CASTE-BASED khap panchayats of Haryana are usually in the news for passing regressive and, often, controversial orders in the name of honouring social customs. But this year in January, the Jhakkar khap panchayat of Jhajjar district gave a rather unusual order in the larger interest of the farming community. It ordered that all the 36 villages under it should stop growing paddy.
The reason: paddy cultivation in the region has led to severe waterlogging and soil salinity. The problem started in the 1970s when the groundwater level rose with the arrival of the Jawaharlal Nehru canal and people saw an opportunity to grow water-intensive paddy. But the rise in the level of groundwater, which is saline, led to soil salinity and rice cultivation aggravated the problem. Jhajjar is not the only district affected; an estimated 50,000 hectares (ha) of farmland in the state is in critical condition, according to official data (see ‘Threat to soil fertility’).
Ramphal Jhakkar, resident of Dhanirwas village in Salhawas block, says though he did not grow paddy, its cultivation by his neighbours destroyed jowar (sorghum) and arhar (pigeon pea) on his 3.8 ha farm last year. “If we grow other crops, we will benefit. But if we grow paddy, we lose,” he says.
This kharif season, the farmers in the villages under Jhakkar khap, with a total farmholding of 32,375 ha, hope to improve their harvest. They say that waterlogging has reduced significantly in the absence of paddy. In the 36 villages, only four households in one village, Akeri, grew paddy this season, says Maher Singh Jhakkar, general secretary of the khap panchayat. “A month ago, the panchayat met to discuss punitive action to be taken against the ‘errant’ farmers. At the time of imposing the ban on paddy cultivation, a penalty of Rs 5,100 had been agreed on,” says Singh. Finally, it was decided that people should not be forced, but persuaded to abandon paddy, he adds.
Now other khap panchayats are also considering a similar ban on paddy. The Sangwan khap panchayat, which has 40 villages under it, is one of them, says Singh. Some people say the decision is a reflection of the dominant sentiments of the farming community. “Credit should not be given to the khap panchayat alone; problems of saline water and waterlogging are old and slowly people are realising the damage paddy is causing and they are opting for alternatives,” says Inderjit Singh, an agriculture expert and CPI(M) state secretary who works with the farmers in the region.
But in most areas in the district, paddy is still seen as a profitable crop. Naveen Kumar of Bamdola village in Jhajjar block says paddy is the only option for farmers. “While the state irrigation department has been telling farmers not to grow paddy, the state is providing subsidy for seeds and fertilisers for paddy.
A farmer has to spend about Rs 20,000 to Rs 40,000 per acre (0.4 ha) and unless he grows paddy he cannot make any profit,” Kumar adds.
Additional director of Haryana’s agriculture department, B S Duggal, endorses this. “While farmers are aware of the problem of salinity due to excess paddy cultivation, they are forced to grow rice because there is no viable alternative,” he says.
| Projects to reclaim damaged land
- The Haryana Operational Pilot Project, which uses subsurface drainage system (SSD), was launched in 1994 to reclaim waterlogged and saline land. It received technical and financial assistance from the Dutch government. Under the project, corrugated PVC pipes are laid horizontally at a depth of 1.5-2 metres with a trencher machine. The salt from the surface and root zones is dissolved with fresh water, allowed to leach into the pipes and transferred to a sump well from where the saline water is pumped out into a drain. An area of 2,406 hectares (ha) was reclaimed in Gohana block in Sonepat district and Kalayat village in Kaithal district. In Jhajjar, only five villages having 300 ha are covered under this scheme.
- The Centre had sanctioned four projects in 2007-2008, costing Rs 19.06 crore, to reclaim 4,600 ha in Sonepat, Jhajjar and Sirsa districts through SSD systems. The agriculture department says an area of 3,325 ha has been reclaimed under this project. The cost of installing an SSD network works out to Rs 55,000 per hectare.
- Similar SSD projects have been launched in various districts under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, too. The state agriculture department data shows these projects were in different stages of progress as on July 2012. Construction and pipe-laying work has been completed in 2,357 ha in Fatehabad, Jhajjar, Palwal, Rohtak and Jind districts.
Jhajjar’s agriculture officer Madan Mohan insists the problem is limited to just three district blocks: Matenhal, Jhajjar and Beri. “Soil salinity is prevalent only in areas where the recharge of groundwater is higher than the rate of discharge,” he adds. He says zero tillage—sowing seeds after rains without ploughing—and subsurface drainage (SSD) of saline water are the main techniques in use for solving the problem.
Slow progress of land reclamation
Haryana and the Union government have spent large amounts reclaiming damaged farms, but to little avail. There are three main ongoing programmes to tackle the problem (see ‘Projects to reclaim ...’). Between 2004 and 2007, the irrigation department of Haryana sponsored a ditch and seepage drains scheme worth Rs 18.93 crore; this has been merged with other ongoing projects.
In 2008, the state initiated a scheme to reclaim 1,000 ha through bio-drainage—clone variety of eucalyptus trees were to be planted around fields to suck excess water—and the Centre was to defray half the cost amounting to Rs 1.5 crore. This project seems to have been abandoned. The National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) is also extending financial assistance by way of refundable loans for new drainage schemes.
Seven drains have been built at a cost of Rs 203 crore, of which NABARD spent Rs 158 crore. But the progress of land reclamation work is slow because SSD works can be carried out only from April to June and again in October-November when the fields are fallow. Availability of fresh water (for cleansing soil) and surface drains are essential for installing such systems.
The Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana also has a programme for spreading awareness about tackling waterlogging, soil salinity and to create adarsh grams (model villages). But the villages under the Jhakkar khap seem to be the only ones which have decided to abandon paddy cultivation altogether.
At present, the irrigation department has to deal with two problems arising from paddy cultivation—water theft and pumping stagnant water from fields. The department files 150 to 200 police complaints against farmers in Jhajjar for stealing water every week. A policy decision banning paddy cultivation is needed to solve the problem. Or one waits for other khap panchayats to ban paddy.