rs. 6364 crore are

allocated for free farm power. This can be compared with 315 crore for PAU, 77 crore for Punjabi University, 49 crore for GNDU and 26 crore for Punjab University. It indicates that capacity building and employment generation is not on the agenda of government. How free farm power is acting as whale in Punjab fiscal aquarium is evident from its increase from partial subsidy of 385 crore in 1991 to Rs.6364 crore in 2016-17. Free farm power also encouraged the replacement of centrifugal motors with power-guzzling submersible motors also called Machchi (fish) motors by farming community. As a result more consumption of power and greater exploitation of underground water went together:

Table 3: Increase in Electricity Consumption for Paddy and Area under Paddy Cultivation

  Year  Electricity for Paddy (milliom kWh)  % Increase  Area         under Paddy Cultivation (000 ha)  % Increase
  1981-82  1860.07  100 (Base year)  1269  100 (Base year)
2010-11  10116.90  543.90  2831  223.09

Source: Mwakyeja, 2014

From 1981-82 to 2010-11, area under paddy cultivation increased 223% whereas electricity consumption for the same increased by a staggering 543%.

In 1981, one hectare under paddy cultivation was consuming 1465.8 kWh , but in 2010-11, same area for producing same crop was consuming 3573.6 kWh. One can say that declining of water table, replacement of centrifugal motors with power guzzling Submersibles, and avaliblity of free farm power led to 143.8% increase in the power consumption for same crop under same area. Following section looks at areas where we are competing with world.

Where we compete:

While majority of Indian states have little per hectare yield of paddy, Punjab competes with china in this case,6.5 ton per hectare. In terms of cereal production ,Punjab is rubbing shoulders with world leaders, as evident from following table:

Table 4: Cereal Yield per hectare per year

Country/StateCereal Yield (kg/ha)
United Kingdom7008
United States of America7238
France7460
Punjab7633

Source: Sharma, 2016.

Where we are lagging :

There is general perception that Punjab agriculture has reached saturation point and the is little scope for increasing farm income. But a look at world parameters reveals that in many crops, Punjab has miles to go before it thinks of reaching saturation point. This is both in terms of area and yield. In terms of area under fruit production, Punjab has seen increase of meager 10,000 hectares in last 25 years. It means that Punjab is not producing enough fruit for its people. This can cause severe nutrition crisis for its children in the future. While fruit may be a choice, vegetables are daily need. In terms of area under vegetables, Punjab has seen increase of only 1,59000 hectares in last 25 years. Grams and pulses are essential component of food security and nutrition. But Punjab does not believe in producing these two essential items for its people. Area under grams has reduced from 22% in 1960-61 to 0.4% in 2000-01. Area under Pulses has reduced from 24% in 1960-61 to 1.3% in 2000-01.

Table 5: Yield of crops in Punjab as compared to yields of Global Leaders

CropYield in Punjab (kg/ha)Yield    in    Global    Leader (kh/ha)
Kinnow10,00065,000 (Israel)
Lemon5,00050,000 (Israel)
Tomato24,0004,66,667 (Netherlands)
Onion19,33081,504 (South Korea)
Pulses7885,286 (France)
Wheat4,3328,031 (Ireland)

Source: Roul, 2001, p. 44.

Case of Paddy: Poor Economics, Bad Policy, Fragile Ecology

The case for and against paddy cultivation in Punjab is best reflected in research by Prof. SS Johal and Prof.HS Shergill. While Prof. Johal is strong supporter of the idea that some area should be shifted from Paddy to no-water guzzeling crops for diversification and sustainability , Prof. HS Shergill believes MSP for monocrops like paddy and wheat much profitable for farmers ,giving them income security( Dhaliwal 2003 )

How paddy came to dominate Punjab, a non rice producing/consuming state? In 1950s large tract of land in Punjab was rendered uncultivable due to rising water table causing salinity in the soil. To fight this, drains were dug, gypsum was added to fields, and Australian Eucalyptus was introduced to Keekar dominated Punjab landscape. But the most enduring solution to water- logging was found in increasing the cultivation of paddy crop. Paddy crop helped in fighting the salinity menace in Punjab lands. In 1960s, introduction of HYV seeds and application of chemical fertilizers led to rapid popularization of paddy crop ,especially such varieties which were not consumed in Punjab but which were entirely procured by government agencies for central pool. With this, Punjab gained the distinction of largest contributor of paddy to central pool. Paddy

replaced other crops in Punjab to a such extent that from 3 Lac hectares in 1960, it came to be cultivated on 10 times more area. Today, paddy is grown in Punjab on 3 million hectare land. This 3 million is part of 4 million hectares that is net sown area that is part of 5 million hectares that is total geographical area of Punjab.

