Paddy puzzle: Why Haryana farmers, govt fight over the water-guzzling crop

As Haryana once again attempts to curb area under paddy to save groundwater, farmers point out flaws in its efforts

By Shagun
Published: Friday 03 July 2020

A unique tussle has been going on between the Haryana government and the state’s paddy farmers for quite some time now. After encouraging farmers to grow paddy for more than 50 years since the Green Revolution, the government now wants them to shift to other crops.

It said paddy, being a water guzzler, is responsible for the rapid decline in groundwater across the state. Between 1966-67 and 2018-19, the area under paddy across Haryana has increased by 654 per cent; by comparison the area under wheat has increased by 244 per cent, oil seeds by 194 per cent and total food grains by just 29 per cent, according to the Economic Survey of Haryana 2019-20.

During the same period, between 1974 and 2018, the state reported an average water table drop of 10 metres. The decline has been steep in paddy-rich districts like Fatehabad, Kaithal and Kurukshetra where, as per the state’s Ground Water Cell, the average water table has dropped by 30 m, 23 m and 19 m respectively.

For the past two years, the government announced lucrative schemes ahead of the kharif season to encourage farmers in paddy-rich areas to grow less water-consuming crops like maize and pulses. But they have not shown much interest.

Last year, the state launched the Jal Hi Jeevan Hai scheme on a pilot basis in seven blocks, each in a different district, where the groundwater table dropped by 12 metres between 1999 and 2018; the average fall across the state was 10 m, said the Ground Water Cell of the state agriculture department.

The aim was to wean off 50,000 of the 87,900 hectares under non-basmati paddy that are known water guzzlers. It offered the financial assistance of Rs 2,000 per acre (0.4 ha), free crop insurance and assured procurement at the minimum support price (MSP).

Yet the scheme received a lukewarm response. “We received a request for 40,000 ha, but crop diversification happened in just 12,000 ha,” said Suresh Gahlawat, the state’s additional director of agriculture.

On May 9 this year, the government relaunched the scheme under a different name, Mera Pani Meri Virasat, and increased the incentive amount to Rs 7,000 per acre. Though any farmer in the state can benefit from the scheme, the government is targeting eight paddy-rich blocks — Babain, Ratia in Fatehabad district, Siwan and Guha in Kaithal, Shahabad and Ismailabad in Kurukshetra, Pipli and Sirsa in Sirsa district — where the groundwater level has dropped below 40 m.

The Central Ground Water Board classified these blocks as ‘dark zones’. As per the scheme, farmers in these blocks will be eligible for the benefits only if they restrict paddy cultivation to 50 per cent of the land and grow less water consuming crops on the remaining.

The order spurred agitations and protests. In Fatehabad, some 3,000 farmers staged a tractor march. Leaders of the opposition Congress party took on the government for the decision when farmers are already under distress due to the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic.

This forced the government to soften its stand and issue a clarification that the order was just an ‘advisory’. It, however, maintained that in blocks with water table 35 m below the ground, paddy cultivation will not be permitted on panchayat agricultural land.

Reluctant farmers

One common narrative across Kurukshetra and Kaithal, where six blocks have been targeted under the Mera Pani Meri Virasat scheme, is that any crop other than paddy has less chance of survival in the area.

Every monsoon, most of Kaithal receives continuous rainfall for four to five days. That’s the time no other crop but paddy survives,” said Prashant Anand, farmer from Siwan village in Kaithal.

“Besides, maize requires 21 degree Celsius (°C) for germination and 32°C for growth. Here the temperature goes up to 40°C. The plant might grow in such high temperatures but will yield poor grains,” said Anand, who owns 5 ha.

Yudhveer Singh, a technical assistant at the Kurukshetra agriculture department, explained this: “Soil here is clay which leads to waterlogging in case of good rainfall. But maize and pulses require sandy loam soil. Maize is, in fact, sensitive to stagnant water, particularly during the early stages of growth. It does not survive if water stagnates for over 48 hours.”

This is the reason that farmers who opted for Jal Hi Jeevan Hai last year failed to benefit from it. Singh says some 150,000 kilogrammes (kg) of maize seeds were sown on 7,490 ha last year. But three days of incessant rain destroyed most of the crop. Harvesting could be done from only 235 ha. Shashi Pal Sharma, sub-divisional agricultural officer in Kurukshetra, acknowledges the limitation of the scheme.

Pulses are lucrative crops and require even less water than maize, but they grow better in sandy soil. Some of the farmers who have attempted to grow maize despite the risk said it only incurs them losses.

