Punjab's Shrinking Agricultural Output Is an Opportunity for the State to Branch Out

By switching over to high valued crops, the beleaguered state can hope to reduce its farm debts and the over-exploitation of its groundwater resources.

Chandigarh: In the midst of the COVID-19 outbreak, the wheat procured from Madhya Pradesh last month sent shockwaves through the state of Punjab.

For the first time, Punjab was no longer the largest wheat contributor to the central pool as MP delivered the highest quantity for a single season by any state (Table 1).

Agriculture economist S.S. Gill believes that a major implication of this development would be that Punjab will no longer be able to boast of its long revered status as the food bowl of India. However, Gill was also quick to raise a pertinent issue that the state had been struggling with for the past several years.

“Punjab should not worry about producing food crops now as there are several other states taking care of the country’s food security needs. It should rather switch over to high valued crops and make it viable for the farmers and ecology,” he said.

Numerous agriculture studies, pertinently Johal committee reports of 1986 and 2002 recommended that Punjab switch over to pulses, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables in place of the traditional wheat-paddy cycle that is no longer remunerative for farmers and has also dried up the state’s groundwater resources.

Table 1: Punjab and MP share in the central pool (In lakh metric tonnes)

Crop Year Punjab Madhya Pradesh
2011-12 128.32 84.93
2012-13 108.97  63.55
2013-14 116.41 70.94
2014-15 103.44 73.09
2015-16 106.49 39.92 
2016-17 117.06 67.25
2017-18 126.92 73.13
2018-19 129.12 67.25
2019-20 127.12 129.28

(Figures as on June 16)

Punjab State Farmers’ policy drafted in 2018 too stated that Punjab, which opted for paddy and wheat cultivation compelled by the Centre’s policies, has now reached a stage where substantial increases in production have become uneconomical and unsustainable for these crops. On the contrary, states like Madhya Pradesh that are three to four times bigger than Punjab, have increased their area and productivity, setting new trends in the national agriculture scene.

A chance for beleaguered Punjab to shed the national burden

Although still a major rice contributor in the central pool, many see this as an opportunity for Punjab to de-stress itself from the national food security burden and move towards an alternative cropping pattern, given that host of complex issues – from farm distress to ecological crisis – have gripped its farm economy.

A farmer in Punjab. Photo: CIAT/Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0)

According to a 2017 study sponsored by the Delhi-based Indian Council of Social Science Research, 85.9% of the farming households in the state of Punjab are under debt, proving beyond doubt that traditional crops are not earning households enough money. Several surveys have also pointed out that 16,000 farmers, rural labourers died by suicide in Punjab between 2000 and 2015.

Also read: Punjab: Labour Shortage in Lockdown Reveals Fissures in Farm Economy Ahead of Paddy Sowing Season

The ecological repercussion of the traditional crop cycle is even greater. Thanks to the water-guzzling paddy crops that consume 5377 litres to grow a kilogram compared to wheat’s 1500 litres, the state continues to over-exploit its groundwater resources through 14 lakh tube wells that are taking care of two-thirds of the state’s cultivated area.

According to the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB)’s latest report released in July 2019, the annual groundwater withdrawal in Punjab has reached 165% of its annual extractable groundwater resources, which is the highest in the country.

Punjab’s agriculture department hydrologist Rajesh Vashisht told The Wire that the state was overdrawing as much as 14 billion cubic meters (one cubic meter is equal to 1000 litres) of groundwater every year to sustain its farming (Table 2).

Vashisht said if the state continues to draw water at this speed, the implications will be enormous. Several thousand tubewells will become unviable which will lead to higher fiscal burdens on farmers, a higher cost of production and substantial increase in the state’s power subsidy bill that currently stands at Rs 6300 crore.

“It may also decrease irrigated area as well since in certain parts of the state, water from lower aquifers is not fit for human consumption or irrigation due to concentration of heavy metals,” he said. The depletion, therefore, must be stopped at any cost, he added.

Table 2: Top districts in Punjab with high withdrawal of groundwater (Figures in billion cubic meters (bcm)

District Annual extractable groundwater recharge Annual groundwater withdrawal
Sangrur 1.44 3.74 (260%)
Jalandhar 1.17 2.80 (239%)
Moga 1.07 2.47 (230%) 
Kapurthala 0.70 1.56 (223%)
Patiala 1.37 2.97 (217%)
Barnala 0.58 1.22 (210%)
Fatehgarh Sahib 0.55  1.15 (209%)
Ludhiana 1.94 3.54 (182%)
Overall 21.58  35.78 (165%)

(Out of total withdrawal of 35.78 bcm, 34.56 bcm is used for irrigation and remaining for Industrial (0.20 bcm) and domestic (1.01 bcm). One cubic meter has 1000 litres) 
Source: Central Ground Water Board 2019 report

But this is easier said than done. The state lacks a successful procurement model for crops other than wheat and paddy.

