I traveled to Ludhiana not so long ago to deliver a lecture at a well known academic institution there. My talk was about how climate change threatened our agriculture and food security and how urgently we needed to make agriculture sustainable. The discussion threw up many predictable responses about how taking steps towards “sustainable” agriculture would reduce farm incomes and could not be done. The farmers of Punjab are on a treadmill of targeting higher and higher yields, with no intention of getting off , never mind the cost. Their scientists are not giving them much help either, to break from destructive practices and get off the poison path.
The Punjab farmer is self destructing and harsh as it sounds, the cause is his greed, his unwillingness to settle for less. For the last 50 odd years, the farmers have mined all the nutrients from Punjab’s soils in unrelenting cycles of wheat followed by rice, followed by wheat cultivation. The non stop two and even three crop cycles per year ensured that the soil was never allowed to recover, yoked as it was to constant output. When all the nutrients got used up and the organic matter disappeared from the soil, the amounts of chemical fertilizers put into the soil, rose steadily every year, killing any semblance of natural biological balance in the soil. The soil became hardened and died because all the good bugs and friendly worms that keep the soil alive and healthy, fell prey to overdoses of chemicals. When that happened , the application of urea , phosphates and potassium (the prescribed NPK formula) increased even further and the dead soil became merely an inert matrix that held the chemicals which the growing plant could suck up.
If the fertlisers killed the soil, the chemical pesticides slowly began to kill the farmers and their families. Enough has been carried in the media about the horrific phenomenon of the Cancer Train, the Abohar- Jodhpur passenger that takes cancer patients to Bikaner for treatment . Dealers of seeds and chemical inputs are selling ever increasing amounts of pesticides. In Abohar alone, dealers sell about 500 litres of pesticides every day. The tragic result is that there are on average, four to five cancer patients in every village in this region. Children struck by cancer are being taken for chemotherapy on the cancer train but the use of pesticides does not stop. The farmers of Punjab cannot dream of giving up the prosperity that their farms brought them, they do not seem to care about the cost.
My exasperation in the discussions with farmers there was with their attitude. True, debts are mounting because of the resource intensive agriculture they practice but even after seeing their families destroyed by disease and death, their attitude was that there is no choice. The vicious cycle has to continue because the farm must continue to produce more and more. Faced with such calamities as they are, one would imagine they would have the courage to break with business as usual, however hard that might be, and try to find a new way. But stepping back and taking a cut does not seem to be an option. The land must yield profits and it is expected of the government to find solutions.
One of the most perverse developments in Punjab has been establishing rice as one of the two principle crops of the region which is a semi arid region where no rice was cultivated till well after independence. This region simply did not have enough water. Rice is essentially a crop of the wetter ,eastern part of the country which is also the birthplace of rice, its Centre of Origin. Then came the Green Revolution with its high yielding varieties and the Punjab farmer moved to make the most of this opportunity. Misled by their scientists who should have known better and by their politicians , all of whom were sons of the soil and should certainly have known their agricultural history, Punjab adopted rice and cultivated it with ground water. Its political leaders negotiated with Delhi that Punjab’s grain would be lifted for the central pool , thus ensuring a market for the produce.
Punjab which has less than 2 percent of India’s arable land, now produces almost fifteen percent of the country’s food grain. This is achieved through a relentless wheat – rice double cropping pattern, with no rest for the fields to recover. There is a high, almost staggering level of inputs which the Punjab farmer pours into his fields in every crop cycle. This includes fertilisers, pesticides and water. The use of water in this essentially semi arid region has been a recipe for disaster but nobody in policy making seems to care or to have the gumption to do some straight talking to the Punjab farmers to move out of rice.
The water guzzling rice, a crop which was not even cultivated in this area till 1950, and should never have been allowed to be cultivated here, has become Punjab’s main kharif crop, soaking up groundwater at unsustainable rates , as it provides a large surplus for the central grain pool. Today, several studies show that Punjab is overdrawing its ground water by almost 50 percent every year. The groundwater is depleting rapidly, by as much as one meter every year in some areas.
It is not just the kharif rice crop, Punjab has for years cultivated summer paddy which was planted in the blistering heat of summer much before the monsoons came. This crop could only be cultivated with an almost criminal level of groundwater use. Not surprisingly, this led to several blocks of groundwater in the Punjab being declared ‘black’ or irretrievably exhausted. It is only in the last few years that the cultivation of summer paddy has been banned in Punjab, due to grave water concerns. It might have been done too late.
Punjab farmers will have to understand the trap they have created for themselves by committing themselves to the rice- wheat cropping patterns. They must work together with scientists, policy makers and farmers from other parts of India, to find solutions to the situation they find themselves in. Global warming and climate change are all set to destroy the wheat crop over the next decades. Wheat being an extremely temperature sensitive crop is particularly vulnerable to temperature rise. Its productivity will decline unless temperature tolerant cultivars are developed and deployed soon. This does not appear to be happening, or at least not fast enough.
Diversifying the crop base and the kinds of varieties deployed must assume urgency. There can be no further cultivation of rice, not at least in the current manner. Biodiverse agriculture resting on a broad genetic base and investment in improving the severely degraded natural resource base must assume priority. Punjab farmers will have to step back from the intensive, ‘without- a- pause’ type of agriculture they have practiced these last 50 years and allow their land and water to recover . If they can scale back and build a new model of agriculture that is sustainable, they can enjoy a new lease of productive farming.