Ground water depletion is seriously threatening paddy cultivation in about two-thirds of the 57 lakh hectares on which the staple is cultivated in West Bengal.
According to a top-secret report prepared by the West Bengal Pollution Control Board, the need of the hour is to switch to less water-intensive crops like wheat, oilseeds and pulses.
West Bengal, one of India’s rice bowls, is expected to produce about 15-16 per cent of the country’s 2010-11 paddy crop of 100 million tonnes. If three-fifth of the area currently under paddy in the state become unfit for its cultivation over the next 20-40 years, it can potentially reduce India’s output by 10 per cent and cause huge social and political unrest.
Already, about two lakh hectares of land have already been diverted to these crops, but the state government is wary of introducing radical changes, especially as the issue can become an emotive one during elections due next year.
State Agriculture Minister Naren Dey reacted cautiously to the report. “We are lagging behind in the production pulses, oilseeds, wheat. Last year West Bengal couldn’t cultivate paddy in two lakh hectares due to poor monsoons. This year, too, the monsoons are bad. So, we’re trying to utilise the land for the production of pulses, oilseeds and wheat, which required relatively less water,” he said.
Paddy, a water-intensive crop, uses more water than is being recharged by monsoons. Hence, the ground water level is going down fast.
Pradip Sen, joint director, agriculture (research), government of West Bengal, told Hindustan Times: “We should prepare area-specific alternative crop calendars, keeping in mind the underground water situation of that area, the socio-economic condition of farmers and the suitability of the soil. While pulses may be the best crop in a particular zone, oilseeds would be the best crop in others...”
But in a state where paddy is often likened to Goddess Lakshmi, and rice is overwhelmingly the most popular cereal, a massive long-term cultural and social sensitisation programme will be needed before such alternatives become acceptable to the common man.
But unless the government acts fast, it may soon run out of options.