The Punjab government’s “free” tube-well policy has a price — the agricultural diversification plan.
Nearly 25,000 tubewells offered to farmers in the cotton belt have caused them to lose interest in the crop. With groundwater available easy, they are switching to paddy, in spite of expert advice to get rid of this water guzzler. Since January, Punjab State Power Corporation limited (PSPCL) has released 40,000 tube-well connections, mostly in the Malwa belt that grows cotton in the rabi season. It will release 40,000 more in the next three months before the model code of conduct for the 2017 state elections comes into effect.
Sangrur, Barnala, Faridkot, Mansa, Muktsar, Bathinda, Fazilka and Moga are cotton-producing districts. “With farmers required to pay no bills for running tube-wells, they tend to rely on underground water instead of canals for irrigation,” said an agriculture department officer. Agriculture director Jasbir Singh Bains said: “Tube-wells in the cotton belt are encouraging paddy cultivation. Paddy gives less but assured returns, while cotton is a risk. We can only advise farmers not to go for paddy. The shift is not great but the trend is unhealthy.”
PSPCL chairman and managing director KD Chaudhri said “as an executing agency, we have done our job”. Bains said the tube-well policy was a political decision, and the department was supposed to “perform best in the given circumstances”. He said the area under cotton had reduced to 2.56 lakh hectares from 3.4 lakh hectares. “Last season’s destructive whitefly pest attack made farmers wary of growing cotton again. The easy availability of tube-wells is motivating them to switch,” he said.
Bains cautioned farmers that the brackish, saline groundwater in the cotton belt was unfit for crops. A department advisory asks farmers to mix canal and ground water in 50:50 ratio to control irrigation water’s salinity.