No viable options: farmers in Punjab forced to persist with paddy, go against the grain
Farmer Baljinder Singh showing poor quality water used for farming at Dhaula Village, in Punjab. File | Photo Credit: R.V. MOORTHY

Rice growers in the State are keen on cultivating other crops but lack an assured market and guaranteed returns

Pruning poplar trees on his three-acre field that stands on the banks of the Sutlej river in Punjab’s Maniewal village, about 30 km from Ludhiana, Raghvir Singh, 53, explains why he stopped cultivating paddy.

A change in the flow plan of the Buddha Nullah, which merges with the Sutlej, seems to have been the cause. It had led to industrial effluents from Ludhiana entering the canal and pollute the water used for irrigation. “Several farmers like me were forced to make the switch from rice cultivation owing to the dearth of clean water. I planted the (poplar) trees three years ago,” he says.

A poplar tree, whose wood is used in the plywood industry, provides about five quintals of wood over five to 10 years. Each quintal fetches ₹500 to ₹700, he says. “This can compensate for the shift from paddy to an extent but demand for the wood is uncertain. We don’t have an assured market and have to depend on private traders and agents. But in the case of paddy, we feel safe as the government procures the produce at the minimum support price (MSP),” he says.

Rice growers in the State say they are keen on shunning the water-guzzling crop and cultivating alternative crops that will curb the depletion of groundwater, reduce input costs and prevent stubble burning. However, the lack of assured procurement and guaranteed returns are forcing them to persist with paddy.

Demand for MSP

Traditionally, Punjab was not a rice producing State. However, farmers began cultivating paddy during the green revolution, helping fill the godowns of the Food Corporation of India and ensuring food security in the country.

Out of the 881.32 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of paddy procured in the ongoing kharif season, as of August 31 this year, 125.48 LMT have come from Punjab. In the previous seasons, too, Punjab topped the list of contributors to the nation’s granaries. Around 31.33 lakh hectares of land in the State is under paddy cultivation.

To produce a kilogram of rice and wheat, 5,000 litres and 2,500 litres of water is required, respectively, leading to the overexploitation of groundwater. Several farmers’ organisations have been supporting the efforts of the Centre and the State to implement crop diversification and demand that the crops that replace paddy be procured at MSP.

“Along with paddy cultivation, a system of agriculture was imposed on us. Farmers had to buy new machinery, fertilisers and pesticides. A new market system was also introduced. Now, farmers can’t go back to growing other crops,” says Joginder Singh Ugrahan, president of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta Ugrahan), one of the largest farmers’ groups in the State.

‘Sowing of wheat hit’

Dr. Ajmer Singh Brar, principal agronomist (water management), Punjab Agriculture University, says water shortage owing to overexploitation of groundwater poses the biggest threat to paddy cultivation. He says despite efforts to implement crop diversification, cultivation of paddy has been on the rise since 1974. He says adoption of less water-intensive crops such as maize, cotton and certain fruits would be possible only with financial and technical support from the government.

Dr. Brar says paddy cultivation is affecting the sowing of wheat too. “In several fields, the formation of hardpan is impairing plant growth as it prevents roots from absorbing water and nutrients from the soil. Specific tractors have to be used to break the hardpan before sowing wheat. This adds to the farmers’ input cost.”

No takers

In Fazilka, once known as the ‘California of Punjab’ for its rich varieties of cotton, fruits and grains, farmers growing cotton, fruits and sugarcane are not finding any takers.

Jagtar Singh, a farmer near Abohar, says, “I tried growing vegetables without success. I grew radish on three acres, but the crop failed due to a disease. I incurred a loss of around ₹2 lakh last year. My father had made the shift from paddy to vegetables in 2005, but he also suffered losses. Debts are mounting. We are forced to cultivate paddy.”

Mr. Singh adds that cotton growers are also finding it tough to sell their produce as two private cotton mills have moved out of the district. “The Cotton Corporation of India is also not regular in making procurement,” he says.

Harminder Singh Sekhon, a farmer from Dharang Wala village, who cultivates paddy on nine acres of land, says the lack of a planned irrigation system has left large tracts of land infertile. “Cotton cultivation had become a loss-making endeavour owing to frequent pest attacks. We made the shift to paddy in 1998, but now most of our land lies barren. We can’t return to cultivating cotton or sugarcane even if we want to,” he says.

'No procurement yet'

Baljinder Singh, who owns a farm near Barnala, has been fighting against the discharge of effluents into farms. “Effluents have polluted the groundwater. We used to harvest about 3,500 kg of rice from one acre. Now we get just half of it. Plants have become unhealthy. The water in around 25 bore wells is polluted,” he says.

Efforts to grow fruits, vegetables and cotton have proved economically unviable, Mr. Singh says. “We even cultivated green gram as the government promised to buy it. No procurement has taken place yet.”

Date: 24-Sep-2022