Farmers in Punjab should opt for more sustainable farming
For over 40 years now, ever since Green Revolution began, the nation has eulogised the Punjab farmer. Newspapers have reported time and again about the visible prosperity ushered in through intensive agriculture. Magazine articles have featured the opulent life style of prosperous Punjabi farmers. The story of the bygone era somehow remains transfixed in our memory, and that perhaps is the reason why policy makers, economists and scientists still continue to live in the past.
For nearly two decades now, Punjab’s underbelly has been gradually caving in. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers has turned the verdant lands poisonous, water mining has dried the aquifers leading to the expansion of the desert, and chemical fertilisers and pesticides have played havoc with the environment and human health. With the input prices climbing year after year and the output prices remaining static, Punjab farmers became a victim of the same economic policies that projected them as country’s heroes. Agriculture has become not only unsustainable but economically unviable.
Over the years indebtedness began growing to phenomenal levels. A recent Punjab Agricultural University shows as many as 89 per cent of Punjab farm households are reeling under debt. The per farm family debt stands at a staggering Rs 1,78,934. In other words, for every hectare of land holding, the outstanding debt is Rs 50,140. In my understanding, indebtedness has grown still higher in the last few years. One of the main reasons being the push for more sophisticated but unwanted farm machinery. Take the case of tractors. Once a symbol of prosperity, tractors have now turned into a symbol of suicides. With every second farm household owning a tractor, more out of prestige than necessity, the resulting indebtedness has grown.
A recent Punjab Agricultural University shows as many as 89 per cent of Punjab farm households are reeling under debt. The per farm family debt stands at a staggering Rs 1,78,934. In other words, for every hectare of land holding, the outstanding debt is Rs 50,140.
Mainline agricultural scientists cannot think beyond costly equipments and chemicals. New equipments are being introduced with regular frequency. Even the World Bank supported ‘Conservation Agriculture’ which is more or less centred on zero tillage brings its own set of farm equipments. Farmers are being asked to purchase laser land leveller; zero till planters, including the second generation ‘happy seeds and ‘turbo seeders’; rotary disc drill used for intensive soil working and of course a range of costly herbicides. And before you realise the importance of these equipments, you find over 150 fabricators and entrepreneurs descending on your farm. All such innovations add to the costs of the farmer.
Farm incomes continue to dwindle. As per NSSO 2003-04 estimates, the average monthly income for a farm family in Punjab does not exceed Rs 3,400. No wonder, younger generation is refusing to take up farming as a profession.
Increasing crop productivity and shifting to cash crops is the only solution that is being suggested to provide more income into the hands of farmers. Still struck up in the Jurassic age, some scientist-administrators have been seeking policy directions to remove small and marginal farmers, and hand over Punjab’s agriculture to agri-business. Already efforts have been made, without much success, to usher in corporate agriculture through the backdoor. For instance, ‘contract farming’ was one such approach although it is widely known that most of the private companies that entered into contracts have run away, leaving farmers in lurch. Some studies point to nearly 65 per cent of the farmers who went into ‘contracts’ with private companies saying they are so disillusioned that they would never like to burn their fingers again.
Still worse, the progressive farming techniques being displayed, and which form part of the crop diversification plan for Punjab, are all based on water guzzling crops (essentially hybrids and GM crops). Sugarcane farmers, who follow a system on cane bonding with the mills, actually are drawing 240 cm of water every year, which is two and a half times more than what wheat and rice requires on an average. Rose cultivation requires 212 inches of groundwater consumption in every acre. On an average, cash crops require five to ten times more water and three times more chemical fertilisers than what is used in wheat and rice.
Budgetary allocation must be made for improving and conserving farm lands, and coupled with monthly income package; it would provide the right kind of incentive to make agriculture profitable.
