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Punjab, India's grain bowl, now reels under agrarian crisis

Gautam Dheer, June 7, 2013

Acclaimed agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan had aptly warned, “If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will go right.”

That sounding of warning bell is ringing true in today’s Punjab. The myth of the green revolution propelled by this border state in the ’80s has made way for despair. How else does one explain the complexities of the growing unsustainable agriculture, the over mechanisation of farm practices, growing indebtedness and the draining populism that accounts for free power to farming activities amid burgeoning power subsidy bills in the state?

For the record, Punjab has in excess of 11.73 lakh tube-wells as on date that guzzle out millions of gallons of underground water each day. The worrisome part is that the power supply to these ‘Godzilla machines’ comes absolutely free of cost. And when its free, there is little concern that shows which is why the ground water reservoirs in Punjab are plunging down nearly a foot each year on an average. Another 3.63 lakh applications for new tube-well connections are pending with the government. Officially, there are 10 lakh farming families in Punjab which makes more than one connection for each house. Now for all this free bounty and more, the power subsidy bill has been pegged at a whopping Rs 5,785 crore this year. In 1997, the subsidy bill was a mere Rs 404 crore. At this rate and proportion, something really is flawed in the agriculture policies of the state.

Farmers in Punjab continue to be heavily in debt. This year’s crop procurement in Punjab and Haryana was down by 25 per cent owing to unexpected bouts of rainfall towards the end of harvest season. That Punjab has turned into what is dubbed as a “cancer capital” is viewed as a direct fallout of the indiscriminate use of pesticides during farming. The genesis of the problem also lies in the mismatch at the ground level.

Take for instance Punjab’s over mechanisation when it comes to farm equipment. The state has just 1.6 per cent of the total agricultural land of country but its farmers own nearly 18 per cent of all the tractors sold in India. There are grossly more tractors and farm equipment, even in terms of the horse power, than what are needed by farmers. Punjab is home to nearly 4.5 lakh tractors while it needs just about one lakh of these based on farm needs and holdings, said sources.

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This explains not just the ‘fetish’ for tractors but also the reason for the vicious debt cycle that farmers in Punjab find themselves in. As per some reports, out of over Rs 35,000 crore farm sector debts of Punjab, more than Rs 10,000 crore is because of over spending on farm machinery. In fact, a good tractor is more than a farm utility vehicle; its a ‘style statement’ which is even given as dowry item. The subsidy on tractor purchase was discontinued five years ago in the state to discourage their overuse, but it has had little impact. A study on indebtedness by Dr H S Shergill of the Institute for Development and Communication (IDC), Chandigarh has inferred that the “rate of growth of farm debt in the last 10 years for Punjab is faster than farm incomes which in itself is an indicator of the gravity of distress in agriculture.” The study points out that 72 per cent of farm households are heavily indebted while 17 per cent are virtually in a debt trap unable to even fork out interest payments from their current farm income.

Every year an estimated 30,000 tractors are added to Punjab’s inventory. These machines, often of a much higher calibration, are grossly underutilised and unviable. Not that there are aren’t farm cooperatives that provide big machines and farm implements on lease, like the one in Punjab’s Fazilka district flaunts of a membership of over four thousand farmers. But then it’s a choice that Punjab farmers, at least most of them, don’t exert even as the price of a tractor has gone up 100 pre cent in the last five years or so.
The several lakhs of tube-wells in Punjab, and still counting, have had their toll on the groundwater table because of overexploitation. The water table in over 80 per cent of Punjab is depleting with an average decline across the state ranging between 50 and 100 cm a year. Of 138 hydrogeological blocks, over 100 are listed as dark or grey zones due to overexploitation. The central groundwater board has banned new bores in 18 blocks that had crossed the critical over-exploited mark.

Punjab is sure of the misuse of power supply to tube-wells, but doesn’t have any precise data on it. Farm holdings in the state have reduced, also because of the farmers disposing of their agriculture land to real estate sharks. In some cases, farmers retained some portions of the land just to continue the ‘perks’ of free power which they misused by supplying water commercially through tankers and even sold power to builders, sources said.

Despite record food grain production during the course of past few years, the share of agriculture and allied sectors in India’s gross domestic product (GDP) declined by over 4.5 per cent between 2005 and 2011, an Assocham report has said. In Punjab it fell by 9 per cent, in Haryana by 6 per cent, indicating the direness of the situation.


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