Punjab’s virtual water export : The Tribune India

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Punjab’s virtual water export

THE pre-Green Revolution diversified agriculture of Punjab has turned into a wheat-paddy cycle.

Punjab’s virtual water export

Water-guzzling: Paddy is mainly responsible for the depleting water table.

Ranjit Singh Ghuman

Professor of Economics, CRRID

THE pre-Green Revolution diversified agriculture of Punjab has turned into a wheat-paddy cycle. The so-called high yielding variety (HYV) seeds of wheat and paddy are giving high yield because of their high degree of responsiveness to water and chemical fertilisers. The area under paddy in Punjab increased from 2.27 lakh hectares in 1960-61 to 11.83 lakh hectares in 1980-81 and further to 29.70 lakh hectares in 2015-16. The emergence of paddy as a major crop led to heavy dependence on subsoil water and a manifold increase in the number of tubewells. The flooding method of irrigation and overuse of water therein (both in terms of quantity and number of irrigations) has further aggravated the problem.

The net sown area under tubewell irrigation increased from 22.33 lakh hectares (58.52 per cent) to 29.81 lakh hectares (71.99 per cent) while the area under canal irrigation decreased from 16.60 lakh hectares (43.50 per cent) to 11.60 lakh hectares (28.01 per cent) during 1990-2014. The irrigation intensity increased from 54 per cent in 1960-61 to 99.9 per cent in 2016. The cropping intensity increased from 126 to 190 during the same period. This, in turn, has increased the net deficit of water resources in Punjab from 2.34 lakh hectare metres (ham) in 1989 to 1,163 hams in 2013.

The number of tubewells in Punjab increased from 6 lakh in 1980-81 to 14.19 lakh in 2015-16. With the fast depleting water table, the number of submersible motors also increased from 6,19,197 (56.68 per cent) in 2009 to 9,78,874 (72.42 per cent) in 2017. This has increased the cost of tubewell installation and the consumption of electricity. The consumption of electricity in agriculture increased from 6.97 million kilowatt in 1974-75 to 11,513.37 million kilowatt in 2015-16. The free of cost power to agriculture (which now stands at Rs 7,700 crore) needs to be debated in this context.

The consumption of water in Punjab to produce one kilogram (kg) of rice is 5,337 litres as compared to the all-India average of 3,875 litres. During the triennium ending (TE) 1980-81, the rice production in Punjab consumed 16,643 billion litres of water, out of which the component of contribution of rice to the central pool accounted for 13,449 billion litres (81 per cent). The corresponding figures for the TE 2013-14 were 59,047 and 43,262 billion (73.3 per cent) litres, respectively. It is the classic case of virtual water export (in the form of rice) from Punjab to the rest of India. 

The water table in 10 districts (Amritsar, Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Ludhiana, Sangrur, Patiala, Fatehgarh Sahib, Moga, Mansa and Faridkot) declined in the range of 5.85 metres (Amritsar) and 18.35 metres (Kapurthala) during 1996-2014. These 10 districts are predominantly paddy growing and accounted for 63.97 per cent of the total electric tubewells in Punjab, 66.84 per cent of area under paddy and 56.32 per cent of the net sown area in 2015-16. Clearly, the share of tubewells and area under paddy in these districts is much higher than the share of the net sown area. Significantly, all the overexploited (when draft is higher than recharge) blocks, whose number increased from 53 in 1984 to 110 in 2011, fall in these 10 districts. As regards the quality of water, it is safe only in 22 blocks. 

Paradoxically, for about 15 years, the central and state governments have been advising the farmers of Punjab to cultivate alternative crops without giving any roadmap and policy. Recently, the Government of India's NITI Aayog has cautioned the Government of Punjab that the country no longer needs Punjab's rice the way it was needed earlier. The government and NITI Aayog must recall that the promotion of paddy in Punjab was the result of a policy set given by the Centre and implemented by the state and now they say it is the responsibility of Punjab alone. Matlab nikal gaya to pehchante nahin!

The country's growing need for cereals, the Union Government's 'push to grow more food', massive public investment in agriculture, including R&D, subsidy on chemical fertilisers, provision of minimum support price, public procurement, non-availability of economically viable alternative crops, absence of MSP for alternative crops, etc have largely been responsible for promoting the wheat-paddy crop combination in Punjab, Haryana and Western UP.

The Government of India was comfortable with such a scenario and agri-business (domestic as well as global) and loaning agencies have their own vested interests in maintaining the status quo. The successive governments in Punjab, too, did not give any serious thought to diversification and saving the precious subsoil water. Instead of reading the writing on the wall, the state government started giving power to agriculture free of cost since 1997 which is pro-paddy and anti-diversification.

Policy response

But for constituting two committees in 1986 and 2002 (Johl Committee 1 & 2), there was hardly any policy response to promote crop diversification and address the water table issue. Both the reports, inter alia, recommended that a substantial area from under paddy be shifted to other crops as paddy was mainly responsible for the depleting water table. So far, nothing has happened. The state government constituted a committee to estimate the groundwater resources in 2004 which took eight years to submit the report and that, too, without any recommendations.

The first ever policy response came in 2008 when the state government (through an ordinance) prohibited the farmers from sowing nursery of paddy before May 10 and transplantation of paddy before June 10 (now June 15). This has helped in saving some of the precious groundwater. The micro-irrigation techniques (drip and sprinkler irrigation) are yet to show their presence in the state.

In view of the above, it is high time that both the Union and Punjab governments rise to the occasion and take suitable policy measures to save Punjab from the impending desertification. The Union Government cannot exonerate itself from its responsibility as Punjab not only provided the much-needed food security to the country but also saved it from the armtwisting politics of food aid under the American Public Law 480. The irony of the situation is that now when the farmers and agricultural labourers are committing suicide (because of the agrarian crisis emanated out of the success story of the Green Revolution), the country is not willing to come to their rescue. Punjab, too, need to have comprehensive agricultural and water policies with a focus on crop diversification and saving water. 

(Views are personal)

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