Punjab needs another Kairon; free power must stop: Rice revolution pioneer Gurdev Singh Khush
Having spent much of professional life on developing high-yielding varieties at International Rice Research Institute at Manila, Prof Gurdev Singh Khush has won all top research awards, save the Nobel Prize.punjab Updated: Mar 06, 2018 10:16 IST
He hails from Khatkar Kalan, the ancestral village of legendary martyr Bhagat Singh. While the latter gave his life for India’s freedom from the British, Prof Gurdev Singh Khush, as one of the pioneers of rice revolution, has played a stellar role in the world’s freedom from hunger.
Having spent much of professional life on developing high-yielding varieties at International Rice Research Institute at Manila where his portrait adorns the main airport, Khush has won all top research awards, save the Nobel Prize.
Currently, he is an adjunct professor at University of California, Davis, but his heart still beats for Punjab. On his annual outing to his home state, the 84-year-old spoke to Executive Editor Ramesh Vinayak and Senior Assistant Editor Manraj Grewal Sharma on challenges facing Punjab’s agriculture, and the way forward. Excerpts:
How do you define the crisis in Punjab’s agriculture?
Misuse of our resources is the root of the crisis. We have depleting water aquifers; the soil is no longer productive. We have taken out all the organic matter from the soil, it’s down to 0.4% when it should be above 3%. Our nitrogen use efficiency has also gone down. Salinisation is affecting southern Punjab. Our farmers are using free electricity to pump more water than required. I spoke to Parkash Singh Badal when he was chief minister, about the need to stop free power (to farm tubewells), but he said he couldn’t roll it back. Somebody has to bite the bullet and stop free electricity. Punjab farmers can afford to pay their electricity bills. In the long term, climate change will also affect Punjab adversely. The Himalayas are heating up at double the rate of the rest of India. When the glaciers start retreating, we will start losing our water resources.
Why is farming no longer profitable?
Our productivity is stagnating due to the improper use of water and fertilisers, while the cost of production is going up every year. Punjab’s farmers are in a bind. The crop production here is comparable with other countries, but, nationally, our productivity is much lower. Even Bangladesh has better rice productivity than us.
In a rather blunt message to the state, Niti Ayog has said it does not need Punjab’s foodgrains for national food security, and that farmers should be encouraged to sell their crops in the open market. What are your views?
This means the productivity of grains in eastern India and Madhya Pradesh is going up. The production of wheat in MP, for instance, is quite high. The demand for foodgrains is bound to fall after people reach a certain level of prosperity. People will then demand more vegetables, milk, and meat. We should start thinking of alternative crops right now, even though the switch may take several years. And we have to start reducing the area under wheat and paddy (rice).
“The state government incurs a bill of Rs 7,700 crore (a year) for free power. The state should not foot this bill.”
Can farmers be convinced to switch to other crops without an accompanying minimum support price?
The solution is to grow alternative crops. If you can provide MSP for other crops, it will be good. Wheat can be replaced with mustard. We import oil worth billions. Mustard is one crop that can reduce our imports.
You led international research that revolutionised the rice productivity the world over. But, ironically,rice is seen today as a villain of the piece in Punjab. Why?
Yes, I have heard rice being blamed for all kinds of problems, including cancer, which is an exaggeration. But rice has caused the depletion of aquifers. We must reduce the area under rice from 3 million acres to 1.5 million acres in the next few years. North China faced the same problem, and the government finally put an end to rice production there. Soybean can be a good alternative to rice. It’s an oil and protein crop, which is very productive and can yield an average of 4 tonnes an acre. I have been urging Punjab Agricultural University to breed a soybean variety that can be grown successfully in Punjab. Hybrid maize is also a good alternative as it is great feed for poultry and animals.
There is an indication that the central government may completely do away with MSP. What do you think about that?
If that happens, farmers will no longer be that determined to grow wheat and rice. Scrapping MSP may do some good.
Why has much-talked about diversification failed to take off in Punjab?
We have been hearing about diversification for several years but nothing has changed on the ground. Farmers continue to grow wheat and rice because of the MSP and high profitability. Punjab’s agriculture owes its profitability to rice, and the state government gave free electricity; why would a farmer not grow rice!
Prime Minister Narendra Modi has promised to double farm income by 2022. Is that possible?
No, I don’t think that will happen, because there are too many people dependent on agriculture and the farm sizes are too small to be profitable. The only way you can double farm income is by moving a lot of people from farms. China did that by moving farmers with 1-acre landholding to construction industry and other fields. Major investments in livestock industry can make a difference but unfortunately we can’t export meat.
What do you think of farm suicides?
I understand these are due to farm indebtedness, and that itself is due to two reasons. One, every farmers wants to buy a tractor even if his landholding doesn’t justify it. I wonder why banks give loans to such small farmers knowing that they don’t need a tractor and wouldn’t be able to repay the loan. Also, there is the problem of unproductive loans due to the practice of ostentatious marriages, et al.
Capt Amarinder Singh’s Congress government came to power on the promise of farm debt waiver. Is that a solution?
They are doing this to get more votes. But where are they going to get the money for paying off this debt? I think it is not a solution but a political promise.
The Centre wants Punjab to club all the subsidies and pay them directly to the bank account of individual farmer. Will that work?
I don’t know about other subsidies but, if this can stop free power, it will be a very important step. The state government incurs a bill of Rs 7,700 crore (a year) for free power. The state should not foot this bill. It’s an unnecessary burden. No economist will agree to this. Where will be funds for any development if the government spends so much on free power? There should be meters on motors (tubewells).
Coming to tech generation, public investment in agriculture research was 0.8% at the end of the 12th Plan, but it was slashed to 0.4% in 2016-2017. What’s your take?
How can you double farm income without investing in research on new varieties? Then there is the national policy on not using GMO (genetically modified organism) crops even though these can improve farm productivity. But someone in the government can’t make up his mind. Very senior professors in the US have written to both former PM Manmohan Singh and the present PM Modi, but to no avail. GM mustard is excellent, but the government of India has not approved it even though it imports GM canola oil from Canada.
“Our schools can’t produce any scientists, but the government can bring about a change if it has the political will.”
What do you think of the role of Punjab Agricultural University in the present scenario?
PAU was one of the top universities of India with very good research; but it has declined. That is very unfortunate. Two-three years ago, the V-C did not even have funds to pay the salary or pension of his employees.
The share of agriculture in rural employment stands at 64%. Most farmers would like to quit given a choice. Why do Punjab youngsters want to go abroad instead of tilling the fields?
Our farms are so small that our youngsters don’t want to work on them. Also, there is no industry left in Punjab. Be it Jalandhar, Batala or Goraya, industry has died because the government paid no attention to it. There is a problem of quality of governance.
What would be your advice to the Punjab government?
I think the Punjab government has to pay proper attention to PAU and ensure better research for diversification. If you can’t stop free electricity at once, do it step by step. It is very important for the future of Punjab’s agriculture. The state government is doing a great disservice to Punjab farmers by giving them free power. I hope Capt Amarinder will do away with it. The government must also improve the state of schools in villages. It is pitiable. Our schools can’t produce any scientists, but the government can bring about a change if it has the political will. There are two big examples of what one good leader can do. Former chief minister Partap Singh Kairon introduced ‘murabbabandi’ (land consolidation), while Lachhman Singh Gill built a network of link roads. We need another Kairon or Gill to improve the state of our agriculture and schools.
Why did you not join PAU as a vice-chancellor even though successive state governments approached you?
I didn’t think I would be able to work with the politicians here. I don’t think I could work under the conditions here. Also, I enjoyed my research so much that there was no reason for me to change my course.