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Decoding farm protests in Punjab: Behind stir, the wheat paddy cycle and farmers’ fear of losing minimum support

Last year, the Centre paid Rs 56,000 crore in MSP against procurement of paddy and wheat from Punjab; for the ongoing paddy procurement season, state government had asked for cash credit limit advance worth Rs 35,500 crore.

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Jalandhar | Updated: October 28, 2020 1:41:35 pm
A farmer sows the seeds of wheat grain after burning the paddy stubble in his field near Ghanour-Patiala road in Patiala on October 28, 2020. (Express Photo: Harmeet Sodhi)

With just 1.19 per cent of the total farmer households and 1.53 per cent of land in the country, Punjab has been contributing over one-third of the total wheat and paddy procured by the central government every year.

The agrarian economy of the state is largely dependent on this annual procurement at minimum support price (MSP) by central government agencies such as the Food Corporation of India.

Punjab farmers protest, farmers protest, farm bills 2020, farmers bills 2020, Indian Express The state that feeds the nation

The farmers of the state are protesting against the new agriculture laws as they fear that these will deprive them of their livelihood by leading to the closure of the state government mandis, doing away with assured procurement at MSP, and driving them to the bondage of corporate players.

Ever since the green revolution in the 1960s, the Punjab farmer has been following the wheat-paddy cycle that not only ensured food security for the country but also prosperity for the state that came to be known as the bread basket of India.

Over 11 lakh farmer households (according to Agriculture Census 2015-16) of the state have been growing around 360 lakh tonnes (36 million tonnes) food grain out of which, 289 lakh tonnes (28.9 million tonnes) of wheat and paddy are procured for the national pool ever year. According to Punjab Mandi Board (PMB), this figure is around 32 pr cent of central government’s food grain procurement.

A farmer earns anywhere between Rs 70,000 and Rs 75,000 per acre from wheat and paddy after excluding the input costs. On an average, one acre yields around 28-30 quintals of paddy worth Rs 52,800 to Rs 56, 600 at the rate of Rs 1,888 per quintal as per the MSP. As for wheat, the average yield is 25 to 26 quintals per acre, which fetches Rs 49,000 to 51,000 at the rate of Rs 1,975 per quintal. Most small farmers also till land on rent for anywhere between Rs 25,000 to Rs 50,000 an acre.

In the 2019-20 kharif and rabi seasons, Punjab contributed 162.28 lakh tonnes (16.2 million tonnes) paddy and 127.12 lakh tonnes (12.7 million tonnes) wheat, respectively, to the national pool. Punjab produces nearly 18 million tonnes of wheat out of which five million tonnes is kept for self-consumption, seed requirement, and for selling in the open market by the farmers.

Punjab also contributes substantially to foreign exchange by exporting over two million tonnes of Basmati out of nearly 25.54 lakh tonnes (2.6 million tonnes) of the premium rice grown in the state.

Wheat and paddy continue to be the staple of Punjab farmers who grow very little maize and cotton in comparison. Interestingly, maize and cotton are often sold to private traders and price crashes are commonplace even though the central government specifies an MSP for these crops too. But since there is little procurement of these crops by the central government, private players dominate, and seldom pay at MSP.

Nearly 0.5 million tonnes of maize was purchased by private traders from Punjab mandis last year when state also grew 42.60 lakh quintals kapas (raw cotton with seed), and 5.3 million tonnes sugar cane for crushing (according to cane commissioner, Punjab), few thousand tonnes of pulses and oilseeds and around 73 lakh tonnes vegetables, and fruits (mainly kinnow).

The wheat-paddy cycle has come at a heavy cost to the quality of the soil as well as groundwater. Paddy, a water-guzzling crop, not suited to the terrain, has spelt doom for the groundwater aquifers, which are in the dark zone in almost three-fourth of the state. This is forcing farmers to dig new bore wells every year, thereby adding to their input costs.

The area under wheat and paddy increased from a couple of lakh hectares to 27 lakh hectares under paddy and 35 lakh hectares under wheat in the past fives decades, which has led Punjab to become the highest consumer of fertilisers in the country. To irrigate this huge area, Punjab has installed 14.16 lakh tubewells, which could eventually result in desertification of the state.

“Along with heavy usage of fertilisers, Punjab also went in for mechanised farming to manage sowing and harvesting of wheat and paddy on such a large scale,” says Bharti Kisan Union (Dakaunda) general secretary Jagmohan Singh, adding that heavy use of diesel, whose price is spiralling, is further raising the input costs.

Small and marginal farmers grow wheat and paddy, as it gives them assured income. They have no knowledge about private trade, and are not in a position to go looking for buyers and better prices.

“The contribution of Punjab cannot be forgotten as it took the responsibility of making India food surplus when it was highly grain deficit in 1960s and farmers here were asked to grow wheat and paddy,” says noted economist S S Johal, recalling how good seeds were provided to the farmers and Commission for Agriculture Crops and Price (CACP), which recommends price of the crops after calculating all the input costs, was set up and Food Corporation of India (FCI) was created to procure wheat and paddy in the 1960s.

While farmers fear the government will soon discontinue the MSP, Johal does not think so.

“The MSP will stay as long as the Public Distribution System (PDS) continues in the country, and PDS cannot be stopped in a country like India where millions are living below the poverty line,” he said.

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