Exploring the water issues facing Punjab

  • Punjab is currently experiencing a groundwater depletion crisis.
  • Experts predict that Punjab will become a desert state in 25 years if serious agricultural reforms are not introduced soon.
  • Groundwater extraction in the state has reached 165% – this is more than any other state in the country.
  • Currently, 79% of the groundwater assessment divisions (blocks) in the state are now considered to be ‘overexploited’ and ‘critical’ with groundwater extraction exceeding the supply (Columbia Water Center).
  • Groundwater consumption in Punjab is primarily driven by agricultural demand with approximately 85% of the state’s accessible groundwater being used for growing rice and wheat.
  • The enduring legacy of the ‘Green Revolution’ and its agricultural practices and policies has left in its wake alarming social, economical, and ecological consequences due to the over-exploitation of Punjab’s groundwater resources.
  • Urgent need for agricultural reforms like crop diversification: The government needs to aid and encourage the sowing of less water-intensive crops such as maize, pulses, oilseeds, fruits, and vegetables by guaranteeing minimum support price (MSP) for alternative/ climate-smart crops.

Punjab is currently facing desertification with groundwater being critically overexploited.

Major factor

The ‘Green Revolution’ was a set of policies introduced by the Indian government in the 1960s to combat famine and poverty in the country by focusing on increasing crop yields in Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh. New agricultural policies and techniques were introduced to these states to help achieve food security for India. The main policies introduced were:

  • The Introduction of High Yielding Varieties (HYV) seeds of rice and wheat.
  • The adoption of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
  • The development of groundwater irrigation facilities (a system of supplying landwith water using artificial canals, ditches, etc to promote the growth of foodcrops).

While the agricultural policies enacted did help India achieve food security, the

long-term legacy of the ‘Green Revolution’ and its agricultural practices and policies have left in its wake alarming ecological, social, and economical consequences due to the over-exploitation of Punjab’s groundwater resources.

Punjab’s climate is ‘semi-arid’ (dry) and is more suited for the production of crops that are not heavily reliant on water. Examples of less water-intensive crops are pulses, maize, fruit, and vegetables.

However, despite the realities of the geographical conditions of the area, during the ‘Green Revolution’ Punjabi farmers were encouraged to harvest water-intensive crops such as rice and wheat. One kilogram of rice consumes approximately 3000-5000L of water.

Irrigation policies made it easier for farmers to access water; free electricity made it economically attractive and the central government’s food procurement policy ensured farmers received MSP on wheat and rice production.

The introduction of these policies saw Punjab shift from a traditional wheat/maize cropping pattern to an unsustainable water-intensive wheat/rice cropping pattern.

Covering only 1.5 percent of India’s land, today Punjab produces nearly 20% of the nation’s wheat and 12% of its rice. Experts have estimated that the state is over extracting 14 billion cubic meters of groundwater every year just to sustain its current cropping pattern.

Districts in Punjab with the highest withdrawal of groundwater (Figures in billion cubic meters)

District Annual extractable groundwater recharge Annual ground water withdrawal
Sangrur 1.44 3.74 (260%)
Jalandhar 1.17 2.80 (239%)
Moga 1.07 2.47 (230%)
Kapurthala 0.70 1.56 (223%)
Patiala 1.37 2.97 (217%)
Barnala 0.58 1.22 (210%)
Fatehgarh Sahib 0.55 1.15 (209%)
Ludhiana 1.94 3.54 (182%)
Overall 21.58 35.78 (165%)

 

 

(TABLE SOURCE: https://thewire.in/agriculture/punjab-farmers-wheat-paddy-maize)

The wheat/rice cropping pattern is ecologically, economically, and socially unsustainable for Punjab because:

