Groundwater meets three quarters of the State's farming needs

The Punjab State Farmers Commission recently published a draft new agriculture policy for the State that envisages substantial crop diversification from paddy and wheat staples that the State has been growing since the sixties. The draft policy, currently being debated in agriculture circles, is the first serious road map to steer Punjab’s agriculture towards a new dynamic, necessitated by a sharp decline in its water and soil health, and falling farm incomes.

It seeks to address problems that are seen as the underside of its green revolution prosperity. For a start, the policy aims to decrease area under paddy by 40 per cent in the next 5 to 7 years. From the current 2.8 million hectares, it proposes to reduce it to 1.6 million ha, which, a study by the Punjab Agricultural University says, is the maximum that the state can grow without further affecting ground water levels.

The alternative crops suggested are basmati, maize, cotton, sugarcane, pulses, soybean and vegetables, for which the Commission wants the Centre to provide price support similar to that for wheat and rice. Cultivation of paddy in Punjab increased from 3.9 lakh ha in 1970-71 to 28.2 lakh ha in 2011 due to assured pricing that gave farmers good returns. But contrary to popular belief, the state’s canal system irrigates only 27 per cent of Punjab’s area and the remaining 73 per cent is fed by groundwater from ever-deepening tubewells.

A.K. Bhatia, regional director of the Central Ground Water Board says, “Of the 137 blocks in Punjab, 110 come under the ‘over-exploited’ category, with some being exploited up to 200 per cent. Most of the water now being pumped up is palaeo-water trapped in underground aquifers for centuries. It is not certain how much of it is being recharged. The intensity of irrigation is saturated.”

Tubewells now go to a depth of 500 to 750 feet. Pumping out water from the wells through submersible pumps is expensive, and it adds to input costs. The problem is aggravated by the State’s policy to provide free power to tubewells which results in great wastage. It is also a huge drain on the exchequer. This is why the Commission has suggested that electricity and water should be metered and charged beyond a certain level of use. The subsidy thus saved can be used for agricultural research and development.

It is the government’s lack of willingness to address this crucial aspect that is leading many to suspect that the new initiative is only aimed at paying lip service to the problem. Firstly, the policy has stopped short of recommending a full solution and has only made a half-hearted attempt. That much of the exercise is seen as rhetoric to assuage the ruling Akali Dal’s core farmer vote bank is also evident from the excuses about shortage of funds. As against a requirement of Rs. 5,300 crores spread over five years that the Commission has projected as the cost of diversification, the Centre has allocated Rs. 500 crore, leading to protests.

Sucha Singh Gill, Director, Centre for Research in Rural and Industrial Development, and a farm economist says: “It’s hard to see why the Centre will fund such an expensive policy when agriculture is a State subject and the problem is the result of the government’s mismanagement of resources.” Although the Commission suggested that electricity and water should be metered and charged beyond a certain level of use, it stops short of recommending an end to free power.

Just how sensitive the issue of free power in Punjab is, can be gauged from the flip-flop done by former Chief Minister Amarinder Singh of the Congress. In 2002, soon after coming to power he reversed the previous SAD-BJP government’s policy of providing free power to farmers, after blaming it for the financial mess. But a year before the next Assembly elections, in 2005, he gave the sop back. It increased the annual power subsidy bill from Rs. 1,100 crore to Rs. 1,539 crore, and today it stands at Rs. 5,607.42 crore for 2013-14.

Free power depletes scarce ground water reserves and is the number one reason for the steady rise in Punjab’s revenue deficit and fiscal crunch. The revenue deficit rose from 1.8 per cent of GDP in 2010-11 to 2.75 per cent in 2011-12. Though most politicians agree in private that it should be eliminated, publicly it’s another story.

Pratap Singh Bajwa Punjab Pradesh Congress Committee president told The Hindu, “Free power is necessary for the poor farmers having less than 5 acres. But the catch is that big land holders like the Badals themselves with 1,000 acres also benefit. There is also the issue of diversion of electricity meant for farmers to industrialists, raising line losses in Punjab, which are probably the highest at 27 per cent. The ruling party also distributes tubewell connections to its workers and those having two or more sell water to small farmers. If all this is checked, it can save a third of the electricity and the money saved can be used to help farmers diversify to other crops that do not consume as much water.”

Though wheat and paddy will remain top staples, with growth in productivity in other states the demand for these from Punjab is expected to decrease. The imperatives to shift some area under paddy to other crops are obvious. Doubts, however, exist over the road map drawn up by the Commission.

Professor Sukhpal Singh, chairperson, Centre for Management in Agriculture at IIM Ahmedabad, says: “They are advocating the same model for newer crops. Any new initiative should be more in tune with the times, with investment in infrastructure that is market-oriented. We should move away from the regime of support pricing, which is not encouraging the otherwise enterprising Punjabi farmers to innovate and take risks.” Besides, how can it work for perishables, he wonders. Punjab’s growth rate in agriculture has plateaued to around 1.6 per cent in the last five years and the new policy aims to take it to 3 per cent. Between 2002 and 2007, during the Congress government, a feeble attempt at diversification was made through contract farming. It failed miserably with less than 25 per cent of targeted area diverted.

(chandersuta@gmail.com)