Reviving Punjab Agriculture

Punjab agriculture in the throes of a crisis

Punjab agriculture is in the throes of a crisis of sorts. The farmer is knee deep in debt. Suicides are order of the day. The ground water has depleted to alarming proportions. High fertilizer and pesticide usage is wreaking havoc on public health. Diversification has not taken off the way many would like. While wheat paddy buffers rot quite too often the nation continues to make huge imports of edible oils and pulses spending precious foreign exchange. The rising cost of raising crops, manifesting in soaring food prices, is making matters only worse. We need to seek solutions ... urgently.

No easy solutions

There are no easy or clear solutions. The havoc caused by paddy cultivation on the groundwater is turning agricultural fields arid. However the tragedy of commons is manifest here too clearly as groundwater continues to be drawn at unsustainable rates without any solution in sight. The crops popular in the state are, in general, fertiliser and pesticide guzzlers and have not only destroyed the agrieco system of the state but also literally poisoned the contemporary generation. Irrigation, fertiliser and pesticide intensive agriculture has also led to high investments on the part of the farmer. The poor creature, inadept at handling risk, often finds himself in knee deep debt whenever there is a crop failure. This makes the phenomnon of high suicide rates among farmers difficult to handle. Unless there is an urgent course correction the problem is only going to worsen. This calls for some serious introspection on the part of all, the governments, agriresearchers, acedemia and farmers. Here is my take on one possible effort.

Pulses, the Solution??

Pulses are rich in proteins and amino acids and act as vegetarians' and poorman's substitute for meats. In fact they are as much part of India's staple food as wheat and rice. They have a wonderful characteristic of fixating nitrogen from the air and therefore require little or no fertiliser. So much so they have the ability to maintain soil health and act as feriliser to the crops sown during the remainder of the crop cycle. They have the potential to change the way fertilisers are applied to crops. They do not require intensive irrigation and therefore help in conserving precious ground water. They are also low investment crops and relieve the farmer of any risk bearing. It is due to these reasons that they have the potential to serve as a solution to the crisis.

Production, consumption and imports of pulses

Pulses are ubiquitous in Indian meals. With large population India is one of the largest pulses consuming country. The Indian production of 18.5 million tonnes of pulses falls short of its consumption requirement of 22 million tonnes of pulses. The country therefore is obliged to import 3.5 to 4 million tonnes of pulses annually, spending $2.3 billion worth of foreign exchange. This make raising pulses production even more imperative. However there are serious challenges.

The low yield challenge

First they suffer from low yields. The average yield in India of 750 kg per hectare compares poorly with those of France 4219 kg, Canada 1936kg, USA 1882 kg, Russian Federation 1643 kg and China 1596 kg. This is perhaps because of the fact that not enough attention has been paid to pulses and therefore have not received the research and development effort they deserve. Therefore the first challenge would be to invest in research and development in pulses. Universities and research bodies can be mandated to develop high yielding irrigated varieties of pulses with a view to increase productivity.

Funding research and development

A related challenge would be to fund the research in pulses. The union and the states provide considerable support to agriculture and food. While the support to agriculture includes investment in irrigation infrastructure and providing marketing support through msp based procurement besides various development missions and research and education, the food support includes right to food act. There is space to reorient public policy to reduce investment in some of these areas to fund research and development. The outcome of such investment in research and development in any case will lead to savings in those other areas.

Weaning farmer away from wheat paddy crop cycle

The next challenge will be to wean away the farmer from traditional wheat paddy crop cycle and introduce cultivation of pulses as a viable alternative to these two major crops. This will happen only if the proposition makes economic sense to the farmer. It is in this context that yield improvement is absolutely necessary. Equally important will be to make alternative traditional crops of wheat paddy less attractive. It is this aspect of the proposition that is the most challenging part and calls for reorienting of national policies and priorities. The fact that India is a net importer of pulses and oilseeds leaves enough scope of manoeuvring on this front.

Market uncertainties

Here one must guard against uncertainties of market. One difficult season and farmers for sure go back to wheat paddy crop cycle. The government therefore must embark upon a programme to develop commodity markets ensuring large scale farmer participation. This would act as shield against artificial price crashes and shortages due to operations of large monopolistic operators. Those farmers whose financial position allows them can hold stocks and sell them when prices are high instead of offloading the entire produce in the market during the harvest season.

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