  1. Annual rice/wheat cropping is extremely expensive and has gotten more expensive recently because farmers are having to dig deeper and deeper to access already scarce groundwater. As production costs rise, smaller farmers are often forced to take on loans that they cannot hope to pay. The amount of money farmers are spending on irrigating their land often leaves them with very little profit and this is detrimental to their wellbeing and mental and physical health. Indeed, according to a 2017 study, around 85.9% of farming households in Punjab are under debt (Indian Council of Social Science Research).
  1. Analysis of Punjab’s water table is cause for concern. Within the state, water tables have dropped at an alarming rate. 79% of the groundwater assessment divisions (blocks) in the state are now considered to be ‘overexploited’ and in ‘critical’ condition with water extraction exceeding water supply. From 1982-87, the water table in Central Punjab fell on average 18cm per year. That rate of decline accelerated steeply to 42cm per year from 1997-2002 and to 75cm during 2002-2006. It is estimated that water tables are now falling in 90% of the state (Columbia Water Center).
  1. As already noted, rice is a very water-intensive crop and requires seasonal flood irrigation. As farmers are having to dig deeper they are disturbing older aquifers that require many years to recharge thus further depleting Punjab’s natural resources. Some of the ecological effects of groundwater depletion include the:
    • Drying up of wells
    • Reduction of stream flows
    • Deterioration of water quality
    • Sinking land

Solutions

Punjab is in desperate need of agricultural reforms and to replace the wheat- rice cropping cycle that is no longer economically, socially, or ecologically viable in 2021. Both the central and state governments need to work in tandem to develop a sustainable farming model for crops other than wheat and rice in Punjab.

The government needs to aid and encourage crop diversification and the sowing of less water-intensive crops such as maize, pulses, oilseeds, fruits, and vegetables by guaranteeing MSP for alternative crops.

News outlet The Wire reported in 2020 that farmer unions and political parties came together to request that the government of Punjab deploy procurement agencies to purchase maize (corn) at MSP. The government refused, and farmers who had harvested maize had to sell their produce at a price between Rs 800-900 Rs per quintal. This number is far below the MSP price of Rs 1,850.

Notably, the Government of Punjab’s procurement agency has never bought crops other than wheat and rice at an assured MSP.

Bharatiya Kisan Union (BKU) general secretary Jagmohan Singh notes that while farmers are often advised to diversify their crops, they need central and state government to work with them to develop a ‘roadmap’ to ensure that farmers do not incur losses if they sow alternative crops. He states that “farmers are already trapped in sowing potatoes or other crops for which they never get good returns of their produce”. The government also needs to devise a policy to compensate farmers when they shift to sowing less water-intensive crops to mitigate the adverse economic impacts of the transition.

Agricultural scientist Sardara Singh Johal suggests that until farmers are guaranteed MSP for alternative crops they will not make the transition away from the wheat-rice cycle. “Through MSP, the government gives assurance to the producers before the sowing season that they will procure their produce at least at the specified price”.

Similarly, Economist R.S. Ghuman argues that the wheat-rice cycle became successful in Punjab because of the availability of HYV seeds, subsidized irrigation, fertilizers, and an assured MSP from central and state governments. “Unless this combination is there for alternative crops, no diversification can take place in Punjab”.

While wheat is Punjab’s natural crop and consumes much less water than rice, rice is a completely alien crop to the state. Kesar Singh, Professor of Economics at Punjabi University in Patiala notes that “it is sown in the season when pulses or other high valued crops are also available and it can be easily diversified. But the problem is that farmers must be given assured returns. They should not be left in the lurch if they agree to grow alternative crops”.

The Punjab State Farmers’ and Farm Workers’ Commission drafted the Punjab State Farmer’s Policy in 2018 and point out that with the right support from the government, the transition to and the implementation of a more profitable, modern, environmentally friendly, nutritionally sound, and diversified agricultural policy would not be that difficult. This is because Punjab has fertile soil, has 99% of its cultivated area under irrigation, and has the agricultural infrastructure already in place.

Concluding remarks

The depletion of groundwater is a major problem in Punjab today and is the result of decades-old, short-sighted agricultural policies that have promoted the unsustainable over-extraction of groundwater.

Both the central and state governments need to work in tandem with farming unions and organizations to develop a sustainable farming model that assures MSP for crops other than wheat and rice. It is a matter of utmost urgency.

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