Punjab's farm crisis a tragic irony

Punjab, the food bowl of the country, is faced with a paradox of plenty. Ever since the launch of the Green Revolution in 1966, Punjab has been producing a record grain surplus year after year. Yet, over the years, it has turned into a graveyard for its farmers. There is hardly a day when reports of farmers committing suicide do not appear in Punjab newspapers.

Take a look at the food procurement figures for 2017-18. Of the total wheat procurement of 308.24 lakh tonnes, Punjab had contributed 117.06 lakh tonnes, thereby providing more than 37% of the country's wheat requirement. As for rice, for which the procurement season is still in progress, Punjab had contributed 174.35 lakh tonnes till November 28. This is 67% of the total rice procurement of 258.18 lakh tonnes.

In other words, Punjab continues to be the top contributor to the national food kitty. Whichever year, and regardless of the extent of climatic aberrations, Punjab has dutifully delivered food for the country.

Now hold your breath. A bumper grain production year after year belies the grave tragedy that has been worsening with each passing year. According to a survey by Punjab Agricultural University, as many as 16,000 farmers and farm labourers have committed suicide in the past 17 years, between 2000 and 2017 - an average of about 900 suicides per year. Of these, 83% committed suicide distressed by a mountain of unpaid debt; and 76.1% of them owned less than two acres of land.

Every third farmer in Punjab is below the poverty line. Still worse, nearly 66% of these farmers and farm labourers who took their own lives were young. Surely, like all young people, they too had dreams. What made them to abruptly end their lives?

As if this is not enough, the Punjab government has gone back on its electoral promise to waive off Rs 2 lakh from each small farmer's outstanding debt. It has now clarified that if the outstanding loan of a small farmer, owning less than five acres, is even Rs 100 more than Rs 2 lakh, he will not be eligible for the loan waiver.

The tragedies that have struck many families in rural Punjab symbolise the agony that the entire farming community is living in. Those who have refrained from taking the extreme step are no better. They continue to somehow survive, living under acute stress, mental agony, depression and hoping against hope. Still, the bigger question that remains unanswered is, how can the nation's food bowl turn into a farmers' graveyard? How can Punjab be in the deadly grip of an unending agrarian crisis?

That such a tragic serial dance of death is being enacted in a state that is considered to be the most prosperous as far as agriculture is concerned tells us clearly that the crisis is the outcome of an inherently flawed farming model.

I have heard agricultural economists and policymakers often blame low crop productivity, failure to diversify crops, and lack of irrigation. But, in a state which has 98% assured irrigation and where the per hectare yields of wheat and paddy match international levels, those cannot be the reasons for farmers' suicides. Instead, it's the opposite - high crop productivity-linked intensive farming model - that's to blame.

Deeper crisis

As per Economic Survey 2016, the per hectare yield of wheat in Punjab stands at 4,500 kg/hectare which matches the wheat yields in the United States. In the case of paddy, the average yield is 6,000 kg/hectare, quite close to productivity levels in China. With such high yields and with abundant irrigation available, why should farmers be dying?

To say that these farmers are lazy, drunkards or do not spend the loans for the purpose they take cannot be true. If it were so, I see no way Punjab could have topped global crop productivity; or how Punjab could feed the entire country with its grain surplus every year, and that too continuously for the past 50 years.

Punjab is in a terrible crisis because of the economic and development policies that encourage intensive agriculture. To meet its food requirements, erstwhile Punjab (including Haryana, which later split) became the focal point of a highly intensive agriculture, beginning with wheat, rice and then followed by a shift towards cultivation of cotton as a cash crop.

While intensive farming played havoc with soil fertility, necessitating application of more chemical fertilisers, excessive use and abuse of chemical pesticides has contaminated the food chain as well as the environment.

The tragedy is that we haven't learnt any lessons. As if this is not enough, the effort now is to push Punjab deeper into the environmentally harmful web of agri-business, which requires more intensive farming, adding to more greenhouse gas emissions. It's like moving from the frying pan literally into fire.

What Punjab desperately needs is to move away from the intensive cropping system. It requires a shift in the research mandate of the PAU, accompanied by policies and programmes that encourage farmers to shift without suffering any economic loss.

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