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No Riparian rights, groundwater 'overused', only 27% of Punjab farming is canal-based

By Dr Gian Singh* 

On March 4, 2021, on the fourth day of the budget session, concern was expressed over the declining groundwater level in Punjab. Recognizing the serious problem of declining groundwater level in Punjab, the Punjab government has been asked to take immediate steps to address this problem by passing a unanimous resolution in the Vidhan Sabha.
Announcing the formation of a high level committee of the House, the Speaker said that this committee would present its status report on the declining groundwater level in Punjab and its proposals on water recharge methods and resources. The committee will submit a report on its proposals within three months.
There are several reasons for the declining groundwater level in Punjab. One of the most important of these reasons is the use of groundwater for irrigation in agriculture. A research conducted by three of us (myself, Dr Surender Singh and Harvinder Singh) on the declining groundwater level in Punjab, published in the book, “Groundwater Development in Punjab”, suggests falling groundwater levels are recorded in the development blocks in which irrigation water is being used far more than its available quantity for crop production.
There is a strong correlation between crop-combination and groundwater balance. In Punjab, for example, wheat and paddy are sown in the declining groundwater development blocks. In Punjab, two crops of wheat and paddy account for more than three-fourths of the total sown area. With the increase in irrigation resources in Punjab, the increase in the area under crops is also one of the reasons for the declining groundwater level.
Punjab's statistics show that the development blocks in which the groundwater level has been steadily declining have a higher crop density than the average crop density of the state. The area under paddy planting is of special importance in relation to the declining groundwater level in Punjab. Irrigation requirement for high yielding varieties of paddy is much higher than that of maize, cotton and many other crops.
One of the important reasons for this is the prevalence of pond-irrigation system for paddy crops. In Punjab, since 1973, there has been a rapid increase in paddy planting, especially in the traditionally non-paddy areas and in areas with very low rainfall. Almost all the development blocks in which more of the total sown area is allotted for paddy cultivation are development blocks in which there is a negative balance of groundwater.
In view of the immense increase in wheat productivity and production as a result of the success of the new agriculture technology in Punjab and the consequent relief to the Union government from the shackles of importing foodgrains, the Union Government in order to meet the needs of the Central pool of foodgrains, through relatively higher minimum support price (MSP) of paddy and its assured procurement by Central government, the Central government has imposed paddy crop on the farmers of Punjab.
Some of the major problems arising in Punjab due to falling groundwater level can be easily observed. Irrigation was usually done by wells and canals in Punjab before the adoption of the new agriculture technology'. The adoption of this technique greatly increased the demand for irrigation which resulted in the use of tubewells as the main means of irrigation.
The number of tubewells in Punjab during 1960-61 was only 7445 which at present shows a tremendous increase to around 15 lakh. The groundwater level is falling so fast that the submersible motors have to be installed due to the abandonment of the monoblock motors and the bores of these motors have to be deepened time and time again. This means of irrigation is so expensive that it is beyond the reach of the marginal and small farmers, for which they either take loans or sell some of their already small holdings when the loan is not available.
Due to the anti-farmer policies of the Union government, the Punjab government has been providing free supply of electricity for agricultural irrigation. As a result, the Punjab government is facing increasing financial burden. Due to shortage of electricity for irrigation in Punjab, farmers have to run submersible motors on their own or rented tractors and generators, the cost of which is further increasing their debt.
In 1980, there was a shortage of drinking water in 3,712 villages of Punjab. In 2007, the number had increased to 8,515. At present the number is even higher and the chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, fungicides and other chemicals used for agricultural production from the bundle of 'new agricultural technology' poisons have dissolved in the groundwater. As a result, groundwater in most parts of Punjab is no longer directly available for drinking. Life is not possible without water, so water is the elixir of life.
Recognizing the importance of water for all life on earth, this year the United Nations has adopted the theme ‘Valuing Water' to celebrate Water Day. The people of Punjab are still suffering due to the declining groundwater level and the problem of severe shortage of groundwater which will be an issue for the people of Punjab in the near future is not easy to predict.
