Ideas

How Punjab’s Misplaced Agricultural Priorities Contribute To Delhi’s Pollution

Paddy stubble burning in Punjab (NARINDER NANU/AFP/GettyImages)
Snapshot
  • It’s now time to move beyond making noise and passing judicial orders to rein in pollution levels in NCR, and address the root cause, which is ensuring the area under paddy cultivation in Punjab falls significantly.

New Delhi declares an emergency as toxic smog thickens. Delhi’s Chief Minister and Lieutenant Governor talk about solutions! National Green Tribunal said that "no construction activity will be carried out on structures until further orders... all industrial activities in Delhi-National Capital Region (NCR) which are causing emissions will also not be allowed to carry on their functioning” till 14 November. National Human Rights Commission sent notices to central and state governments on pollution. Farmers of Punjab and Haryana are blamed for pollution due to burning of paddy stubble. Punjab Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh asks Prime Minister Narendra Modi for compensation to deal with crop residue.

Lots of noise, some action, blame games, passing the buck, judicial intervention (pollution affects right to life and health), ministers bytes etc.

Some want cases to be filed against farmers for burning residue. Others want government to pay for labour to cut residue or subsidy on purchase of equipment to cut residue, for e.g. a straw chopper-cum-spreader.

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In all this commotion, we are not asking a basic question. Why does water-deficient Punjab grow water-intensive rice whose stubble-burning contributes to pollution in NCR?

To find answers we need to first understand the dynamics of paddy cultivation in Punjab.

Canals and good quality underground water helped in the green revolution.

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Punjab was a non-rice producing state till the 1970s. The crop was grown only in some parts of the Ferozepur-Amritsar-Gurdaspur belt. In 1961, the area under paddy was only 2.27 lakh hectares.

According to this report in Open, "Conversations with older farmers confirm how the unprecedented shift in cropping patterns – especially the dominance of paddy – has spread within the span of a generation. When we were young, paddy was sown in less than 2 per cent of the cultivable land,” says one. "Now, everyone is cultivating paddy. Earlier farmers used to cultivate, bajra, sugarcane, jowar and other fodder as well.”

So an ever expanding area of rice cropping has drained the water resources of the state.

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With the water table falling continuously, a farmer has to bear a huge recurring cost of digging deeper without any guarantee that water would be found and if found how long it would last.

How Water Intensive Is Rice Cultivation In Punjab?

Punjab produced 17.74 million tonnes of paddy and 11.88 million tonnes of rice in 2016. The crop required 59.5 lakh crore litres of potable water assuming it requires about 5,000 litres of water to produce 1 kg of rice. Canal water meets around 27 per cent of the crop requirement or 16.1 lakh crore litres. The balance water is also met from ground water resources.

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Farmers bore deeper and deeper in their search for water. Since electricity to farmers is free, its cost is not a deterrent. Impact is three-fold.

One, water is not valued and over-consumed. Two, as this report in the Tribune explains, "environmental damage is incalculable as rice crop is the major contributor to pollution of aquifers and damage to the ecosystem". Three, the jump in farming costs can be attributed primarily to irrigation expenses on paddy.

If the production of rice is reduced by say 60 per cent it would release nearly 36 lakh crore litres of water. This could be diverted to growing vegetables, fruits, maize etc and water-deficit areas. Surplus water, if any, could be used to meet the needs of Delhi and become a source of revenue for a cash-strapped Punjab government

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Why Do Farmers Continue To Produce Rice In Spite Of Knowing Its Ill-Effects?

The answer lies in rice being purchased at a Minimum Support Price declared by the central government. MSP ensures that price at which farmer sells his produce is known and payment guaranteed. Unlike wheat, residents of Punjab consume very little rice but the lure of MSP is strong enough for paddy to be cultivated.

The government’s misplaced agricultural pricing and procurement policies tend to encourage the cultivation of staple cereals at the cost of equally essential pulses and oilseeds. It has skewed the cropping pattern, tilting it in favour of rice and wheat — which have virtually become cash crops thanks to assured marketing and returns.

