Parched Punjab

India's most agriculturally prosperous state, Punjab, is staring at an impending groundwater crisis. Over-extraction of groundwater and faulty cropping practices could affect India's foodgrain production

Published: Friday 15 October 1999

Parched Punjab

-- as a twelve-year-old, Gurdev Singh Hira, now a senior soil physicist at the Punjab Agricultural University ( pau ) in Ludhiana, saw the water in his well rise so fast that he could touch it with his hands. But as he grew up the water level went down to such a level that his parents had to abandon the well. That was in the late 1960s when the Green Revolution had firmly taken root in Punjab. The well was abandoned for a tubewell, and now as the water table continues to dip, he is planning to extract water from the deep aquifer, some 41 metres (m) below with a submersible water pump at a cost of more than Rs 50,000. "Water is today found only at a depth at 46-61 m," he says.

In the past two decades, the groundwater table in Punjab has been falling at the rate of 25-30 centimetres (cm) a year, says N S Pasricha of the soil engineering department, pau. According to a study by Hira, out of the state's area of 5.03 million hectares (ha), 4.32 million ha has a falling water problem. Going by the statistics of the state groundwater department, the area where the water depth has gone below 10 m increased from three per cent in 1973 to 25 per cent in 1990 and 46 per cent by 1994. If the water table goes below 15 m, the tubewells will stop functioning.

The State of the World Report, 1998 , published by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, says the gap between water use and sustainable yield of the aquifer is so high that the aquifer under Punjab could be depleted by the year 2025. "In almost half of Punjab, the depletion of water resources is leading to a crisis," says K K Meheta, regional director of Central Ground Water Board, Chandigarh.

The primary reason for extraction of groundwater is for agricultural pur-poses, particularly for water-intensive crops such as wheat and rice. About 60 to 70 per cent of the total cultivated land in Punjab is under wheat-rice culti-vation. The dependence on ground-water is alarming: some nine lakh tubewells pump out groundwater to irrigate and produce 60 per cent of the wheat and 40 per cent of rice of the Central pool. In 1960, just before the Green Revolution, the area under tubewell irrigation was 22 per cent. This had increased to 57 per cent in 1996.
Stooping to new lows Out of 118 community development blocks, groundwater in 62 blocks (52.54 per cent) are over exploited, eight blocks are already dark areas indicating no groundwater. Farmers who use borewells have been increasing the depth of the well by an average of half-a-metre every year.

After the Green Revolution, the farmers in Punjab abandoned their traditional cropping practice in favour of the government-supported wheat-rice cropping method. As a result, the shallow wells, traditionally used for irrigation, have run dry. While affluent farmers have started using deep tube wells for irrigation, the not so lucky have shifted to sugarcane cultivation, where the requirement for water is not so high.

Says Kartar Singh, a farmer living on the outskirts of Chandigarh: "The amount of money I have to spend in pumping out water to irrigate 28.35 ha of land leaves me with little profit. The returns from agriculture has also gone down in the last five years."

Low yield and high costs may force many farmers to abandon agriculture. "The productivity of the system is no longer sustainable for farm holdings less than 5.67 ha," says Inderjit Singh Jiyajee, convenor of the Move-ment Against Social Repression, Chandigarh, which has been spearheading a movement to protect the farmers from the declining growth. "This is the political leadership's failure as they have not formulated a pro-per water management policy," Jiyajee adds.
Official apathy Chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, however, does not think the ground-water crisis could jeopardise the nation's food security given that it contributes the maximum to the Central pool. Besides, agriculture contributes 44 per cent to the state's gross domestic product. Acc-ording to Badal, the present policy of fertiliser subsidy and free electri-city to farmers is "practical and suitable to the Indian socio--economic condition". Experts, however, say these factors are responsible for the present crisis.

"The problem is not as acute as is being projected. It is a theoretical evalua-tion and there is no truth in it," says Badal. What he seemingly ignores is his government departments' admission of the problem. Over the last three years, high level officials of the agriculture and groundwater departments have met for five times to deliberate on the groundwater crisis. "I do get this complains but don't find any logic behind this. If water is that scarce then how come the productivity is going up every year," says the chief secretary, who convened a meeting in January this year to discuss groundwater depletion in central Punjab and water-logging in the state's south-west areas.
Cropping patterns While the situation is serious, its solution - a major shift from the rice cultivation to a less water intensive non-cereal crop - seems unacceptable to the farmers. Wheat-rice cultivation is lucrative because the government supports it through massive procurement programmes, while there are none for traditional non-cereal crops. Says S P Mittal, principal scientist, Central Soil and Water Conservation Research Institute, Chandigarh: "The problem is that the government cannot force the farmers to change their cropping practices. The government totally ignores other traditional crops like maize."

