Tackling Punjab's rice predicament: Balancing tradition with sustainability - Hindustan Times

Tackling Punjab's rice predicament: Balancing tradition with sustainability

By | Edited by Anish Yande
Jun 02, 2024 08:30 AM IST

Despite governmental efforts, the ban on cultivating varieties like PUSA-44 in Punjab poses a significant challenge.

Agriculture in Punjab has been severely impacted by a decline in groundwater levels, which has become a major concern for farmers in the region.

The allure of higher yields and government support through Minimum Support Price (MPS) schemes entices farmers to defy the Pusa-44 ban(HT Photo) PREMIUM
The allure of higher yields and government support through Minimum Support Price (MPS) schemes entices farmers to defy the Pusa-44 ban(HT Photo)

Groundwater is an essential source of irrigation in Punjab, accounting for 70% to 80% of the state's irrigation needs. However, the overuse of groundwater for crop irrigation and other purposes has led to a decline in groundwater levels, which has caused severe water scarcity in some parts of Punjab.

This has reduced crop yields and increased water stress for farmers, leading to a decline in agricultural productivity and income. The state government has introduced various measures to address this issue, including promoting water-efficient crops.

Rooting Out Water Woes in Punjab

Punjab's decision to prohibit PUSA-44 and similar long-duration varieties stems from these pressing concerns of groundwater decline. These strains necessitate extensive irrigation, exacerbating the state's groundwater depletion crisis. Additionally, their residue contributes to the notorious problem of stubble burning, worsening winter pollution.

“The Pusa44 variety of paddy has taken a toll on the state's groundwater resources,” Surinder S Kukal, member of the Punjab government’s water regulation and development authority, said.

“It is a wise step by the government, which should have been done long ago’. There are shorter-duration paddy cultivars, such as PR 126, which ripens in 120-125 days. The longer the duration in the field, the higher the water consumption. Replacing longer crop varieties with shorter ones will lead to water savings,” Kukal said.

“There is no yield penalty by growing a shorter duration variety of paddy. Rather, it’s a good step towards conserving groundwater, which is financially beneficial. This is because farmers have to invest in deepening the wells every 2-3 years due to a fall in the water table, and they incur huge costs towards it” said Kukal, who is also a former professor and Dean of Agriculture, Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.

Bridging Profit and Sustainability

The allure of higher yields and government support through Minimum Support Price (MPS) schemes entices farmers to defy the ban. The financial security offered by these banned varieties often outweighs sustainability and environmental impact concerns.

“PUSA 44 is increasingly preferred by farmers in Punjab because of the higher yield from this variety. This variety takes 155-160 days to mature. It would require an additional 120-150mm of water compared to shorter-duration varieties like PR 126,’ said Dr Dinesh Kumar, executive director of the Hyderabad-based think tank, Institute of Resource Analysis and Policy.

He said: “No doubt, the ban on this variety makes sense from the point of view of groundwater conservation, as it can save 1200 m3 of water per ha of paddy”.

District-wise disparities further complicate enforcement efforts. While some regions have seen a reduction in PUSA-44 cultivation, others, like Barnala and Sangrur, exhibit stubbornly high adoption rates. Floods and untimely transplantation have influenced farmers' choices, highlighting the intricate interplay of environmental factors and agricultural practices.

Despite the ban, challenges persist due to existing seed stocks and entrenched farming traditions. “The ban's impact can be seen in crop yield and net farmer’s income. Ideally, the long-duration varieties would produce a much higher yield and, therefore, more profits. Surely, if the farmers have to compromise on their income, there would be protests against a ban if it is strict and effective. Otherwise, they would try to circumvent the ban and find ways to obtain the seeds illegally,” said Kumar, who has extensive research experience working on groundwater issues in South Asia.

Seeds of Change: Navigating Policy Challenges in Shifting Away from PUSA-44

Many farmers retain seeds for future use, circumventing restrictions on seed sales. Moreover, the shift towards sustainable alternatives requires policy interventions and concerted efforts in education and awareness-building.

“PUSA 44 has a higher yield and better rice recovery. Therefore, farmers and millers are concerned about reducing their present margins, especially in central Punjab districts where PUSA 44 dominates. But it takes longer to mature and uses more water and thus 30% more subsidised power. Besides, it generates somewhat more residue than other varieties. Therefore, it has an overall higher social cost of production,” said Sukhpal Singh, professor and former chairperson of the Centre for Management in Agriculture (CMA), Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Ahmedabad, Gujarat.

Addressing these challenges demands a multifaceted approach. Agricultural experts advocate for shorter-duration, water-efficient varieties as viable alternatives. Institutions like the Punjab Agricultural University offer recommendations and support for transitioning to more sustainable practices.

“Policy steps are needed to align various standards across the paddy rice value chain to make it more reasonable for all stakeholders. Farmers can get a window for the third crop in many areas due to the use of non-PUSA 44 varieties,” Singh said.

“Further, the state should go beyond varietal change to options like expanding the area under Basmati and other high-value crops to save water, help farmers earn more, and not be bound by just MSP-driven land extensive low-value crops. The social costs of the prevalent cropping pattern should be contrasted against private gains,” said Singh, who is also the founding co-editor of the International Journal, Millennial Asia, which focuses on agricultural issues in Asia.

However, effecting change necessitates patience and persistence. Farmers, deeply rooted in tradition, require time to adapt to new methods and mindsets. Public awareness campaigns and targeted guidance are crucial for fostering understanding and acceptance of sustainable alternatives.

Ultimately, the issue transcends mere agricultural policy; it embodies a delicate balance between tradition and sustainability. While bans and regulations are necessary, long-term solutions hinge on empowering farmers with knowledge and resources to make informed choices for a more sustainable future.

Anjal Prakash is a Clinical Associate Professor (Research) at Bharti Institute of Public Policy, Indian School of Business (ISB). He teaches sustainability at ISB and contributes to IPCC reports.

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