Wean farmers off rice-wheat cropping system

Crop diversification

Surinder S Kukal

Punjab has been passing through an agricultural crisis because of manifold reasons, including the mono-cropping system. This has led to large-scale depletion and deterioration of natural resources — air, water and soil. The rice-wheat cropping system was introduced on a large scale in the state to tide over food insecurity faced by the country. The country, at that time, had to import grains to feed its population. A national-level plan was chalked out for ushering in the Green Revolution. Punjab was selected by the Indian government to be the first site due to reliable water supply and history of agricultural success. Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), then being in its teenage, was entrusted with the task of developing high-yielding varieties of wheat and rice from the germplasm imported from Mexico and other countries. University scientists were trained abroad, especially for developing technologies to grow high-yield varieties of rice and wheat. A major chunk of PAU research programme was thus focused on rice-wheat cultivation, especially breeding for higher yields, and this is continuing till today.

The objective of achieving food self-sufficiency was ultimately achieved and the country now has sufficient buffer stocks of foodgrains, with other states following in Punjab’s footsteps. The minimum support price (MSP), coupled with assured procurement, has led to continuous expansion in area under rice (>30 lakh hectares) and wheat (>35 lakh hectares). However, this has been at the cost of the state’s natural resources, which got depleted and/or deteriorated at a much faster rate than was expected. The dependence on groundwater resources for irrigation and other purposes and decreasing surface waters have led to not only a steep fall in the water table but also to increased quantum of energy for groundwater extraction, thereby increasing the farmers’ expenditures on agriculture. On an average, about 54 billion cubic metres (BCM) of groundwater is extracted every year for irrigation in Punjab, leading to a fall in the water table by 70 cm. The burning of more than 16 million tonnes of rice straw in the state has been causing large-scale air pollution, especially during October-November. The mining of huge amounts of nutrients from the soil over the years has caused deterioration of the soil structure in the form of subsurface compaction (due to repeated wet tillage) and crusting.

Source: 3rd Advance Estimates, Department of Agriculture, Cooperation and Farmers’ Welfare

Several schemes of the state government, aimed at diversification of agriculture, have not found favour among the farmers due to multiple reasons, including the lack of good varieties of alternative crops. Our research and extension organisations have been focusing mainly on the rice-wheat system, instead of alternative crops. For diversification to be successful, let us start from PAU itself. The university needs to focus on research programmes for developing high-yield and less water-requiring varieties of probable crops which could economically replace rice and wheat. This should be combined with developing precise techniques for efficient irrigation and disease-pest management.

Diversifying away from rice/wheat seems to be a good option to save our natural resources, mainly water. However, to compete economically with rice, we need to have high-yield varieties of pulses and other crops. Pulses, which are the staple of Indian food, are being imported to meet the demand. Similarly, oilseeds are mostly being imported. In order to be self-sufficient in pulses and oilseeds, good high-yield and mechanical harvest-friendly varieties need to be developed by our research organisations. Crops like arhar, moong, mustard, rapeseed and groundnut need to be bred for higher yield varieties. The demand for coarse millets like bajra and jowar is again rising due to increasing health consciousness among the people. Moreover, these crops require very less water. We need to have dedicated programmes in our research organisations to breed high-yield, low water-requiring varieties of alternative crops. Pioneering research institutions should shift their focus from breeding wheat/rice varieties to breeding alternative crops. Citing a typical example, despite advocating direct dry seeding of rice, we are playing with varieties which are accustomed to reduced (wet) conditions. Instead we could have focused on breeding for aerobic varieties of rice.

Popularise micro-irrigation

The mono-cropping system of wheat-rice and traditional irrigation practices have led to depletion/deterioration of groundwater resources. Moreover, the increasing demand of non-agricultural sectors in the near future is expected to be met at the cost of water requirement of the agricultural sector, especially in the light of changing rainfall patterns over time and space. It is now the right time that the scientifically trained manpower be entrusted with developing irrigation techniques for higher input water productivity. Micro-irrigation is still not becoming popular among the farmers of the state. A state-level programme needs to be chalked out for detailed research and popularisation of micro-irrigation for its easy adoption by farmers. The meaningful subsidy options need to be floated for the adoption of micro-irrigation in the state. This should be coupled with dedicated communication channels with the farmers to apprise them of the actual situation of depleting water resources.

The burning of rice/wheat residue is a serious issue not only at the state level but also at the national level. Farmers have no option but to invest in costly machines, which many cannot do. Diversifying of the rice crop with non-rice crops on a competitive basis seems to be a better option without indulging in additional expenditure on machines, etc. But then there is a need to breed high-yield, less water- requiring crop varieties.

The fatigue of soils is reflected in the form of good response to the higher quantity of chemical fertilisers being applied by the farmers. The continuous application of chemical fertilisers and non-application of organic ones might have led to decreased soil microbial population, responsible for mineralisation of chemicals in the soil. The option of only organic application may not work in the state with intensive cropping, mining enormous amounts of nutrients. Thus, a dedicated programme on integrated nutrient management involving the use of organic and inorganic inputs needs to be worked upon by research organisations.

Reduce input costs

The farmers, despite producing good yields of wheat and rice, are indebted due to input costs and other reasons. The application of higher doses of chemical fertilisers, pesticides, etc. and the ever-declining water table (thus increasing water extraction costs) have led to increased input costs or lower cost-benefit ratio. Moreover, the irrigation scheduling, availability of nutrients and population of weed/insect/disease-pests are inter-related. A higher amount of nitrogenous fertilisers or irrigation water triggers the growth of insect-pests and diseases.

The diversification of the cropping pattern in Punjab must begin with research focus on breeding for high-yield, low-water-requiring varieties of alternative crops. This should be coupled with natural resource management, especially of water and air, through easy-to-use micro-irrigation system and integrated input management so as to save our natural resources.

The author is a member of Punjab Water Regulation & Development Authority

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