Punjab: end of the revolution ?

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Undoubtedly, GR made Punjab one of the richest states in India in terms of per capita income. From Rs 2,674 in 1980-81, the per capita income at current prices rose to Rs 19,770 in 1997-98. Compared to Punjab, Tamil Nadu's per capita income was only Rs 12,989, while that of Kerala is 11,936 in the same year. "It is not right to say that Punjab got a raw deal. They got massive investments as far as infrastructure is concerned. The farmers' lifestyle improved. No one can deny these benefits, which were direct results of GR," says Sen.

Farmers also agree. "It is true that our living standard improved after GR", says Joginder Singh, 60-year-old sarpanch (village head) of Plahi, a village in Kapurthala district. But, today, it is not GR that is sustaining them. Says Giana Singh, Plahi village priest, who has two sons working in Italy, "It is the money orders that are sustaining us now." There are many more like him in the state.

In recent years, the cost of production has risen dramatically. There has been a meteoric increase in the consumption of fertilisers - from 5,000 tonnes in 1960-61 to 1.3 million tonnes in 1998-99. The number of tubewells has gone up from 0.2 million in 1970-71 to 0.9 million today. Further, with the water table declining, farmers are forced to rebore their wells every year. This along with many other incidental costs has increased the cost of production. For instance, the cost of production of one tonne of wheat was Rs 1,370 in 1984-85. This had increased to Rs 3,660 in 1997-98. For rice, the increase has been from Rs 1,360 to Rs 4,120 during the same period. "Up to 1989-90, the cost of production was fairly stable. The increase has been phenomenal thereafter and is continuing to rise," says Sen (see graph: Costing a fortune).

The rate of increase in rice-wheat yield, however, does not match the rise in consumption of fertilisers (see graph: Neck and neck). During 1961-71, the production of wheat rose from 1.7 million tonnes (mt) to 5.1 mt, while rice production increased from 2.2 mt to 6.8 mt. The growth in the following decades, however, were not impressive. Wheat production rose to only 7.7 million tonnes in 1980-81 and further up to 12.1 million tonnes in 1990-91.

The cost of production, however, does not take into consideration the ecological cost, which is also manifesting itself in the rising expenses. The social cost - increase in suicide rates - is also spiralling. But there is no attempt to understand the link. The larger issue besides ecological cost is the human toll of GR. Incidence of cancer and other diseases are on the rise and despite numerous studies abroad to show the link between environment and good health, no epidemiological studies have been conducted in the state so far.

"During GR, government representatives went from village to village and cultivated sample fields. They gave us free fertilisers and free seed. We took it for granted and never thought the results would be so disastrous," says Joginder. "Now our soil is affected and the cost of production has increased, but there is not much we can do," says Jitender Pal Singh, another villager from Plahi.

Ecological cost
With the onset of GR, the area under wheat cultivation registered an exceptional increase. In 1960-61, area under wheat cultivation was 37.3 per cent of the total cultivated area. This rose to 78.1 per cent in 1998-99. Rice, which only occupied six per cent of the total cultivated area in 1960-61, registered a steep rise of 59 per cent by 1998-99. The area under pulses, meanwhile, declined from 24 per cent to 1.3 per cent during the same period.

The increased production of rice and wheat in the state has had a direct bearing on the increased demand of water to meet the crop requirements. This has been possible due to expansion of the irrigation network, initially through canals and recently through shallow tubewells. "The number of tubewells is much higher in the central districts of Punjab as compared to districts falling in the southwest part. At present, on an average, the area irrigated per tubewell is less than four ha in most districts of central Punjab," says G S Hira, senior soil physicist, Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana.

"There are two basic issues in Punjab depletion of water resources and wrong pricing policy," says Inderjit Singh Jaijee, convenor, Movement Against State Repression, a Chandigarh-based non-governmental organisation (NGO). The policies of the ruling Shiromani Akali Dal government are sucking the earth dry. In a bid to upstage his Congress rival Rajinder Kaur Bhattal, chief minister Parkash Singh Badal announced free power for farmers on the eve of the 1996-97 elections. "This is leading to more extraction of water," says a senior journalist of a local English daily. The loss in terms of revenue to the Punjab State Electricity Board is very high. Now 'free power' has become a political issue. Unfortunately, it is an issue only because of the economic losses, not what the policy is doing to the scare natural resource.

The policy of giving free electricity and water is not only shortsighted but also suicidal. Says Gurdev S Khush, an eminent agricultural scientist and winner of Wolf Prize, Israel's equivalent of the Nobel, in an interview to a national daily, "Anything given free is misused. Farmers are willing to pay for power. What they want is regular supply of electricity. The revenue lost by supplying free electricity could have been used to develop resources to generate more electricity."

