The state of Punjab which has been literally feeding India, with its annual contribution of 53 percent of wheat and 40 percent of paddy to the food stocks of the country was, at the time of India’s independence in 1947, a food grain deficit area with only 52.3% of its area under irrigation. The 1960s Green Revolution changed all of that. Introduction of dwarf wheat germ-plasm and dwarf varieties for paddy crop resulted in quantum leaps in production. The high tide of the Green Revolution led to intensive production which then led to the emergence of crop monocultures, in general, as farmers, enticed by the productivity of the high yielding varieties of seeds promoted by the agricultural establishment of the country, switched to rice and wheat rotation. Pulses and coarse grains were sidelined – paddy and wheat was where the money was and to which over 71 percent of the gross cultivated area was put to. Farm machinery, pesticides and fertilisers and irrigation dramatically increased the productivity of land. Today 95.1 % of the net sown area gets irrigated by a web of canals and tubewells.
But, land as a factor of production has its limitations to support the intensity of such agricultural practises. Crop yields and water resources have started to decline steeply as a result. Realising that the ecological threat was real and closer home, the state government now plans to wean away farmers from such paddy-wheat cropping patterns. With stagnant growth rates of 73 percent, Punjab has been forced to undertake this shift in farming practises. It is now seeking a INR 1,280 crore support from the central government. It needs this money to compensate its farmers for switching from the traditional cropping system. By giving an incentive of INR 12,500 per hectare, the state will be able to relieve some one million hectares under paddy-wheat rotation to be replaced by alternate crops like pulses and oilseeds.
For the central government it is the bigger question of feeding the country, should the flow of wheat and paddy stop flowing from this machine. However, for Punjab it is a question of ecological survival, of sustaining its natural resources like water and soil in a healthy state. Politically and economically it is also a question of the sheer survival of its farming community. The proposed change in crop patterns for Punjab will save the country an estimated INR 8,976 crore in procurement, handling and storage costs. It is also intended to provide some relief from the high incidence of pests, diseases and a host of ecological problems, like the alarming depletion in the water table, water logging, soil salinity, toxicity and micronutrient deficiency. These are the less-talked about afflictions of the high yielding variety boom, which was once talked about as the engine of food security and the driving force behind farm prosperity.
A reduction in paddy and wheat production by 30 percent is being suggested as the antidote to the current stress on the state´s water resources. Rice is not a traditional crop in arid states like Punjab. Rice fields alone consume some 85 per cent of all freshwater supply. This adds up to a total annual consumption of 44 lakh hectare metres of water. Being a water guzzler, paddy is the key crop being targeted. Undoubtedly, a shift in the cropping pattern will ease the pressure on the already over-stretched groundwater resources in the state.
Since the prosperous farming community in Punjab is extremely influential, this depletion of groundwater in the service of rich-farm productivity has been aided and abetted by successive governments to gain political mileage. The inevitability of the ground-water crisis was built into the political-economy of the state from the very inception of the Green Revolution. Government support in the form of virtually ‘free-for-all’ electricity for tubewell operation led to the overuse of even poor quality water (This has added another dimension to the burgeoning ecological crisis by increasing soil salinity). Statistics indicate that 35 percent of the total electricity consumed in the state is being used to run 7.5 lakh tubewells–mostly for irrigating paddy.
Not surprisingly, water tables have long dropped beyond the reach of muscle-driven water lifts, dipping down to as low as 400-450 meters in many places. As a result, some 84-development blocks out of the 138 in the state have already been declared as being in the dark zone, where the level of groundwater exploitation is over 98 percent, as against the critical level of 80 percent. Six out of the 12 districts in the state have recorded a groundwater utilisation rate of over 100 percent. Consequently, in many parts of Punjab water tables are falling by up to one meter per year.
This crisis of overuse is the ostensible reason for the Punjab government’s measure to reverse the existing agricultural regime. In his report, ‘Agricultural Production Pattern Adjustment Programme for Punjab’, noted agricultural scientists SS Johl has drawn up an ambitious plan to wean farmers away from cultivating paddy and wheat on one million hectares. If the state is allowed to have its way and implement this plan through central assistance, the consequent reduction in wheat production by 4.7 million tonnes and paddy by 3.4 million tonnes will mean a net saving of 14.7 billion cubic meters of water each year.
There is no doubt that a shift from the current cropping pattern will help the state curb the unintended and unanticipated trade in virtual water. Each ton of wheat and paddy sent to the central food stocks entails a virtual transfer of 1200 and 2700 cubic meters of water respectively, as that is the amount of water required to produce a ton of the harvest. The Punjab government has realised that in producing food for the nation it is losing dearly in terms of its non-renewable natural resources, for which there could hardly be any compensation.