"If you browse through official records, in the last three decades, the crisis has been mentioned at several places. But the euphoria of the Green Revolution followed by the problem of terrorism pushed the issue to oblivion," says a senior bureaucrat of the state. "Given Punjab's importance in the nation's food secu-rity, no political leader-ship has dared to speak the truth," he adds. "Production of rice is a political issue now and it also creates political division between rice and non-rice growing areas, like the foothills area and central Punjab," says Mittal. "A panic reaction to this crisis from the ruling political leadership may affect its electoral prospect. So the chief minister has often advised us not to go public with the data," admits a senior official of the state groundwater board who briefed Badal on the crisis last year.

According to the State of the World report, the pumping is three times more than the recharge rate. In Punjab the demand for water, keeping in view the present cropping system, has been calculated at 4.68 million ha m compared to the availability of only 3.08 million ha m. This results in a net deficit of 1.6 million ha m every year. According to a paper, Changing scenario of Punjab's agriculture: an ecological perspective written by Joginder Singh, G S Dhaliwa and N S Randhawa, the percentage of gross irri-gated areas in the state to the gross cropped area is 95 of which 62 per cent is irriga-ted by 0.88 million tubewells and remaining by canals. As the scope for the expansion of agricultural land was not there, farmers intensified cropping in the available lands. This led to an unpre-cedented growth in the intensity of the cropping from 126 per cent in 1960-61 to 185 per cent in 1995-96. The area of the wheat, during the above period, increased by 133 per cent and production by 631 per cent, and of rice by 864 and 2,889 per cent, respectively, says the study. As a result, the tradi-tional pattern of cropping was forgotten and fields are under culti-vation for almost 10 months a year. This also led to over-exploitation of groundwater, till now the major source of irrigation.

"The crisis is because of a faulty farming practice caused by a faulty long-term planning. No non-cereal crops are grown between cereals which consume less water," says Pasricha. Traditionally, the cropping pattern in Punjab was a cycle of two years farming followed by one year of fallow period. "This retained the soil fertility and also lowered pressure on water extraction," says Jiyajee.

According to a Report of the High Level Committee on Indebtedness Amongst Farmers in Punjab and Haryana , published by the Union agriculture ministry in February 1998, the wheat and rice yields have stagnated since 1988-89. In alkali soil, following reclaimation, initially rice productivity was high with high levels of input. As the years went by, rice yields declined in a site specific manner. In Ludhiana, for instance, the yield decline is evident where the yields were high initially, but not at medium and low yield levels.

Says I P Abfrol, facilitator, Rice and Wheat Consortium, Delhi, and former deputy director general, soil, the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, "All farmers adopted rice-wheat cropping since the mid-1960s because it was profitable. The soils are now exhausted." The farmers had been advised to add only nitrogen fertilisers, but phosphorous was added to the list in the 1970s. In the 1980s and 90s micronutrients like zinc was added since the soils were deficient in zinc. In 1997, iron and manganese have been added. All this costs the farmers. With increasing cost of inputs and no commensurate increase in the returns the farmers are a troubled lot today.

Bleak future
To tackle the problem of water table depletion, there should be enough irrigation network system and surplus canal water, say experts. At present, surplus water ranging from 0.4 lakh ha to 10 lakh ha per year is going to Pakistan downstream of Husainiwala headworks during July, August and September. This surplus water can be diverted to the rice fields during the monsoons. Says Hira: "Even if we could divert 30 per cent of the available surplus water during monsoons to the failing water table area (43 lakh ha) it would be able to check the fall in water table by 21 cm per year." "In Punjab the areas irrigated by canal networks has reported less fall in the water table. Studies show that Amritsar has reported less depletion of groundwater as the canal irrigates 48 per cent of the land while tubewells cover 52 per cent," he adds.

In rest of the central zone, irrigation by canals is 14 per cent and that by tubewells is 86 per cent. While com-paring the fall in groundwater from 1973 to 1994, it was observed that the area below critical water table depth of 10 m has increased marginally from 5 to 8 per cent in the Amritsar district and substantially from 3 to 56 per cent in the rest of the central zone of Punjab.

The threat of the 'water famine', it seems, stems from a more political blunder committed by policy-makers who are yet to reassess and rectify the Green Revolution even after three decades of its implementation. Says N S Tiwana, former chairperson, Central Pollution Control Board, and now the executive president of Punjab State Council for Science and Technology, "It is only a lack of imagination and vision on the part of politicians that has aggravated the situation." "It's time to go back to our ancient wisdom of agriculture which ensures high productivity without use of chemicals," he says. Adds Pasricha, "If you want to maintain the productivity of crops and sustainability of the groundwater resources, it is time to review the present cropping patterns."

It is feared that if the present rate of utilisation of underground water continues, the existing centrifugal pumping system will become non-functional in the future. Water than may have to be drawn from deeper layers, wherever possible, by submersible pumps. It will not only mean additional investment for the farmers but could lead to a sharp drop in the production of foodgrain. Unless drastic steps are taken by the state government, the people of Punjab will have to live with an unpleasant reality: little groundwater and even little foodgrain production.

(With inputs from Indira Khurana and Rajkishore Khaware).

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