In Punjab, 73 per cent area is dependent on tubewells, which suggests justice should be done to the state regarding river waters
The Union government and the Niti Ayog have been giving a lot of advice to the Punjab government and farmers of Punjab on crop diversification, but the Union government itself has been doing the opposite through its agricultural policies. If the Union government does not make its agricultural policies pro-farmer, plans growing or planting of crops in accordance with the agro-climatic conditions of different regions, then what to talk about planting of paddy in Punjab, growing/planting of many other crops would not be possible due to a severe shortage of groundwater in the near future.
The fast declining groundwater level in Punjab calls for new policies to be implemented. In order to increase agricultural productivity and production, announcement and procurement of remunerative agricultural products and marketing as well as sustainability of agriculture should be the cornerstone of Punjab's development. To bring crop diversification in Punjab, instead of sowing/planting wheat and paddy, the crop combinations such as wheat-maize, wheat-cotton, wheat-basmati paddy or other suitable crops should be sown and planted.
The need for irrigation is far less than the prevailing varieties of paddy and due to Punjab's agro-climatic conditions, the world's best paddy is grown in Punjab (a research study from Jawaharlal Nehru University, New Delhi). In order to do so, the Central Government will have to fix reasonable prices for these crops and insure their procurement at these prices.
The issue of distribution of river waters of Punjab is in the Supreme Court of the country. Over time, the rivers have receded. In Punjab, only 27 per cent area is being irrigated with canal water and the remaining 73 per cent area is dependent on tubewells. Justice should be done to Punjab regarding river waters. Therefore, the Riparian principle of division of river waters should be adopted.
The government should invest heavily in canal irrigation to improve the canal irrigation system by constructing check dams on year-round rivers and rivers that run during the rainy season and to improve canal irrigation. Eliminate illegal encroachments on ponds in Punjab and ensure their annual cleaning. Drains should be cleaned and drilled at short distances to allow excess water to seep into the ground. In addition, rainwater harvesting should be done to prevent the groundwater level from falling and old and new wells should be used.
Regarding the efficient use of irrigation water, land reforms in favour of small and marginal farmers and landless farm labourers can be very beneficial as marginal and small farmers use water efficiently by making very small beds in their fields. Increase investment in research and development work for the development of new economical techniques/methods of irrigation and ensure that preferential subsidies are given to the small and marginal farmers for adopting these techniques and methods.
Apart from the above suggestions, there is a need to strictly curb the misuse of water in industries, cities and villages to curb the fast-declining groundwater level in Punjab. In this regard, people need to be made aware of the need to develop a restrained attitude towards water use so that they realize that even a single drop of wasted water is our unforgivable mistake because this is a matter of governmental/social responsibility as well as individual character and historical role.
In order to make groundwater potable, it is necessary for the government to strictly control the use of chemicals/poisons for agricultural production as well as to provide necessary finance and other facilities for research and development works necessary for the development of natural agriculture. The discharge of chemicals, metals, toxic water in industries, cities and villages into rivers, streams, canals, drains, ponds and the like must be strictly stopped.
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*Former professor, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala

Comments

Anonymous said…
I have yet to see an article clearly stating that all of Punjab requires 5000 liters of water per Kg of Paddy. This great story was brought into prominence by the gentleman Gulati bhai. However subsequently it has been found that many of his stories rely on 2013 data and biased - false conclusions. The IRRi says paddy requires from about 500 - 2500 liters of water and more per Kg of paddy produced. It is unbelievable that India does not have any geniuses which can tell us whether these numbers apply only to Punjab or all of India? Can any agricultural genius also let us know what is the quantum of rainfall taken into account in these calculations ? Also can our farm geniuses tell us if one uses the DSR method of planting paddy what is the quantum of water used per Kg of paddy produced. Also the difference in consumption of water / Kg of paddy for Basmati and other Paddy varieties.

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