The farmers from the state of Punjab, now under the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government, can be held responsible, single-handedly, for pushing back critical reforms that would have benefited the agricultural sector across the country. Citing an imaginary threat from the private sector and a dependency on the minimum support price (MSP), impossible to sustain, however, the farmers, aided by the Congress party in Punjab and AAP government in Delhi, sat on protests for more than a year at Singhu border. Eventually, the government in the centre relented, withdrawing the laws.
Less than a year later, the naïve activism of the farmers of the state is coming back to haunt them. Large parts of the country were reeling under an unnatural heatwave earlier this year, with temperatures in the late forties. In Punjab, this has resulted in a significant decline in crop yields, around 13.5 per cent on average as compared to the previous year. The wheat yield, per hectare, was registered at around 42.07 quintals against 48.68 quintals last year. The damage to the crop was most extensive during March, just when the crops were ready to be cut.
As per reports, all districts in the state have reported a decline in yield. In Fatehgarh Sahib, the yield fell by 30 per cent, by 23 per cent in Patiala, 22 per cent in Nawanshahr, and in Sangrur and Ropar, by over 21 per cent. Most districts have reported a loss of more than 10 per cent in yields. The total wheat output of the state, consequently, suffered, given only 151 lakh tonnes were produced against 175 lakh tonnes expected.
The situation on the yield front, for now, is not alarming. Thanks to free power and water in the state, the crop-wise yield (in kgs/hectare) for rice went from 1,009 in 1960-61 to 3,229 in 1990-91 to 4,132 in 2018-19. For the same years, wheat went from 1,244 to 3,715 to 5,188. Due to the fertile region, and a thriving irrigation network, the state’s crop-wise yields (kgs/hectare) are 4,733 against 2,661 for all of India in cereals, 905 against 841 for all of India in pulses, and 1,467 against 1,270 against all India in oilseeds. The problem is with free water and unchecked usage of power, burning a large hole in the state’s revenues.
Over the last 10 years, close to 30 per cent of the electricity generated in the state has gone to agriculture. At a national level, this share is closer to 20 per cent. The taxes generated from APMC mandis have been instrumental in sponsoring free power.
The question is, what if the yields fail to keep up with the climate change and heatwave like events, each year, causing a dent in the state revenues that have been instrumental in sponsoring the free electricity? In 2018, the power subsidy cost the state exchequer more than Rs 10,000 crore. For a state with a debt of over Rs. 2.5 lakh crore, and with its government begging the centre for helicopter money, this subsidy model is not sustainable.
Even if one is to dismiss the heatwave as a one-off event, and discount the impact of climate change-related patterns, the falling water levels are going to have an impact on the yields in the future. In Punjab, groundwater extraction for irrigation alone exceeds 90 per cent, more than in any other state in India. Barring Rajasthan, the most over-exploited blocks in terms of groundwater are located in Punjab. Of the 138 assessed blocks in Punjab, as stated in the Dynamic Groundwater Resources Assessment of India – 2017 report, 109 are over-exploited, two as critical, five as semi-critical, and only 22 as safe.
The total annual groundwater recharge of the state was assessed as 23.93 bcm (billion cubic metres), annual extractable groundwater resource as 21.59 bcm. Still, the annual groundwater extraction was at 35.78 bcm, putting the extraction at 166 per cent, the highest for any state in India. Even for Rajasthan, it’s less than 140 per cent. Thus, a lot of farmers, unable to afford the costs of groundwater extraction, are already shifting away from paddy, a water-intensive crop, but that will push them away from MSPs as well. This is where collaborations with the private sector would have aided.
For the farmers of Punjab, the heatwave and the consequent fall in yields serves an important lesson-that of not dismissing the role of the private sector, the hardware and software they can bring, the technology they can inculcate within the farming process, and the agile response they can formulate for the next decade as extreme climate change patterns become a routine.
The farmers could have also been aided with farm inputs, helping farmers with research on plant/animal life sciences and genomics, farm equipment for rent on a pay-per-use basis, for farm management by helping them with geospatial data, IoT devices and sensors, robotics, in farm mechanisation, in modern farming techniques like indoor farming, greenhouse systems, drip irrigation, and in post-harvest produce handling through quality check and storage and transportation. Come Diwali season, the helplessness of these stubble burning farmers will again be visible, citing a lack of resources to rent critical equipment.
Simply put, farmers of Punjab, spoiled by the annual MSP transfers, will not be able to grow wheat and paddy as they have for the last six decades, even if they choose to leach off the land for every single drop of water. Tough years ahead for the farmers of Punjab, and they have no one else but their own foolishness to blame for it.
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