The agricultural boom in Punjab is partly responsible for the pollution crisis that has become an annual occurrence in recent years as farmers set afire the stubble left behind after harvesting
There's no better account of Punjab's giant strides in agriculture than Ramesh Chand's. The farm-policy head at state-run think-tank Niti Aayog, Chand is a native of the state that sowed India's Green Revolution. "When we were young, nobody grew rice in Punjab," he had told this newspaper on the sidelines of a seminar two years ago.
Now, the state is the third-largest producer, the biggest exporter and largest contributor to state-held stocks. Paddy sits on close to 54% of its cropping area during peak kharif or the summer-sown season. Acreage has exploded, from just 0.2 million hectares in 1967 to nearly 3 million hectares sown in 2018-19.
The boom is partly responsible for the pollution crisis that has become an annual occurrence in recent years as farmers set afire the stubble left behind after harvesting. Experts say that in addition to the increase in acreage, the timing of sowing and harvesting also adds to the problem.
Punjab has legally required farmers to delay paddy sowing to June from May in an effort to save its groundwater — but the measure hasn't paid off, experts say. The idea was that sowing ought to coincide with the monsoon season, which runs from June to September.
Since farmers have free power to draw groundwater, they don't wait for rainy spells anyway. "On the other hand, harvests now have been pushed back by a month to November, a period when wind directions change and start blowing into Delhi from Punjab," said Mahesh Palawat, vice-president of meteorology at Skymet, a weather forecasting firm.
Palawat said if Punjab were to go back to its earlier practice of sowing in May, it would greatly lessen the pollution problem. Harvesting could be wrapped up a month early in September, when wind directions won't allow smoke from the state's paddy leftovers to be blown into the national capital.
This is only a visible part of the damage. The transformation into a paddy powerhouse is worrisome for several other reasons too. Diminishing returns have set in, the Green Revolution has faded and the dangers of unsustainable paddy cultivation have begun to bite.
"The Green Revolution was actually a brown revolution. It was limited to rice and wheat," said Uma Kapila, an economist who formerly taught at Delhi's Miranda House.
Punjab's rich landscape of corn, barley, gram, lentils and nutritious coarser cereals began disappearing fairly rapidly, within a decade of big cereals entering the state in the late-1960s.
Skewed policy nudges are to blame. Over the years, agricultural universities and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research have developed five times as many high-yielding rice varieties than, say, lentils.
Research shows rice has not only been environmentally devastating, it has also put limits on the income potential of farmers and flattened the state's farm-growth curve. Average farm growth has plateaued around 2%, while it could have been clocking 5% annually if only farmers had not given up cultivating non-cereals, according to research by economists Ashok Gulati and Siraj Hussain of the think-tank ICRIER.
This means Punjab's farmers are poorer now. The state's agricultural gross domestic product (GDP), a broad measure of farm income, grew only 1.61% annually, less than half the all-India average of 3.5% between 2005-06 and 2014-15, their research shows.
The diminishing returns are clear from Punjab's fall from high-farm growth rates of 5.7% achieved between 1971-72 and 1985-86.
Punjab's farmers know only one mantra, says Balwinder Singh Sandhu, the state's agricultural commissioner: "Paddy aur wheat lagaao, mandi mein le jao (Grow paddy and wheat; dump them straight into the markets)." With the government ready to procure, there's no need to worry about buyers.
"At a psychological level, this policy has finished the enterprising ability of Punjab's farmers. At a physical level, paddy has finished all our water and soil and agricultural chemicals have finished our health," says Sandhu.
Wheat and rice, the two biggest grains, now account for two-thirds of the state's farm income from crops, thanks to steady minimum support prices (MSPs) and assured procurement by the government.
MSP is a floor price set by the government. The government then buys paddy and wheat at MSPs rates to build stockpiles for redistribution to the poor.
Cheap fertilisers, free electricity for drawing water and better seeds spurred a trend of 'mono-cropping', or the practice of growing just rice in summer and wheat in winter.
Punjab takes about 5,500 litres of water to grow one kg of rice, five times as much China needs, pointing to the state's low water productivity. Northern and central districts are severely water depleted, while south-western districts face water logging and soil salinity or alkalinity. Grain bowls such as Muktsar, Fazilka, Bathinda and Faridkot are notoriously degraded.
The Central Ground Water Board put out a dire warning in May this year: at the current rate of water extraction, Punjab would be a desert within the next quarter century. Paddy has meant a groundwater extraction rate of 165%, a jump of 16 percentage points since 2013.
Hussain said free power is one of the main reasons for Punjab's crisis. It doesn't allow farmers to escape the pull of paddy.
"I have moved from shallow tubewells to six deep tubewells in my 12 acres. My expenses are going up because I have to dig deeper and deeper every year," says Ravinder Uppal, a paddy grower in Sangrur.
Big cereals have stoked an insidious rise in costs, annually growing 5-6%, pushing farmers into debt, says Sandhu. According to a debt investment survey of the National Sample Survey Office, 40% of cultivators in Punjab are indebted. Average debt per rural household stands at Rs 64,548.
In fact, the increase in paddy support prices has barely kept pace with rising costs, if one includes the imputed rental value of land, depreciation and interests on capital, a cost yardstick known as "C2 costs", Sandhu says.
Increasing the share of capital, such as harvesters and investment, is necessary for growth. But pumping more and more capital without routine technological advancements can lead to what Nobel winning economist Robert Solow demonstrated to be a "steady economic state", where all new investment goes into replacing exhausted capital without productivity gains. The economy stalls, as a result.
Punjab's agriculture is right in the middle of such a stagnation, as the Green Revolution has run its course. "Why else are 1.5 lakh people migrating abroad every year?" asks Sandhu.