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Vol 8,  No 10   October  15,  1999
Preparing you to change the future every fortnight


Parched Punjab

India’s most agriculturally prosperous state, Punjab, is staring at an impending groundwater crisis. Over-extraction of groundwater and faulty cropping practices could affect India’s foodgrain production

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As a twelve-year-old, Gurdev Singh Hira, now a senior soil physicist at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana, saw the water in his well rise so fast that he could touch it with his hands. But as he grew up the water level went down to such a level that his parents had to abandon the well. That was in the late 1960s when the Green Revolution had firmly taken root in Punjab. The well was abandoned for a tubewell, and now as the water table continues to dip, he is planning to extract water from the deep aquifer, some 41 metres (m) below with a submersible water pump at a cost of more than Rs 50,000. "Water is today found only at a depth at 46-61 m," he says.

In the past two decades, the groundwater table in Punjab has been falling at the rate of 25-30 centimetres (cm) a year, says N S Pasricha of the soil engineering department, PAU. According to a study by Hira, out of the state’s area of 5.03 million hectares (ha), 4.32 million ha has a falling water problem. Going by the statistics of the state groundwater department, the area where the water depth has gone below 10 m increased from three per cent in 1973 to 25 per cent in 1990 and 46 per cent by 1994. If the water table goes below 15 m, the tubewells will stop functioning.

The State of the World Report, 1998, published by the Washington-based Worldwatch Institute, says the gap between water use and sustainable yield of the aquifer is so high that the aquifer under Punjab could be depleted by the year 2025. "In almost half of Punjab, the depletion of water resources is leading to a crisis," says K K Meheta, regional director of Central Ground Water Board, Chandigarh.

The primary reason for extraction of groundwater is for agricultural purposes, particularly for water-intensive crops such as wheat and rice. About 60 to 70 per cent of the total cultivated land in Punjab is under wheat-rice cultivation. The dependence on groundwater is alarming: some nine lakh tubewells pump out groundwater to irrigate and produce 60 per cent of the wheat and 40 per cent of rice of the Central pool. In 1960, just before the Green Revolution, the area under tubewell irrigation was 22 per cent. This had increased to 57 per cent in 1996.

Stooping to new lows
Out of 118 community development blocks, groundwater in 62 blocks (52.54 per cent) are over exploited, eight blocks are already dark areas indicating no groundwater. Farmers who use borewells have been increasing the depth of the well by an average of half-a-metre every year.

After the Green Revolution, the farmers in Punjab abandoned their traditional cropping practice in favour of the government-supported wheat-rice cropping method. As a result, the shallow wells, traditionally used for irrigation, have run dry. While affluent farmers have started using deep tube wells for irrigation, the not so lucky have shifted to sugarcane cultivation, where the requirement for water is not so high.

Says Kartar Singh, a farmer living on the outskirts of Chandigarh: "The amount of money I have to spend in pumping out water to irrigate 28.35 ha of land leaves me with little profit. The returns from agriculture has also gone down in the last five years."

Low yield and high costs may force many farmers to abandon agriculture. "The productivity of the system is no longer sustainable for farm holdings less than 5.67 ha," says Inderjit Singh Jiyajee, convenor of the Movement Against Social Repression, Chandigarh, which has been spearheading a movement to protect the farmers from the declining growth. "This is the political leadership’s failure as they have not formulated a proper water management policy," Jiyajee adds.

Official apathy
Chief minister Prakash Singh Badal, however, does not think the groundwater crisis could jeopardise the nation’s food security given that it contributes the maximum to the Central pool. Besides, agriculture contributes 44 per cent to the state’s gross domestic product. According to Badal, the present policy of fertiliser subsidy and free electricity to farmers is "practical and suitable to the Indian socio-economic condition". Experts, however, say these factors are responsible for the present crisis.

"The problem is not as acute as is being projected. It is a theoretical evaluation and there is no truth in it," says Badal. What he seemingly ignores is his government departments’ admission of the problem. Over the last three years, high level officials of the agriculture and groundwater departments have met for five times to deliberate on the groundwater crisis. "I do get this complains but don’t find any logic behind this. If water is that scarce then how come the productivity is going up every year," says the chief secretary, who convened a meeting in January this year to discuss groundwater depletion in central Punjab and water-logging in the state’s south-west areas.

Water famine
In the past two decades, groundwater in the central zone has depleted at an alarming rate

Area under rice-wheat cultivation has increased over the years due to government support, while that under non-cereal crops, though less water-intensive, declined

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Source: Water Resources Directorate, Chandigarh, Punjab

Source: Changing Scenario of Punjab Agriculture, an ecological perspective, CRRID, Chandigarh and Indian Ecological Society, Ludhiana

Cropping patterns
While the situation is serious, its solution — a major shift from the rice cultivation to a less water intensive non-cereal crop — seems unacceptable to the farmers. Wheat-rice cultivation is lucrative because the government supports it through massive procurement programmes, while there are none  for traditional non-cereal crops. Says S P Mittal, principal scientist, Central Soil and Water Conservation Research Institute, Chandigarh: "The problem is that the government cannot force the farmers to change their cropping practices. The government totally ignores other traditional crops like maize."

"If you browse through official records, in the last three decades, the crisis has been mentioned at several places. But the euphoria of the Green Revolution followed by the problem of terrorism pushed the issue to oblivion," says a senior bureaucrat of the state. "Given Punjab’s importance in the nation’s food security, no political leadership has dared to speak the truth," he adds. "Production of rice is a political issue now and it also creates political division between rice and non-rice growing areas, like the foothills area and central Punjab," says Mittal. "A panic reaction to this crisis from the ruling political leadership may affect its electoral prospect. So the chief minister has often advised us not to go public with the data," admits a senior official of the state groundwater board who briefed Badal on the crisis last year.

While chief minister Prakash Singh Badal says the present policy of fertiliser subsidy and free electricity to farmers is "practical and suitable to the Indian socio-economic condition", experts say it is these factors that are responsible for the present crisis

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According to the State of the World report, the pumping is three times more than the recharge rate. In Punjab the demand for water, keeping in view the present cropping system, has been calculated at 4.68 million ha m compared to the availability of only 3.08 million ha m. This results in a net deficit of 1.6 million ha m every year. According to a paper, Changing scenario of Punjab’s agriculture: an ecological perspective written by Joginder Singh, G S Dhaliwa and N S Randhawa, the percentage of gross irrigated areas in the state to the gross cropped area is 95 of which 62 per cent is irrigated by 0.88 million tubewells and remaining by canals. As the scope for the expansion of agricultural land was not there, farmers intensified cropping in the available lands. This led to an unprecedented growth in the intensity of the cropping from 126 per cent in 1960-61 to 185 per cent in 1995-96. The area of the wheat, during the above period, increased by 133 per cent and production by 631 per cent, and of rice by 864 and 2,889 per cent, respectively, says the study. As a result, the traditional pattern of cropping was forgotten and fields are under cultivation for almost 10 months a year. This also led to over-exploitation of groundwater, till now the major source of irrigation.

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(With inputs from Indira Khurana and Rajkishore Khaware)

For the rest of the article
"PARCHED PUNJAB",  please refer to the printed copy of Down To Earth  October   15, 1999 or SUBSCRIBE HERE.

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