Do we need to produce so much rice

Written by Sandip Das | Updated: Feb 19 2014, 08:15am hrs
Renowned agricultural scientist and vice-chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University, Baldev Singh Dhillon wants farmers in other parts of the country to learn from Punjab and Haryana experience and judiciously use groundwater and fertiliser, to avoid problems faced by these two states today. Dhillon spoke to Sandip Das on the challenges faced by Punjab farmers and stressed on the need for a region-based policy for developing Indian agriculture.

Punjab has initiated a crop diversification programme to tackle with the problem of depleting water tables. How is it going

Diversification is the need of the hour for both Punjab and Haryana. The agriculture in these two states is demand-driven and there is more demand for rice and wheat. The central government has increased the Minimum

Support Price (MSP) relatively fast in the recent years compared to what was happening earlier. There is a market for rice and wheat in Punjab and Haryanaso it is difficult for other crops to compete. Another advantage of growing rice here is if there is drought, farmers utilise irrigation facilities and if there is adequate rainfall, there is no need of irrigation. But in case of alternate crops such as cotton and maize, if there is heavy rain, the crop gets adversely impacted. Punjab has received R250 crore for crop diversification in the current year. It will take some more time before diversification becomes a reality.

Other states, including Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Chhattisgarh, are now producing substantial quantity of rice thus contributing to central pool. So, Punjab can diversify a chunk of area under paddy to other crop.

There are many layers to this crisis. Unless we can provide an alternate crop which provides a profit similar to that from paddy, it would be very difficult for Punjab farmers to adopt any other crop. We have identified maize and cotton as alternate crops. We are moving in that direction. It needs to be kept in mind, however, that the production of key foodgrains like rice and wheat may fluctuate at the national level, but the contribution of

Punjab and Haryana have been stable. It is only in the last few years, that the central government has been asking Punjab and Haryana farmers to diversify. Otherwise, the central government was never keen on diversification.

The ground water table in Punjab has reached critical stage in many regions. What should the government do in such a situation

Punjab agriculture has to diversify and there is no other option. We need to find ways and means to ensure that the alternate crops such as maize and cotton become profitable for the farmers. Possibility of growing soyabean is there, but I am not hopeful about the viability. Vegetables are option but there are issues concerning marketability of these crops.

With the rapidly declining water table, what are the measures for promotion of conservation agriculture

For promotion of conservation agriculture, the Punjab government has prohibited planting of paddy before June. We have developed a laser-leveller machine for optimum use of crop residue, happy seeder for sowing wheat when rice sables are still there. We are emphasising on the judicious use of fertilisers, harmful effects of paddy straw burning, the use of laser-leveller and happy seeder machines. The happy seeder cuts, lifts and throws the standing sable and loose straw while retaining residue prior to sowing of wheat just after rice is harvested. This is to mainly deal with burning of straw in the field which is leading to greater environmental hazards. We are trying to promote the use of bio-fertilisers. Unfortunately, farmers in Punjab and Haryana put more focus on income than on profit. Awakening is important. Farmers are not taking into account the rising input cost of urea and DAP. This year, we conducted an intensive programme on bee-keeping. More than 10,000 farmers have adopted bee-keeping.

You have seen the Green Revolution up close. How do you see Indian agricultures progress and the challenges it is likely to face in the coming decades

India is diverse agriculturally and the decision to grow certain crops should be taken at the regional level rather than being imposed from the Centre. There should be region-based approach towards agriculture. The experience of Punjab and Haryana should guide other regions. The others can learn from these two states which played key roles in augmenting the countrys foodgrain production in the Green Revolution and after. Ironically, the other states are repeating the two states mistakes and could face the same problems as the latter.

There has been rapid exploitation of groundwater and excessive use of fertilisers in the two states, something that we havent learnt from yet. I had submitted a report to the central government a few years ago, requesting them to use the two states agriculture as national laboratories for developing sustainable strategies and technologies for other regions. We must ask ourselves whether we need to produce so much rice given it is a water-intensive crop.

Are you satisfied with the state of agricultural research in the country What are the challenges faced by the agriculture sector due to climate change

In the case of wheat and rice, we have a lot of support from the national and international agencies. For rice, we have the Central Rice Research Institute (Cuttack), the Directorate of Rice Research

(Hyderabad) and the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute to support us. However, such support, in terms of financing and manpower, is lacking for the other crops. We also need to strengthen research for developing agriculture in other parts of the country. We do not have sufficient resources. I am not worried about climate change, I am worried about climate variability. For example, in August 2011, we got two-thirds of the average annual rainfall in just few hours and saw snowfall in many districts in

Punjab. We need to look again at agricultural practices, irrigation practices and application of nutrients. Due to heat-stress on wheat, we are experimenting with rice and summer moong varieties. We will be in a better position to deal with impact of climate variability when we have a multiple crops system. We need more resources for research on alternate cropping systems. Agriculture is a state subject and resources are not properly managed.

How is Punjab university contributing to the agricultural research keeping these challenges in mind

The focus is on increasing production and environmental conservation. We have been developing varieties at periodic intervals, the latest being the Punjab Basmati 3 which was released in the kharif season of 2013. This is a variant of traditional Basmatian improved version of traditional Basmati

386 and it is resistant to bacterial blight. This variety has a huge potential for exports, especially to the European markets. It was developed using the DNA-marker technology to isolate genes resistant to the disease. Thus, this variety is not transgenic. Besides, the wheat varieties 343 and summer moong 668 have been sown in large areas.

For the first time a Basmati rice variety has been developed using biotechnology. What has been result of this new variety yield-wise

Yield-wise, the new traditional Basmati variant has given around 60% more yield, at 15-16 quintal per hectare against 10-11 quintal per hectare from the earlier variety. The farmers should get higher prices for it. On the other hand, we do not expect the area under the traditional Basmati to grow though a sizeable area (30% of area under traditional variety) could be covered by this variety given there would be a huge demand from Western countries.