It is natural that in one of the fastest growing economies, priorities keep changing from time to time. In such a scenario it is important to constantly review and revise cropping patterns.
Through the example of paddy in Punjab, I will highlight how wrong cropping patterns and incorrectly incentivised government policies can hamper resource distribution. Excessive paddy cultivation in Punjab has resulted in over-exploitation of ground water. This puts water resource management of the state at risk as groundwater is one of the key sources of water in Punjab.
Punjab switched to paddy from traditional crops (maize, pulses, and oilseeds) in the spirit of the Green Revolution. The need of the hour at that time was to ensure food security and sustainability of resources took a back seat. Today, Punjab is the third largest producer of rice harvesting 11.82 mm tons of rice on 2.97 hectares of land.
But, 80% of Punjab is suffering from groundwater depletion which goes up to 40–50 m deep (the figure was 10 m before the Green Revolution). Farmers have voiced the challenge of increased investment on groundwater as it is becoming economically non viable to dig deeper. This has led to a cascading effect as shown in the diagram below:
Clearly, there is a need to switch from paddy to crops like maize. Maize requires 1/3rd of the water consumed by paddy and has proven to be more profitable than paddy (if Minimum Support Prices (MSP) are knocked off).
In fact, several farmers in Punjab have already done the switch owing to difficulties in extracting groundwater. There is anecdotal evidence that claim returns from maize are greater than MSPs on paddy.
In October 2019, India was holding 27 mm tons for buffer paddy (v/s 10.25 mm tons needed for the country). The excess rice is exported at subsidized rates which is equivalent to exporting water — a sparse resource for the country. On the contrary, maize is witnessing growing demand from gulf countries and can be repurposed to generate fuel for the country.
The challenge however, is in bringing about this behavioral change. There are farmers in Punjab who have been producing rice for three decades, how do we convince them to make this switch? Just like how the state switched to wheat-paddy cycle during the Green Revolution — subsidise the input cost of the crops to begin with. In due course, farmers will realize the benefits of the alternate crop and get rather comfortable with it.
Organic farming was once considered impossible and today 30% of organic producers from across the world are from India. Sikkim is a 100% organic state. To encourage farmers to lean towards it they removed the subsidies from chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
Sikkim Organic Market (SOM) is an organisation set up to educate people on how to adapt organic farming, create awareness on its benefits, and give them necessary training. They helped farmers with the why, what and how of organic farming.
The Goa government offered 50% assistance to farmers who switched to organic farming. Learning from these experiences, we can with the right incentive make the Punjab farmers change cropping patterns as well. Just removing MSPs will show farmers how maize is more profitable than rice. Creating awareness on how this switch will reduce their water needs will go a great deal as groundwater extraction is a popular pain point of farmers in Punjab.
If we cannot charge them for excess water they use, let’s pay them for water they save. The Paani Bachao Paisa Kamao campaign gives monetary benefits to farmers who save water. If motor capacity is 1500 units/month and a farmer consumes 1200 units/month then he would get ₹4 per unit for the remaining 300 units. If aware of less water consumption by maize, such a scheme will encourage the farmers to switch from paddy to maize.
Cropping patterns can have a ripple effect of problems. In the case of Punjab, the problem of groundwater depletion and pollution due to stubble burning can be traced back to wrong cropping pattern. Cropping decisions are made price backwards which is morphed by MSPs in the market.
Therefore, we need a more proactive approach to revisit market dynamics and climatic conditions to ensure the right crop is grown at the right place and promoted through right incentives.
An advisory body (comprising of agricultural scientists and economists) should be setup to decide on which crop will be apt in what place. Then pass it on the state government to incentivise the new crop or disincentive the old crop.