Paddy in Punjab, Part 1: Over-cultivation of water-guzzling rice crop threatens to deplete state's groundwater reserves

Arjun Sharma | Jun 28, 2018 | 5 min read


Punjab’s farmers discover there’s a life beyond rice and wheat

Arjun Sharma

Chandigarh: With extensive rice farming in Punjab taking an increasing toll on groundwater reserves and soil health, government agencies are now asking farmers to diversify into profitable allied trades including dairy and pig farming and fisheries. Farmers are also being asked to cultivate crops other than paddy. Farmers in different parts of the state have started growing other, more profitable crops alongside rice. In a break with the fertiliser and pesticide-driven farming that Punjab’s agriculture has become synonymous with, several are experimenting with organic vegetables in many parts of the state.

In a survey, Punjab’s soil and water conservation department found that on a five-acre farm, rice-wheat rotation cropping yielded net returns of Rs.43,440, whereas 10 crossbred cows were reared on the same area the return was almost twice at about Rs.82,810. “Also, the international prices of wheat and rice are not in our favour since the introduction of WTO in 1995. Punjab can ill afford to continue with the existing acreage under paddy, which is a great drain on underground water energy and soil health,” the report says.

The report further states that the earnings from rice and wheat is about Rs.19,754 per acre whereas earnings from the summer ‘moong’ dal grown with wheat and paddy yields Rs.23,816. Cotton cultivation is also showing signs of revival in the state. Cash crops like vegetables, pulses, coarse cereals, edible oilseeds are also good alternatives. Cotton maize, pulses are very suitable for Punjab’s southern districts. Maize and sugarcane is suitable for the areas in and around the Kandi belt. “There is no dearth of viable alternative crops and farm enterprise which can easily replace the income being obtained from a crop like paddy,” concludes the report. 

Allied trades that have caught the attention of many farmers in Punjab are that of fish, pig and goat farming besides rearing cows and buffaloes . These are turning out to be very profitable, farmers find. Sukhminder Singh of Uppali in Barnala district rears fish in a pond constructed on 3.5 acres of land that was earlier used for paddy. Singh still grows wheat and paddy in an adjoining field. He’s constructed a shed to breed pigs alongside the pond, the waste from which is used to feed the fish. Pork sells for Rs. 80-100 per kg and Singh isn’t complaining.

Singh says growing paddy was becoming increasingly unprofitable as his input costs on labour, pesticides and diesel for the generator were increasing every year. “I decided to start a fish pond in 2015 and after getting the technical knowledge I got six varieties of fish in my pond and also 10 pigs in what is called integrated farming,” he says.

Guru Angad Dev Veterinary and Animal Sciences University (GADVASU) in Ludhiana is playing a major role in propagating fish, goat and pig rearing in the state to help make farming more profitable. The varsity holds regular fairs in which information about alternative farming is provided.

Dr. Harish Verma, director of extension education at GADVASU, explains how profitable fish, duck, goat and pig farming can be. “A farmer can earn Rs.80,000-Rs.1 lakh with a fish pond on one acre of land. If fish farming is integrated with pig or duck farming, the earnings would increase to Rs 1.40-1.50 lakh a year,” he says. He also said that poultry farming was also taking off in the state.

Internationally acclaimed agriculture economist Sardara Singh Johl told Firstpost that unless the government starts charging farmers for the use of groundwater, they will not shift from paddy, which consumes vast quantities of water. “The government also needs to increase the minimum support price (MSP) on crops other than paddy to make their prices competitive.”  But as he points out, while MSP is notionally fixed for other crops, actual procurement at the MSP works only in the case of cotton. He said that farming of sugarcane, corn, maize, oilseeds could be made lucrative for farmers and their dependence on groundwater can be dramatically reduced.

Many farmers are also opting for dairy farming, which can also be quite profitable. Besides the three acres on which he grows paddy, Gursharan Singh owns 10 cows that he’s housed in a specially-constructed shed at his home in Butter Kalan village in Moga district. Singh recalls how he decided to rear cows five years ago when he was fed up of the intermittent power supply during paddy season. “Paddy requires a lot of water during the initial days of sowing but most of the time there is no electricity in my village during the season. I had to use the generator which consumed a lot of diesel increasing my input cost. At that time, I decided to start some business where the costs were less and profit was more,” said Singh. He earns a profit of Rs.1,100 on each cow every month.

In its draft policy, the Punjab State Farmer’s and Farm Workers Commission has suggested that the government strengthens horticulture research and education to encourage farmers to diversify from paddy cultivation and explore growing alternate crops. “There is a lack of trained extension services in non-traditional areas of agriculture. Even though farmers would need to be continuously supported, the design of the present agriculture-support programmes needs to be changed to make it more sustainable,” it reads.  

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