Several decades back, soon after economist Dr S S Johl had submitted his report on crop diversification in 1986, I asked late Dr Norman Borlaug, the Nobel laureate, during one of his visits to Punjab, as to what he thought about the debate on crop diversification. I remember vividly his reply: “This is a wrong move. Punjab is doing exceedingly well in wheat and rice, and this equilibrium should not be disturbed.”
“It is like in athletics,” He tried to explain. “If you have a sprinter who is a record–holder in let us say 100-metres dash, you don’t ask him to slow down and diversify into steeple chase and high jump. You expect him to better his record in race. ” His suggestion therefore was that instead of Punjab shifting to other crops, it will be much better if Madhya Pradesh, Bihar, Orissa and eastern Uttar Pradesh are encouraged to cultivate other crops.
That was some three decades ago. Meanwhile, reeling under over-exploitation of ground water, Punjab has enacted a ‘Contract Farming Act’ and announced a 5-year programme to diversify the cropping pattern. Chief Minister Prakash Singh Badal has urged the Centre to allocate Rs 5,000-crore for crop diversification in Punjab on the lines of the financial package doled out to eastern states for ushering in Green Revolution. But take a closer look at the strategy being proposed, and you will find that for the reasons that crop diversification is being desperately promoted, the new array of proposed crops suffer from the same problem but in a still bigger magnitude. In fact, most of the alternative crops that are being launched, except for pulses, are environmentally more damaging than rice.
In the backdrop of the shocking revelations tumbling out about the rise in cancer deaths all across the state, and the steadily rising graph of farmer suicides, I had expected a much greener programme that could restore soil health, help raise groundwater and turn farming into a profitable proposition. Unfortunately, the crop diversification programme fails to imbibe any enthusiasm. In my understanding, it will surely help the agri-business companies but leave behind dying fields and crying farmers. Therefore, before we exacerbate the existing farm crisis and taken it an unmanageable level, it is time to step back and rethink.
First, let us look at groundwater. A very interesting study by a Nawanshehar-based researcher Kuldip Singh Herian has shown the water requirement, based on the same parameters as quoted in several crop diversification reports, for paddy at 60,20,000 litres per hectare. Now let us look at the crops being suggested as alternatives. Sugarcane requires 1,60,00,000 litres, cotton 78,50,000 litres, sunflower 65,00,000 litres and winter maize 61,00,000 litres. In addition, kharif maize requires 46,00,000 litres per hectare. It is therefore quite obvious that the alternative crops do not provide any saving on groundwater usage. Interestingly, his research shows that water requirement for producing 1 kg of rice comes to about 1,131 litres against 1,691 litres for kharif maize, 6,217 litres for cotton and 5,612 for sunflower.
Considering that rice gets an assured price every year, farmers are wise enough not to shift to any other alternative. Even though Chief Minister has appointed the Punjab State Warehousing Corporation to act as a nodal agency in procuring maize, undertaking scientific storage and set up mechanised drying units, I don’t see much possibility of an area shift. In any case, maize cultivation offers no incentive when it comes to water efficiency. It will however provide a huge market for sale of hybrid seeds for the private sector, which appears to be primary reason for the clamour for maize as replacement.
In case of chemical pesticides, I see no reason why Punjab cannot drastically cut down on pesticides usage on rice. Studies by International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines have conclusively shown that ‘pesticides use on rice in Asia was a waste of time and effort.’ Farmers in several parts of the Philippines, Vietnam, Bangladesh and India produce better rice crop without the application of pesticides. Wonder, why Punjab has never taken this advice seriously? In the case of bananas, olives and roses, the pesticide requirement is several times higher.
Similarly, there are several known methods of restoring soil health, inter-cropping and mixed cropping with leguminous crops being the common crop rotations to be followed. Crop rotation is the best way to get out of the monoculture that Punjab has lived with and thereby limit the damage to soil health and environment. All it needs is to redesign the package of practices. In other words, Punjab needs an urgent diversification of the existing farming systems – from highly intensive to more ecological -- to make it more viable and sustainable.