Land use pattern of Punjab suggests towards the presence of a very fragile ecology. One million hectares is occupied by villages, cities and roads. Less than three Lac hectares are under forest cover.

One million is under other crops in Kharif season. Three million is under paddy cultivation. In sand dunes of South west Punjab, paddy has replaced cotton as major crop. Last year’s whitefly attack on cotton and Punjab government’s announcement of 1, 25000 new tubewell connections made paddy a crop of new hope in cotton belt. This is in addition to 1.3 million tube well connections already operating in Punjab. The government spends 6000 crore rupees for power subsidy for farmers. These 1.3 million tubewells exploit underground, fresh, clean, potable water in the months of May, June, July, August and September and flood the water pans called rice fields. Majority of aquifers supplying water to tube wells can not be recharged because they are close 400-500 ft. deep. While free power to farmers is discussed much in media, what is ignored that this free power runs majority of submersible pumps , which have replaced the old time centrifugal pumps that consumed less power and exploited less ground water. The cost of replacement of these pumps has thrown a large number of farmers in to vortex of debt trap. According to a study conducted by GS Hira,Punjab farmers’ indebtedness is directly connected the rapid fall of groundwater.( Hira 2010 )

While policy makers and the farmers emphasize on paddy being assured income source, the idea of cost is given two hoots. Farmer pays a big price for tilling, labour, pesticides, insecticides, fertilizers, transportation etc. Power is the only thing he gets free. But what is the water cost of this paddy? Punjab farmer uses 5337 litres of fresh potable water to produce one kilogram of paddy . (Nibber 2016) Profit margin for this one kg paddy( 700gms rice) is not more than four rupees given the rise of input costs .If a farmer sells one litre of such water for the price of one paisa each, he will earn the revenue of Rupees 53 , a much bigger amount than Rs. 18 that is per kg. MSP declared by CACP for 2018-19. And profit margin shall be many times greater than paddy. And there shall be no pollution. There shall be no overhead costs related to procurement of paddy. It means that the case for paddy is a very poor economics.

Paddy is not only guzzling the existing store of underground water, it is also preventing the recharge of water due to certain farming practice. Underground aquifers are always recharged by rain water. In Punjab, rain happens during monsoon only. What is the form of two third part of land in these months?

The land is prepared with the process of mulching to prevent the seepage of water in the soil. The surface soil is converted into superfine clay that acts like thin film ,laminating the surface of water pans in such a manner that it looks like a china tray filled with water. The growth of algae makes the surface of soil more impervious. In such situation, rain water is not absorbed in the subsoil. The apparent abundance of water in paddy season turns out to be skin deep. With more and more water bodies coming under colonization , all roads to underground water recharge are blocked. Brick lining of water channels / canals is also preventing recharge.

Paddy in Punjab has few parallels of such density of crop in the world. This crop is a big source of methane emission ,which has greater green house effect than carbon dioxide. ( McDermott 2012) When people living among paddy fields are found gasping in the month of June July and August, they use the expression that as if a ‘Lifafa” is blocking the flow of fresh air. In using this Punjabi word for polythene bag, they are actually describing the impact of methane in air. According to Shailash,India’s rice fields are biggest contributer in green house gas emission.( Shailsesh 2011 )

In case of stubble burning, paddy is much bigger villain than wheat because majority of wheat stubble is utilized for chaff making, whereas paddy stubble is a pure liability. Its burning chokes the skies of Punjab, Haryana and Delhi. According to Andy Mukhrjee, Delhi’s 17 million people are left gasping for breath owing to the burning of crop stubble in Punjab Air.(Mukhrjee 2016) quality is not the only casualty. What is commonly ignored in media is the impact on soil health and ecology . Frequent burning of stubble makes soil like lining of oven. All organic content called humus is burnt. Soil without humus becomes loose sand over the period. To think that burning of stubble is burning of stubble only is also a fallacy. Burning of stubble is burning of humus, subsoil worms, useful insects, frogs, snakes, birds and flora like vines, shrubs, trees, grasses ((and their seed), in one word whole ecosystem sans humans and their property.

Paddy as monoculture is spreading it tentacles in fragile ecology of Punjab like a green monster. Linking it with the income security of Punjab farmers or food security of India is a major policy error. If Punjab government is serious about Punjab waters, it should save ground water, nothing prevents it from doing so. No mathematics in the world can explain the sale of 5337 litres of fresh water for securing a price of Rs. 18. Punjab is selling its water for a song. This song shall be a requiem for the state named after waters.

Governor of Punjab, Mr. VP Singh Badnor warned in his budget speech on 12 February 2019 that Punjab has no surplus water and it is going to face a water famine very soon. He cautioned that there is danger of Punjab becoming desert and millions of Punjabis losing their livelihood.

