As Punjab grapples with fiscal management amid Covid-19 crisis, the state agriculture department has suggested to the government to ban plantation of paddy in dark zones which will not only help the underground water aquifers but also save crores being spent on free power to farmers.
While the finance department of the state had already suggested to the government to do away with the subsidy to at least big farmers, and save resources, the government is yet to take a decision as it may have political ramifications. The government has, however, slashed cell phone allowance of its employees. It has also reduced by 25 per cent the entitlement of fuel of government officials who are not in key Covid departments.
Sources in the agriculture department said that they have suggested to the government that the paddy cultivation should at least be banned in dark zones in Punjab on the lines of Haryana. This would not only help the state save underground water but also crores on subsidy.
A functionary said, “If we stop paddy cultivation in these areas where the underground water is critically declined, we will help the state. We can use the money thus saved for diversification.”
He added that the small measures like slashing mobile allowance and reducing petrol entitlement would not mean much as it would save only a few crores. A major decision is to be taken to make a difference.
Punjab has over 14 lakh tubewells that pump out water indiscriminately and paddy is a major cash crop of the state. As per a report of Central Ground Water Board, about 79 per cent area of the state is over-exploited. Out of 138 blocks, 103 blocks are “over-exploited”, five blocks are “critical”, four blocks are “semi-critical” and only 26 blocks are in “safe” category.
Paddy is blamed for over-exploitation of water as on average there are 34 tubewells per square kilometre of net sown area in Punjab which is a dense coverage of pump sets. Chief Minister Amarinder Singh has often warned that ground water resources are likely to be used up by the year 2039 and the state may end up being a desert.
At the same time, the state’s subsidy bill has crossed Rs 10,000 crore mark in the current fiscal. “Even if we are able to give reprieve to 1 lakh tubewells in dark zones by diversifying to maize, we can save at least Rs 500 crore,” the functionary said. The state government pays Rs 48,000 for subsidy on every tubewell annually.
The decision is, however, unlikely. With farmers being a major vote bank and only one season of paddy left before the state goes to Assembly elections in early 2022, the political decision may not come easy. Paddy plantation is already over in Punjab for this season. The next season would be next year and that would be too close to the elections.
The districts, including Barnala, Bathinda, Fatehgarh Sahib, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Moga, Mohali, Pathankot, Patiala and Sangrur are mainly affected.
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