Sustainable agriculture: Punjab needs policies to support crop diversification

Sustainable agriculture: Punjab needs policies to support crop diversification

Growing maize instead of paddy can reduce water use by 60-70%

The economy of Punjab is mainly agro-based where 85 per cent of the geographical area comes under agriculture. 

It has a cropping intensity of about 184 per cent and traditionally, the farmer used to follow the maize-wheat or sugarcane-maize-wheat cropping pattern. But during the last two decades, they have shifted to the wheat-rice cropping pattern, leading to increased demand for irrigation water and over-exploitation of groundwater resources. 

This shift was mainly due to relatively higher returns and more stable yield of paddy and wheat. 

To produce a kilogram of rice and wheat, 3,000 litres and 1,350 litres of water is required respectively.

Prolonged adoption of this system resulted in land and water degradation in the state. Tubewells have been installed at a depth of 200 feet to extract groundwater for irrigation. Water from the lower aquifer has a high concentration of heavy metals, making it unfit for consumption and agriculture.

Therefore, the threat that water crisis poses to Punjab’s agriculture sustainability necessitates adding new dimensions that focus on water source sustainability with the policy narrative. 

Crop diversification aims at replacing water-intensive cropping patterns with less water-intensive crops depending on agro-climatic conditions. Water availability is being viewed as a felicitous strategy to mitigate agri-water challenges in Punjab. 

The less water-intensive crops include maize and kharif pulses with wheat intercropping. The benefits of crop diversification are many, studies indicate. Among them are groundwater conservation, revitalisation of soil, improved productivity, ecological gains and employment generation.

Despite the benefits, farmers are reluctant to adopt less water-intensive crops.  The various challenges in adopting a crop diversification strategy are: 

  • Lack of support for current effective policies on minimum support price and assured price and procurement, with respect to experimenting with less water-intensive crops
  • Public procurement of crops other than paddy and wheat non-existent
  • Lack of awareness among farmers regarding existing MSP for alternative crops
  • Infrastructural inefficiencies and inadequate public-private investments in agriculture infrastructure
  • No large storage facilities (cold storage) for alternative crops such as fruits and vegetables by the state government
  • Requirement of increased capital investment for machinery for alternative crops
  • Alternative crops, Unlike wheat and paddy that are the country’s staple food, suffer from a lack of comparable demand and easy marketability
  • Crop diversification is highly incompatible with modern commercial farming that comprises large farmlands (> 2 ha)
  • Rational use of machinery and available labour force will be a challenge for adoption of new crops / enterprises 

Extraction of groundwater to produce 1kg of rice and wheat causes emission of 895 gram and 418 gm of carbon dioxide equivalent respectively.

This makes it imperative to switch to alternative crops. 

Possible alternative cropping systems include maize, kharif pulses, cluster beans, oil seeds and basmati rice; wheat, gram, barley, peas, carrot; eucalyptus (waterlogged conditions only) poplar / based agroforestry system. 

Growing 1 kg of maize, for example, in place of paddy requires only 900 litres of water and the extraction causes 268.2 gm of CO2e emissions. Thus, potentially, water use will reduce 60-70 per cent and GHG emissions 60-65 per cent. 

Suggested policy reforms for widespread adoption of crop diversification and doubling farmer’s income include: 

  • Designing optimal crop plans that may recommend alternative cropping patterns. This will maximise net returns, significantly reduce water use and GHG emissions
  • Assuring ruminative prices or MSP and mandating public-private procurement on stipulated prices for less water-intensive crops
  • Promoting local institutions such as Gram Panchayats, NGOs and cooperative societies to use regional cropping systems favourable to existing soil and weather conditions
  • Incentivising farmers to adopt alternative crops
  • Ensuring credit availability at a minimum rate for crop diversification
  • Promoting a subsidised micro irrigation system for crop diversification in water-stressed regions
  • Promoting extensive training and awareness campaigns among farmers on crop diversification
  • Identifying and strengthening supply chains and value chains to create ample market for alternative crops 

Creation of appropriate storage technologies for alternative crops can also be helpful. Price difference payment schemes or even a procurement holiday for water-intensive crops will go a long way. 

Qazi Syed Wamiq Ali is an associate, Ernst & Young LLP and a consultant with the department of drinking water and sanitation, Union ministry of Jal Shakti (water resources), New Delhi.

Views expressed are the author’s own and don’t necessarily reflect those of Down To Earth.

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