Punjab is not an isolated case of looming water shortage due to water intensive agriculture. A recent report by World Bank submitted before Central Water Commission paints a much gloomier picture in the Ganga basin also. According to this report, Ganga River basin could see crop failure rise three fold by 2040. During the same period, there is possibility of drinking water shortage go up to 39% . MP shall see shortage of drinking water by 39%,Delhi 22% and UP 25%. (Koshy 2019). How much poverty, violence, under-development and inflation this shortage of water in Ganga basin shall generate is not difficult to guess, given that fact that river is lifeline for 50% of India’s population .

It may be concluded that urbanization and water intensive monoculture can not go together. Continuous reliance upon Punjab as major contributor for food grain central pool shall be disastrous for both Punjab and India.The issue of Punjab monoculture should not be seen in isolation and a serious, composite, pragmatic policy for its sustainable agriculture must be devised.

History of world agriculture has seen disasters like ‘Dust Bowl’ in US in 1930s and shrinking of Aral sea(Kazakistan and Uzbekistan ), due to bad agriculture planning by Soviet regime in 1960s. Punjab should not be the next case study in agricultural disasters. In past decades, Punjab has shown much stronger political will to solve its agrarian problems, like refugee settlement in 1947, land consolidation in 1960s, green revolution in 1970s. The persistence of monoculture and consequent crises can also be solved in the same way.

References:

Dhaliwal, Sarbjit (2003), “Punjab fights a Losing Battle,” The Tribune, 11 August 2003, URL: Indiahttp://www.tribuneindia.com/2003/20030811/agro.htm

Hira, G.S. (2010), “Water Management in Northern States and the Food Security of India,” in Manjit Singh Kang (Ed.), Water and Agricultural Sustainability Strategies, CRC Press, London, pp. 71-91.

Koshy,Jacob(2019), “Ganga Basin States Stare at Three-fold Rise in Crop Failure by 2040.” The Hindu, 23 February 2019,URL: https://www.thehindu.com/news/national/ganga-basin-states- stare-at-three-fold-rise-in-crop-failures-by-2040/article26353826.ece

McDermott, Mat (2012), “Rice Growing Emits More Methane as Climate Warms,” Treehugger,

22 October 2012, URL:    https://www.treehugger.com/climate-change/rice-growing-more- methane-climate-warms.html

Mukherjee, Andy (2016), “Who’s Choking New Delhi? No, It’s not the Car Makers,” Live Mint,

4   November 2016,   URL: http://www.livemint.com/Opinion/WsaA8ThKoZCOUuBCYR1n4L/Whos-choking-New-Delhi- No-its-not-the-car-makers.html

Mwakyeja, Sikitu Anyosisye (2014), “Production Performance of Paddy in Punjab,” Indian Journal of Economic Development, Vol. 10, No. 1, pp. 26-22.

Nibber, Gurpreet Singh (2016), “Punjab ‘Emptying’ Reservoirs to grow Water-guzzling Rice,” Hindustan Times, 8 January 2016, URL: http://www.hindustantimes.com/punjab/punjab- emptying-reservoirs-to-grow-water-guzzling-rice/story-nRHmqkmWVo1IvTxDmKVZ2O.h

Roul, Chhabilendra (2001), Bitter to Better Harvest: Post-Green Revolution- Agricultural and Marketing Strategy for India, Northern Book Centre, New Delhi.

Shailesh (2011), “Green House Gas Emissions from Indian Rice Fields,” GreenCleanGuide, 9 October 2011, URL: http://greencleanguide.com/green-house-gas-emissions-from-indian-rice- fields/

Sharma, Devinder (2016), “It Will take More Than a Loan Waiver for Punjab’s Farmers to Stop Killing Themselves,” The Wire, 24 October 2016, URL: https://thewire.in/75526/long-term- reforms-not-loan-waiver-farmers-can-resolve-punjabs-agrarian-crisis/

PTI (2016), “Punjab Farmers opt for Paddy over Cotton,” The Hindu, 18 August 2016, URL: http://www.thehindu.com/news/national/other-states/Punjab-farmers-opt-for-paddy-over- cotton/article14575952.ece

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Dr. Jaswinder Singh is an eminent educationist and economist. Currently he is serving as a Principal in SGTB Khalsa College Delhi University. He can be contacted at: jaswindi@yahoo.co.uk (M. 91+9999797188). Dr. Amanpreet Singh Gill who is co-author, teaches political science at SGTB Khalsa College, North Campus, Delhi University.  He’s also Convener of a course committee on social sciences, in central board of secondary education (CBSE). Apart from short stories, he writes on Punjab politics and Sikh history. He has authored six books in Punjabi and English. Non congress politics in Punjab (2015), 1708 Dasam Guru di Dakhan Feri and Kes History of Sikhs are some of his better known works. He can be reached at: amanpreetdu@gmail.com (M.91+ 9650932060).

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