Rapidly-depleting groundwater in nearly a third of the blocks that were assessed in a study by the Central Ground Water Board (CWGB) has caused, The Times of India reports, the Centre to put the Rs 6,000-crore Atal Bhujal Yojana on fast-track. The scheme, part-funded by the World Bank, aims at pushing recharge of groundwater sources and efficient use at the local level. The CWGB assessment shows that groundwater in 1,034 of 6,584 blocks was over-exploited—that is, more water was being drawn out annually than was being recharged—and a further 934 suffered from different stages of groundwater depletion. The states that were the worst affected were Punjab, Haryana, Rajasthan and Delhi—though Tamil Nadu had the most number of over-exploited blocks, Punjab was the worst in percentage terms with over 75% of its assessed blocks falling in the over-exploited category. Against such a backdrop, the state government looking at steps to wean Punjab farmers off the cultivation of water-intensive paddy is welcome news.
Successive Punjab governments initially nudged the state’s farmers into increasing paddy acreage by providing nearly-free electricity for pumping out groundwater and backing intensive MSP-driven procurement of paddy harvest. For a couple of decades now, the state has been trying to wean the farmers away from the crop, but acreage has only gone up—from 11.83 lakh hectares (lh) in 1980-81 to 30.46 lh in 2016-17. Thanks to populist power supply and tariffs, electric tube-well pump-sets in the state rose from 28,000 to 13.5 lakh in the period. Now, the state government has launched a pilot in three villages under which digital meters will be installed on tubewells belonging to nearly 1,000 farmers in the three villages. Instead of compensating the state discom for free power supply, the state will deposit `48,000 in the accounts of the farmers who will then be billed by the discom on the basis of actual consumption. The state has entered into an agreement with the J-PAL, which, along with experts from the World Bank, Punjab Agricultural University and various state departments, will estimate the actual power use by farmers and how it might change following the direct benefits transfer (DBT). If the actual costs for farmers surpass the DBT amount, it is possible that they might rethink their paddy preference.