Howsoever justified from the perspective of the state, the solution proposed by the Punjab government raises some fundamental questions. Undoubtedly, subsidies and incentives on crop inputs during the Green Revolution era have brought about significant changes in the cropping pattern and the crop harvests in the state. Can the same technique be used to reverse that trend now? Albert Einstein once remarked that, “you can´t find a solution to a problem by employing the same thinking that moved you into the problem in the first place”. This principle ought to inform the debate in today’s context. The present subsidy being sought from the central government will be used to encourage vertical integration through “contract farming”, wherein private companies tie up with farmers and ensure a buyback arrangement for their produce. Considered innovative, this farmer-corporate partnership is likely to open the floodgates of corporatisation of agriculture on the one hand and marginalisation of farmers on the other.
Contract farming, defined as a system for the production and supply of agricultural/ horticultural produce under forward contracts between producers/suppliers and buyers, rests on the commitment of the producer/seller to provide an agricultural commodity of a certain type, at a time and a price, and in the quantity required by the buyer. Contract farming by large private groups such as Rallis, Mahindra, United Breweries and Tropicana is permitted in Punjab. Already in the state, 90,000 acres have been shifted to alternate crops like basmati, maize and pulses in the past one year, alongside the involvement of private companies in marketing tie ups with farmers.
Though this move will gradually ease the pressure on the state by way of eliminating farm subsidies on the one hand and the onus of minimum support prices on the other, Punjab’s farmers will be at the mercy of uncertain markets driven by global corporate interests. It makes for fallacious reasoning that such contract farming policies in any way address the ecological threat they were intended to avert. What is the incentive for a private player to ensure that over-use of fertilisers and pesticides is avoided, that water should be used in moderation, that cultivation cycles should follow soil-recharging principles and not market values? There is every reason to doubt the claim that the proposed policy intervention will reverse the trend in resource degradation.
Punjab’s proposal to replace the government-farmer relationship with a corporate-farmer relationship does not seem to take into account other, less uncertain, alternatives that have been suggested. Daler Singh of the JDM Foundation in Ladhowal, Ludhiana, has been working on the concept of a low water-use variety of paddy. During the last four years, Singh and his colleagues have demonstrated to farmers in several locations in Punjab that paddy can survive and thrive on much less water. The innovation is simple: Rice seedlings are transplanted onto the ridges spaced 24 inches apart by furrows that are filled with water. While the crop is irrigated daily for the first week after transplantation, subsequent irrigation is at weekly intervals, with special attention during the tillering and grain setting stages. Since less water is used in the ridge-furrow system of paddy cultivation than in flooded rice fields, the crop requires about 30 per cent less fertiliser application.
Sadly, the idea of corporate farming seems to make more sense to the authorities than these alternatives. The innovation does not seem to get the desired official patronage primarily, it would seem, because the government is already committed to resolving the crisis through private companies providing inputs and buying back the harvest as envisaged under the crop diversification plan.
Agriculture as a production industry depends on inputs from several industries, and additional services like transport. In a situation where competition amongst the multi-national firms has led to price wars, it is not difficult to visual them resorting to various undesirable methods of cost-cutting. It is very likely that price stability will be compromised leaving farmers in the lurch. Besides, there could also be managerial arm-twisting to undercut the flow of inputs to rival companies, and other profit-only strategies. These are legitimate causes of worry in the case of agriculture.
Whatever gains accrue to Punjab in the short run will be counter-balanced by significant problems in the long term. And these problems are unlikely to be very different from the one that has prompted the state government’s proposal in the first place. Developing country farmers are already fighting a losing battle because of the global imbalance in the volume of farm subsidies as between them and their counterparts in the developed countries. By losing the cushion of subsidy from the Indian state, farmers may well find themselves under the total control of corporations, which will not only decide the type of crops to be grown but will determine the procurement price as well without being constrained by the factors that prevented the government from pushing the floor price below the sustenance level.
The government of Punjab seems to have taken a blind plunge into the unknown. In effect, it might be (un)intentionally setting a trap for itself. A series of questions await the state government´s clarification: What has prompted the state to encourage contract farming? Why has the government not adopted a coherent and competitive marketing strategy for crops other than paddy and wheat? Why have minimum support prices for pulses and coarse grains not been announced?
It is apparent that in the haste to reverse the ecological degradation in the state, the government has overlooked some of the serious dimensions of its proposed solutions. Indeed, there may be problem in the very idea of providing an incentive to get farmers to change their cropping patter. As things stand, farmers are not only getting negative returns on their current investments but are also witnessing a decline in markets for their present harvest as well. Therefore do farmers need the financial inducement of subsidy support to switch over from the paddy-wheat rotation? Or is there some other motivation behind the scheme? Perhaps there is more to Punjab´s ambitious crop diversification plan than meets the eye.