Use resources judiciously to ward off desertification

Use resources judiciously to ward off desertification

If we persist with the present practices of extraction, Punjab’s available groundwater resources may get exhausted in 20-25 years, according to an official report.

Baldev Singh Dhillon & Raj Kumar

It is a paradox that Punjab, which is acutely affected by groundwater depletion and facing the spectre of desertification, is cultivating long-duration varieties of paddy and consistently pleading for their early transplanting. This is happening in spite of the fact that this region is having higher productivity and income from crop cultivation as compared to others having comparable area (about 90 per cent) under paddy and wheat cultivation.

Punjab is facing an alarming situation with respect to groundwater resources. The report, ‘Groundwater Resources of Punjab — as on March 31, 2017’, by the Central Groundwater Board and Water Resources & Environment Directorate of Punjab, says: “If the present rate of extraction continues, the available groundwater resources may exhaust in 20 to 25 years.”

India faced severe food shortage during the 1950s and 1960s. In the second half of the 1960s, high-yielding varieties of wheat and paddy and their complementary production-protection technology packages became available. The government formulated a policy of fixing the MSP and the procurement of the produce, besides other initiatives for national food security. These developments gave an impetus to paddy cultivation in Punjab. From 1965-66 to 2017-18, the area under paddy increased 10.5 times (2.93 to 30.65 lakh hectares) and the production 45.5 times (4.39 to 199.72 lakh tonnes) in Punjab. During the same period, the number of tubewells increased from 26,000 to 14.76 lakh and the cropping intensity from 129 to 204 per cent as a result of intensive agriculture. With these developments, Punjab became the food bowl of the country and helped the nation not only to become food-secure but also an exporter. This was, however, accompanied by some challenges, of which depletion of groundwater resources is the most serious.

To tackle this situation, short-duration paddy varieties and water-saving technologies have been developed. The state government issued/passed an ordinance/Act in 2008-09 to ensure the transplanting of paddy after a notified date. These interventions, accompanied by campaigns on groundwater conservation, did slow down the rate of water depletion but did not fully check it. Thus, there is an urgent need to create more awareness among the masses in this regard. With this objective, economic returns from the cropping system in two regions of the state having a similar cropping system but contrasting groundwater table scenario are being presented.

During 2018, the lowest groundwater table was observed in Sangrur district (32.4 metres) followed by neighbouring Barnala (29.7 metres). These districts were also on top in terms of the rate of fall of the groundwater table from 1998 to 2018. These districts, having paddy as the main kharif crop occupying about 90 per cent of the area, were selected to represent the most threatened region as far as the annual fall of the groundwater level and its depth are concerned and designated as Region I (R-I). For comparison, two other contiguous districts identified are Amritsar and Tarn Taran, representing a region contrasting with R-I with regard to the groundwater scenario but with a similar cropping system (92 per cent area under paddy) and agro-ecology. The duo is designated as Region II (R-II). The average annual rate of water table fall in R-II (1998 to 2018) was almost half (43-57 cm) than that in R-I (103-107 cm).

Paddy and wheat account for about 90 per cent of the cultivated area in both regions. Basmati was cultivated in about 8 and 61 per cent of the kharif area in R-I and R-II, respectively. The varietal pattern of wheat and basmati is similar in both regions, but in the case of parmal, there is a contrast. In R-I, long-duration paddy varieties (Pusa 44, Peeli Pusa) were cultivated on about 58 per cent of the parmal area and the short-duration varieties (PR1 21, PR 126 and PR 124) on only 19 per cent area. In R-II, the short-duration varieties occupied 69 per cent area and Pusa 44 merely 0.4 per cent.

Pusa 44 matures in about 160 days after seeding and Peeli Pusa takes even one week more. On the other hand, PR 121 and PR 126, the most popular among short-duration varieties, mature in 140 and 123 days, respectively and PR 124 matures in 135 days. These short-duration varieties need 15-25 per cent lesser irrigations than Pusa 44. There is also saving on pesticides and labour.

Farmers in R-I are probably attracted by the higher yield of long-duration varieties. Though the yields of PR 121, PR 126 and PR 124 are marginally lower than Pusa 44, the net income from shorter and longer-duration varieties is comparable. Paddy straw management of short-duration varieties is easier as they produce lesser biomass. By vacating the field earlier, they also widen the window between paddy harvesting and wheat sowing. Further, farmers cultivating long-duration varieties are also incurring additional expenditure on deepening and installing submersible pumps. The farmers do not pay for electricity as the state bears the huge expenses. Above all, the underground water reservoir is being depleted which cannot be easily replenished.

Wheat and paddy yields are higher by 576-758 kg per hectare in R-I than in R-II. Thus, evidently, the net income is also higher in R-I. The annual returns are higher by more than Rs 20,000 per hectare in R-I than R-II. One may be tempted to attribute the higher yield of parmal in R-I to long-duration varieties. The yields of wheat and basmati are also higher in R-I, although there is no appreciable difference in varietal pattern in both regions. So, the higher yields must be due to the favourable endowments in R-I. Therefore, by adopting short-duration varieties, the returns will continue to be higher in R-I than those in R-II.

The conservation of underground water resources is more badly needed in R-I than in R-II. Thus, it is beyond comprehension and common sense that the farmers in R-I are persisting with cultivating long-duration varieties and there is greater demand in this region than in other areas of the state for earlier transplantation of parmal than the dates presently notified. The people of Punjab, particularly the opinion-makers, must realise that there is a need to resort to every practice of water conservation as this region is most dangerously placed. For this, awareness campaigns need to be organised regularly; otherwise, we are inviting desertification. Even the incidence of farmers’ suicides is higher in R-I than in other regions. There is a need to analyse the socio-economic factors responsible for this crisis.

No one has right to spoil the rich, inherited natural resource base, rather it is the duty of all to conserve it. It is an investment for the survival of the farming system not only for future generations but also for the present one. If we persist with present practices of groundwater extraction, the available groundwater resources of Punjab may barely last two decades. Let us join hands to meet the challenge of conserving water resources by their judicious use. ‘Sanu apna ghar aap hi sambhalna paoo’ (We have to set our house in order ourselves).

Baldev Dhillon is Vice-Chancellor, PAU, Ludhiana. Raj Kumar is Principal Extension Scientist, Dept of Economics & Sociology, PAU.

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