Paddy in Punjab, Part 2: High-cost farming is degrading quality of soil, driving small farmers to ruin

Editor's note: Punjab's priority for paddy has not been an entirely favourable business for the state's agriculture. This series examines the potential threat to the sector from skewed paddy cultivation, challenges faced by small cultivators, and the alternatives available on the field.

Chandigarh: With the planting of the new paddy crop underway in Punjab, Balour Singh of Sangrur district's Channa village is worried about the hourly fee of Rs 150 he needs to pay his neighbour for supplying water to his fields. Being a marginal farmer, Singh doesn't own a borewell and has to depend on others for water, which is something his paddy crop needs in plenty.

But water isn't Balour Singh's only problem. He depends on hired hands for planting, transplanting and harvesting the crop on his two-acre field, which is also becoming increasingly expensive. Thousands of small farmers in Punjab who cultivate rice face mounting costs of production with every passing year.

The number of land holdings in Punjab total 10.93 lakh, of which 2.04 lakh (18.7 percent) are marginal farmers, 1.83 lakh (16.7 percent) are small farmers and 7.06 lakh (64.6 percent) hold more than two hectares of land. Their input costs include labour, seed, machinery on rent, pesticides, harvesting and rent where the farmer doesn't own sufficient land.

Labourers work on a paddy field in Punjab. Firstpost/Sukhcharan Preet

Labourers work on a paddy field in Punjab. Firstpost/Sukhcharan Preet

The state government provides free electricity to farmers to pump groundwater to their fields. This power subsidy costs the state up to Rs 6,000 crore every year. While the political compulsions have prevented successive governments from withdrawing the subsidy, small and marginal farmers who cultivate small plots derive little benefit from it.

Degraded soil, increasing costs

The Punjab soil and water conservation department says that with the wheat and paddy cropping pattern introduced by the Green Revolution, soil quality has degraded and water resources depleted. "If this trend continues, these resources are likely to degrade and deplete even further, and we will not be able to sustain the production levels we have achieved thus far," its report read. "The soil in Punjab has been degraded by its over-exploitation to maximise food production. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers, insecticides, pesticides, etc. has destroyed the physical structure of the soil, leading to its decreased water holding capacity and friable and loose structure."

It further noted, "The macro and micro, fauna and flora of the soil have been affected, and soil building agents have been largely affected, leading to poor fertility and production capacity of the soil. This has also led to emerging biological (insects, diseases, weeds) and physical (water, soil, salinity etc.) stress, thereby increasing costs of input and declining productivity and profitability levels."

"(With) the opening up of the globally competitive and quality-conscious market, it is doubtful that the farmers of Punjab would be able to survive in this competition by continuing with the rice-wheat based economy," it added.

And yet, the government continues to incentivise paddy cultivation in the state. It provides a minimum support price (MSP) of Rs 1,550 for common paddy and Rs 1,590 for 'A' grade paddy to the farmers. Eminent economist Prof Sucha Singh Gill told Firstpost that machinery was not used as widely earlier like it is today. "At least 40-50 percent farmers in the state were once dependent on canal water, while now, the dependence is only 22 percent. The rest of them have powerful motors installed to pump groundwater into the fields. These motors are either run on free electricity provided by the government or on diesel generators. Harvesting machines are also hired on high rent. Pesticides, chemicals as well as manure all come at a high cost, all of which add up to input cost of cultivation of paddy," says Gill.

While the state government has promised uninterrupted power supply to rice farmers during the sowing season, the farmers themselves claim that such promises aren't fulfilled, thus forcing them to use generators to pump water. Gurpreet Singh Kangar, state power minister, said that Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) is prepared to meet exigencies and to ensure eight hours of uninterrupted power supply to the farmers every day. "The maximum demand recorded last year is 11,705 MW in July, which was a challenge to meet, but was met successfully by optimally arranging power from all the available sources. In 2018, we anticipate a maximum demand of 12,290 MW per day," he said.

Marginal farmers burdened

Singara Singh from Rureke village of Barnala district said he took on 10 acres of land on lease for the season to grow paddy, at a cost of Rs 27,500 per acre. "I am forced to run the water pump on a diesel generator, which increases my input cost, due to which my profits by selling the crop decreases," he says.

He said that an eight-hour power supply will not benefit the crop during the initial days when farmers need water for at least 16 hours. Farmers' unions in many parts of the state held protests and demonstrations against the state government recently, demanding 16-hour uninterrupted power supply.

Agriculturists say Punjab's soil has been thoroughly exploited and it's time that options other than the rotation of wheat and paddy crops are considered, in order to restore the soil's health and productivity. "Even if farmers use chemicals to increase the yield of paddy, it cannot be denied that the crop is not only draining groundwater but is also polluting it due to pesticides used," says professor Gian Singh, a prominent agronomist.

He said the burden of high costs falls disproportionately on small and marginal farmers. While the input costs for small farmers owes largely to rented machinery and even land in many cases, he said, big farmers own large tracts of land and most of them own machinery as well. "Debt has caused nearly 14,000 farmers in the state to commit suicide in the last 15 years," said Gian Singh.

Jarnail Singh, a farmer from Badra village in Barnala district, said he owns 7.5 acres of land and used to grow 20 quintals of paddy on one acre of land. "With mechanisation and better quality seeds and fertilisers, the yield has now increased to 40 quintals, but input cost has also increased, thus reducing profits," he said.

Also read:

Part 1: Over-cultivation of water-guzzling rice crop threatens to deplete state's groundwater reserves

Part 3: State’s farmers discover there is life beyond rice and wheat, take to animal farming, fishery

The author is a Punjab-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.


Updated Date: Jun 30, 2018 10:37 AM

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