Take, for instance, the Maize crop. Those who had sown maize in the months of February and March in Punjab had to sell their produce at a price between Rs 800 and 900 per quintal, which was far below the Minimum Support Price of Rs 1,850 per quintal.

Patiala’s district agriculture officer Surjeet Singh Walia told The Wire that in their Rajpura Mandi, maize was sold at a price as low as Rs 600 per quintal last week.

The Sunflower crop top also met with the same fate as farmers in Patiala and nearby districts got Rs 3,500-4,000 per quintal for their crop, which was quite less than Rs 5,885 promised MSP.

Several farmers’ unions, as well as political parties, asked the Congress-ruled state government to deploy procurement agencies to purchase maize or sunflower at MSP. But that didn’t happen since Punjab’s procurement agencies never procured crops at an assured MSP other than those funded under the centre’s public distribution system (PDS).

The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Ekta Dakaunda) general secretary Jagmohan Singh said that farmers are often advised to diversify and opt for alternate crops but there isn’t a blueprint by the state or central government that assures them of returns for crops other than wheat and paddy. “Farmers are already trapped in sowing potatoes or other crops for which they never get good returns of their produce,” he said.

Guaranteed MSP needed for their alternate crops

As the Kharif sowing season just concluded in Punjab, the state has been busy thumping its chest.

Dr Sutantar Kumar Airi, Director, Agriculture said that the area under the direct paddy sowing method that consumes 20% less groundwater than manual paddy transplantation increased from 50,000 hectares last year to 4.5 lakh hectares.

The area under cotton has crossed 5 lakh hectares from 3.92 lakh hectares in 2019. The area under maize that was 1.6 lakh hectares last year will also see an increase by 80,000-1,00,000 hectare. Kumar said that at least two lakh hectares of the state’s cultivated area has been shifted from paddy this season.

Also read: Will India’s Contract Farming Ordinance Be a Corporate Lifeline for Agriculture?

“Several farmers grew maize for the first time. All this has been done under our roadmap to move away from the wheat-paddy cycle and promote other crops so that pressure on the state’s groundwater resources can be reduced,” he said.

However, agriculture scientist Sardara Singh Johal said that farmers will not permanently move away from the wheat-paddy cycle until they are guaranteed an MSP for their alternate crop produce.

Johal said that the MSP had no value until the produce was procured. Through MSP, the government gives assurance to the producers before the sowing season that they will procure their produce at least at the specified price. But when the government abdicated its responsibility, it was betrayed the farmers as in the case of the maize crop, he said.

Economist R.S. Ghuman said that the wheat-paddy cycle had become successful in Punjab because of the availability of high yield varieties. Additionally, there was a subsidised supply of irrigation and fertilizers as well as an assured MSP purchase from central and state agencies. “Unless this combination is there for alternate crops, no diversification can take place in Punjab,” he said.

A farmer weeding a maize field in Bihar. Credit: CIMMYT/Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

A farmer weeding a maize field in Bihar. Photo: CIMMYT/Flickr CC BY-NC-SA 2.0

Professor of economics at Punjabi University in Patiala, Kesar Singh Bhangoo made an important point when he said that there is no need to diversify wheat crops since it is Punjab’s natural crop like the apple crop of Jammu and Kashmir. It consumes much less water than paddy and has no ecological side effect. The need, however, is to diversify paddy which is a crop artificial to the state, he said.

“It is sown in the season when pulses or other high valued crops are also available and it can be easily diversified. But the problem is that farmers must be given assured returns. They should not be left in the lurch if they agree to grow for alternate crops,” he said.

The data (Table 3) obtained from the state agriculture department revealed that the area under wheat was 14 lakh hectares when paddy came to Punjab in 1960-61. In 1970-71, the wheat was already cultivated over 22 lakh hectares against 3.90 lakh hectares in case of paddy.

From there, the area under paddy has only grown exponentially while wheat that had already spread in Punjab, reached a saturation point by 90s.

