Guest column: Punjab victim of treading the path of national food security
Having worked for the national food security, Punjab now finds itself facing economic and environment crisis. Instead of providing badly needed solace, the state is being curtly asked to fend for itself.Updated: Mar 07, 2018 10:13 IST
It was shocking to read newspaper headlines on February 23 that NITI Aayog has curtly refused to support Punjab agriculture to come out of distress. Having served the nation for its food security at the cost of its natural resources and well being of its coming generations, it is beyond comprehension of Punjab of being told that it should secure the income of its farmers at its own and not to worry about the nation.
Should the state have had closed its eyes to national interests or should the nation not worry about the difficulties being faced by a state which resulted from its serving a national cause? Until a few years ago, in most of the policy discussions, the state was sermonised to produce more staple foodgrains — paddy and wheat. But now it has become fashion to advise to focus on horticulture, pulses, oilseeds, livestock, poultry etc., without any policy support with a few exceptions, though the state has been crying for help since long.
The green revolution was neither accidental nor only technology-led. It was realised through improved technology package and well-planned multipronged strategy. Higher productivity and profitability led to expansion of area under wheat and paddy and increased production. India not only became food self-sufficient but also emerged as foodgrain exporting nation.
Over-exploitation of ground water
Paddy, though not a traditional crop of Punjab, practically wiped out several traditional crops. However, in this process, Punjab paid heavy price in terms of over-exploitation of its groundwater resources, besides adversely affecting soil by mining nutrients. In spite of promulgation of ‘Preservation of Sub-Soil Water in Punjab Act 2009’, groundwater table still declined at the rate of 83 cm per annum during 2014-16. It has become an extremely serious issue threatening our future. Paddy straw management emerged as another challenge.
The courts and tribunals are pressing the state government for paddy straw management without burning, which costs about Rs 5,000 per hectare.
Completely forgetting that Punjab was led by national policies and it did its duty by responding to the clarion call of meeting the challenge of national food security, the state has been bluntly told to address these challenges at its own.
A committee headed by Dr SS Johl submitted proposal in 2002 to the Centre that farmer should be compensated by Rs 5,000 per acre for replacement of paddy by a less profitable crop.
No financial support for diversification
The Centre is providing no financial support to diversify cropping pattern, so critical for conservation/amelioration of natural resources for sustainable development of agriculture, which is as important for the future as was green revolution 50 years earlier.
Also at stake is the livelihood improvement of Punjab farmers. As agriculture progressed, income of the farmers increased. As per NSSO survey of 2012-13, the income from agriculture of an agriculture household in Punjab is the highest (Rs 16,349 per month) among all states. It implies that the farmers have relatively better living standards. Further, in view of progress in other sectors of economy, they also aspire for betterment of their livelihood through remunerative prices and higher productivity.
In recent years, there has been glut in production of basmati, pea, cauliflower, carrot etc. and an unprecedented crisis over three years for potato. A small increase in area and production of these crops caused marketing upheavals and loss to farmers. Further, in crops like maize, the produce sometimes fetches as low prices as about 60% of MSP. How the farmer, a rational decision-maker, can be expected or convinced to shift to less profitable crops without any financial and other policy support when they are already distressed and committing suicides.
Evidently, technology is available in most of alternative crops, and policies (remunerative prices, market infrastructure and assured marketing etc.) are required to drive area from paddy to alternative crops and engineer production shifts. Further, large-scale shift to high-value crops should not be expected due to demand constraints, lack of market infrastructure, higher risk and low level of value addition and processing in these crops.
Nobody heeding Punjab’s pleas
Nobody is heeding Punjab’s pleas for support to encourage diversification. A committee headed by Dr SS Johl submitted proposal in 2002 to the Centre that farmer should be compensated by Rs 5,000 per acre for replacement of paddy by a less profitable crop. After presentation and discussions with Planning Commission and others, the proposal was swept under the carpet.
Alternatively, the promotion of high-value crops through contract farming was proposed for which a meagre amount of Rs 25 crore was released. Another Rs 500 crore was released for diversification in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh during 2013-14. But in the absence of consistent policy tangible results are neither expected nor achieved.
Technology generation in Punjab, an important engine for growth, is also going to be impacted adversely as more than 100 positions funded by ICAR in PAU have been withdrawn during the last 3 years. Further, the public investment in agriculture research at national level has recently dwindled from 0.8% at the end of 12th Plan to 0.4% of agriculture GDP in 2016-17 (desired level is considered to be 1-2%).
Keeping in view the decreasing per capita availability of land and water resources and high agricultural productivity and cropping intensity in Punjab, work force in agriculture has to be engaged in other sectors to augment their income. For that, industry and services sectors have to grow. Unfortunately, there has been no significant growth of industry during the last one and a half decades, thanks to tax incentives given to the neighbouring hill states.
Agro-processing is the only viable option. Punjab strongly deserves to be provided level playing field for at least agro-based industries in the sub-mountainous and border districts.
Having worked for the national food security, Punjab now finds itself facing economic and environment crisis. Instead of providing badly needed solace, the state is being curtly asked to fend for itself.
If the state does not deserve any support now, a question arises why it was earlier put on a path detrimental to its long-term interests? Evidently, for the sake of the nation. If so, does not the nation owe something to Punjab now? Will somebody answer a fundamental question: Did Punjab commit a mistake of treading on the path of national food security, so essential for national territorial security, and also advise on: (i) How should Punjab force the farmers to opt for alternatives which may lead to lower the standard of living than that at present, and (ii) how to develop at least agro-based industry when tax benefits are being given over years to industrial sector in adjoining hill states?
(Dr Dhillon and Dr Sidhu are vice-chancellor and registrar, respectively, of Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana)