Freebies and water woes

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Punjab wants cheap power and water to feed India, but the planning commission won’t hear of it, reports Bhavdeep Kang

PLANNING COMMISSION Deputy Chairman Montek Singh Ahluwalia is deeply concerned about the “ecological fallout” of the Green Revolution in Punjab.

“The degraded soil in the state poses a big threat to food security and can have serious economic implications not only for the state but also for the entire nation,” he recently wrote to Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal. The water table in as many as 112 of the 141 blocks is critically low, and Ahluwalia blames it on the state government’s long-standing policy of giving free power to farmers.

The reformist Montek Singh Ahluwalia wants changes in Punjab’s farming patterns
Photo: Salman Usmani

As power in Punjab is heavily subsidised, its 11 lakh agricultural consumers feel free to run their powerful submersible motors to draw groundwater. Extraction of sub-soil water is 145 percent of the replacement rate, causing the level of aquifers to fall inexorably. Ahluwalia has long been a votary of groundwater cess to curb its profligate use, but Badal sees no merit in his argument. If Punjab has been overusing water, it is only because it is expected to feed the entire nation, he counters. Rejecting outright the proposal to impose a cess on groundwater he, on the other hand, wants the state to be suitably compensated in the form of foodgrains — in much the same manner that states with mineral reserves are given royalty on coal and bauxite.

Badal too has a point. Punjab’s virtual water exports amount to 20.9 billion cubic metres every year, which is higher even than the outflow from Uttar Pradesh. “Virtual water” refers to the water embedded in commodities. For instance, a kg of basmati rice takes up to 7,500 litres of water to produce. An equivalent amount of water is deemed to be “exported” along with the rice. Food-surplus states are usually water exporters and the food-deficient ones, like Bihar, importers.

The imbalance is stark: Punjab, the water exporter, has a per capita availability of 3,554 cubic metres a year, while that of water importer Orissa is 8,710 cubic metres. So a water-deficient state is in effect exporting water to a relatively water-rich state.

Punjab, a water exporter, has a low per capita availability of 3,554 cubic metres a year

Ahluwalia wants a rollback of the power subsidy, which was Rs 3144.25 crore — 55 percent of the state’s planned expenditure. The current shortfall of power is 20 percent and the agri-sector accounts for 31 percent of the total consumed. The power subsidy has resulted in a severe financial crunch. The state has consistently failed to mobilise resources. Flagship programmes have suffered, with the government unable to come up with its share of funding. The debt stock of the state is Rs 63,217 crore, which is 33 percent of the Gross State Domestic Product (GSDP), against the norm of 25 percent

THOUGH THE state government passed the Preservation of Subsoil Water Ordinance in 2008 to institutionalise delayed sowing of paddy, it was only a half-measure. Chemical agriinputs make up the other half of the picture, says Ahluwalia, adding that soil fertility too has been badly affected by excessive application of chemicals.

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TROUBLED STATE CM PARKASH SINGH BADAL SAYS IF PUNJAB HAS BEEN OVERUSING WATER, IT IS BECAUSE IT IS EXPECTED TO FEED THE ENTIRE NATION

THE PLANNING COMMISSION WANTS A TOTAL OVERHAUL OF PUNJAB’S CROPPING PATTERN, WATER USE AND CROP SELECTION

PUNJAB ACCOUNTS FOR 8 PERCENT OF INDIA’S FERTILISER CONSUMPTION DESPITE HAVING ONLY 1.5 PERCENT OF LAND AREA

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Punjab’s per hectare consumption of chemical fertilisers is 225 kg, as against the national average of 113 kg. The state accounts for 8 percent of the country’s total fertiliser consumption — which is quite a bit, considering it has only 1.5 percent of the land area.

 

Farming follies The Punjab CM wants the status quo to stay
Photo: Shailendra Pandey

Ahluwalia’s letter is an acknowledgement of the multiple evils perpetrated in the name of the Green Revolution. Fertilisers degraded the soil, creating massive nutrient imbalances, necessitating the addition of soil conditioners and micronutrients. The Central government is in a Catch 22 situation vis-à-vis Punjab. Although it rejects free power to farmers as a means of supporting agriculture, the Planning Commission approved Rs 800 crore against free power for agricultural operations last year, keeping in view the drought conditions. This kharif season, the Punjab government will reportedly need to spend Rs 1,800 crore on buying power to support paddy operations.

For Badal, withdrawal of power subsidy is a politically sensitive issue. The state’s farmers are already facing rising input costs on several fronts:
• Fertiliser prices have gone up with the introduction of the nutrient-based fertiliser regime.
• Labour costs have escalated due to the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme.
• Capital investment in machinery to replace migrant labour has become an absolute imperative.
• Pressure on land has increased with urbanisation and infrastructure development, causing rents to soar.

At a time when the per capita rural debt in Punjab is the highest in the country — Rs 41,000 per farm household (more than three times the national average) — Badal will have to think twice before imposing power tariffs on farmers. The Congress government under Captain Amarinder Singh had attempted to remove the power subsidy introduced by the Akali Dal government, but was forced to reinstate it in 2006, ahead of the Assembly elections.

In his letter Ahluwalia also touched on the issue of crop diversification, and had some pretty harsh things to say about the “efforts” of the Horticulture Mission to bring it about. According to Punjab government figures, the area under every crop except rice, wheat, maize and American cotton, has shrunk. This is particularly true of pulses, oilseeds and sugarcane, all of which India is currently importing in order to bridge the demand-supply gap.

In effect what the Planning Commission wants is a complete overhaul of Punjab’s agriculture: its cropping pattern, water use and crop selection. For the Commission the key word is sustainability — whereas what is happening is precisely the opposite.

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