Table 3: How wheat and paddy grew in Punjab since the beginning of the green revolution (figures in lakh hectare)

Year Paddy Area Wheat Area
1960-61 2.27 14
1970-71 3.90 22.99
1980-81 11.83 28.12
1990-91 20.15 32.73
2000-01 26.12 34.08
2010-11 28.30 35.10
2015-16 29.70 35.06
2019-20 29.20 35.08
2020-21 27-28 (Est) Yet to be sown

Source: Punjab Agriculture Department and Punjab State Farmers’ policy, 2018

‘Vote bank policies to blame’

Johal said vote bank policies were to blame when asked why Punjab had failed to break the wheat-paddy cycle. He said popular measures like free electricity subsidy had diverted the focus away from long term agriculture policies.

Johal also said its implication is that Punjab has been ripped off its groundwater resources and that the state’s groundwater resources could only be saved if the cultivation of paddy was stopped. “The question is not that we don’t have alternate crops to the level of paddy. The real issue is groundwater scarcity. People ask me what they should grow. My answer is to grow what you will grow once water is finished,” he said.

But according to Ajay Vir Jakhar, the chairman of the Delhi based Bharat Krishak Samaj, diversification in crops cannot take place in any state in isolation – it has to be a pan India improvement. The diversification of crops in Punjab also rests on the economic prosperity of the nation and levers of the Union finance ministry, he said.

If the economy improves, the nutrition per capita intake would increase. This, he said, would generate demand for more protein, poultry, meat, fruit & vegetables and farmers would respond and diversify accordingly. “It may be noted that today India’s nutrition intake is among the lowest in the world,” he said.

Also read: Why Short-Term Measures Won’t Address Punjab’s Agricultural Distress

Economist S.S. Gill, on the other hand, is of the view that if the Centre’s policies are not favourable to diversification, state-specific solutions can be worked out.

Citing an example of Himachal Pradesh, Gill said that state agencies fix the minimum purchase for apples and then sell it in the market in the form of various by-products.

“Similar solutions can be explored in Punjab. If the state buys crops other than wheat or paddy at MSP, deploys its own state bodies or aligns with private agencies to make products, change is possible,” he said.

Gill said that it would also need a lot of investment in creating overall supply chains. “The state claims that they are financially bankrupt but my point is that money can be arranged if one has the will power to change the system that is missing,” he added.

Punjab State Farmers’ policy draft too pointed out that it is not difficult for Punjab to make a shift to more profitable, modern, ecologically and nutritionally sound, market-driven and diversified agriculture, given that it has fertile soil, almost 99% of its cultivated area under irrigation, and adequate basic agricultural infrastructure.

It also touched other important issues like rationalising ballooning power subsidy to reduce unsustainable use of groundwater.

A farmer walks through a paddy field at Tannaurah village in the northern Indian state of Punjab August 1, 2014. Photo: Reuters/Ajay Verma

The report raised the concern over the quality use of farm credit when it stated that there are around 26 lakh farmers in the state whereas all banks together have issued more than 40 lakh Kisan Credit Cards.

Over a period of 11 years (2004-05 to 2015-16), the credit of take has increased by around 8 times whereas production increased only 1.11 times. However, policy recommendations remain non-implemented as it is perceived to be politically contentious.

Centre’s latest ordinances provide no solutions either

Centre on June 5 promulgated three ordinances namely Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Ordinance, 2020. It says they will pave the way for a ‘One Nation, One agriculture Market’ by creating barrier-free intra-state and inter-state trade. The buyer can purchase goods directly from the farmer, without going to the state level Agricultural Market Produce Committees (APMCs) and mandis (wholesale markets).

But in Punjab, all stakeholders be it farmer bodies, political parties and agriculture scientists have rejected it as an anti-farmer move.

Also read: COVID-19 Crisis: To Help Farmers, Government Must Expand Ambit of PM Kisan Scheme

The Bhartiya Kisan Union (Rajewal) has already threatened to protest against the controversial farm ordinances. President Balbir Singh Rajewal told The Wire that all farmers in Punjab will park their tractors on the road between 10 am and 1 pm on July 20 in protest against this move.

He said the ordinances had been issued to dismantle the mandi system in Punjab, and hand over agriculture to the corporate sector. In the absence of government purchase, the farmers would be exploited and forced to sell their produce at much lesser prices. A similar development had occurred in Bihar where, after APMC regime was removed in 2006, private players overpowered the mandis.

Professor Kesar Singh Bhangoo said that these ordinances will not facilitate crop diversification in any manner, rather they would increase intermediaries between big corporate houses and farmers. The average size of land-holding in Punjab is meagre, he said. “Do you think farmers have enough resources to stock their produce and go to far off places like Mumbai to sell their produce to get a good price?” he asked

“One must bear in mind that agriculture can’t survive without state support,” he added.

Vivek Gupta is a Chandigarh-based reporter who has worked for several news outlets including The Hindustan Times, The Indian Express and The Tribune.