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Rice and wheat so purchased go to the central grain pool. Costs and inefficiencies associated with their acquisition and storage are well known to require reiteration.

Also due to mechanisation of agricultural operations in Punjab, farmers are reluctant to grow fruits and vegetables because that involves hiring more labour from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh.

To put matters in perspective, Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar had asked Punjab to switch from paddy to other crops in 2012. It does not matter that Pawar, as minister and politician, failed to convince farmers of Maharashtra to stop cultivating water guzzling sugarcane.

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Farmers switched to mechanical harvesters in the 1980s. It saved labour costs but the down side is that harvesters left about 80 per cent of the paddy plant on the field.

As long as production volumes were low, impact of residue burning was insignificant. Today "about 3 million acres are cultivated for paddy in Punjab and 20 million tonnes of stubble are generated every year, said Jasbir Singh Bains, the state's director of agriculture'.

With increase in irrigation expenses, cost of fertiliser/pesticides, reduction in farm holdings farmers are unwilling to incur additional labour cost to cut paddy residue.

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Punjab Is India's Food Granary! Should It Be Subsidised?

The success of agriculture in Punjab and it's becoming the granary capital was due to domestic demand for food grains. As another report in the Tribune says, "with production increasing in deficit states (Madhya Pradesh is the second largest producer of wheat after Punjab) and per capita cereal consumption declining across all segments of the population (including poor households), India does not need Punjab's surplus rice and wheat."

According to a September 2016 India Today report: "Paddy of the traditional kind has been cultivated for long in the eastern and northern parts of the state. However, the central Narmada region, including the districts of Raisen, Hoshangabad, Narsinghpur and Harda-of late, the most prosperous areas for agriculture in MP - took to rice cultivation in a big way. Today, produce is being procured from farmers of this region by numerous branded rice companies, mainly for export."

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Times have changed. However, successive governments have used the Khalistan bogie to retain their Jat Sikh farmer vote banks and thwart agricultural reforms in Punjab.

If Punjab is to be saved from desertification, "there is a dire need of eliminating rice crop from production patterns."

Also governments must educate people that export of rice is equivalent to exporting scarce water and heavily subsidised fertilisers.

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What Must The State Government Do To Reduce Area Under Paddy Cultivation?

1. Stress on water conservation. This can be done through "rainwater harvesting, expanding area under irrigation, digging ponds on individual farms, bori-bandhs (sandbag dams) and concrete check dams to hold water in the natural depressions so that part of it percolates down to recharge the groundwater aquifer."

2. Promote micro-irrigation (through drips and sprinklers) on a war footing.

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3. Allow farmers to sell their produce freely obviating the need to bring produce to the mandi. As of April 2017, "Twenty states have amended Agriculture Produce Market Committee (APMC) Act, Punjab had not."

4. Rice mills set up under mega project category are completely exempted from mandi tax and market fee for first ten-years of operations.

5. Communicate, educate and motivate farmers to move out of rice cultivation to vegetables, fruits, livestock products, etc.

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6. Minimum Support Price for rice should not be increased in Punjab and Haryana so that it discourages farmers from growing paddy.

7. Encourage private sector companies to set up mandis, buy directly from farmers and or enter to contract farming. This way farmer risks are mitigated and better price realizations ensured.

8. Overhaul electricity distribution. Supply of free power to farmers needs to go. It is a political decision that is long overdue. In the name of helping farmers free power is actually doing them a disservice.

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9. As the Open report quoted above says, a large chunk of the loan money is not merely diverted towards essential non-farm household expenditure but also to purchase markers of affluence in an assertion of class identity". Therefore, it is important for community leaders and political leadership to make people realise the pitfalls of living beyond their means.

10. Create alternative non-farm sources of livelihood that are suited to Punjab for eg tourism, farm home stays, knowledge sharing with farmers countrywide.

Passing judicial orders, banning activities, filing cases might have limited impact. Unless the root cause is addressed there will be limited long-term change.

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The area under paddy cultivation in Punjab must significantly fall. It is a matter of survival for farmers. If that happens, a reduction in pollution levels in NCR would be an important and positive side-effect.

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