What Punjab needs is a new model of agriculture based on the principles of natural resource regeneration. Instead of bringing in the industry-driven second Green Revolution approach, which is an extension of the intensive-farming systems that has led to the present crisis, Punjab needs to take a leaf from the world’s biggest sustainable farming system being laid out in Andhra Pradesh. Within a span of six years, AP has brought in 40 lakh acres under no pesticides farming. It has set a target for increasing the acreage under sustainable farming to 100 lakh acres by 2013. Significantly, farm incomes have increased, environment has become much clean, pest attack has come down, and the health expenses too have come down drastically.
At a time when Punjab’s agriculture is at the cross-roads, it needs a radically different approach drawing from the lessons of its recent past. Here is a five-pronged strategy that can sow the seeds of revival of Punjab’s agriculture:
- Set up State Farm Income Commission: Increasing farm incomes remains the top priority. Like all other sections of the society, farmers too should have a monthly take home package. Ironically, the minimum monthly income for a peon is Rs 15,000 whereas farmers get only a fraction of this. Therefore, instead of providing him with more credit, which increases indebtedness, farmers too need assured monthly income. This cannot come from big retail (like Walmart/Tesco) which is wrongly believed to remove middlemen and thereby provide more income to farmers. Like in the US/Europe, farmers need direct income support.
- Introduce Non-Pesticides Management: To begin with, pesticides on rice need to be phased out under a time bound programme. The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in the Philippines has already accepted that ‘pesticides use on rice was a waste of time and effort”. Knowing this, the Department of Agriculture should be directed to work out an alternative farming system using biological options. Punjab needs to aggressively pursue the NPM farming systems being promoted under the National Rural Livelihood Mission by the Ministry of Rural Development. This will also impact positively the health mission that the State is grappling with.
- Restore Soil health and fertility: Over the years, Punjab soils have turned sick and the organic matter hovers around zero per cent. Indiscriminate use and abuse of nitrogen fertilisers has also created a huge nutrient imbalance. All efforts to induce balanced application of nutrients have failed to make any marked improvement. This must be supplemented by State-wide campaign to rejuvenate soils utilising the available biomass and the forgotten green technologies. It should be made mandatory for fertiliser companies to ensure green manuring, composting and use of panchgavya and jeev amrit in farming. Only a healthy soil can produce healthy food.
- Regenerate Groundwater: Considering the water crisis that looms large, Punjab must shift to farming systems that require less water. As a matter of principle, hybrid and GM crops (which require much more water) should be discouraged. Instead of pushing more farm equipments, effort should be directed to promote System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which does not require much standing water and also does away with heavy labour at the time of transplanting. Direct seeding of rice also saves a lot of water. In addition, water harvesting and revival of village ponds should be given incentives. Artificial regeneration of groundwater along borewells and wells too need adequate allocation.
- Research Priorities: Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), once the seat of Green Revolution, needs to undergo transformation in its research approach. So far crop varieties were being evolved looking into its fertiliser-response, photo-period insensitivity and the application of chemical pesticides. From inorganic crop breeding, research focus should now shift to organic breeding where varieties are developed in response to the availability of nutrients in organic form. These varieties should also respond to climate change that stares ahead. Multiple cropping systems and incorporating dairy cattle need adequate emphasis. Science must cater to the changing consumer needs rather than being driven by industry interests.
- Farm land Acquisition: No agricultural land, whether single-cropped or multi-cropped, should be diverted for non-farm purposes. Even in U.S., from where we increasingly borrow our economic policies, all efforts are to ensure that farmers do not sell off their lands for private use. U.S. has brought in a Farmland and Grazing land Protection Programme that provides economic support to farmers for not diverting their land for non-agricultural use. In the 2008 Farm bill, US has allocated $ 743 million (approximately Rs 3,500 crores) to farmers over a five-year period 2008-2012 for conserving and protecting their farm lands. Budgetary allocation must be made for improving and conserving farm lands, and coupled with monthly income package; it would provide the right kind of incentive to make agriculture profitable.