From plate to plough: Reviving Punjab’s groundwater, and agriculture

By Ashok Gulati, Bharat Sharma & Purvi Thangaraj

The people of Punjab need to be complimented for giving a clear majority to the Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) in the Assembly elections. Bhagwant Singh Mann, as the AAP’s elected chief minister, has a golden opportunity to put Punjab back on track for high & sustainable growth, lower corruption and freedom from the drug mafia. Only then can Punjab regain its happiness and prosperity. Mann has already vowed to root out corruption, but so far, he has not revealed his blue print for agriculture—a sector in which Punjab was once the front-runner, having ushered in the Green Revolution, but has been languishing lately.

We attempt here to sketch out the key issues in Punjab’s agriculture, the factors that have driven Punjab to this situation, and what could be potential solutions for greater prosperity with sustainability.

The biggest problem facing the state’s agriculture is fast-depleting groundwater and its degrading quality. Over the last two decades (2000-2019), the groundwater table in Punjab has receded by 9.2 metres, the highest amongst all major states (see graphic). Groundwater stress is the highest in Punjab even in terms of the stage of groundwater development, with 78% of the assessment units being categorised as ‘over-exploited’ and the remaining falling under critical (4%), semi-critical (6.7%), and safe (11.3%) categories. Moreover, within Punjab, in districts like Sangrur and Barnala, it has fallen by 24.8 metres (see graphic). This is nothing short of a plundering of groundwater, and literal robbing of the rights of the state’s future generations. On top of this depletion is rising degradation of water quality. Fluoride and nitrate contamination is directly linked to excessive use of fertilisers. Intensive use of urea and other nitrogen-bearing fertilisers leaves residual nitrates, which leach into the groundwater. Punjab also faces high uranium concentration in groundwater (CGWB, 2021), linked to anthropogenic factors leading to cancer incidence. There is an infamous “Cancer Express” that goes from Abohar to Bikaner. This trend must be arrested and reversed, if we have any love and respect for our children and grandchildren. Interestingly, Mann comes from Sangrur, and any reforms in this should start from his home district.

But how can we do that? Let us first understand the drivers behind this downward spiral. Punjab’s success in the Green Revolution led to an explosion of tubewells in the state during the 1970s and 1980s; later on, in September 2001, the government announced free power for farmers. Paddy cultivation, which was already on the rise, became more entrenched with assured and open-ended procurement by the government at MSP. Massive subsidising of urea (~75% of the cost) further lured the farmers into urea overuse, in a race to increase productivity. It is these subsidies on power, fertilisers, and open-ended procurement at assured MSP that made paddy more profitable compared to competing crops like maize and kharif pulses. Today, Punjab’s famous dishes, ‘makki ki roti aur sarson da saag’ and ‘dal makhni’, are not supported by its own cropping pattern, which has become largely a paddy-wheat rotation. It must get out of this for its own prosperity and sustainability of its agriculture.

The solution lies in moving away from paddy to other remunerative, less water-intensive crops. Today, paddy is grown on almost 3.1 million hectares in the state; this must be cut by almost half, if not more. It cannot be done overnight. But Mann has five years to convert his dreams into reality. A five-year plan, as a New Deal for farmers, can be chalked out. Punjab has the highest irrigation cover (~99%). It can go massively toward horticulture and other high-value crops with fertigation (drip irrigation with soluble fertilisers). This will immediately cut down water depletion and environmental degradation. But a horticulture revolution requires significant participation by the private sector—in building efficient value chains, from farmers to consumers. Punjab can target airlifting of horti-produce for countries in the Persian Gulf. It is a agri-surplus state, and must market produce beyond the government procurement. MSP needs revamping. Agri-marketing start-ups must be supported to market ‘Grown in Punjab’ produce in metros, and, of course, for exports. Horticulture requires a chain of cold storages, reefer vans, AC outlets, along with agro-processing. This is a great investment opportunity.

Punjab’s dairy is doing well, with the highest yields in the country. It must build on that with more value-added products, from lassi and makkhan to kulfi etc. Punjab can also emerge as a centre for buffalo meat export to Southeast Asian countries. Replacing some paddy farms with dairy/fodder farms is water-efficient, too.

Basmati rice and wheat can continue with more value addition and branding. Pulses and oilseeds, wherever fit, must be rewarded by extra incentives given directly to farmers for saving groundwater, using less subsidised urea, less power, and cutting down on methane and nitrous oxide emissions.Per hectare DBT for switching from paddy to pulses and oilseeds would be the way to go (not MSP-bound procurement by government agencies). This is like creating carbon credits and rewarding farmers for that through innovative policies. That would be the road to farmers’ prosperity with sustainability. The challenge for Mann is to create policies and scale up pilots, especially in the hotspot districts in central Punjab that can save groundwater and cut down emissions while making farmers more prosperous.

Respectively, Infosys Chair professor, senior visiting fellow, and research assistant, ICRIER

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