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Agriculture: what’s wrong?

– Birinder Pal Singh

IT is unfortunate that the “land of five rivers” is fast proceeding towards the brink of prosperity and depleting its water resources. It seems history has destined it that way. Two rivers were lost during Partition and the remaining are given to pollution and natural upheavals of more or less availability of water.

Profit-hungry farmers, induced by modern science and technology, cannot rely either on rains or nature for a thriving crop. They sink tubewells and now submersible pumps deeper and deeper to reach the ground water, believing it to be an inexhaustible and easily renewable perennial resource of water for irrigation and domestic use (or abuse).

The seriousness of concern for Punjab agriculture may be gauged from a series of articles in these very columns of The Tribune starting with Johl (February 11, 2005), Shergill (February 18), Aulakh (February 25) followed by Gill (March 18). All these economists are worried about Punjab, its agricultural economy and, last but not the least, the Punjabi farmer. Their deep concern is reflected on a number of issues, namely the problem of crop diversification, wheat-paddy duo, depleting watertable and ensuing environmental hazards, the role of the State and its political-administrative structure, the farmers’ role as a political force and the emancipating role of science and technology.

Punjab today is afflicted with suicides, indebtedness, poverty, marginalisation of lower and middle classes, Jat-Dalit conflict, drug addiction, unemployment, out-migration, shameless demands for dowry, a steep rise in the crime graph, rising costs of agricultural production, falling sex ratio, depleting watertable, ecological, environmental and health hazards following the abuse of pesticides and fertilisers etc. All these problems demand answers: what went wrong and where? What way are we heading? What are impending dangers ahead? Can we suggest alternative routes to prosperity and development?

The four economists appear to be opposed to one another, but a careful reading of their texts dispels this notion. Johl and Aulakh are strong votaries of diversification of Punjab agriculture since “wheat-rice rotation is neither remunerative… nor sustainable” (Johl). For Aulakh it is urgent because of the “alarmingly fast rate of decline in the watertable…. 55 cm per year” and that “paddy has led to the deterioration of soil health, air pollution due to the burning of straw, use of agrochemicals and erosion of biodiversity”.

But Shergill is strongly opposed to diversification in the first instance, but finally relents on a condition that it may be done in a phased manner without causing any economic loss to farmers. Gill too believes that “Without making a grand plan for diversification and elaborate arrangements for implementation, this programme would not succeed even in a limited way”. This shows that all of them welcome diversification provided it does not incur any economic loss to farmers. Thus diversification should not be seen in opposition to the farmers’ well-being.

The economists are divided vertically on the wheat-paddy issue. This crop pattern must be broken to get over stagnation in farmers’ incomes. Paddy should be replaced with “animal husbandry enterprises, specially dairy enterprises that will demand an enhanced area under fodder/forage crops”. To Aulakh, paddy is a great evil because its water requirement is “180 cm as compared to 45 cm of cotton, 40 cm of maize and 25 cm of groundnut”. Thus “increased demand for energy in the form of electricity and diesel would reduce the profits from paddy”.

All the authors have a love/hate relation with the state currently dominating our society. Interestingly, Johl, who is an integral part of the Punjab Government, is relying on the State to provide subsidies and “compensating the farmers partially for a few years”, besides lauding the present government “for effective market clearance”, yet laments: “Above all, the effort at diversification suffered due to the total lack of coordination. Every department has been playing its own solitary tune and there is no orchestration effect.”

Gill highlights the impossibility of such subsidies “under the present socio-economic and political conditions” since direct subsidy of Rs 1250 crore is not acceptable to the new policy regime since 1991, also due to its spill-over effect on the neighbouring states. Yet he suggests that contract farming may only be introduced if there exists “a state regulatory mechanism to safeguard the interests of farmers…. PAFC has no technical and administrative capability to assume this role”. He suggests that the Agriculture Department should work in coordination with PAU.

I am sure neither the strong protagonists of diversification (Johl and Aulakh) are for such a change that may incur economic loss to the farmers nor its opponents (Shergill) so dead set against diversification that is beneficial to them. The problem lies only with the means and methods to achieve it. Johl seems to rely too much on the fund-starved State to compensate the farmers that, in fact, plays to the tune of politics of appeasement rather than Weberian rationality.

Shergill’s conservatism is for farmers’ economic security. He is right too in not disturbing the present pattern of farming stabilised over the last many decades. I think it “suits” the Punjab farmer because he not only gets a stable crop and income, but also ensures him ample free time that to him is a measure of enhanced social status, so very dear to the Punjabi psyche.

Moreover, at this juncture the Punjab farmer is not only distressed but so depressed with the present state of the economy that he is forced to commit suicide. We all know that the peasantry, which is largely conservative, cannot be asked to be susceptible to diversification at this juncture no matter what good it may have in store for him in future.

Shergill must not underestimate the fast receding watertable simply to render support to his pro-paddy argument. Not only paddy, but all hybrid seeds are terribly water thirsty as compared to the indigenous varieties. If we cannot go back to them we should at least try only those varieties that are water-conservative and eco-friendly. I wish my fear may be ill-founded, but I have it that if the abuse of water continues, time is not far when we shall be fondly reminiscing the golden era of water abundance in the “land of five rivers”.

No doubt, science and technology have done wonders for agriculture but can we sustain it without nature. Biotechnology has only started showing symptoms of still greater marvels in this field, but how long we shall be able to play with the proposed restructuring of nature that is being done not primarily in the interest of the farmers and their welfare, but essentially for MNCs like Monsanto. These corporations are for maximising their capital only. Once again my fear that by the time scientists realise that such restructuring of nature is dangerous for humankind, as often happens with new researches, both farmers and nature would have been ruined beyond repair.

The writer is a Professor in the Department of Sociology and Social Anthropology, Punjabi University, Patiala. (From The Tribune)