Paddy area of 28 lakh hectare cant be sustained

Written by Sandip Das | Updated: Dec 25 2012, 06:53am hrs
With the depletion of ground water in Punjab reaching an alarming level because of excessive usage in agriculture, Gurcharan Singh Kalkat, chairperson, Punjab State Farmers Commission, has his task cut out. Kalkat, also a former director, agriculture, Punjab, and ex-vice-chancellor of the Punjab Agricultural University, has been entrusted with the task of providing alternative cropping pattern to paddy growing farmers. He spoke to FEs Sandip Das on key challenges faced by the agriculture sector.

How alarming is the ground water depletion situation in Punjab and what has been its impact on the agriculture sector

On an average, Punjab grows about 11 tonnes of foodgrain from one hectare per year. Our crop intensity is roughly around 200%, which means that from an area of 4 million hectares, we produce crop equivalent to crop generally produced from an area of 8 million hectares. Of this area, around 77% is under wheat and rice cultivation. These crops are very secure and there is no serious threat from pests and diseases. But the cultivation of wheat and rice means that we are pumping out too much groundwater. Our irrigation is close to 100% and 75% of irrigation is from tubewells. The result is that groundwater pumping is much more than annual recharge from rivers, canals and rainfall.

In 1973, the water table was at around 10 metres in 80% of the agricultural area. By 2009, this reduced to 40%. Annually, the water table has been declining by as many as 3-4 meters. If this is allowed to continue, there will severe shortage of water and tube-wells across Punjab would dry up. Not only would we not be able to grow paddy but cultivating wheat would also become difficult. That would upset the economy of the state. It can have a serious upheaval in the countryside.

Why could the Punjab State Farmers Commission not work on alternative crops earlier

The most important reason for crop diversification is sustainability. We have been working on alternative crop since the last 16 years. In 2008, the government passed a law that farmers cannot grow paddy before June 15 so that they do not pump out too much water. Previously, a huge amount of water was used for growing paddy as early as in May. Due to dry weather, lots of water was lost to evaporation and the government had to intervene. Farmers also started realising that they are losing water thus they went according to the law. Then the problem was that the area under paddy is so high that we will have to diversify part of the area. We had only three lakh hectare under paddy in the early 1960s and the area today under paddy is 28 lakh hectares. Paddy earlier used to be grown close to the river bed. At that time, the crop intensity was around 135%, so a lot of land remained fallow. The important crop till the 1970s was maize, grown under in an area of 15 lakh hectares. Besides, some areas were under groundnut and spices cultivation. As the prices were supportive and the high yield varieties were introduced during the Green Revolution, farmers took fascination towards paddy. The government assisted farmers through loans for putting up tubewells. Irrigation areas went up significantly. We had around 10,000-11,000 tubewells in the 1960s. Today, we have more than 13 lakh tubewells. The entire investment was made by the farmers.

Besides, the central government has announced the Minimum Support Price (MSP) for paddy and has ensured that the paddy crop is purchased from farmers by government agencies. Farmers did not feel the need for taking up alternative crops. When the water table started to go down, farmers investment went up as they had to put deep tubewells for extracting underground water.

When did the government notice ground water depletion

At present, 50% of the tubewells have been converted into deep tubewells. The ground water level in Punjab varies from 100 feet to 250 feet (33-83 metres). There are some areas where the water table has even depleted to 400 feet. I am convinced that a stage will come when economically-pumped water will vanish as the water would have gone too deep.

The central government, until about two years ago, was concerned about the food security of the country. They also encouraged production of paddy. At the national level, the high paddy production in Punjab helped ensure food security. We are facing a crisis because of that. Last year, we supplied 13 million tonnes of paddy to the central pool.

As other states increased paddy production, does the Centre still need Punjab to produce so much food

Until last year, there was no problem. This year, we got a warning from the government of India that we will find it difficult to procure. They can meet the demand for PDS from the rest of the country. Earlier our problem was sustainability, now our problem is off-take. Therefore this problem has become quite serious now. Things are not rosy at all. Actually, it is a warning for the state. Because we have pumped out too much water and we are not sure that we can sell the paddy next year. If we cant sell paddy, we cant grow paddy and the area goes down. The key issue is the options in front of the farmers.

What are alternative crop options for the Punjab farmers

The option is maize and pulses in the kharif season. Prior to 1970s, we used to grow 18 quintals of maize per hectare. Today, we have high breed maize that can even give 60 quintals per hectare. Why shouldnt the farmers take it up The simple answer is that although government fixes the MSP, it has never been fulfilled. The quality of soil will improve if we grow maize. Maize requires one sixth of water in comparison to paddy. The yield is high. Farmers are concerned with its marketing. Because it is not being procured, so the farmers do not accept it at present. Thats why we have been urging the central government to make a proper arrangement for marketing of maize. We believe that a lot of maize will be needed for poultry feed, cattle feed and starch. If we diversify large area to maize, we shall have surplus production. Currently, we do not sow any crop that gives better price compared to rice. We are working very hard on soyabean also. Once we get a good soyabean variety, we will be pushing it very quickly, because marketing of soyabean is not a problem as the country imports a large chunk of edible oil import. Even last year, we imported R30,000 crore worth of edible oil. We will fall short of edible oil for a very long time to come. But the soyabean variety currently available only gives five quintals per acre of yield. This cant be compared with the income from paddy. We are looking for a variety that will provide eight quintals of yield. With higher price realisation, farmers will accept it. We are working hard on the introduction and development of high yielding soyabean variety. It might take 3-4 years. Once it comes up, area under paddy will be reduced. Then we will also maintain the water balance.

What measures have you already taken as far as alternative crops are concerned

The paddy area of 28 lakh hectares cant be sustained. We have to replace at least 12 lakh hectares to other crops. If we get an assurance from the government on the procurement of maize and better soyabean variety, we can reduce the area under paddy by next 5-6 years. We have worked out that Punjab can take up to 16 lakh hectares of paddy with the normal annual water recharge of groundwater. It will maintain the balance. We have no choice left. In the next kharif cropping season (June-July), we are introducing hybrid maize on an experimental basis in an area over 200 hectares just to demonstrate the same to the farmers. This will be spread across 10-11 districts. But we need marketing support. Farmers cannot produce anything they cant sell. Wheat, maize and soyabean is a perfect combination. The soyabean variety available in Madhya Pradesh (the countrys biggest producer) is not suitable for us. We like to grow soyabean over 2-3 years. We have some varieties that give 7-8 quintals. The yield in Madhya Pradesh is 1.1 tonnes per hectare, but we need about two tonnes per hectare. In addition, even the demand for fertiliser will be reduced.

You have advocated raising the limit for ethanol mixing ...

We have written to the central government to raise the limit for mixing ethanol with petrol from 5% to 15%. Then, possibly, some industry could produce ethanol from maize as is done in the US.