As the discussion around Punjab’s massive groundwater crisis becomes more urgent, there is an increasingly stronger accent on diversification of crops, and a move away from water-guzzling paddy.
At a meeting over the weekend, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, decided to strengthen maize — the most important alternative to rice — by working towards narrowing the gap in economic returns between the two crops. The idea is to nudge farmers towards increasing the area under maize.
Over 70% of blocks in Punjab are in the dark zone on underground water stocks, according to central government estimates. At current rates of depletion, Punjab’s entire subsurface water resource could be exhausted in a little over two decades.
To conserve the resource, the Punjab government brought a law in 2009 to mandatorily delay transplantation of paddy beyond June 10, when the most severe phase of evapotranspiration is over. This law has been blamed for creating the bad air crisis of North India — especially Delhi — by delaying harvesting to end-October and early November, when atmospheric and wind conditions cause particulate matter and gases from burning paddy stubble to hang close to the surface.
So how area is under maize cultivation?
Of the 42-odd lakh hectares under cultivation in Punjab, maize was grown on 1.60 lakh hectares this year — just 3.8%. Since 2000, the area under maize has varied between 1.09 lakh and 1.63 lakh hectares every year.
The area under maize in Punjab is only 1.6% of the total area under the crop in India (98 lakh hectares). Nearly 46% of India’s maize area is in the pensinsular states of Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra too, have large areas under maize.
In Punjab, maize can be grown in three seasons — spring (March-June), rabi (December-April) and kharif (June-October). Kharif is the state’s main maize season. There is need to increase the area under kharif maize, which is also the paddy season. Spring maize is grown on around 25,000 hectares, but the crop is not promoted due to its long duration, and because it consumes water during the hot summer days.
And what is the minimum that must be brought under maize if Punjab wants to effectively diversify from paddy?
Experts say the area under non-basmati paddy must be cut by at least 12 lakh hectares, and maize, basmati, and cotton must be grown on this land — besides increasing the area under agro-forestry and vegetables. Non-basmati paddy is currently grown on 23-26 lakh hectares.
At least 5.50 lakh hectares should pass under maize, the experts say — an addition of about 4 lakh hectares. Under its New Diversification Policy launched in the 2013 kharif season, the SAD-BJP government had, in fact, aimed to bring around 5.50 lakh hectares under maize by 2017-18. However, data from the agriculture department show that the area under the crop has remained largely stagnant. Fluctuating prices of maize have been a disincentive for farmers.
Will the strengthening of PAU’s maize programme help in diversification?
Sixteen PAU-recommended high-yield varieties are already sown in Punjab. Long-duration varieties take 95-100 days, and short-duration ones 80-85 days. Farmers also grow several hybrid varieties developed by various companies.
“All these varieties give high yields of around 25 quintals per acre in the kharif season. More high-yield varieties can be developed, but that won’t guarantee an increase in area under maize unless government policy supports the marketing of the crop,” a senior PAU scientist said.
Unlike paddy and wheat, which are procured by the government, maize is sold in the open market and is subject to the actions of private players. Maize is one of 24 crops for which the government fixes a minimum support price, but procurement is not its responsibility; this is because maize is primarily a “feed” crop — of the 28 million tonnes produced in India, only 13% is consumed as food.
What can the government do in this situation?
Agricultural scientists strongly feel that along with developing more high-yield and good varieties of maize for which there is a demand in the market, the government must stop free power for paddy in order to disincentivise its cultivation and check the overexploitation of underground aquifers. A very large number of tubewells (more than 14 lakh in 2015-16) running on free power pump out virtually endless amounts of water across the state.
According to the scientists, the government could also earmark a portion of the MSP budget for maize, so that a fund is created from which farmers can be compensated in case the price of maize falls below what has been fixed by the centre government. “Making such a policy is not a big deal for the government,” a senior scientist said. “The budget will remain the same, it will only be apportioned better.”
Agricultural economist Sardara Singh Johl, however, argued for creating conditions for farmers to move voluntarily away from paddy rather than the government making policy. “The government does not need to make any policy for diversification if it gets a market for low water-consuming crops, and a good price for such crops. Farmers will themselves go for such crops without the government’s efforts,” Dr Johl said. Efforts to fix area for diversification have failed in the past, he said.
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