Punjab: Parties Tout Farm Reforms, but Do They Have the Will To Implement Promises?

Parties say structural reforms will solve the agrarian crisis in the state. Experts say to implement them, long-term goals need to take precedence over short-term political gains. 

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Chandigarh: Thanks to the year-long farmers’ protest, the political discourse in Punjab on agriculture has shifted away from the tried-and-tested promise to waive farm loans, which have done little to address the agrarian crisis that has afflicted the state for decades.

Ahead of the February 20 polls, all political parties – except the BJP – have promised to bring in structural reforms, besides indicating that loan waivers – which have often been implemented poorly – have failed farmers over the years.

There is now talk of crop diversification, depleting underground resources, damage to the state’s biodiversity due to the overreliance on paddy and wheat. While agriculture economists and experts welcome such a marked shift in the political discourse on agriculture, they are skeptical whether the rhetoric will translate into policymaking once the elections are over. They also point out that implementation is easier said than done and will take years of concerted efforts by successive governments, for which long-term benefits will have to take precedence over short-term political gains.

To begin with, the current two-crop culture (wheat and paddy), which was imposed in Punjab in the 1960s to pull the country out of hunger, has been central to the state’s current farming crisis.

Also read: Here Are the Reforms India’s Farmers Really Need

This has not only affected farmers’ incomes but depleted groundwater resources to the extent that there is a risk of Punjab becoming a desert state in the next 25 years.

Punjab, as per the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB)’s latest report released in July 2019, is the highest extractor of underground water in the country – thanks to the water-guzzling paddy crop.

Former Punjab Farm Commission chairman Ajay Jakhar is of the view that the wheat-paddy cycle has a direct bearing on farmer suicides in Punjab.

The Congress, which formed the government in 2017, promised to completely waive farm loans. It recently released a ‘farm model‘ to help steer the state out of the wheat-paddy cycle, especially by replacing paddy with diversified crops that have assured returns.

The party’s state unit chief Navjot Singh Sidhu in his media release promised procurement of dal, oilseeds and maize at minimum support prices (MSPs) through state cooperatives and corporations.

Sidhu also assured the farming community of a parallel market intervention scheme to promote crop diversification, under which the state would pay the differential between the market selling price and MSP directly to the farmers.

He also promised to create a “conducive atmosphere” to set up food processing industries in the state.

Even Shiromani Akali Dal (SAD) president Sukhbir Singh Badal has made similar promises. If voted to power, his party will introduce MSP for fruits and vegetables and pay the differential to farmers. This, he said will help end the two-crop culture in Punjab.

Even Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) supremo Arvind Kejriwal recently announced that his party was working on a special plan to make agriculture profitable in Punjab and to ensure that no farmer would die by suicide if his party was voted to power.

Although AAP is yet to announce what exactly the  ‘special plan’ is, it is likely that the party will lay emphasis on cash crops. The plan will be released soon, a party source has told The Wire.

As far as the BJP is concerned, it has been silent on its plans to tackle the agrarian crisis as the farmers’ protest still weighs heavily on the saffron party. Farmers accused the Union government of enacting “pro-corporate farm laws”. Though the laws have now been repealed, the BJP is still expected to have a tough time in the elections.

Farmers block a national highway during a protest against farm laws in Shambhu, Punjab, September 25, 2020. Photo: Reuters/Adnan Abidi

Punjab’s agrarian crisis

Agriculture economist Sucha Singh Gill welcomed the new political discourse in Punjab. “But I have serious doubts if these poll promises are achievable by any political party,” he said.

Stating that the Union government spends more than Rs 80,000 crore to procure wheat and paddy annually from Punjab, he explains, “If Punjab has to phase out paddy, which is considered detrimental to state’s biodiversity, and increase the income of the farmers through crop diversification, it needs annual investment of at least Rs 40,000 crore.”

Punjab is staring at a debt of nearly under Rs 3 lakh crore and even struggles to pay employee salaries. Therefore, the state government is unlikely to be able to pool in such a large amount for crop diversification.

