Punjab cannot go from granary to desert: Supreme Court

Punjab’s Advocate-General says paddy cultivation was promoted for use in PDS and farmers found it lucrative, but it has wrecked State’s water table

November 07, 2023 07:38 pm | Updated November 08, 2023 12:05 am IST - NEW DELHI

Paddy stubble being burnt on a field on the outskirts of Chandigarh on November 4, 2023.

Paddy stubble being burnt on a field on the outskirts of Chandigarh on November 4, 2023. | Photo Credit: The Hindu

The Supreme Court on Tuesday said the Centre should “seriously consider” the Punjab government’s suggestion to phase out paddy cultivation in the State and incentivise farmers to switch over to traditional crops such as millets by giving them minimum support price (MSP) in order to check rampant burning of paddy stubble and to revive a drastically low water table in the State.

A Bench of Justices Sanjay Kishan Kaul and Sudhanshu Dhulia said the Punjab cannot go from granary to a virtual desert.

“Punjab is seeing a scenario where the growth of paddy is causing the water table to decline drastically. A number of wells have gone beyond redemption. Paddy is not even consumed in Punjab. It is his (Advocate-General of Punjab) suggestion, that we believe correctly so, that paddy cultivation must be phased out and substituted with other crops. The Centre should explore the aspect of giving MSP for alternative crops,” the Supreme Court said in its order.

‘Paddy not a native crop’

Punjab Advocate-General Gurminder Singh said the State cultivates 31 lakh acres of paddy, and it was not even a crop native to Punjab. “Paddy was brought in by the Centre under the Food Security Act for use in the public distribution scheme. Incentives were given to Punjab to cultivate paddy. Farmers found it lucrative…. But now, we have to dig 700 m to 1000 m to find drinking water,” he submitted.

“Suppose we ban MSP on paddy from Punjab?” Justice Kaul asked.

“Then it will be an absolute one-day solution… Farmers will shift to other crops like millet and bajra. We need to diversify our crops. Provide for MSP on these alternative crops to incentivise farmers… There is no point arresting marginal farmers for burning paddy stubble in Punjab… And we do not want to pass the buck for pollution to other States, but we want to be part of a progressive solution,” Mr. Singh said.

Costly affair

He said it was not that Punjab’s marginal farmers do not want to use technology to clear stubble, but they find the machines on offer through Central funds too expensive even after 50% subsidy.

Justice Kaul said the MSP on paddy had also led to smuggling of the crop from other States to Punjab. “ Paddy grown in adjacent States is illegally brought to Punjab to claim MSP,” the judge noted.

The court said the “particular kind” of paddy grown in Punjab of which the stubble is a byproduct, the period of cultivation required and the onset of winter season all contribute to the problem of air pollution. Unlike Punjab, other States largely cultivate the Basmati variety of rice. “The problem (of stubble burning) is persistent with the form of paddy grown in Punjab,” Justice Kaul said.

Solicitor-General Tushar Mehta said Delhi Chief Minister Arvind Kejriwal had suggested using biochemicals to change the stubble to fertilizer. He asked whether Mr. Kejriwal’s AAP counterpart in Punjab, Bhagwant Singh Mann, would adopt the suggestion coming from the “highest authority in Delhi”.

Senior advocate Gopal Sankaranarayanan, for petitioner Arjun Gopal, intervened to vehemently point out that this was not the time for such “experimentation on our lungs”.

Justice Kaul said there was no need to indulge in a “political blame-game”.

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