Over extraction of water has led to a host of problems in Punjab. Some areas area hit by a severe water scarcity while, others suffer from a grave waterlogging problem (see map: Badlands).

WATER DEPLETION: "There is a misconception that Punjab has abundant water resources," says M Mehta, regional director, Central Groundwater Board (northern region). Out of the 118 blocks in Punjab, 62 blocks have overexploited their groundwater resources. "The water table has declined in 77 per cent of the state. Most of this area falls in central Punjab, which produces 67 per cent of rice and 56 per cent of wheat," says Hira. As a result, the water table has gone down in many districts, including Amritsar, Jalandhar, Ludhiana, Kapurthala, Sangrur, Patiala and Faridkot, by more than four metres.

A principal scientist, department of science and technology, on conditions of anonymity, says: "The government has no money to publish Punjab's State of Environment report. But from whatever data we have collected, I can safely say that there is a distinct possibility of aridity and the causes are warped government water and unsustainable agricultural policies."

Says S P Mittal, principal scientist, Central Soil and Water Conservation Research Centre, Chandigarh, "Aquifers are not recharged from the Shivalik range because the area is totally deforested. In extreme cases, almost 50-60 per cent rainwater is lost due to runoff. If there was a good vegetation, then 90 per cent of the rainfall could be stored."

According to G S Kalkat, vice-chancellor, PAU, only 40 per cent of the state has access to canals for irrigation. This has forced the farmers to look for an alternative. "Water is one of the basic needs and if we see our crops dying in front of our eyes, do you think we are going to sit back and wait for water?" questions a villager from Ropar.

Hira and his colleague Aneesh Chawla had submitted two suggestions that would reduce water use the period of paddy - one, transplantation should be between June 10-20 for medium duration and, two, June 20-30 for short duration rice varieties. Some farmers transplant it earlier though water requirement is the highest in the months of May and June. "Evapo-transpiration of rice planted on May 17 is 761 millimetres (mm) whereas it is just 564 mm for June 17 transplanted crop," he says. Unfortunately, the departments concerned did not take their suggestions seriously.

WATERLOGGING: Ram Pal of Kalalwala village, Bhatinda district in south Punjab, has his eyes cast down perpetually. The air he breathes is heavy with sadness that infects everyone around. He has a family of three to feed; a debt of Rs 50,000, too. All from the 3.6 ha farm he owns. But his only asset has turned saline. Lamenting his loss, he says: "What is the use of living when our only source of income has been lost?"

Ram Pal is just one of the many villagers whose land is swamped with saline water. "Almost 2,350 sq km of Punjab's total area is waterlogged, whereas 5,000 sq km is prone to it," says Mehta. Waterlogging happens when the amount of water added through deep percolation and seepage from irrigation systems becomes more than water that is drained out of the region either through lateral flow or tubewells. Along with waterlogging comes the problem of salinity. Water brings underground salts to the surface. This affects the crop growth adversely.

In a study conducted by PAU in Muktsar-Malout area in southwest Punjab, one of the worst-hit areas in terms of salinity, the estimated waterlogged area in 1997 was 115,000 ha. This had increased to 180,000 ha in 1999.

Among other things, Mehta suggests courses to divert runoff from the problem area; construction of open ditches and field drains to drain away the excess water; planning and adoption of rational agricultural practices; and, adopting judicious water management practices.

"Ironically, the foremost reason for encouraging rice cultivation in central Punjab was to get rid of waterlogging. But with new varieties, water requirement increased. Then came the tubewells," says Hira.

Bikramjit Singh, secretary, irrigation and power, Punjab government, says: "We are utilising whatever resources we have to clear waterlogging but there might still be some areas left." Counters Ram Pal: "Pumps are trying to clear the fields. But they are only removing the surface water? The moment it rains, everything will be flooded again," he says.

SOIL PROBLEMS: The fertile soil, where everything seemed to prosper, is also turning barren. "In the last six years, only two crops was good. I took a sample of the soil and water to the district laboratory and they said that everything was fine. But the next year, again I lost my crop," says 45 years old Hardev Singh of Malkana. The state has set up a soil-testing lab in every district, but the farmers find them inadequate and inefficient. The fact that even on a busy weekday, the Bhatinda lab was found totally unattended with samples scattered on the floor, as this correspondent found, goes well with the farmers' reasoning.