Gill also said this is not the first time that crop diversification has come into focus in Punjab. “A diversification plan was prepared in 2002, but the then state government put it in the dust bin after it failed to get financial assistance from the Union government to implement it,” the economist said.

Also read: Why Governments Need to Advise Farmers on Alternative Cropping Patterns

“One must understand that any state government can’t resolve the agriculture crisis on its own. Centre-state cooperation is necessary to turn the tables around, as it was done in the 1960s when Punjab was chosen to feed the rest of the country through a process that today is known as the ‘Green Revolution’,” explains Gill.

According to experts, the economic sustainability of any farm economy depends mainly on crop yield, cost of cultivation and market price of the produce.

In Punjab, the average area under wheat and paddy is 35 lakh hectares and 30 lakh hectares (including Basmati) respectively. Together, they account for 95% of Punjab’s total farm area.

Despite the fact that Punjab is among the few states in the country where 100% wheat and paddy produce is purchased at MSP, there has been a massive indebtedness and spate of farmer suicide cases.

The prime reason, as experts point out, is the stagnancy in farm yield and the massive rise in input cost, and also partly because of the heavy concentration of agriculture mechanisation in Punjab.

On the other hand, income levels have been poor for the last 10 years as MSP data shows successive governments have been reluctant in increasing guaranteed prices.

Above all, there is pressure on phasing out paddy because of its detriment to the state’s biodiversity.

Kesar Singh Bhangoo, professor in the Department of Economics at Patiala’s Punjabi University, told The Wire that providing farmers a livelihood while protecting the state’s biodiversity are two major issues that Punjab has been grappling with for over two decades.

“Despite what political parties claim before the election, this can’t be achieved without adequate public investment,” he adds.

According to him, when India became independent, Punjab had a diversified agricultural landscape. The farmers began growing paddy only after they were promised assured returns.

“Now, if farmers are to be given decent earnings, and at the same time Punjab is to be saved from depleting underground water reserves, we need government-funded policies that increase their incomes and divert the paddy area to other suitable crops,” explains Bhangoo.

Groundwater is pumped from a borewell. Representative image. Photo: Heather Cowper/Flickr CC BY 2.0

“This crisis will not go away overnight. It was built over the last 20 years and it will take as much time to come out of it,” he said.

This is only “one part of the solution”, he added. “Another problem with agriculture – not only in Punjab but elsewhere too – is that too many people depend on it. We need to have affordable and quality education in rural Punjab so that the next generation of farmers can get well-paying jobs in other sectors.”

Also read: It’s Time To Make Punjab Agriculture Great Again. But How To Do So?

“If one compares the National Sample Survey Data between the 70th round and the 77th round (focused on rural households), more than 5% peasants left farming. But they were not able to get good jobs and became casual labourers, further putting pressure on the rural economy,” he points out.

Former Punjab Farm Commission chairman Ajay Jakhar is of the view that politicians and even leaders of farmers’ unions often root for populist, short-term economic benefits for farmers. In this process, the livelihood of future generations is affected, he said.

“Such challenges make the task of diversification too daunting to even contemplate,” he adds.

Jakhar said Punjab was responsible for India’s food security in the first 50 years of independence. The time is now ripe for the Union government to fund crop diversification in Punjab to secure the next 50 years of India’s nutritional security.

“For this to work, the Union government should allocate Rs 5,000 crore annually for six years. This should be over and above the current procurement payouts to Punjab farmers,” he said.

However, he was skeptical of the ability of the establishment in Punjab to use the money for the intended purposes. The Union government also cannot be trusted to address the issue of diversification in perpetuity.

Jakhar instead proposes a NITI Aayog-headed “Transition Commission” to be constituted, giving it the responsibility to assess the states’ plans on agriculture and allocating resources conditionally.

If you know someone – friend or family member – at risk of suicide, please reach out to them. The Suicide Prevention India Foundation maintains a list of telephone numbers (www.spif.in/seek-help/) they can call to speak in confidence. You could also refer them to the nearest hospital.