THE problem of Punjab emerges out of deteriorating water balance of the state. Had the state not had canal water and good quality underground aquifer, there would have been no Green Revolution. However, continuously expanding area under foodgrain crops, especially under paddy, has drained, and continues to drain, the water resources of the state. As a consequence, water balance has become unsustainable. To save Punjab from desertification, there is a dire need of eliminating rice crop from production patterns. Water used for this crop has manifold opportunity cost (the cost of next best alternative foregone) which needs to be considered.
With 17.74 million tonnes of paddy produced (in 2016) and 67 per cent retrieval of rice, the state produced 11.88 million tonnes of rice. It requires about 5,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice, which means the crop guzzled approximately 59.5 lakh crore litres of potable water. Canal water meets around 27 per cent of the crop requirement, which comes to 16.1 lakh crore litres for paddy. From the angle of area under this crop of 74.4 lakh acres, canal water would cover 20 lakh acres if used solely. With 24 quintal per acre yield of paddy, water consumed again comes to about 16.1 lakh crore litres. At the MSP of Rs 1,475 per quintal, this crop yields gross return of Rs 26,166 crore to the Punjab farmers. Assuming that one- third of this will be the running cost, maximum of Rs 17,531 crore will be the returns to the fixed farm resources. This will amount to Rs 23,500 per acre return over variable costs. Accounting for hidden costs such as bores for submersible pumps, consumption of more power, power subsidy, deteriorating water balance, de facto this margin will go down further. Environmental damage is incalculable as rice crop is the major contributor to pollution of aquifers and damage to the ecosystem.
Water being used for crop cultivation has a very high opportunity cost. If the equivalent of canal water being used for rice cultivation is diverted for human needs in major water-deficit areas of the country, it will be 40 per cent of the total canal water available in the state. Supplementing the ground water, remaining 60 per cent canal water will be enough for adoption of rice-free cropping pattern that will restore the water balance in less than a decade. The remaining canal water will also be enough for supply in south-western part of the state as well as water-deficit areas. Even if a minimum price of four paisa per litre is charged from the consumer, this much water would fetch Rs 64,400 crore annually. With liberal additional supply of 100 litres per head, it can sustain a 40 crore population with 24-hour flowing water round the year. Even a five-member family will not have to spend more than Rs 600 a month. This is no cost in water-deficit urban areas. Taking just one example, Chennai needs 150 crore litres per day and the supply is just about half during normal times. The Tamil Nadu Government spends six paisa per litre to source 40 per cent of its requirement from desalination plants. Gujarat’s dependency on desalinated water is even more. Water supply through tankers is three times more expensive. In rural areas of western, central and southern India, people fetch potable water from distance up to 5 km. It is time the country realises that water is, after all, not a free commodity.
A 6-ft diameter pipeline, 1,500 km long, holds nearly 400 crore litres of water, which can cater to the requirements of over four crore population per day. Identifying the population centres and outlying areas and pumping capacities will determine the total number of pipelines required and pumping structures/systems for the daily supply of water.
Of this 4 paisa price, 1.5 paisa may be shared by the transit states and for the maintenance of pipelines and pumping structures. Punjab will earn 2.5 paisa per litre net for bulk supply at the urban habitation centres. Local distribution of water will remain the responsibility of the administrations. This way, Punjab will realise Rs 40,250 crore annually net from the sale of canal water which is, at present, being consumed by paddy crop.
Normally the farmers, on an average, earn about Rs 20,000 per acre/Rs 50,000 per hectare net of all the variable costs. On this basis, even if farmers, who eliminate rice crop from their production pattern, are paid Rs 20,000 per acre, net savings for the government will be Rs 25,370 crore annually. These farmers may grow any other crop which consumes lesser water, such as oilseeds, pulses, maize, soybean, etc. as substitutes. With cash in hand, they can easily adopt high value crops and even improve farm operations. Savings on corresponding power subsidy, handling, storing, shelling, transport, wastage costs of about 12 million tonnes of rice and 18 million tonnes of paddy will be another major benefit of this shift in the use of water for human consumption in acute water-deficit areas of the country. With this much additional revenue earnings, Punjab can easily retire the debt accumulated in less than 10 years without any help from the Centre or elsewhere. Rather this will put the state in the category of revenue surplus states. The underground water table will start rising due to improved water balance on account of diversification of production patterns requiring lesser irrigation water. India being comfortable on availability of foodgrains and also with the shift in emphasis for investment in growing rice in eastern parts of the country for improvement in productivity, the withdrawal of production from Punjab can be easily compensated. This project can be easily funded by national banks or the World Bank as it will generate more than enough repaying capacity and leave substantial funds for the state as soon as the project becomes functional.
The country is constructing dedicated rail freight corridors, developing four and six-lane road networks for which users pay a fee, activating scores of airports, planning to get gas from Turkmenistan and Iran, establishing nationwide power, oil and gas pipeline grids, then why not a drinking water network, which is a pre-requisite for life and is a primary human need, especially for water-deficit areas? If the country is subsidising rail fares, LPG, air travel under UDAN, subsidised foodgrains and kerosene, etc. under PDS, why not bring drinking water supply under PDS? With a bottle of drinking bottle selling at Rs 20 per litre today, this is a much cheaper option. Punjab can still further meet the drinking water needs of the country as the underground water balance improves. This is what Punjab can do for the nation to quench its thirst.
SS Johl is Chancellor, Central University of Punjab; while Inder Mohan Singh is a retired Brigadier
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