Four years after a whitefly epidemic left the cotton crop ravaged in Punjab, the farmers in state have failed to increase the area under the crop. From a high of 5.30 lakh hectares in the 2014 sowing season, only 3.68 lakh hectares could be brought under the crop this season that began in April and is almost over now.
Experts blame it on two factors: sanctioning of a large number of tube well connections by the previous SAD-BJP government in the last year of their second term and the fluctuating rates of the produce.
Cotton is sown during Kharif season when water guzzling paddy crop is also grown in state. The cotton crop is also considered the best alternative to paddy, which is sown in nearly 25 to 30 lakh hectares out. Due to such huge area under paddy, 109 agricultural blocks out of the total 138, have already been declared over-exploited by the Central Ground Water Board. Less area under cotton equates to more area under paddy.
This year, the Punjab agriculture department had fixed a target of bringing an area of 4 lakh hectare under cotton crop. It is likely to miss the target as with sowing season nearly over, only 3.68 lakh hectares could be brought under it.
Cotton belt in Punjab comprises eight districts – Bathinda, Mansa, Fazilka, Sri Muktsar Sahib, Faridkot, Barnala, Sangrur and Moga.
The data sourced from the Punjab Agriculture department revealed that till May 27, the sowing of cotton was completed on 1.21 lakh hectares in Bathinda against the target of 1.40 lakh hectares. Similarly, in Mansa only 76,703 hectares could be brought under crop against the target of 80,500 hectares. In Fazilka, the target was 90,000 hectares but the sowing could be completed in 87,025 hectares. In Muktsar Sahib, only 68,403 hectares could be sown against 72,000 hectares while Faridkot too missed the target sowing cotton crop in 2496 hectare against 3000. In Barnala, 2796 hectares could be brought under the crop against the target of 4000. Sangrur witnessed sowing in 9800 hectares against the target of 10,000 hectares while Moga could sow only 115 hectares against the target of 500 hectares.
The whitefly epidemic of 2015 had ravaged the cotton crop on an estimated 1.38 lakh hectares out of the total 4.36 lakh hectare area that was under the crop. The following year, farmers cut down the area under the crop to 2.56 lakh hectare before pushing it up to 3.82 lakh hectare in 2017. In 2018, the cotton hit another low with just at 2.83 lakh hectare under the crop.
As per the records available with the state agriculture department, from 2000 till 2015, the area under the cotton crop was never less than 4 lakh hectares — mostly remaining between 4.52 lakh hectares to 6.14 lakh hectares.
A senior agriculture officer, requesting anonymity, said that farmers are preferring paddy over cotton. It is not because of any fear of another whitefly attack, but because they have now got a large number of tube well connections in the cotton belt in the past two years. Also paddy has a fixed minimum support price (MSP) while for cotton, which is purchased by the private players and not the government, the prices keep fluctuating.
In the past four years the cotton prices have fluctuated between Rs 4000 to Rs 6000 per quintal with the yield remaining between 8 to 12 quintals per acre in Punjab.
“To get farmers’ votes, the previous SAD-BJP government had announced 1.25 lakh new tube well connections in 2016 without thinking about how it will affect the already worsening poor ground water level. Most of these tube wells were allotted in the cotton belt,” said a cotton expert, adding that instead of giving such allurements, government should support farmers by paying a proper rate for the cotton.
Currently Punjab has 14.19 lakh tube wells, including 12.54 lakh electric operated and 1.65 lakh diesel operated.
“To wean away farmers from paddy, we need to create a cotton fund from where the difference in the price, if it goes down from the rate fixed by Cotton Corporation of India (CCI), could be paid,” said a cotton development officer.
Director, Punjab Agriculture, Dr Suntantra Kumar Airy, said that they are hopeful of meeting the target of 4 lakh hectares as sowing was still on.