Strangling the golden goose

Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh
Illustration: Mayanglambam Dinesh

PUNJAB HAS 4.34 lakh tractors, 14,000 combine harvesters and 2.4 lakh diesel-run tubewells. Farming here needs an estimated 1,000 million litres of diesel and even a Rs 1 hike in diesel price shoots the input cost up by Rs 100 crore. The use of pesticides in the state is also the highest in the country. The result is a serious energy crisis, stark environmental degradation and the ‘cancer train’ that ferries patients to Bikaner.

Indiscriminate use of fertilisers to offset declining returns from agriculture has already become rampant in the Malwa region with districts like Bhatinda becoming hotbeds of cancer in the country. At the same time, selection of water-intensive crops has led to a massive increase in the number of diesel-guzzling submersible pumps across the state and a fall in the water level of aquifers.

Punjab also has the highest density of tractors in the country at about 82 tractors for every 1,000 hectares, almost seven times the national average.

High energy input (almost 26 percent of the farm-power comes from diesel) enhanced productivity in Punjab during the famed Green Revolution. But yields have plateaued since. high expenditure on diesel and absence of effective soil management is taking a toll on the farmer’s profit margins.

Surinder Kaur Saini, professor at Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, says one of the main ways to reduce reliance on tractor power and, therefore, reliance on diesel, is to move towards a system of ‘zero-tilling’. this involves sowing without disturbing the topsoil.

“Once you start relying on tractors, it is difficult to wean farmers from the machines. But the advantages of zero tilling are numerous and Punjab’s farmers should realise that money spent on buying diesel for tractors can be saved with zero tilling. With this method, even the water used for irrigation can be saved as the penetration of water into soil is high. the soil retains more water and the organic content improves,” says Saini.

To meet the growing energy demands of irrigation, there have been suggestions of shifting to solar power, especially since most pumps are often under clear skies. But farmers are apprehensive of the reliability of solar power and find the initial cost of installing new technology prohibitive. “We cannot sell our equipment and buy new ones overnight. First the government should ensure that we get diesel to run our combines and pumps at less than market price. then they should talk about other things,” demands Balbir Rajewal of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (Rajewal).

Others claim that the onus of reducing diesel consumption is not on the farmer but the government. “It is the duty of the state to provide electricity generated through biomass, cotton sticks and other sustainable ways to reduce diesel consumption in agriculture,” says Surjit Singh Gill, retired head of the Agriculture Department at Punjab Agriculture University.

However, with diesel prices going up fast and the burden of power subsidy mounting, Punjab’s pesticide-laden fields cannot hope to sustain the image of India’s bread basket for long. Not without a change in mindset anyway.


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