Agriculture in Punjab today

What future policies for tomorrow! After Green Revolution!

As the food basket of the country what agriculture scenario is like in Punjab today and in the future needs greater understanding and solutions to be worked out at the all India level.

Ever since the advent of the green revolution in the mid-sixties, agriculture in Punjab has experienced a significant structural change, with traditional agriculture progressively giving way to modern and commercial agriculture. Since the 1960s, the main focus has been on increasing agricultural production, especially of foodgrains. As a result, the production of wheat and rice has increased manifold.

Apart from high yielding varieties of wheat and rice, what facilitated the process was the consolidation of land holdings, expansion of irrigation facilities, higher use of chemicals fertilizers and pesticides, farm mechaniczation, power and road infrastructure, and easy access to inputs and market support mechanisms for output.

To meet the ever-growing demand of the country, foodgrain production has been increased by enhancing productivity through intensive use of water and inputs like fertilizers, insecticides and pesticides. The adoption of this strategy has raised many development related problems on economic, social and environmental fronts.

Punjab has about a 14,500 km long canal network and close to 100,000 km of watercourses, providing irrigation to 1.15 million hectare, which is 28.19% of total cultivable area of the state (2006-07). However, the network of canals, which is more than 150 years old, is unable to take its full discharge since it requires major repairs and rejuvenation. As a result of the reduced carrying capacity of the system and decreased availability of surface water, the net area irrigated by canals has gone down from 55% in 1960-61 to 28% in 2006-07.

Consequently, ground water has become a major source of irrigation in the state. To relieve stress on  ground water, a greater emphasis is needed on building an efficient conveyance and distribution system for optimal utilization of available surface water. Simultaneously, Punjab needs a greater share in its river waters to reduce stress on ground water resources and power consumption.
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In the absence of any systematic policy to regulate the demand for water, the unconstrained mining of this resource has resulted in its over-exploitation. A look at the temporal dimension of categorization of blocks shows that in year 1984, 44.92% blocks were the ‘over-exploited’ and about 49% blocks were classified as semi-critical or safe. But by the year 1992, 52% of the blocks fell into the category of ‘over-exploitation’ and the share of semi-critical and safe blocks went down to 40%.

Currently, as per the 2004 statistics, the number of ‘over-exploited’ blocks has risen to 75.18% and the number of ‘semi-critical’ and ‘safe’ blocks has shrunk to 21%. A combination of over exploitation of groundwater and reduced share of canal water is drastically depleting the central resource of the Punjab economy.

On the whole, the area dependant on  groundwater of unfit quality is around 7957 square kms, which accounts for nearly 16 percent of Punjab state. In addition, the state has moved from growing a previously health mix of crops such as wheat, maize, pulses and  vegetables to now devoting nearly 80% of its crop area to rice and wheat, two of the most water-intensive crops.

Overall, the central and state level agriculture policy – consisting of minimum support prices, effective procurement of selected crops, input subsidies benefitting farmers in electricity, fertilizer, and irrigation and the increased availability of credit facilities over the years – has been instrumental in pushing farmers to focus on wheat and rice, at enormous detriment to water resource sustainability in the country.

Since the scope to address the supply side of water is limited, the major focus has to be on managing the  demand side of water. Rice so far has been the most remunerative crop, relative to other kharif crops. It is also the most water intensive crop, using about 24,000 cubic metres of water per hectare, which is about six times more than maize, nearly 20 times more than groundnut and about 10 times more than pulses.

A major reason for the deteriorating water table is the state government’s long-standing policy of giving free power to farmers. As power in Punjab is heavily subsidized, its 1.1 million agricultural consumers feel free to run their powerful submersible motors to draw groundwater. The supply of free power to farmers is directly linked with underground water, since it encourages over-exploitation of this  scarce natural resource. During the  years when electric supply was free in Punjab, the water table in some districts went down considerably.

Unfortunately, farmers are still going deeper in search of water by installing deep submersible pumps using heavy-duty motors consuming more power.  Political considerations should not overlook the ground realities. A few years more of this honeymoon with   free/subsidized power kill render many more areas in Punjab and elsewhere barren. People then may not get water even for drinking, leave aside for irrigation.

Dams
Despite the infrastructure of dams and large head works on all major rivers and low dams on excessive discharging rivulets of the state, occasional  excessive flood water, which cannot be impounded upstream of the dams, has to be passed downstream keeping in view the regulation norms based on the safety of dams. Sometimes, water has to be released in the  interest of power generation, even when there are no irrigation requirements. The accompanying table is indicative of the damage caused by such floods in the immediate past.

Floods
The problem of floods, from a planning perspective, calls for a mix of short-term, medium term and long term measures that must be specific to the region. To counter floods, a number of river taming need to be annually constructed on the river. The rivers, Ravi and Sutlej near the international border, need to be paid special attention to counter the floods menace resulting from protective works constructed by the neighbouring country and the shifting course of the rivers. There is a need to adopt a co-ordinated management approach to minimize the floods in the state, by formulating suitable drainage policy for annual maintenance of drains and ensuring optimum utilization of hydropower and irrigation potential.

Another important aspect is water quality, which is impacted by  untreated or inadequately treated industrial effluents and sewage flowing into nallahs and rivers. The problem is further compounded by the  mixing of storm water and sewage in various municipal towns, as these carry solid waste, biomedical waste and other hazardous waste from city roads into the water bodies. The pollution and contamination of water resources due to industrial waste, sewage and excessive use of chemical/pesticides in agriculture has led to high pH, BoD, DO, faecal coliform and concentrations of arsenic  etc. At  some places, the water has become toxic due to high concentration of heavy metals, adversely affecting the health of the populace and causing diseases like cancer.

Toxic water may even enter the food chain, affecting genotoxicity and possibly even the  DNA, causing irreparable loss to both  human beings and wildlife. The chemical quality of groundwater is also deteriorating due to natural release of selenium and fluorides. As such, special attention needs to be given to these aspects to provide safe water.

Despite the recently formulated Punjab State Water Policy (2008), a lot remains to bedone. Although scarcity of water has been a serious problem for atleast the last two decades, the investment in research and development in water use efficiency has not yet picked up. Thus R&D programmes on water use efficiency need to be given the highest priority. There is also an urgent need to develop a long term policy for groundwater use and recharge to help maintain an optimum balance. The current negative balance between annual available water supply and actual use needs to be  corrected through multipronged strategies like making maximum use of surface water, increasing recharge addressing the urban sector, and reducing demand for water.

The state government passed the Preservation of Subsoil Water Ordinance in 2008 to institutionalize delayed sowing of paddy. If Punjab is to continue as the foodgrain capital of India, modern agricultural practices will have to take into account the reality of the water situation and create a feasible long term plan for a sustainable future.

Effect of Floods During Rainy season in Punjab in India

Year    Villages/     Area    Population    Human     Cattle         towns    affected            affected     lives    heads
effected      (in sq.km.)    (No.)      lost        lost         (No.)                    (No.)    (No.)

1980    1191    489    85724    44    117
1990    755    471    90465    13    275
2000    81    127    319    5    88
2003    43    47    25    3    0
2004    480    610    60157    15    511
2005    93    31    125    11    48
2006    442    211    405933    10    23
2007    1033    1035    405911    7    3
2008    2001    5004    389116    34    104

Source : Seminar

Source : Agriculture & Industry Survey  [/hidepost]