- With the massive groundwater crisis in Punjab, there is a huge stress on diversification of crops, and a move away from water-guzzling paddy.
- In a recent meeting in Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, it was decided to strengthen maize — the most important alternative to rice.
- This would be done by working towards narrowing the gap in economic returns between the two crops. The idea is to nudge farmers towards increasing the area under maize.
Punjab’s water crisis:
- According to central government estimates, over 70% of blocks in Punjab are in the dark zone on underground water stocks,.
- At current rates of depletion, Punjab’s entire subsurface water resource could be exhausted in a little over two decades.
New law to conserve water led to change in paddy season:
- To conserve the resource, the Punjab government brought a law in 2009 to mandatorily delay transplantation of paddy beyond June 10, when the most severe phase of evapotranspiration is over.
- This law led to delay in harvesting to end-October and early November.
This led to air crisis crisis in North India
- The law and change in paddy season left farmers little time to dispose of Paddy stubble before they can sow wheat for the Rabi season. As a result, farmers started burning the stubble as a method of quick disposal.
- This ended up creating air quality crisis of North India, as atmospheric and wind conditions at this time of the year cause particulate matter and gases from burning paddy stubble to hang close to the surface.
What can be done?
Punjab needs to effectively diversify from paddy
- According to experts, the area under non-basmati paddy must be cut by at least 12 lakh hectares, and maize, basmati, and cotton must be grown on this land — besides increasing the area under agro-forestry and vegetables.
- Non-basmati paddy is currently grown on 23-26 lakh hectares and at least 5.50 lakh hectares should pass under maize.
- Under its New Diversification Policy launched in the 2013 kharif season, the previous government had, in fact, aimed to bring around 5.50 lakh hectares under maize by 2017-18.
- However, data from the agriculture department show that the area under the crop has remained largely stagnant. Fluctuating prices of maize have been a disincentive for farmers.
Potential for Maize in Punjab:
Maize distribution in India
- Nearly 46% of India’s maize area is in the pensinsular states of Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra too, have large areas under maize.
Maize cultivation in Punjab
- Of the 42-odd lakh hectares under cultivation in Punjab, maize was grown on 1.60 lakh hectares this year — just 3.8% of the area.
- The area under maize in Punjab is only 1.6% of the total area under the crop in India (98 lakh hectares).
- In Punjab, maize can be grown in three seasons — spring (March-June), rabi (December-April) and kharif (June-October).
- Kharif is the state’s main maize season, hence, there is a need to increase the area under kharif maize, which is also the paddy season.
- Spring maize is grown on around 25,000 hectares, but the crop is not promoted due to its long duration, and because it consumes water during the hot summer days.
What ails the maize diversification efforts?
- Unlike paddy and wheat, which are procured by the government, maize is sold in the open market and is subject to the actions of private players.
- Maize is one of 24 crops for which the government fixes a minimum support price, but procurement is not its responsibility.
- This is because maize is primarily a “feed” crop — of the 28 million tonnes produced in India, only 13% is consumed as food.
- Agricultural scientists strongly feel that more high-yield and good varieties of maize should be developed, for which there is a demand in the market.
- However, more high-yield varieties won’t guarantee an increase in area under maize unless government policy supports the marketing of the crop.
- Hence, the government should also earmark a portion of the MSP budget for maize, so that a fund is created from which farmers can be compensated in case the price of maize falls below what has been fixed by the centre government.
- A very large number of tubewells (more than 14 lakh in 2015-16) running on free power pump out virtually endless amounts of water across the state.
- Hence, the government must stop free power for paddy in order to disincentivise its cultivation and check the overexploitation of underground aquifers.