Punjab is often highlighted as a prosperous place. It is the land of five rivers, and happiness, health and wealth. The land is fertile and the motivation of the people exemplary. Punjab is truly an experience to emulate.
But then, there is another side to the story. Anyone who has driven beyond the ‘prosperous’ locations, or attempted to understand the real scene, cannot help but see some harsh realities. In the last one year, what I saw on farmers’ fields and heard from them, presented a picture far from the perception. In the last three decades, Punjab’s soil has been contaminated by pesticides and fertilisers used liberally to grow hybrid crops. Groundwater is heavily polluted and village ponds have dried up. Cancer and other ailments are common, I am told.
At one farmers’ gathering recently, where I was present, only one among 40 farmers was able to say that he has traditional seeds that he has saved. In this age of market-driven agriculture practices, farmers often forget mixed or multi-cropping, which is the essence of agro-biodiversity.
Why are traditional seeds and agro-biodiversity important? Growing a variety of crops at the same time on one farm, with hardy and local seeds, ensures health of the soil, as crops complement nutrient intake and outflow for the soil. Moreover, with the unpredictability of rain and weather patterns, there is the assurance that at least half of the crops on the farm will survive and a farmer’s family will not go hungry.
Traditional agro-biodiverse farming literally means there is no external input. There is no need to buy seeds, fertilisers and other inputs from the market, so the investment involved is more of time and labour. In the present pattern, external dependence, crop failure and lack of an appropriate price have led farmers into a debt trap.
Many farmers across the country are committing suicide, with Andhra Pradesh and Maharashtra among the worst cases. We never hear that of Punjab. Why, I wonder. So many farmers I have met in the last couple of years have told me of a number of instances where farmers in Punjab have taken their life, as they could not find a way out of the mess they were in.
I wish what I had witnessed and what the farmers of Punjab told me were not true. But having seen it for myself, it’s hard to accept the platitutdes that all is well in the land of the five rivers.