Wheat bowl of India faces a grim future in agriculture

Workers remove dust from wheat at a wholesale grain market in Chandigarh. (Reuters File Photo)

Nirmal Singh, a small farmer from Sirsiwala in Mansa district of Punjab, lost his son to suicide a few years ago. He has about two acres of land. His family of five, that includes his three daughters, is reluctant to talk about the tragedy. 

Over the last decade or so, Singh has spent lakhs of rupees digging deeper to extract groundwater.

The farmer was aware of Punjab’s groundwater crisis but expressed helplessness. “How else will I bring up my crop? I have an uncertain life ahead,” he said.

Such stories are no longer uncommon in the frontline agrarian state of Punjab, where a bumper crop year-after-year has been the norm.

But in the process of sustaining high production, the state may have created an environment that is responsible for the current distress.

Many of the state’s farmers are caught in a spiral of escalating input costs, diminished land holdings (45% farmers have less than five acres), increased labour costs (up to Rs 3,500 per acre) and susceptibility to crop failure. 

Here is a look at some of the factors that contribute to this situation: 

Groundwater crisis

A recent draft report of the Central Ground Water Board suggests that the state’s existing groundwater resources, till a depth of 300 meters, are likely to be exhausted within the next three decades. 

As things stand, close to 79% of Punjab’s underground water area is in a dark zone due to overexploitation, according to figures from the state’s Soil and Water Conservation Department. Out of 138 blocks, 109 blocks are ‘over-exploited’. Only a minuscule 22 blocks remain in the safe zone so far.

Punjab’s farmers are highly dependent on tube wells. The number of tube wells has seen a fivefold jump from close to 2.8 lakh in the 1980s to over 14.5 lakh now. Free power has added to the proliferation and overuse of tube wells. “Farmers spending heavy amounts to sink new tube wells to find water increases input costs adds to the unsuitability of agriculture,” said agriculture expert Hamir Singh.

An estimated Rs 27,000 crore has been invested in this by farmers in the last two decades, he added.

Rigid cropping pattern

Over-reliance on the traditional wheat-paddy cropping pattern has also taken a toll, primarily affecting the small and marginal farmers, who make up the bulk of the state’s farmers.

Government estimates reveal that at least seven districts in Punjab have shown soil degradation due to this cropping pattern. The soil is alkaline and high in potassium, and unsuitable for paddy cultivation in some places. But farmers are hesitant to look beyond the two price-assured staples.

“Crop diversification is seen as an answer (to problems of soil and water). But out of 23 crops which have MSP (minimum support price), only two or three have assured lifting. That’s why farmers continue the wheat-paddy traditional crop cycle rather than diversifying,” Hamir Singh noted.   

Farmer suicides in Punjab

Farmer organisations such as the Bharti Kisan Union (Ugrahan) say over 1,000 farmers and farm labourers have committed suicide in the last 2.5 years, despite the government’s announcement of a debt waiver of up to Rs 2 lakh for farmers with small landholdings and for farm labourers. Another report by three state universities found that over 10,000 debt-ridden farmers and labourers had committed suicide between 2007-17.

Jitender Singh, a farmer from Kalia in Punjab’s Sangrur summed up the situation: “Farm labour cost has increased. The recent flooding of several thousands of hectares has grounded the crop. Relief by the government will be negligible against the input costs. The farmer now will spend more again in the fields.”

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