For over a decade, the Punjab government has been taking steps to save underground water reserves by introducing policies like the Contract Farming (CF) programme (2002), New Agriculture Policy for State (2013) and passing the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act (2009) to divert areas under the water guzzling rice crop towards other kharif crops. However, all efforts of diversion seem to have fallen flat and the area under rice cultivation still remains between 27-28 lakh hectares.
Against this backdrop , the government’s initiative to pledge nearly 1.25 lakh new tube well connections this year is likely to deal a major blow to the already depleting underground water level.
Currently, out of 141 agricultural development blocks in Punjab, 102 fall in the ‘dark zone’, where water is 200 ft or deeper.
The initiative raises several questions: Is the government not giving farmers a reason to choose rice cultivation by providing free irrigation facility? What is the need of increasing the number when there already exists 12.76 lakh electricity operated and 1.50 lakh diesel operated tube wells for an agricultural land area of 42 lakh hectares, of which around 11 Lakh hectares is irrigated through canal network? Why have the schemes to promote less water consuming kharif crops fallen flat? And , most importantly, why do 11 lakh farmers in Punjab need over 15 lakh tube wells?
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Around 10,000 new tube wells have already been sanctioned this year and connection for another 5,000 would soon be released. Punjab State Power Corporation Limited (PSPCL) has been given the task of installing the new tube wells by the end of this year.
KD Chaudhri, chairman-cum-managing director of PSPCL, says that the company is trying to release the new connections as soon as possible. “The release of 1.25 lakh tube well connections would cost over Rs 500 crore and the power subsidy in the state would rise to around Rs 6,000 crore,” Chaudhri said. In the current year, the state government has already waived off Rs 5,484 crore as power bills of farmers.
Each tube well would cost farmers about Rs 2-2.25 lakh with an average of 7.5 to 12 horsepower (HP) motors.
“The new connections would encourage farmers to go for more paddy cultivation which has an assured market and price,” say experts in the state’s Department of Agriculture, adding that the ‘diversification scheme’ — aiming to divert area from paddy to other crops — will receive a major setback.
“Already, the area under cotton in the state has gone down by over 1.5 lakh hectares compared with last year’s on fears of whitefly attack, and now a major portion of this cotton area may go under paddy.” The figures procured from the Department of Agriculture, Punjab, reveal that while the number of electricity-operated tube wells increased from 5 lakh in early 1980s to 12.5 lakh in 2001-02, around 3.25 lakh tube wells were installed in just five years during1996-01 as the state government had announced free power to farmers in 1997. The figures also reveal that the number of diesel-operated tube wells has been more or less same since early 1990s and currently stand at around 1.5 lakh.
Manmohan Kalia, an engineer with the Department of Agriculture’s tube well wing says that a 5 HP motor is installed for irrigating two hectares of land which costs anywhere between Rs 60,000 to Rs 65,000 to farmers. However, farmers mostly go for deeper tube wells due to depleting groundwater, and for that, high-capacity motors of 7.5-12 HP are preferred which cost between Rs 1.5 to 2.5 lakh depending on the depth.
Rajesh Vashishth, joint director at the Department of Agriculture’s hydrology division says that during paddy season, when the rainfall is in deficit, running of 14 lakh tube wells simultaneously puts huge pressure on the ground water of the state that has been witnessing an average level of 200 feet or deeper in major portions of central Punjab which includes the entire Majha, Doaba regions and some districts of Malwa region, including Patiala, Moga, Sangrur etc. (nearly 80 per cent of the state).
He admits that over drilling of land is not a healthy trend.
In the last 4-5 years, the average fall in groundwater level across the state has been between 1.2 and 25 metres, but in areas like Sangrur district it has been recorded at more than two metres in the past. Even in 2015, five districts (Bathinda, Tarn Taran, Nawanshahr, Sangrur and Mansa) witnessed a drop in water level post-monsoon due to deficient rainfall. Water level has gone down between 1 and 9 metres in these districts in the last 4-5 years.
Experts say increasing the number of tube wells would deepen the groundwater crisis as Punjab has hardly received above-normal rain for the past one decade.
The state witnessed drought in 2014 as rainfall was (-)50 per cent. Rainfall was deficient in 2012, 2009 and 2007 as well, but farmers saved their crop by running all 14 lakh tube wells, says Vashishth, adding that they had applied for these connections.
“One should not forget that the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (Nasa) of the US had warned that agriculture output in Punjab and Haryana could collapse if groundwater is extracted ruthlessly,” says Amrik Singh, agriculture development officer, Pathankot, adding that even the Central Ground Water Board has been issuing warning to Punjab for many years now.
“Why is the government highlighting its free power subsidy of over Rs 5,000 crore? Why not promote less water consuming crops and support their marketing with the power subsidy amount,” questions Avtar Singh, a farmer from Char Ke village in Jalandhar.
“The ground water which was available at 60 to 65 feet earlier is now found at 200 feet and every time farmers have to spend more on getting deeper the bores,” says Singh. He questions as to what is stopping the government from regulating underground water usage.
The government has led the farmer community in a wrong direction by its vote-bank policy, and now the return is difficult, but not impossible if serious efforts are made in a phased manner, says another farmer, Devinder Singh of Adrahman village in Jalandhar, adding that due to overdose of fertilisers and pesticides the ground water has also turned polluted over the years. Another farmer questions the logic behind having a tube well for every two hectares of land. Has our government got any explanation for all this, he quips.