The monsoon was almost missing during June-July,the two crucial months of paddy transplantation,but Punjab is looking once again at reaping a record harvest. Since the green revolution of the 1960s,the area under paddy has touched nearly 28 lakh hectares and Punjab contributes about 135 lakh tonnes of paddy (90 lakh tonnes rice after milling) to the central pool.
But it has been coming at the cost of its precarious fiscal and natural resources. Punjabs soil fertility and water table are both depleting at alarming levels and about 80 per cent of states free power bill it has touched Rs 5,400 crore this year to farmers is for irrigating their paddy fields,with nearly 97 per cent of the states cultivable area under assured irrigation from 13 lakh tubewells and several canals.
Besides,the states agriculture was facing an impending crisis,Union Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar warned during a visit to Punjab in August. There would be no takers for its bountiful paddy after a few years when eastern and northeastern states start producing enough. The Union budget has allocated a special grant to those states for Bringing Green Revolution to the Eastern India.
The states demand for a Rs-5,118-crore drought relief package did not find favour with Pawar. The amount would have included compensation to farmers for burning diesel to run their pump-sets and to the state power utility for buying power at high costs to save the paddy crop.
Sensing danger for its farming community,who have so far not heeded government advice to shift from paddy because of its assured minimum support price,Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal met Pawar again on August 25 in New Delhi to demand that the Centre ensure economic security and prosperity of Punjab farmers who played a pivotal role in securing national food security. Now it is payback time for the Centre to help our farmers at this crucial juncture, he said.
Badal asked Pawar for help to provide policy and fiscal support for a move away from paddy while asserting that diversification will only take place if farmers get same or higher income through assured marketing of alternative crops. In September,the CM held a string of meetings with farmers,agriculture experts and officials to discuss the diversification agenda.
The Union agriculture ministry on October 6 sent a high-level central team led by agriculture secretary Ashish Bahuguna to discuss Punjabs roadmap on diversification. The state submitted the blueprint for what is to be its second green revolution.
While presenting the blueprint,Badal demanded that the ministry launch a Rs 5,000 crore technology mission for Diversification of Agriculture in Green Revolution Areas under the 12th Five Year Plan.
The blueprint outlines that the area under paddy will be brought down from 28 to 16 lakh hectares in a phased manner over a period of six years. The biggest shift would be towards maize,from 1.5 to 5.5 lakh hectares,while two lakh hectares would be diverted to cotton which is currently grown at 5.5 lakh hectares. Of the remaining,1.5 lakh hectares each can go to sugarcane and fodder,two lakh hectares to agro forestry and one lakh hectare towards pulses,fruits and vegetables from kinnow,mandarin and guava to chilli,tomato,capsicum and kharif onion.
PRICE INCENTIVE: For ensuring farmers shift to alternative crops,the first challenge,says the diversification proposal,is giving prices above or at least as remunerative as paddy. For instance,the cotton MSP should be at least 15 per cent above paddy. To take sugarcane production to its earlier level the state produced the crop on 2.5 lakh hectares at one point of time the state-advised price of sugarcane would have to be increased by 12 per cent. Farmers will opt for pulses if their MSP is raised substantially and is competitive with paddy. In case of fruits and vegetables,price crash due to glut-like situation because of increase in area is a big concern, it says.
ASSURED MARKETING: This would require some policy changes. For the big leap towards maize,the state has asked the Centre that blending of petrol with ethanol should be increased from five per cent to 15 to promote conversion of maize into ethanol. For cotton,the state has demanded that the Cotton Corporation of India be asked to carry out MSP operations in all cotton markets in the state. For sugarcane,it has sought that a crushing season of at least 180 days for sugar mills be ensured through developing early maturing cultivars. For pulses,it says a separate agency should carry out procurement operations.
MECHANISED HARVESTING: The blueprint warns that the increased area would aggravate the labour problem. Mechanised cotton picking and crushing of cane would help get around the problem of labour shortage.
INFRASTRUCTURE: The state has asked for assistance in installing maize driers in designated markets and to expedite shifting of the Directorate of Maize Research from Delhi to Ladhowal in Ludhiana to develop it as a maize hub. It says collection centres/pack houses should be set up with facilities like washing,cooling,grading and packaging for marketing fruits and vegetables. The state also needs infrastructure for export of perishables. For cotton,20 designated markets need to be upgraded under the Technology Mission for Cotton. For pulses,more research is needed to raise their low yield.
Now and later
As a first step,Punjab last week gave its nod to enacting a Contract Farming Act to ensure remunerative prices to allow farm gate purchase that would benefiting maize growers and prospective maize processing industries by amending the agriculture Produce Marketing Committee Act. The agriculture department is preparing an agriculture policy. The main objective of the policy is to make agriculture sustainable and improve income of small and marginal farmers. Since crop diversification touches both these aspects,it will be addressed in the new policy, says adviser (agriculture) B S Sidhu.
Beyond crops,diversification towards livestock is also on agenda. The area under fodder production can be increased and the document says the productivity of milch animals too can be improved. It suggests the growing demand for wood products can be tapped by bringing a larger area under agro-forestry. This would also require technology and infrastructure in the form of modern wood markets equipped with high-tech saw mills and seasoning plants and high-tech wood industries making laminated wood from poplar and eucalyptus.