“There is neither any established market for the crop in the region nor any arrangement for procurement. The arthiyas (agents) and traders at the mandi refuse to buy it. Those who buy offer Rs 700- 800 per 100 kg instead of the MSP of Rs 1,850,” says Manish Mehta from Siwan village. This April he sowed maize on one-tenth of his 16 ha land but harvested it early and sold the stalks as fodder to dairy farms.

In Bajidpur village of Pipli block, sarpanch Balkar Singh also tried his hand at maize last year.

“I grew it on 1.2 ha nut could barely get Rs 30,000 per ha against an investment of Rs 50,000,” says Balkar Singh, who plans to stick to paddy that offers him assured income. The problem is the moisture content of corn needs to be reduced within 12 hours of harvesting.

Else, it can catch fungus and get spoiled. But people here do not have mechanical grain dryers, says Singh, adding that farmers in Bajidpur have asked the authorities to install the dryer at the mandi (market) or in the village.

Till June 23, the government has received registration for crop diversification on over 86,000 ha from across the state. Only 9,315 ha or 10 per cent of the land is from the targeted eight blocks. While some farmers in these blocks plan to grow maize, most have opted for horticulture.

In Sirsa and Ratia, several have shifted to cotton. Jasbir Singh, sarpanch of Begpur village in Kaithal, however, said this shift has got little to do with the Mera Pani Meri Virasat scheme. In the absence of agricultural labourers, who have left for their villages in other states following the covid-19 lockdown, farmers have opted for crops that are less labour-intensive.

“Everything needs planning,” said Vikas Chaudhary, a farmer from Taraori village in Karnal who is president of a farmer producer organisation. If the government really wants a shift to maize, it should come up with a policy to promote it and put a procurement system in place.

Besides, the crop needs to be promoted in areas that receive less rainfall. The government should also establish a market for the crop by setting up industries like starch manufacturing plants. According to Chaudhary, if farmers realise that maize has a market, they will swiftly shift to it.

Time to diversify plan

Studies have established that Haryana farmers’ obsession with paddy is not the only reason for the state’s groundwater woes. “Over the years, Haryana has mismanaged its water resources and rainwater.

The track record of the government in promoting micro-irrigation is behind its targets,” said Partik Kumar, convenor, Water Working Group, Revitalizing Rainfed Agriculture Network. In 2018-19 alone, the state had to bring 20,000 ha of farmland under the sprinkler system and 2,000 ha under drip irrigation.

But the Economic Survey of Haryana for 2018-19 shows that it has achieved only 33.7 per cent and 27.45 per cent of the targets.

The state’s recent flip-flop on rice shoot policy also does not inspire much confidence among farmers. The policy provides surplus water in the Yamuna and Bhakra canal systems during the monsoon season to paddy growers in the command area through temporary opening of water channels for which farmers pay an annual fee. But in an order on June 3, allege farmers, the government issued a notification increasing the fee.

It also mentioned that connections will be provided to only those who diversify at least 25 per cent of the land for less water consuming crops. Within a week, it issued another notification, cancelling the order.

Officials in charge of implementing Mera Pani Meri Virasat are, however, hopeful. Gahlawat says Jal Hi Jeevan Hai failed last year as the scheme was launched late due to elections.

“By the time we launched the scheme farmers had already prepared the nurseries for paddy crop. Then we received 300 mm of rain in just one month. This will not happen every year,” he said.

This year, according to Gahlawat, the announcement is timely and has been made in an organised manner. Officials from the irrigation and horticulture departments have been roped in for mobilising farmers. The government also plans to provide 1,000 recharge borewells which help water percolate into the ground, but they will start functioning only next year.

Government’s reason for push

•   Haryana’s groundwater depletion rate is among the highest in the country Of the 128 blocks, 80 per cent are overexploited, critical or semi-critical

•   Most farmers in the state grow non-basmati paddy, a water-guzzler

•   Irrigation water productivity of paddy in the state is 1.2 kg/m3, lowest in the country

•   Paddy crop residue is linked to stubble burning

Why farmers are unwilling

•   Selected blocks have clay soil, not suitable for maize and pulses

•   Fields get waterlogged in monsoon. Only paddy can survive this

•   1 ha yields 4,474 kg of paddy, but 2,500 kg of maize. Thus the average gross return for paddy is Rs 28,897 / ha, compared to Rs 19,689 / ha for maize

•   Government has an established procurement mechanism for paddy, under which 100 kg of the grain is purchased at MSP of Rs 1,868 to Rs 1,888, depending on the grade. There is no procurement system for maize. MSP has been fixed at Rs 1,850/100 kg, but farmers in Kurukshtra say they get Rs 700-800 at mandis

 This was first published in Down To Earth’s print edition (dated 1-15 July, 2020)

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.