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Sowing the seeds of an agrarian crisis

The future is grim for Punjab, the food bowl of India, if the state does not change its agricultural strategy.

india Updated: Jan 02, 2013 22:55 IST

In a recent interview with this newspaper, agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan rightly warned,”If agriculture goes wrong, nothing else will go right.” With over 2.9 lakh farmers ending their lives across the country in the past 15 years, and now with reports about two farmers committing suicide every day in Punjab, we are staring at a grave crisis on the farm front.

The problem has now extended its deadly reach to Punjab, India’s food bowl. Amid reports of a record harvest of wheat and rice, the state increasingly faces a terrible agrarian crisis. The paradoxical situation is reflected in an alarming rate of farm suicides. A study jointly conducted by Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, Punjabi University, Patiala, and Guru Nanak Dev University, Amritsar, estimates that more than 7,000 farmers and farm workers have taken their lives in the past 10 years.

While farmers are being blamed for low crop productivity, which is leading to distress, in Punjab it is just the opposite. Despite high productivity, heavy mechanisation and a massive application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, farmers are at the receiving end. Strangely, suicides are happening in a state which has more than 95% cultivable area under assured irrigation. There is something terribly wrong here.

Like elsewhere in the country, mounting indebtedness has been cited as the main reason. While input prices have risen tremendously over the past two decades, farm prices have more or less remained stagnant, if one were to adjust for inflation. The United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) data shows that farmgate prices internationally have remained frozen for the past decade. Under such harsh economic conditions, it is futile to expect intensive farming, based on high application of external inputs, to turn profitable for farmers.

Heavy mechanisation has remained the bane of Punjab’s agriculture. It crossed the threshold level long ago. Acute paucity of farm labour is visible but to promote sophisticated and expensive machinery to address the labour shortage problem has not paid off well. Take, for instance, the case of tractors. There was a time when the tractor was a symbol of pride. Today it has turned into a symbol for suicide. At a time when every second farmer household owns a tractor, about 20,000 big tractors, now of 60-90 horse power, are sold every year. Instead of setting up small farmers’ cooperatives and companies for custom hiring, the thrust is on subsidising expensive machines for individual farmers to buy.

Though now the focus is on shifting at least 12 lakh hectare land from paddy to maize and other cash crops in order to reduce pressure on groundwater, a ‘more of the same’ technological approach is unlikely to address the fundamental problem of growing unsustainability. It is well recognised that much of the crisis in sustainability is the outcome of excessive use and abuse of chemical fertilisers and pesticides, which cause irreparable damage to soil, water, the environment and human health. With the average consumption exceeding 6,900 tonnes per year, Punjab is the largest consumer of chemical pesticides in India. I have seen farmers growing crops without pesticides in a separate portion of their farms for personal consumption. But for the markets, they literally douse the crop in pesticides.

In a study, the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines had sometime ago concluded that there was no need to spray pesticides in rice. Farmers in the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh and India have produced better rice crops without using chemical pesticides. At least a beginning could have been made to reduce pesticide consumption in rice. Similarly, in the case of cotton, which consumes more than 50% of the total pesticides applied, the emphasis has remained on promoting the sale of genetically-modified Bt cotton seeds. Still, pesticide consumption is on the upswing.

Intensive farming has promoted excessive mining of groundwater. As a result, more than 4.5 lakh submersible pumps have been installed to pump out water from a depth below 300 ft. The alarm bells on drying aquifers have gone unheard. Till efforts are made to revisit the farming strategy and make corrective decisions based on the underlying promise of restoring sustainability and enhancing economic viability, I don’t see a bright future for farming in Punjab. The tragedy is that those who are responsible for the crisis are being asked to provide solutions.

Devinder Sharma is a food and agriculture expert. The views expressed by the author are personal.