‘To push diversification, price deficiency payment scheme needed for all crops’
With its economy largely dependent on agriculture, Punjab faces daunting challenges in the sector from farm debt, stubble burning to urgent need for diversification. As Assembly elections draw near, state’s new agriculture minister, Randeep Singh Nabha, has no option but to meet the challenges head on. ANJU AGNIHOTRI CHABA spoke to him about his plans to redress the problems plaguing agriculture in Punjab.
How do you rate your government’s performance on the agricultural front?
The Punjab government has been performing well on the agriculture front. CM Charanjit Singh Channi stood by farmers in time of distress. Be it a protest against the three farm laws or farmers’ suicides.
Ex-gratia of Rs 5 lakh, a government job to the kin of the deceased farmers, who died during protests, has been provided by our government and till date, over 150 such jobs have been given. The state government with its limited resources has provided a big relief by waiving off the debt Rs 4,610 crore of 5.63 lakh small and marginal farmers.
The state has achieved record production for paddy of 208.82 LMT during 2020-21 and 182.57 LMT wheat during 2018-19. State received the Krishi Karman award for highest paddy production during 2017-18. In our government’s tenure, a subsidy to purchase 76,626 crop residue management machines has been given to manage stubble burning. Now, the state is proactively pursuing the central government for supply of DAP, so that wheat sowing does not get affected.
When there is record production of paddy and wheat, how do you foresee Punjab’s ground water situation?
Punjab is a leading agrarian state of India with more than 85 per cent area under cultivation. The agricultural development in the state has reached a plateau. Out of total water demand for agriculture — about 60 Billion Cubic Metres (BCM), the irrigation demand of paddy is 70 per cent and that of wheat is about 20 per cent. Availability of water (surface & ground) is about 36.18 BCM (annual replenishable groundwater: 21.58 BCM + surface water: 14.6 BCM) and as such, there is a crippling deficit of 24 BCM. About 10 BCM of the deficit is being met through rainfall and the balance, 14 BCM comes from over-exploitation of groundwater. As per the Dynamic Groundwater Assessment report (2017-18), 109 blocks are over-exploited, 2 are critical, 5 are semi-critical and 22 safe. The average groundwater level fall in central Punjab is about 0.50 m/year, whereas in the rest of Punjab the rate of fall is about 0.40 m/year. Groundwater has become a critical resource in Punjab as aquifers are reaching unsustainable levels of exploitation. If current trends continue, it will have serious implications for the sustainability of agriculture, long-term food security, livelihoods, and economic growth.
The Department of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare (DoA&FW), Punjab, is well aware about the deficit and has initiated various measures for judicious and efficient use of irrigation water.
What are the measures being taken to save water?
Several interventions are being propagated for conservation of water including alteration of crop calendar for paddy by delaying paddy transplantation close to beginning of rainy season, medium/short duration rice cultivars taking less water are promoted and now large area is under these varieties. Laser land levelling, zero tilling, etc. are being propagated to save water. Dry Seeding of Rice (DSR), in medium to fine-textured soils, have a potential to save 10 per cent irrigation by avoiding puddling and flooding and over 5.50 lakh hectares was under DSR this time. Precision irrigation projects are being implemented. This will help in elimination of overuse of irrigation water. Last but not the least, Agriculture Department has signed MoU with Center for International Projects Trust (CIPT) with an objective to promote intelligent water saving technologies for sustainable groundwater resources in Punjab. Digital soil moisture sensors among 20,000 tubewells across 28 electricity feeders spread across 10 districts in Punjab would be installed.
Why is the state not aggressively diversifying area under paddy and wheat?
My department is sensitising the farmers to opt for pulses and oilseeds. State needs to pursue a concentrated effort involving the Department of Industries, Commerce and Export promotion for a marked increase in the acreage of pulses and oilseeds in the state. In addition to their nutritional advantage, pulses and oilseeds have low carbon and water footprints which make them an integral part of the sustainable farming system.
