Ajay Vir Jakhar
Renowned agricultural economist Dr. SS Johl presented two reports on the need for crop diversification in Punjab in 1986 and 2002. After more than three decades, overflowing grain granaries and large budget deficits finally forced to seriously rethink policy at Union government level on open-ended public procurement system limited to paddy and wheat. These two staple crops were favored for the Green Revolution because, with assured irrigation, yields are less subject to climatic vagaries, can be stored inexpensively for long periods of time, and are therefore more suitable for food security purposes. Punjab provided the ideal conditions for the cultivation of these crops and was chosen as the green revolution state. When India gained independence, Punjab had a diverse agricultural landscape. But, under the directives, policies and incentives of the Union government to ensure India’s food security during its most difficult decades, it turned to specialized agriculture.
It would be unrealistic to expect a financially constrained Punjab to share the cost of crop diversification. The process becomes even more complicated when one also seeks to secure dignified livelihoods for those dependent on agriculture while shifting to regenerative alternatives. Solving the maze of the state’s free electricity policy for tubewells will require political will, which is sorely lacking. Such challenges make the task of diversification too daunting for the administration to even contemplate.
Unquestionably, a critical need for crop diversification is to address groundwater depletion. Two-crop monoculture wipes out biodiversity, but most ignore it as an existential crisis. There is also a direct correlation between two-crop monoculture areas and farmer suicides. The man-days of work created by the paddy-wheat cycle are perhaps 130 days per year or less. Spending days without work in a state of jobless “unemployment” leads to the depression that plagues these communities. Creating a diversity of rural occupations is just as important as creating off-farm employment to improve rural livelihoods. Reducing paddy cultivation is also key to solving the thorny problem of crop burning.
People wallow in satisfaction as India customarily celebrates its ‘self-sufficiency’ in food amid massive and ongoing malnutrition. The misperception only arises because the majority of the population cannot afford nutritious meals and demand remains low. Consumption patterns change as economies develop, with people able to afford and demand more nutritious and diverse foods. Even as demand for diverse foods increases, climate change will negatively impact food production targets, regularly resulting in erratic production. Across India, the water table is so depleted that even access to clean water has become a problem in tens of thousands of villages. In light of these challenges, Punjab, endowed with unique natural resources, is key to help achieve India’s nutrition security.
The question may well be asked: if crop diversification is so important, why have we failed so miserably for decades? The answer is quite simple: regardless of the noise, the Union government has always been wary of crop diversification in Punjab. India’s priorities are changing with rising international commodity prices and occasional droughts across the country. The assured supply of paddy and wheat at good prices in village markets, coupled with prompt payment, created the scourge. It is impossible to replace or replicate it for other cultivation systems. Central procurement agency procurement infuses about Rs 60,000 crore a year into the financially-struggling Punjab. The state is unable to offset the inflows and revenues accruing to the state and has therefore also chosen to maintain the status quo. Overall, most trade across the world takes place with neighboring countries such as in the Americas or the European Union. In the case of Punjab, landlocked far from seaports and neighboring hostile Pakistan, trade is being strangled, leading to loss of agricultural export opportunities and creation of off-farm employment. In the process, Punjab lost the export markets of Afghanistan and Pakistan, its traditional trading partners. It is also denied road access to Central Asian markets which are closer to Punjab than Mumbai or Bengaluru.
The financially strapped Punjab Agricultural University has also failed to live up to expectations and ‘agricultural research and extension’ is in desperate need of a restart. An agriculture-rich state like Punjab ironically became a net importer of fruits and vegetables, the cultivation of which would provide food and labor on the farm. Crops intended to replace paddy such as maize, groundnut, moong, cotton, bajra, arhar and soybean simply do not yield comparative benefits. Profit is not the only reason farmers choose to grow a particular crop. Weather-induced comparative production risks in other crops make paddy a preferred crop. The late Dr. GS Kalkat had observed that small and marginal farmers will not adopt new crops unless they are assured of commercialization of their produce. Diversifying agricultural production will require a myriad of actions, including creating a regulated space for private traders, helping agricultural producer organizations to become aggregators, futures and options, warehouse receipts, risk insurance and the dismantling of traders’ monopolies in APMC markets. But governance remains the biggest challenge in debt-ridden Punjab’s struggle to regain its glory. Much of what is needed for successful diversification is also found outside state borders. For example, the Punjab dairy industry’s demand for maize is met from Bihar, where it sells for half the value of MSP. This moderates producer prices in Punjab and hampers crop diversification. The food processing industry is essential for crop diversification, but Union government policies have fallen short. The regularity of arbitrary import-export restrictions hurts more.
The path to follow
Punjab provided India’s first 50 years of food security; now is the time for the Union government to fund crop diversification in Punjab to ensure India’s next 50 years of nutrition security. What should work is for the Center to allocate Rs 5,000 crore per year for a period of six years. This is expected to be in addition to current supply payments to farmers in Punjab. Unfortunately, the Punjab establishment cannot be trusted to use the money for its intended purpose, ensuring a just transformation; nor can the Union government be expected to tackle the pain of diversification in perpetuity. To make the transition permanent, we need to go beyond simply closing the profitability gap between paddy and diversification crops. Therefore, a “transition commission” headed by Niti Aayog should be constituted and tasked with evaluating states’ plans and allocating resources on a conditional basis.
It would be unrealistic to expect a financially constrained Punjab to share the cost of crop diversification. The process becomes even more complicated when one also seeks to secure dignified livelihoods for those dependent on agriculture while shifting to regenerative alternatives. Solving the maze of the state’s free electricity policy for tubewells will require political will, which is sorely lacking. Politicians and farmers’ union leaders seek populist short-term economic benefits for farmers by consciously sacrificing the livelihoods of future generations. Such challenges make the task of diversification too daunting for the administration to even contemplate. Therefore, even when something seems logical or even when resources are available, it does not mean that the transformation will be accomplished. Let’s not lose hope, let’s pray.
Five suggestions for the 2022 budget
1 Request the evaluation of government programs by organizations beneficiaries to enable the various departments to ensure the achievement of objectives and the optimal use of budget allocations.
2 Legal imposition of import duties on crops/food when landed cost is below MSP (when declared) or below remunerative prices (when there is no MSP) so that they do not do not enter Indian markets below a threshold price.
3 Dual funding of agricultural research institutions and agricultural extension services.
4 Fund a consortium of farmer organizations to develop a metric to measure what matters: the true cost of food; and payment for agricultural ecosystem services.
5 Establish an autonomous body under the Ministry of Agriculture, mandated to provide real-time market information and a nationally consistent database of food systems to all stakeholders, including states.
The author is the former Chairman of the Punjab State Farmers’ & Farm Workers’ Commission
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