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Saving Water, Punjab Style

Punjab cannot survive without its underground water, which is fast depleting due to widespread paddy cultivation

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The Punjab government is doing a lot of posturing in the name of defending its river water rights. This is reflected in the termination of Inter-state River Waters Agreements, denotification of land acquired for the Sutlej Yamuna Link (SYL) Canal construction, a state rally in Moga on 8 November named "Pani Bachao Punjab Bachao (Save Water, Save Punjab)" and hoardings of Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal with vows that he would defend Punjab's rights.

At the same time, the Shiromani Akali Dal's old ally INLD is issuing threats about blocking all roads to Punjab in case SYL's construction does not begin by the end of February 2017.

Politics in Punjab has always been around river waters flowing to the so-called non-riparian states. One of major reasons behind the rise of militant separatist movement during the nineties was the perception of the Centre's discrimination against Punjab in river water distribution.

But no political party, government or civil society has ever shown its concern for the depletion of underground water. Punjab cannot survive without its aquifers of underground water, which are fast depleting due to paddy cultivation. This crop shall turn Punjab into dust bowl because it not only consumes water, it prevents rain water seepage also.

The Punjab government is making claims in its public advertisements that Punjab is the only state in India which gives free power to its farmers. This advertisement also mentions the amount spent on providing free power. It amounts to 32,000 crore rupees so far, with annual budget outlay of 5,000 crore.

What kind of saving of waters is possible when the state itself is encouraging a water-guzzling model of farming based on free power? Today, paddy is grown in Punjab on 3 million hectare land. In erstwhile sand dunes of southwest Punjab, it has replaced cotton as a major crop. Last year's whitefly attack on cotton and the Punjab government's announcement of 125,000 new tubewell connections made paddy a new fetish in the cotton belt.

This is in addition to 1.3 million tubewell connections already operating in Punjab. These 1.3 million tubewells exploit underground, fresh, clean, potable water in the months of May, June, July, August and September and flood the water pans called rice fields. But what is the water cost of this paddy? An average Punjab farmer uses 5,337 litres of fresh potable water to produce one kilogram of paddy.

Profit margin for this one kilogram paddy (700 grams of rice) is one rupee and 93 paisa, according to 2011 prices as given in the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP) data. The case for paddy in Punjab is poor economics, bad policy and myopic politics.

Removing Punjab from the business of paddy production will not affect India's food security adversely because majority of paddy procured in the state is of poor quality, with high pesticide residue along with huge overhead costs of storage and transportation.

Punjab cannot sustain such unnatural model of agriculture based on underground water irrigation and it is a fit case of food bankruptcy in the near future. On the other hand, introduction of new PUSA Arhar 16 developed by the Indian Agricultural Research Institute on the same scale can provide new dimension not only to food security but nutrition security as well.

This variety can solve many problems created by paddy. Arhar is a kharif crop and it can be a good replacement of paddy. It is leguminous crop and it can restore the soil health. It requires little use of pesticides. It will produce great protein bank for the region and its water cost shall be negligible. It will bring much more real income in the pockets of farmers than any other cash crop. The solution to Punjab's water woes lies in shifting from paddy to pulses. But such solutions require patient, tedious, unglamorous approach, for which the Punjab government does not seem to be ready.

Disclaimer: The views expressed in the article above are those of the authors' and do not necessarily represent or reflect the views of this publishing house. Unless otherwise noted, the author is writing in his/her personal capacity. They are not intended and should not be thought to represent official ideas, attitudes, or policies of any agency or institution.

Tags assigned to this article:
punjab parkash singh badal agriculture water food security

Amanpreet Singh Gill

Dr Amanpreet Singh Gill teaches Political Science at Sri Guru Tegh Bahadur Khalsa College, Delhi University. He has authored four books including 'Non-Congress Politics in Punjab'. He writes about literature, politics, history and agriculture of Punjab

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