The current MSP policy is hugely discriminatory against rainfed farmers, who grow pulses, oilseeds, fruits and vegetables, and who constitute more than 70 per cent of the 12 crore farm families in India. The biased policy is also contributing to huge import of edible oils each year.
Even as your government has provided a subsidy to purchase 76,626 crop residue management machineries, stubble burning could not be controlled. There are a dozen districts where more than 85 per cent stubble burning takes place. Don’t you think that the state must focus on these first?
As per the burning incidence report from PRSC of November 5, out of total burnt area of 6,86,000 hectares, the area in high burning districts is 4,80,000 hectares. Area under moderate and low burning districts is around 1,20,000 and 86,000 hectares, respectively, which means 70 per cent burning took place in high burning districts only.
We are focusing on these but being a strong hold of farm unions, it’s not happening. Farmer unions have been seeking funds at Rs100 per quintal for paddy stubble management compensation, but the Centre has refused to provide it. State has to take a call and may come up with a plan. Custom Hiring Centers for stubble management machines are set up across each village and are making an all-out effort to curb this menace.
Despite loan waiver by your government, farmer suicides are a big issue. How can these be prevented?
Yes, farm suicides can be stopped. We have formulated a policy tackling this threat and to steer the state on a path for sustainable development.
Can ‘Sir Chhotu Ram’ formula (on farm debt repayment) be implemented here?
Yes, the formula can be implemented in Punjab too.
In 1936, Sir Chotu Ram evolved a formula to help farmers reeling under heavy debts following which an Indebtedness Act was promulgated, it extended to the whole of the Union Territory of Delhi and Part II to such areas as the Chief Commissioner may from time to time, by notification, direct. The Act envisaged the loan taken by farmers who have paid as much interest as the principal amount borrowed to be waived completely. Also, debt conciliation boards were to be set up in each district and Centre to share the financial burden with the state.
However, political willingness and consensus needs to be evolved for its implementation in the state.
How do you rate the agri extension services in the state? Farmers are not getting the benefits of these the way they should.
Despite having an inadequate number of working field staff and delay in release of funds for effective implementation of schemes, the state agriculture department and PAU scientists have been providing latest technological knowledge pertaining to agricultural activities to farmers.
For instance, after white fly attack on cotton, which resulted in historic decline in cotton productivity, the state department of agriculture along with PAU researchers and farmers attained the highest productivity of 827 kg/ha for cotton during 2019-20.
Why Punjab does not have its agriculture policy till date?
My Department is ready with its agricultural policy that will steer the state and its farmers in coming times to a sustainable future. Formal deliberations are pending within the council of ministers to formally adopt this for the state.
Do you think there is a possible solution to end agrarian distress?
Few things need to be done for this. A Price Deficiency Payment Scheme must be rolled out, as it is easy to execute and can cover all crops and thus could help farmers opt for crops other than paddy and wheat.
There is a need for introducing insurance schemes to safeguard farmers against low prices. Although crop insurance schemes like Pradhan Mantri Fasal Bima Yojana (PMFBY) are in operation, it covers only production risk with complete neglect of price risk.
Farmers must be provided with high yield potential seeds of pulses and oilseeds along with seeds of other crops. For this, PAU Ludhiana must be strengthened in terms of research capabilities. Seed sale and distribution among the farmers needs to be strictly regulated. For this, traceability of seeds must be made mandatory.
For assuring supply of quality farm inputs, Department of Agriculture, Punjab, must be strengthened in terms of field staff and timely release of funds for effective implementation of various farmers welfare schemes.
Farmers must be sensitised to use the credit taken from the banks or from other sources in a more genuine and proper manner. The government can take care of only crop loans of farmers, not the loans taken for personal purposes.
What is your vision for the future?
My vision is to divide the whole state into zones according to the soil fertility and the respective produce. We are looking forward to Agrotech Summit in December where we are looking for business tie-ups with multi-nationals to set up plants where employment is generated and the produce of the farmer is marketed and the farmer feels secure.