Groundwater conservation: Three-pronged strategy for crop diversification

Punjab needs a comprehensive crop diversification plan at the micro level, involving a block or a cluster of blocks with similar conditions.

Groundwater conservation: Three-pronged strategy for crop diversification

Punjab needs a comprehensive crop diversification plan at the micro level, involving a block or a cluster of blocks with similar conditions. The plan should be based on water availability, niche crops and marketing facilities in that geographical unit. The plan must be spread over 5-10 years for its implementation, prioritising the areas to be brought under it each year on the basis of severity of water scarcity. This is expected to be a win-win situation for conserving our natural resources as well as sustaining farmers’ income.

Surinder S Kukal

The fast depletion of water resources, especially groundwater, coupled with changing climatic conditions and deteriorating water quality, is becoming a major challenge for sustaining agricultural production. Industrial growth and improved living standards of people demand higher amounts of water in industrial and domestic sectors as well. Thus, increasing water demand in all sectors and decreasing surface waters are taking a toll on groundwater resources. Latest reports indicate that against groundwater availability of 20.6 billion cubic metres (BCM) in Punjab, about 33.8 BCM is extracted annually, thereby leading to average stage of water extraction to the extent of 164%. Of the 150 blocks in the state, 117 are overexploited, six are critical and 10 are semi-critical, whereas 17 blocks are safe. The state has 57 blocks with groundwater extraction of more than 200%. The water table in the state is falling at an average rate of 65-70 cm every year. The water table depth (WTD) in almost half of the state is expected to go below 100 feet by 2040 if the groundwater extraction goes unabated at the present rate. Further, about 8% and 19% of the area is expected to have WTD below 150 feet by 2030 and 2040, respectively.

The ever-increasing area under paddy (more than 30 lakh hectares) is wreaking havoc on groundwater resources of the state. On an average, farmers use 3,800-4,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice, compared to 600-700 litres to produce 1 kg of summer maize or any other upland crop. Even the direct-seeding of rice (DSR), advocated as a water-saving practice, actually consumes similar or higher amount of water due to the tendency of the farmers to let water stagnate in the fields. Farmers in the potato belt and other vegetable-growing areas prefer to go for spring maize, another water-guzzling crop. The spring maize has similar or slightly higher water requirement in terms of evapo-transpiration as that of paddy. Farmers are applying 4,000 to 4,500 litres to produce 1 kg of spring maize grain. To sustain groundwater resources, there is a dire need to shift area under paddy and spring maize to less water-consuming crops in a phased manner, for which planning has to be done at the lowest geographical unit level — a block or a cluster of blocks.

Crop diversification has long been advocated for sustaining agricultural production and water resources. It was initially suggested to shift 10 lakh hectares from paddy to maize, the figure later revised to 17 lakh hectares as per estimates made by scientists of Punjab Agricultural University. However, it is easier said than done. The general concept of replacing area under paddy with maize has no takers due to its availability from other states at sufficiently lower prices than the minimum support price. Also, the requirement of maize is only 0.5-1 million tonnes for its domestic consumption. We need to find a suitable and equally profitable alternative crop to replace spring maize. Further, the area under wheat also needs to be diverted to oilseeds, pulses or other crops.

Crop diversification needs to be implemented in a phased manner, starting with the priority areas, based on the severity of groundwater depletion.

A three-pronged strategy needs to be formulated for preparing a comprehensive crop diversification plan for the state at the micro level, involving a block or a cluster of blocks with similar conditions. The plan needs to be based on (i) water availability, (ii) niche crops and (iii) related marketing facilities in that particular geographical unit.

Water availability

The water resources in a particular geographical unit may include groundwater or canal water or both, apart from rain/runoff water and treated wastewater. The water balance of each unit needs to be worked out so as to ascertain the water availability for agriculture and other sectors against the available supplies. Based on the water availability and its quality, some blocks may need to diversify from paddy/wheat, whereas others may not. Those units with highest level of negative water balance could be chosen for the crop diversification plan on priority basis. For example, estimates indicate that five blocks in Sangrur, two each in Barnala and Jalandhar and one each in Patiala, Hoshiarpur and Moga are expected to have the water table below 165 feet by 2030. These blocks need to be taken up first for crop diversification based on this strategy. Further, these assessments will also determine the extent of area in each block to be diversified from paddy/wheat and/or spring maize for sustained use of groundwater.

Niche crops

The blind recommendation of replacing paddy with maize may not be a good option for crop diversification across the state. Several geographical units have been growing alternative crops in smaller pockets over the years — peas in Hoshiarpur and Tarn Taran, moong bean in Jagraon (Ludhiana), celery (Amritsar), kinnow (Fazilka and Hoshiarpur) etc. with well-established markets. The area under cotton, another important crop in southwest Punjab, has been declining due to cultural and marketing issues. The area under these niche crops can be expanded further by providing improved cultural practices including high- yielding cultivars, value addition techniques and further strengthening of the prevailing marketing facilities. Also, some traditional crops of certain regions — bajra, jowar, guar — could be revisited keeping in mind their growing demand in the market. Arhar, an important pulse crop with huge demand in the country and being imported every year, could find a place in the state with improved harvesting varieties being developed by PAU.

Value addition

The area under these niche/alternate crops has to be increased at the cost of paddy. To compete with paddy, these crops have to be equally remunerative or even better. This can be possible not only by developing high-yielding cultivars but also developing the cultivars suitable for post-harvesting value addition. The government has taken initiatives to take the farmers out of the crop-based income system and encourage them for value addition. Thus, creating infrastructure facilities for value addition is the need of the hour. For example, kinnow juice extraction facility could be created in such units to process the fruit instead of selling it at throwaway prices. The same could be true for potato and other crops.

A comprehensive crop diversification plan must be spread over 5-10 years for its implementation, prioritising the areas to be brought under the plan each year on the basis of severity of water scarcity. This is expected to be a win-win situation for conserving our natural resources as well as sustaining agricultural productivity and farmers’ income.

The author is Member, Punjab Water Regulation and Development Authority

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