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Explained: How can Punjab achieve crop diversification?

The farmer protests have led to questions being raised on the extensive cultivation of paddy and wheat, especially in Punjab. How much of these crops is grown, and what are the options for diversification?

Written by Harish Damodaran , Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar, New Delhi | Updated: December 21, 2020 3:05:11 pm
A farmer looks at his wheat crop, damaged in Ludhiana. Express Photo by Gurmeet Singh.

Amidst the ongoing farmers’ protests are also questions that are being raised on the sustainability of paddy-wheat cultivation, especially in Punjab. How much of these two cereals should India’s granary state grow and what are the alternative cropping options available to its farmers?

What is the extent of paddy-wheat monoculture in Punjab?

Punjab’s gross cropped area in 2018-19 was estimated at 78.30 lakh hectares (lh). Out of that, 35.20 lh was sown under wheat and another 31.03 lh under paddy, adding up to 84.6% of the total area planted to all crops. That ratio was just over 32% in 1960-61 and 47.4% in 1970-71.

Table 1 shows that the real acreage share increase has taken place in paddy (from below 7% in 1970-71 to almost 40% in 2018-19) than for wheat. The latter had crossed 40% by 1970-71, when Punjab farmers were already planting the new Green Revolution wheat varieties such as Kalyan Sona and Sonalika, but hasn’t gone up much since then.

The above gains have been at the expense of pulses (after 1960-61), maize, bajra and oilseeds (after 1970-71) and cotton (after 1990-91). Wheat replaced chana, masur, mustard and sunflower, while cotton, maize, groundnut and sugarcane area got diverted to paddy. The only crops that have registered some acreage expansions are vegetables (especially potato and pea) and fruits (kinnow), but they hardly amount to any diversification. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

Why is monoculture such a problem?

Growing the same crops year after year on the same land increases vulnerability to pest and disease attacks. The more the crop and genetic diversity, the more difficult it is for insects and pathogens to device way to pierce through plant resistance. Wheat and paddy cannot also, unlike pulses and legumes, fix nitrogen from the atmosphere. Their continuous cultivation sans any crop rotation, then, leads to depletion of soil nutrients and growing dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.

In Punjab’s case, the issue isn’t as much with wheat, which is naturally adapted to its soil and agro-climatic conditions. Also, wheat is a cool season crop that can be grown only in regions – particularly north of the Vindhyas – where day temperatures are within early-thirty degrees Celsius range right through March. Its cultivation in Punjab is desirable from a national food security standpoint, too. The state’s wheat yields – at 5 tonnes-plus per hectare, as against the national average of 3.4-3.5 tonnes – are far too high to merit a drastic area reduction to below, say, 30 lh.

Table 1 shows that the real acreage share increase has taken place in paddy than for wheat

So, it is basically paddy that needs fixing?

Yes, there are two reasons for it. The first has to do with paddy being a warm season crop not very sensitive to high temperature stress. It can be grown in much of eastern, central and southern India, where water is sufficiently available. Punjab contributed 12.71 million tonnes (mt) of wheat and 10.88 mt of rice (milled paddy), out of their corresponding total Central pool procurement of 38.99 mt and 52 mt, respectively in 2019-20. Probably half of this rice of Punjab can, instead, be procured from eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal or Assam.

Linked to this is the second reason. Paddy requires not low temperatures, but water. Farmers usually irrigate wheat five times. In paddy, 30 irrigations or more are given. Punjab’s groundwater table has been declining by 0.5 meters per annum on an average – largely courtesy paddy and the state’s policy of supplying free power for irrigation. It has encouraged farmers to grow long-duration water-guzzling varieties like Pusa-44.

Before Pusa-44’s release in 1993, Punjab farmers were mostly cultivating PR-106, a paddy variety that yielded an average 26 quintals per acre over 145 days. Pusa-44’s yield was 32 quintals, but it had 160-days duration, from nursery sowing of seed to harvesting of the ripened grain. Long duration meant that nursery-raising happened in April last week and transplanting by mid-May, to enable harvesting from October and timely planting of the next wheat crop. But being peak summer time, it also translated into very high water requirement. 📣 Follow Express Explained on Telegram

During a protest at Singhu Border on December 14, 2020. Express photo by Abhinav Saha

Has the Punjab government done anything to address this?

The one significant step that it took was enacting the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009, barring any nursery-sowing and transplanting of paddy before May 15 and June 15, respectively. That, however, produced a different problem. If transplanting of Pusa-44 was permitted only after the monsoon rains arrived in mid-June, it also pushed harvesting to October-end, leaving a narrow time window for sowing wheat before the November 15 deadline. Farmers, then, had no option other than burning the paddy stubble left behind after combine-harvesting. Simply put, groundwater conservation in Punjab ended up causing air pollution in Delhi.

Has there been any way to avoid this trade-off?

One thing that scientists at the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU), Ludhiana have done is breed shorter-duration paddy varieties. These take between 13 and 37 days less time to mature than Pusa-44, while yielding almost the same (see table 2). PR-126, a variety released in 2017, has a mere 123 days duration (inclusive of 30 days post nursery-raising) and its yield is 30 quintals per acre.

“In 2012, 39% of Punjab’s non-basmati paddy area was under Pusa-44. That was down to 20% this year, while the share of shorter-duration varieties, mainly PR-121 and PR-126, has crossed 71%. Crop residue burning incidents has been concentrated in the Malwa districts of Sangrur, Mansa, Barnala, Moga, Bathinda and Muktsar, where 40-60% area is still under Pusa-44 and other long-duration varieties,” says G.S. Mangat, Head, Department of Plant Breeding and Genetics, PAU.

While Pusa-44 requires around 31 irrigations, it is only 23 in PR-126 and 26 in PR-121. There would be further 3-4 irrigation savings if farmers adopt direct seeding of paddy, as opposed to transplanting in flooded fields (https://bit.ly/3ahA4vx). A single irrigation consumes roughly 200 cubic meters (2 lakh litres) of water per acre. 10 irrigations saved is equivalent to 2,000 cubic meters (20 lakh litres) less water per acre.

Table 2: Old vs new paddy varieties

What is the way forward, then?

As already noted, there is scope to bring down Punjab’s wheat from 35 lh to, maybe, 30 lh. In paddy, the 31.03 lh area of 2018-19 included 5.11 lh under basmati varieties. The state’s overall paddy acreage this year has fallen to 27.36 lh and, within that, basmati’s share is up to 6.6 lh and non-basmati’s down to 20.76 lh.

A sensible strategy could be to limit Punjab’s a non-basmati paddy area to 10 lh and ensure planting of only shorter-duration varieties. These can be transplanted after June 20 and harvested well before mid-October, giving farmers enough time to manage the standing stubble without having to burn. Further water savings can be induced through metering of electricity and direct seeding of paddy, which, in fact, covered a record 3.6 lh this time.

Farmer at his paddy field near Ludhiana (Express Photo by Gurmeet Singh)

The 10 lh less non-basmati area can be diverted towards basmati varieties (they consume less water because of transplanting only in July and aren’t procured by government agencies), cotton, maize, groundnut and kharif pulses (arhar, moong and urad) with some assured government price/per-acre incentive support. The same could be done for the 5 lh wheat area diverted to chana, mustard or sunflower.

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