While the Punjab Budget avowedly has the welfare of farmers on its agenda, the allocation of Rs 200 crore for crop diversification is only a tentative step towards reducing the state’s dependence on the wheat-paddy cycle. The Rs 7,180 crore allocated for free power and the Rs 1,712-crore loan waiver spell out the priorities of the state government. Horticulture gets Rs 361 crore while Rs 40 crore has been allocated for crop residue management, besides an assured base price for kinnow and potato — the glut of which has seen farmers dump stock on highways — and payment of deficiency price as compensation to offset the loss of producers. The state government has cited the ‘rigidity of the Union Government in passing three farm laws’ as the reason for its largesse.
Official word will be awaited on the cycle of sowing paddy which has been pushed back to conserve groundwater and the delayed harvesting and the resultant stubble burning which causes pollution in Delhi-NCR. Whether the use of technology has led to an improvement in the depleting groundwater level and its contamination will also have to be ascertained. When it comes to crop diversification, the state also needs to tread with caution on account of scams in the past involving agencies like the Council of Citrus & Agro-Juicing and the Organic Farming Council of Punjab that were accused of misappropriating government funds. Also, the schemes were alleged to have covered less land than envisaged in the scheme.
The agriculture sector has served as a cushion for the economy, helping it absorb the shock of the pandemic and the lockdown while the manufacturing and services sectors were among the worst hit. While it may make political sense for the government not to rock the boat unnecessarily, it needs to keep its focus on making agricultural practices sustainable. Crop diversification has to be based on need and scope. A pragmatic approach that keeps the interest of farmers in view by offering them choices based on local conditions will encourage them to decide what is good for them.