"The soil problems in Punjab are the direct results of intensive cropping, to meet the growing needs of an increasing population. To sustain the present level of production and to further increase it, conservation and upgradation of soils and better water management practices are required. But that is not happening," says Ramji Lal, chief conservator of soils, Punjab Soil and Water Conservation and Waste Land Development. "It has been estimated that 1.5 million ha of land is already faced with various types of soil degradation," he says. Sub-mountainous areas falling in Ropar, Hoshiarpur and Gurdaspur and a part of Patiala district have an annual soil loss of about 25 tonnes per ha, according to Lal. In Ferozepur, Faridkot, Muktsar, Mansa, and Sangrur districts in the southern zone the rising water table has resulted in salinity and alkalinity problems. In the central zone comprising Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Amritsar, Ludhiana and Fatehgarh Sahib, soil erosion is not as acute as groundwater depletion. Excessive cultivation of rice has led to another problem, that of selenium toxicity (see box: Soiled earth).

Besides, there is a severe micronutrient deficiency in the soil, according to the ICAR report. In the major rice-wheat regions, the organic carbon content of soils was found to be less than 0.5 per cent in 1960s. This had gone down to 0.2 per cent by 1998. Lack of organic carbon reduces water and nutrient-holding capacity of the soil. Furthermore, in the absence of adequate organic matter, soil organisms such as bacteria, fungi, and earthworms are reduced or lost, notes the ICAR report.

The heavy withdrawal of essential plant nutrients from soils through bumper harvests and intensive cropping patterns has brought down the levels of micronutrients to a point of deficiency, says a PAU study entitled, Micronutrients in Soils and Crops of Punjab. Among the micronutrients, zinc deficiency was first noticed in 1969-70, that is within 4-5 years within the introduction of GR, in the state. Zinc is now considered the third-most limiting nutrient after nitrogen and potash and has become a household word with farmers of the state. "The adoption of rice-wheat rotation on vast areas of non-traditional rice-growing soils of the state caused an increase in iron deficiencies also and affected crop yields particularly of rice," notes the study. Besides, zinc and iron deficiencies, the extension of rice cultivation has brought in its wake the constraint of manganese deficiency. "We are losing micronutrients because we are not applying desi khad (manure) and farmers are pursuing wrong cropping pattern and use poor quality water," says V K Nayyar, senior soil chemist, department of soils, PAU.

Micronutrients along with nitrogen-phosphorus-potassium (NPK) is the deciding factor for the success or failure of a crop and/or maintaining the sustainability of the soil-cropping system at higher levels of productivity, states the PAU study. In recent years, Punjab has also registered a sharp increase in the use of NPK fertilisers. Before GR, only nitrogen was used but later nitrogen and phosphorus were used in a ratio of 1:0.5, particularly in wheat. This ratio was maintained till 1989-90. But after the government decontrolled phosphorus and potash, increased prices resulted in reduced application of phosphorus and potash. Farmers made more use of nitrogenous fertilisers to cover the limited application of phosphorous and potash. This led to an imbalance. There are now indications that Punjab farmers have started applying recommended doses of phosphorus although many farmers still apply nitrogen much more than recommended doses.

Studies carried out by various experts show that high nitrate content of groundwater is related to use of nitrogenous fertilisers. Depending on the application, crop, soil and climate, 35-60 per cent of the applied nitrogen is usually recovered by the crop and 10-20 per cent may be converted to nitrogen gas, nitrous oxides or ammonia. The remaining nitrogen may leach into the groundwater.

According to the status paper, Punjab at a Glance, of the Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), out of 332 samples from all over Punjab, 55 samples have shown nitrate levels much more than the permissible limit. The districts of Banewal and Ferozepur, particularly, show nitrate levels of 880 parts per million, almost 20 times higher than the permissible limit.

Social problems
Social problems and ecological devastation come hand in hand. The flipside of Punjab's meteoric rise to fame is the growing despair and discontent.

A 1988 study entitled Rural Credit and Indebtedness In Punjab by H S Shergill paints the horrific picture of indebted farmers. Some of the findings are: 90 per cent of farmers in Punjab were found to be taking short-term loans to carry out their crop production operations; the average amount borrowed per operated 0.405 ha is Rs 3,950; 35 per cent of the farmers borrowing short-term crop loans failed to repay the amount borrowed after harvesting and sale of their crops.

Suicides only followed the indebtedness. A study, Suicides in Rural Punjab, conducted by the Institute of Development and Communication, Chandigarh, states that the crisis is one due to overall stagnation of the economy. According to the study, in 1992-93 suicides in Punjab increased by 51.97 per cent. By contrast, the all-India average registered an increase of 5.11 per cent only. In subsequent years, this trend has continued. In 1994-95, the increase in the case of Punjab was 57 per cent whereas in India as a whole there was a decline in suicides. "It is a matter of concern that the number of suicides per 100,000 people (suicide rate) has been steadily increasing from 0.57 per cent in 1988 to 2.06 per cent in 1997," notes the study.