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Why power subsidy drains groundwater reserves in Punjab

The Tribune’s deep dive into the power crisis in the state — Part I

Why power subsidy drains groundwater reserves in Punjab


Tribune News Service

Aman Sood

Ranbirpura (Patiala), June 18

A five-acre farm on the connecting road in this village has a tubewell running non-stop for eight hours — the entire free power supply period — for the past three days, accumulating nearly 10 inches of water on the fields. Though such scenes appear a routine in rural Punjab in this part of the year, what’s shocking is tubewells pumping out water 10 days prior to the sowing of paddy.

Watering a must

We are preparing for paddy plantation and for the first month, it is important to submerge the field under water. — Shingara Singh, gidhar village in Bathinda

I have plans to sow paddy on 30 acres this season. I have transplanted paddy on 15 acres and will coverer the remaining portion in the next 5-7 days. — Kashmir Singh, jandiala village in jalandhar

Inundating a field means giving a conducive environment for germination of weeds. This way, the weeds grow even before saplings are transplanted. — Kuljit Singh, Malawali village in Amritsar

“The migrant labourers who will transplant paddy are yet to start from their native place in Bihar,” quips the land owner, dubbing the constantly flowing tubewells a “normal” practice. He says several others like him “cool off” their fields in this manner — weeks after the land was set afire to rid it of wheat stubble.

Amid the scorching heat when other categories of power consumers continue to reel under unannounced cuts, a large number of farmers have been irrigating their empty fields with the government-assured eight-hour free power supply that began on June 15 this season, says a power official. In many fields, even tubewell motor rooms are locked and the underground water starts flowing from these tubewells as soon as the free power supply resumes.

Political one-upmanship

The free power for agricultural pumpsets owes its origin to a game of political one-upmanship played between two former Punjab CMs in the run up to the 1997 Vidhan Sabha elections. Before Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, then CM, could announce the free power subsidy for farmers, Akali Dal stalwart late Parkash Singh Badal (then Leader of Opposition in the Assembly) outsmarted her by listing the scheme in his poll manifesto.

Even as economists have often derided the successive Punjab Governments for continuing with the power subsidy, which has been bleeding the state’s treasury and draining the underground water, it has become a politically sensitive issue over the decades.

Annual hydration of fields

Farmers maintain that 10 days of accumulated water helps hydrate the fields and also ensures that when they transplant paddy, water retains a bit longer on the land. Contradicting the perception, Punjab Director of Agriculture Jaswant Singh, however, says that their department has been spreading awareness among farmers to adopt direct seeding of rice. “Amid the heat if water is left in the fields, it will evaporate faster. Therefore, the farmers should irrigate their fields only after transplanting paddy. More water in the fields will never mean better yield,” he says. “But, there is little we can do other than educating the farmers that with the misuse of the free power scheme, they are causing irreversible damage to the underground water table,” remarks a senior official of Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL). “Successive governments have played politics on the issue, without caring for the future,” he avers.

According to experts, every tubewell pumps out 30.24 lakh litres of water per week with an average eight hours of power supply. This means, 14 lakh tubewells (estimated count in Punjab) pump out 4,385 billion litres of water in a week.

Raising income need of hour

Author-turned-food-and-trade-policy expert Devinder Sharma says that it is wrong to blame only the farmers for water wastage when every section of the society is doing so. “A recent study showed that the average income of a farmer in Punjab is roughly Rs 26,000 per month. No government has tried to bring it close to Rs 40,000. You raise the farmer’s income and I bet, he won’t need any subsidy — and the power wastage will be ruled out,” he argues.

According to recent data prepared by the PSPCL, the districts with critical water table continue to have maximum tubewells. Ludhiana has the highest 1.17 lakh tubewells, followed by Gurdaspur (99,581), Amritsar (93,946), Sangrur (93,669) and Patiala (87,888). These districts have shown the steepest decline in water table. Farmers in Barnala and Sangrur have been extracting water from maximum depth by using 17 BHP motors, followed closely by Patiala with 16 BHP motors.

“Average power subsidy in Punjab is around Rs 10,000 per acre annually. However, in some parts of Sangrur, Barnala and Patiala where the water level is low, the subsidy touches Rs 15,000 to 20,000 per acre on an yearly basis,” says a senior PSPCL official.

BKU questions industrial use

Supporting the farmers, Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) state president of Joginder Singh Ugrahan says the government should even check the wastage of water by companies manufacturing colas and liquor.

“A farmer runs his tubewell only to produce food to feed humans. The experts who blame farmers for power and water wastage should also speak about the large quantity of water wasted by the industry, which also pollutes underground water…. Farmers won’t need subsidy if you raise their earning,” suggests Ugrahan.

Of the 150 assessed blocks in Punjab, the Central Ground Water Assessment Board, in a report, categorised 114 (76.47 per cent) as “overexploited”, three (1.96 per cent as “critical”, 13 (8.5 per cent) as “semi-critical” and 20 blocks (13.07 per cent) as “safe”. A few years ago, a report submitted to the National Green Tribunal, by an expert committee, had suggested that if paddy transplantation is delayed by a week, the state can meet the demand for water of its 3 crore population for more than 3.5 years.

(Inputs from Manmeet Singh in Amritsar, Deepkamal Kaur in Jalandhar and Sukhmeet Bhasin in Bathinda)

About The Author

The Tribune News Service brings you the latest news, analysis and insights from the region, India and around the world. Follow the Tribune News Service for a wide-ranging coverage of events as they unfold, with perspective and clarity.

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