The loss of groundwater in Punjab has been a growing concern for a few decades. Data shows that the groundwater level in Punjab has fallen to dangerous levels and the main reason for this is the planting of paddy.

Some people blame this on farmers self-indulgence for monetary gains. While paddy is the fundamental cause of this crisis, farmers are the victims of the problem, not the offenders.

A recent research study led by Professor Rajiv Sinha from IIT Kanpur and his PhD research scholar Sunil Kumar Joshi reveals that Punjab and Haryana are the areas worst hit by groundwater depletion across India. It also finds that the area under paddy cultivation in these two states has grown roughly tenfold in the last 50 years.

One of the conclusions of their research is that the fulfilment of the agricultural productivity objective of the ‘Green Revolution’ is responsible for the continuous use of groundwater and its rapid decline.

The use of irrigation in agriculture is one of the most important factors for the decline. A research study in 2003 by Dr Gian Singh, Dr Surender Singh and Harwinder Singh revealed that the groundwater used for growing crops in Punjab exceeds its available quantity each year. And there is a strong correlation between crop-combinations and groundwater balance. Wheat and paddy account for over three-quarters of sown area in Punjab, and are responsible for the continuously declining groundwater level in most development blocks.

The area under paddy planting/sowing is specifically responsible for the decline. High yielding varieties of paddy have a higher irrigation requirement than cotton, maize and many other crops. This is the major reason for the prevalence of pond irrigation systems for paddy crops in general.

Some people blame the farmers of Punjab as solely responsible for the rapidly declining groundwater levels. The author disagrees with this claim. Looking back at the old days, it is important to understand the historical crop-combinations in Punjab and the changes made in them for the needs of the country.

In the second Five Year Plan the Central government shifted the focus from agriculture to the industrial sector, leading to a severe shortage of foodgrains in the country, and the country had to resort to importing foodgrains under PL480. The Central government decided to adopt the ‘New Agricultural Technology’ to resolve the foodgrains shortage.

This was a package of high yield variety seeds, assured irrigation, chemical fertilisers, insecticides, pesticides, fungicides and other synthetic chemicals, machinery and modern agricultural practices. The essence of this New Agricultural Technology is commercial in nature, that is production for profit.

After taking the decision to adopt this technology, the Central government decided to introduce it in Punjab as a matter of high priority. The onus to execute this decision of the Central government came upon the hardworking and courageous farmers, farm labourers, small rural artisans and the rich natural resources of Punjab. They increased the productivity and production of wheat to such an extent that the Central government no longer needed to import foodgrains.

The Central government, keeping in view Punjab’s remarkable track record and the needs of the Central Pool of Foodgrains, imposed the paddy crop on the farmers of Punjab since 1973 through a relatively high Minimum Support Price and guaranteed procurement of paddy by the Central government.

With the assurance of procurement at MSP, the area under paddy eventually increased due to the commercial, profitable nature of the New Agricultural Technology and by keeping the MSP higher than for other kharif crops.

Prior to the adoption of the New Agricultural Technology in Punjab, irrigation was generally done through canals and wells and there were no serious problems with the groundwater level. The number of tubewells in Punjab in 1961 was only 7,445 and has risen to around 1.5 million in 2021 mainly due to the adoption of this technology.

The huge increase in the number of tubewells in Punjab to meet the foodgrain needs of the country has led to the continuous fall in the groundwater level of the state, as well as many other problems.

Initially, irrigation work was done with monoblock motors, but due to the continuous fall in groundwater the farmers were forced to bring in submersible motors, which is one of the reasons for their increasing debt.

Nowadays due to insufficient supply of electricity, farmers have to use generators on their own or rented tractors to run their submersible motors, and rising diesel prices have become one of the reasons agriculture is being made into a loss making occupation.

There is no doubt that the entire Indian society, like many other societies in the world, is caught in a vicious circle of self-indulgence. Prior to the adoption of the New Agriculture technology there were warm social relations between farmers, labourers, rural artisans and other rural people. The big rich farmers helped all other sections. There was a Siri (sharing) system among farmers, labourers and artisans.

The self-indulgence amongst the farmers of Punjab is attributed to the inherent commercial nature of the ‘New Agriculture Technology’. Farmers are well aware of the fact that their own problems will increase in future as a result of groundwater decline. Therefore, blaming the farmers for the declining groundwater level in Punjab is by no means justified.

People putting the sole blame on farmers seem completely unaware of agricultural practices and are blindly urging the farmer to stop planting paddy. This sounds like if you ask a farmer to apply brakes on his cart while he is coming down the slope of a bridge. If a farmer applies sudden brakes, it is common sense that his oxen’s neck will be crushed, and only a farmer can understand the pain of oxen if that happens.

In order to apply the brakes on the cart of the farmers of Punjab, i.e to prevent the groundwater level from falling continuously, it is imperative that the Central government fix remunerative prices instead of MSPs on agricultural commodities and ensures their procurement, so that crops alternative to paddy can be sown or planted according to the state’s agro-climatic conditions.

The canal irrigation system should be streamlined and the water in the rivers of Punjab distributed in accordance with the ‘Riparian Principle’.

At the same time, farmers and all other people need to realise that a single drop of wasted and misused water is a huge and unforgivable crime. If every person has this realisation and acts to save water, it might seem like a drop in the ocean, but if you save enough drops they would be enough to make an ocean.

Dr Gian Singh is Former Professor, Department of Economics, Punjabi University, Patiala