Crop diversification impossible without guaranteed MSP, say Punjab farmers

It will help conserve Punjab’s groundwater, cut input costs and prevent stubble burning

December 11, 2021 06:21 pm | Updated 06:21 pm IST - NEW DELHI

A view of the Paddy grain market. Photo used for representation purpose only. File

A view of the Paddy grain market. Photo used for representation purpose only. File

Guaranteed minimum support prices (MSP) for all crops may be the best route to crop diversification in Punjab and Haryana, farmers think.

Farmers in these two States already get the benefit of MSP rates for paddy and wheat because of the high levels of procurement. However, they say they will join the upcoming fight for an MSP guarantee for all crops, as it will enable them to shift away from input-expensive, environmentally harmful and climatically unsuitable paddy to grow oilseeds and lentils instead.

New rice bowl of India

“Why would I want to pay ₹3 lakh for a borewell that is going to drain even more groundwater from my lands if I can be assured of MSP rates for growing other crops,” asked Jagmohan Singh, a leader of the Dhakaunda faction of the Bharatiya Kisan Union, who is a member of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (SKM). He suggested that paddy cultivation and procurement be shifted instead to a State like Telangana, which is fast earning the moniker of the new rice bowl of India due to major improvements in irrigation.

Mr. Singh said input costs are also cheaper in places where water availability is higher and the need for fertilizers and pesticides is lower than in Punjab.

Paddy farmers in Punjab need thrice the amount of irrigation water used by those in Bihar to produce one kg of rice, according to a study by the Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations, and Punjab faces rapidly increasing groundwater depletion at a rate of up to 120 cm per year.

Nationwide, paddy and sugarcane use up half the country’s water resources, largely because procurement policies skew profitability and distort cropping patterns. For instance, maize uses only a fifth of the irrigation water of rice, but farmers are wary of shifting to a crop where remunerative prices are not guaranteed.

“Crop diversity is impossible without a guaranteed MSP. If all crops were procured, not just rice and wheat, then the average Punjab farmer would stop growing paddy and instead grow safflower, moong or chana dal,” said Mr. Singh.

More than half of government procurement of wheat and paddy over the last five years has taken place in Punjab and Haryana, according to the Agriculture Ministry data. Over 85% of wheat and paddy grown in Punjab, and 75% in Haryana, is bought by the Government at MSP. No other crops receive such support.

Financial incentives

The support could also help solve the bugbear of stubble burning that has darkened the skies of northern India. “Punjab farmers are well aware of the pollution caused by stubble burning as it affects them even more than the citizens of Delhi. But the solution is not to criminalise the burning of paddy stubble, but rather to provide financial incentives so that farmers can shift to other crops,” said Kavitha Kuruganti, convenor of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture, who is also one of the few women leaders in the SKM.

“The environmental degradation of Punjab because of the demands of the Green Revolution hurts all farmers. The drop in the level of groundwater is alarming,” said Darshan Pal, a senior SKM leader who heads the Krantikari Kisan Union in Punjab. “We will join the struggle for MSP not just on behalf of our brothers in other States who do not get remunerative prices for their crops, but in our own self-interest, so that we have sustainable choices beyond paddy,” he said, suggesting maize and oilseeds as the best alternatives.

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