In the midst of the continuing farmer protests, concerns have been expressed about the long-term viability of paddy-wheat farming, particularly in Punjab.
In Punjab, how widespread is paddy-wheat monoculture?
Punjab’s gross cultivated area was expected to be 78.30 lakh hectares in 2018-19. 35.20 lh of wheat was planted, and another 31.03 lh of paddy was planted, totaling 84.6 percent of the total area planted to all crops. In 1960-61, the ratio was slightly over 32%, while in 1970-71, it was 47.4%. Pulses (after 1960-61), maize, bajra, and oilseeds (after 1970-71) and cotton have all suffered as a result (after 1990-91) Wheat took the place of chana, masur, mustard, and sunflower, while cotton, maize, peanuts, and sugarcane were moved to paddy fields. Vegetables (particularly potato and pea) and fruits (kinnow) are the only crops that have seen any area increase, but they scarcely amount to any diversification.
Why does monoculture pose such a threat?
Pest and disease assaults become more vulnerable when the same crops are grown year after year in the same area. Insects and diseases have a harder time infecting crops with higher genetic variety and genetic diversity. Unlike lentils and legumes, wheat and paddy are not able to fix nitrogen from the air. Soil nutrients are depleted as a result of their continued cultivation without crop rotation. As a result, crops will be forced to rely on artificial fertilisers and pesticides in greater numbers. The problem in Punjab isn’t so much with wheat, which is well-adapted to the region’s soil and agro-climatic conditions. Wheat is a cool-season crop that can only be cultivated in areas north of the Vindhyas when day temperatures are in the early 30oC range from November to March (temperature-sensitive) Its growth in Punjab is also advantageous from the perspective of national food security. Punjab’s wheat yields are far too high – around 5 tonnes per hectare, compared to the national average of 3.4-3.5 tonnes – to justify any reduction in its cultivated area.
So it’s mostly paddy that needs to be fixed?
Yes, there are two factors that contribute to this. The first is that rice is a warm-season crop that isn’t particularly susceptible to high temperatures. Where there is sufficient water, it may be cultivated across much of eastern, central, and southern India. Punjab supplied 10.88 million tonnes of rice (milled paddy) out of a total of 52 million tonnes purchased by the Central pool in 2019-20. Almost half of Punjab’s rice may be found in eastern Uttar Pradesh, Bihar, West Bengal, or Assam instead. The second concern is the use of water. Wheat is irrigated five times by farmers on average. Thirty or more irrigations are given in paddy. The groundwater table in Punjab has been decreasing at a rate of 0.5 m/year on average, owing to rice cultivation and the state’s policy of providing free power for irrigation. Farmers have responded by planting water-guzzling paddy types like Pusa-44, which have an extended growing season (160 days). Because of the extended period, nursery-raising began last week in April, and transplanting began in mid-May. However, because it was the height of summer, there was a tremendous demand for water. Crops were harvested beginning in October, allowing plenty of time for the following wheat crop to be planted (by mid-November). Prior to the advent of Pusa-44 in 1993, Punjab farmers mostly cultivated PR-106, a low-water, short-duration (145 days).
Is anything being done by the Punjab government to address this?
The Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act of 2009, which barred nursery-sowing and paddy transplanting before May 15 and June 15, respectively, was the only important move it made. As a result, only when the monsoon rains arrived in mid-June was Pusa-44 transplanted. This was done in order to meet the water needs. As a result, harvesting was pushed back to the end of October, leaving a little window for wheat seeding before the November 15 deadline. Farmers had no choice but to burn the paddy stubble that remained after harvesting. To put it another way, groundwater conservation in Punjab resulted in air pollution in Delhi.
Is there any way to prevent this compromise?
Shorter-duration paddy cultivars have been breed by experts at the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) in Ludhiana. These mature in 13 to 37 days less than Pusa-44, but produce almost the same amount of fruit (see table 2). PR-126 is a 2017 cultivar with a 123-day growing period (including 30 days post-nursery-raising) and a yield of 30 quintals per acre. Pusa-44 covered 39 percent of Punjab’s non-basmati paddy land in 2012. In 2021, that figure had dropped to 20%, while the percentage of shorter-duration variants, namely PR-121 and PR-126, had risen to 71%. While Pusa-44 necessitates around 31 irrigations, PR-126 and PR-121 only require 23 and 26 irrigations, respectively. Farmers that choose direct sowing of paddy over transplanting in flooded areas will save an additional 3-4 gallons of water per acre. Water consumption per acre for single irrigation is around 2 lakh liters.
Limiting Punjab’s paddy acreage and ensuring that only shorter-duration types are planted would be a smart strategy. Water savings can be increased by using electricity metering and direct paddy seeding.