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Guest column: Why paddy MSP hike will hit Punjab’s efforts to save water

Farmers do need help but Punjab and Haryana have to weigh if continuing with paddy is the right way forward, given the shrinking water resources and their mismanagement.

punjab Updated: Jul 06, 2018 11:06 IST
Punjab,paddy MSP hike,Punjab and Haryana
The paddy MSP increase, no matter how high, cannot compensate farmers for the loss of groundwater. (HT File)

The Rs 200 a quintal hike in the minimum support price (MSP) of paddy comes as a setback to water conservation efforts that are already less than adequate in Punjab and Haryana. It will now become more difficult for experts to persuade farmers to shift from paddy to less-water consuming crops.

Some 70% of available water is used in agriculture and the rest for other purposes. Growing urbanisation and industrialisation also make increased demands on water for domestic and commercial use but paddy remains the chief culprit in this region. To make the present a little less painful for farmers, the MSP hike decision will contribute to endangering their long-term future since water is basic not just to agriculture but also to survival.

Farmers do need help but Punjab and Haryana have to weigh if continuing with paddy is the right way forward, given the shrinking water resources and their mismanagement. Right treatment is possible only after a proper diagnosis. There are other reasons for anger in villages, too. In Punjab, 50% of the population produces 15% of the gross domestic product (GDP). Farm productivity is low. Underemployment is massive. Over-dependence on agriculture has to be curtailed. In the US, only 4% of the population is engaged in agriculture at present, down from 70% in the early 20thcentury.

Power and water

They say, “Whiskey is for drinking, water is for fighting over”. Given the prolonged battle over the sharing of river waters, both Punjab and Haryana realise how important water is to their agriculture-based economy. But emotional flare-ups seen in the fight over the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal vanish when it comes to saving or tapping other sources of water.

The water crisis has also been aggravated by electoral politics. Instead of paying more for alternative crops such as maize, oilseeds and pulses, successive governments in Punjab have encouraged paddy cultivation with free power, crippling their own finances and that of the Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL), apart from encouraging waste and a glut of grains without creating sufficient space for storage.

There are other implications. The MSP hike will stoke inflation, driving the Reserve Bank of India to raise interest rates on loans. The cost of capital will go up for everyone. Rice prices will rise not just for the poor but also for marginalised farmers who are forced to sell their entire produce on harvest to pay off bills, clear debts or arrange social functions such as weddings and then buy food for personal consumption at higher prices.

High and dry

The paddy MSP increase, no matter how high, cannot compensate farmers for the loss of groundwater. Led by economic compulsions and greed for acquisitions beyond necessities, they recklessly exploit water resources to extract maximum from an exhausted soil. Submersible tubewells and pumps have become a norm, adding to the cost of production. Then stubble-burning adds to air pollution. The MSP does not factor in costs involved in preserving water, air and public health.

In Haryana, some khap panchayats have passed resolutions to stop paddy cultivation. Farmers in states other than Punjab, Haryana and western Uttar Pradesh do not have the benefit of assured procurement and MSPs. Farmers there do not overspend on tractors and farm machinery. There is no free power. Suicides are rare. The use of drugs and intoxicants is relatively less.

There is a dominant mood of helplessness in Punjab. Innovation and risk-taking, seen in the pre-Green Revolution days, are missing. The farmer is fighting for survival. Governments and farmer organisations do not look beyond an MSP for a solution.

After the loan waiver and freebies, the government is left with little to rescue farmers in distress or check the collapse of farm prices.

Only votes count

Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) does not have enough funds for fresh research or fund a credible extension service.

Panchayats make no efforts to preserve village ponds or raise their voice against the declining water table or the incidence of cancer. Farmers rarely protest for better schools, functional hospitals or even unpolluted drinking water. Alternatives to increase farmer incomes are not on their agenda.

Like voters, like leaders. Elected representatives do not lead but are led by vote banks. In power, they don’t do what is in the long-term interest of the state but what is necessary to win the next election.

On the one hand, politicians in power spend public money to create awareness about saving water, while on the other they insist on a higher MSP and provide assured power to promote paddy cultivation. There is no visible effort to reverse Punjab’s economic decline. None in the political leadership has a plan to discontinue unhealthy farm practices. And experts have little say in policy-making.

(The writer is an Amritsar-based veteran journalist)

nirmalssandhu@gmail.com

First Published: Jul 06, 2018 11:03 IST