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For the past two years, the burning of paddy stubble in Punjab has occupied centre space in the discourse on Delhi’s toxic autumn smog. But barely four decades ago, Punjab was known neither as a producer nor as a consumer of rice.
During the period identified with the Green Revolution in the late 1960s and 1970s, irrigation transformed the agricultural landscape of Punjab as it had nearly a century ago when the Raj first set up the canal colonies. Undivided Indian Punjab (which included Haryana before 1966) went from irrigating half its wheat land in 1961 to irrigating 86% in 1972, a feat all the more spectacular considering that the area planted with wheat also increased by two-thirds, fuelled by the support prices that were key to the Green Revolution. Much of this increased irrigation came from small privately-owned tubewells, rather than the large canal systems built by the Mughals, the Raj, and Nehruvian India. This transformation of irrigation led to remarkable growth in wheat production; indeed, some have called the Green Revolution a “tubewell revolution” .
But planted on barely a tenth of India’s foodgrain acreage, wheat was a relatively minor part of India’s breadbasket, ranking after rice and jowar in importance. Unlike wheat, there were no spectacular gains in the production of rice, which was India’s major food crop in the late 1960s as it continues to be today. Even as some had proclaimed a Green Revolution in the late 1960s, as late as 1978, the Economic Survey merely noted that it appeared that rice production was tending to stabilise at a (disappointingly marginally) higher level, though it was “too early to make a firm assertion”. That caution was well founded, for soon, the 1979-80 drought led rice production to decline by a catastrophic fifth.
Attempts at improving rice cultivation made painfully slow progress, for the special conditions which enabled the wheat boom in Punjab were simply not replicable elsewhere. Chief amongst these were conditions of tenure: a significant proportion of cultivators in Punjab were peasant proprietors with moderate-sized holdings (what the political scientists Susanne and Lloyd Rudolph called “bullock capitalists” ) who had benefited from an aggressive policy of land consolidation and reform in the 1950s; this made for a significant number of holdings of size optimal for technological investment. Indeed, the former Prime Minister Charan Singh retrospectively took credit for the Green Revolution, quoting World Bank expert Wolf Ladejinsky who commented that in western UP and Punjab, the process had resulted in farm sizes optimal for tubewell investment. In addition, having been at the centre of official efforts to improve agriculture in India for at least a century, Punjab had a better-developed system of agricultural extension services. Further, northwestern India was blessed with plentiful groundwater at a depth relatively inexpensive to pump from, below soft strata that were cheap to drill through.
While it is hard to pin down precisely when paddy stubble-burning became widespread, it is likely that in the days of booming agricultural prices, low labour costs as well as a larger market for paddy straw for draught animals, at least some of the crop residue was manually collected.
Irrigation reform was key to the transformation of rice production. Unlike the dry (winter) growing season for wheat in India, rice cultivation engaged closely with the monsoon. Being long-duration and sensitive to the length of the day (a feature called photoperiod sensitivity ), varieties local to areas such as the Thanjavur delta flowered when the length of the day reached a critical number of minutes; thenceforth maturity arrived after an interval sufficient for the retreat of the monsoon so the rice could be harvested under sunny skies.
The much-heralded technical breakthroughs achieved by the IR-8 rice strain developed as a one-size-fits-all solution for Asia at the Rockefeller Foundation-supported International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines were precisely the opposite: they were short-duration and insensitive to photoperiod; enabling more crops a year as well as making for greater seasonal flexibility. However, there was a grave mismatch between the needs and nature of the High-Yielding Varieties (HYV) of seeds on the one hand and, on the other, monsoon and rigid bureaucratic irrigation schedules.
For example, as the young political scientist Francine Frankel, who had been sent to study the Green Revolution in the 1960s by a World Bank concerned about reports of rising inequality, noted for example that in the West Godavary district of Andhra Pradesh over half the land was irrigated from canals since the middle of the 19th Century. Normally, cultivators planted paddy in June with the arrival of the south-west monsoon, transplanted in mid-July and harvested in December after the retreat of the north-east monsoon. However if planted in June, the HYVs would mature in a rainy October with heavy crop losses. It was the dry early summer, from the end of January to late April or May that was most suited for these varieties. One option was growing the 1R-8 as a second crop during this period; but this was constrained by unpredictable irrigation.
While the canal system had itself been built with a vision to protect agriculture from the vagaries of the monsoon, even as designed, the canal system was not suited for a complete break from monsoon patterns, and they did not work well as designed; while cultivators were supposed to receive the first watering by June 1, they were fortunate if it came in by June 15. Those at the tail end of the supply channel had to wait an additional month. This prolonged the period of the first crop well into December, reducing the possibilities of a second crop. In any case, irrigation was insufficient during the period of the second crop; the systems supplied water only with the onset of the monsoon and the supply, inadequate as it was even when available, lasted only until mid-March. Efforts to change cultivation cycles resulted in little more than devastating pest attacks.
Installation of tubewells could have enabled rice cultivation to break free from the cycle of monsoons and surface-irrigation systems, but in the rice-growing areas (including not just the poor districts of Eastern India but also rice bowls such as Thanjavur) the special conditions which enabled tubewell irrigation in Punjab simple did not exist in the 1960s; the prices fetched by rice were also lower than could justify tubewell investment for the farmer.
But even as policymakers pondered the problems of the traditional rice-growing areas in the 1970s, a breakthrough in rice production was being achieved elsewhere. The northwestern plains, comprising Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh had never been known for rice cultivation. Unlike in Eastern India, the rainfall (and canal supplies) was inadequate; and rice was hardly consumed, unlike in southern India where it was an important (and well-paying) cereal justifying irrigation. Punjab’s farmers had installed tubewells in response to aggressive promotion of wheat, including price incentives, and of tubewells, including cheap loans. They consolidated their gains by using those tubewells to irrigate rice during the inadequate monsoon. With limited rainfall and the controlled application of water enabled by tubewells, Punjab’s farmers were free of the constraints that prevented high yields of monsoon rice in traditional rice-growing areas.
The State of Punjab went from producing barely 0.7% of India’s rice in 1960-61 to 1.7% in 1970-71 and 7.18% in 1979-80. The wheat-paddy cycle became the dominant cropping pattern in Punjab over the next couple of decades and the State contributed nearly 10% of India’s rice production in 1999-2000, even though production in traditional rice areas had begun to pick up. In the space of a decade in the 1980s, rice had gone from “zero to hero” in Punjab as a 2002 article in the Economic and Political Weekly put it. Of the 50-million-tonne increase in rice production in the quarter Century after 1974, a fifth has come with the expansion of monsoon cultivation in Punjab and Haryana. In this period, the production of monsoon rice in Punjab increased by over six times and in Haryana by five times; in none of the traditional areas did monsoon rice production even double.
The Punjab rice boom was fuelled by a substantial stimulus from the State. Having no home market, Punjab’s farmers produced rice largely for a monopoly buyer, the Food Corporation of India, who had already set up the logistical infrastructure for procuring grain from the wheat boom. With the proportion of its rice production procured by the government varying between 75% and 84% in the 1980s, Punjab has been the top-ranking State in contributing rice to government stocks since at least the early 1970s. Thus, the boom in Punjabi rice cultivation had a disproportionately significant impact on India’s food economy.
With stagnating farm incomes, falling groundwater levels to feed the thirsty paddy, and massive Electricity Board and State government deficits owing to subsidies for pumping power (which some have called the Energy-Irrigation nexus), the paddy-wheat cycle has been at the centre of the rising official and unofficial concern about the agro-ecological crisis in Punjab. But as the Delhi air pollution crisis illustrates, the Green Revolution made not just for a rural environmental crisis but an urban one as well.
Double-cropping reduced the time between the paddy harvest and the wheat sowing, while the increased use of mechanised harvesters has meant a taller stubble residue, making for a labour-intensive cleanup. While it is hard to pin down precisely when paddy stubble-burning became widespread, it is likely that in the days of booming agricultural prices, low labour costs as well as a larger market for paddy straw (for draught animals) at least some of the crop residue was manually collected. Since at least as early as 2005, stubble burning has been being blamed for pollution in Punjab’s cities such as Ludhiana and some form of ban (however infrequently implemented) on the practice has been in force for at least a decade.
In an effort to mitigate that other environmental crisis of groundwater, the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act, 2009, banned the nursery sowing and transplantation of paddy before May 15 and June 15 respectively. As an Indian Express report has it, “ Given the small turnaround window of hardly 20 days between rice-harvesting and the optimal sowing of wheat, the flexibility to clear the field of leftover straw, whether by manual removal or in situ incorporation, is limited. The least costly and most time-saving option is to simply burn.”
The sociologists Ulrich Beck, Anthony Giddens and Scott Lash coined the term reflexive modernisation to describe the state of affairs where societies were increasingly making efforts (in large part through science) not just to enhance material well-being but to solve the problems and mitigate the risks of caused by previous generations of science, technology and modernisation. The groundwater-fuelled Punjab agro-ecological crisis presents a case of seemingly endless cycle of reflexive science (and scientifically guided governance). Efforts to protect groundwater thus exacerbated the air-pollution crisis, which we are told is in turn to be mitigated by new technologies such as the Turbo Happy Seeder.
As many have noted, the real solution to Punjab’s groundwater woes, Delhi’s air pollution woes (to the extent that it is due to crop-burning) and India’s imbalanced agricultural economy is to diversify cropping to decisively break the paddy-wheat cycle. A groundwater-enabled revolution in cultivation of rice during the summer in Eastern India — starting with West Bengal (and later, even Bihar) as well as spectacular improvements in paddy cultivated in traditional seasons in southern India, starting with Tamil Nadu — has reduced India’s reliance on Punjab as its rice bowl. While crop diversification is a hard and complex problem, we may take heart in the fact that cropping patterns and food habits have been transformed before through public policy, as seen in the spectacular rise in paddy cultivation in Punjab four decades ago.