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Farming Crisis in Punjab, India

Jashanpreet Singh Randhawa

Punjab, India is facing an agricultural, environmental, public health, and social crisis due to unsustainable agricultural practices, poor infrastructure planning, and lack of government support. The Punjab region of South Asia is widely considered to be one of the most fertile regions on planet Earth. The State of Punjab is commonly referred to as the breadbasket of India that feeds hundreds of millions of Indians and people all around the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, Punjab (and the rest of India) underwent a ‘Green Revolution’ that changed its traditional farming methods, such as organic farming and diversified cropping to more modern practices (i.e. chemical inputs, machinery, etc.). Some of these changes in human behaviour would have a negative impact on the natural systems. The green revolution put Punjab’s soil and groundwater at serious risk of degradation and contamination, threatening agriculture productivity and with it, farmers’ and farm labourers’ livelihood and a major global food supply.

Fig 1.0 (above) American Agronomist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Normal Borlaug (left) is considered the Father of the Green Revolution. Here, he is seen advising a farmer on wheat development programmes in Maharashtra on March 14, 1971. (The Times of India Group, 1971).

After gaining Independence from the British Empire in 1947, India was struggling to rebuild its economy after centuries of economic exploitation by foreign colonial powers. Renowned economist Utsa Patnaik estimates that Britain drained at least $44.6 trillion from India between 1765 to 1938 (Hickel, 2018). Agriculture reform became a priority post-Independence, especially after the 1943 Bengal Famine claimed the lives of 2-3 million people. In the 1876-1877 Famine, it is estimated that 6-10 million people perished, and over 30 million were impacted across India (PTI, 2019). While the Bengal Famine has historically been attributed to drought, and more recently to policy failure on part of the British Colonial Government, the 1876-1877 Famine has been attributed only to drought. Fear of unexpected climate phenomenon and disasters became an inspiration towards seeking foreign support for agricultural programmes and food supply in India (PTI, 2019).

Post-colonialism until the 1960s, India depended on the food-surplus United States for aid to feed its population. This would become increasingly unpopular with American ecologists, including Garrett Hardin, who argued that providing aid to India could lead to overpopulation (Dolsak & Prakash, 2020). The Indian Government sought to turn food-deficit India into a food-surplus country, and American experts were invited to India to plan a green revolution (Dolsak & Prakash, 2020). This revolution advocated for increased land dedicated to farming, two harvest seasons per year, high-yield seeds, chemical inputs, and improved irrigation. These changes allowed India to triple its yield of cereal crops, with only a 30% increase in the land area cultivated, and also reduce its food prices, poverty, and hunger (John and Babu, 2021). After some years, the hidden side effects of the green revolution began to reveal themselves, in soil and water pollution, depleted groundwater, more dangerous pest attacks against crops requiring stronger pesticides, and extinction of indigenous varieties of crops (John and Babu, 2021).

Human activity is identified to be the cause of soil degradation, primarily the practices of intensive cropping and excessive use of fertilizer (Chhatre et al., 2016; Bajwa, 2018). Groundwater resources are in decline due to over-use by farmers and blockage of natural drainage channels by infrastructure projects, such as roads and highways (Sharma, 2001). 70% of groundwater in Malwa, a large region of Punjab, is ‘highly contaminated’ and unfit for farming (Bharti, V., 2018). Contaminated water often contains high levels of chemical fertilizer and results in higher acidity of soil if used, negatively impacting plant growth (DSWC, 2019). Groundwater content “parameters such as salinity, electrical conductivity (EC), chloride (Cl−), and nitrate (NO3 −)” have all surpassed their limits in most of Punjab, resulting in much of the water resources being unfit for drinking as well (Kumar, 2018). Poor water quality and pollution is associated with reproductive health problems, bone disease, cancer, autism, and many other acute and chronic diseases (Rao & Bhandari, 2015). In fact, Punjab has the highest rate of cancer in the country (Chaudhary, 2019).

In addition, tens of thousands of hectares of farmland are burnt in Punjab each year to clear land after harvest (Singh et al., 2009). This appears to have resulted in extreme uptrends of small particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution in major cities across Northern India (Jethva et al., 2019). In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that around 7 million people die prematurely each year worldwide as a result of air pollution (Jasarevic, Thomas, & Osseiran, 2014).

Punjab receives an average 649 mm of rainfall annually, down from 700 mm average annual rainfall in the years on record before 1998 (PTI, 2020; Kumar et al., 2018). Other than

lower than expected rainfall, the most common climate problem in Punjab is flooding. Recent major floods occurred in 1988, 1993, 2011, and 2019, that wreaked havoc on crops and caused widespread damage to households and commercial buildings, and claimed numerous lives (Preet, 2008; Times of India, 2011; Mudgal, 2013; Sehgal, 2019). Extreme weather fluctuations, such as drought seasons and flooding activity are expected to increase with increasing levels of pollution in the region.

Punjab is home to an estimated 30.7 million persons as of 2021, with a population growth rate of approximately 13%, below the national average of 17% (Census Population 2021 Data, 2021). India's population is estimated to be about 1.392 billion as of 2021 (Statista, 2021). Rapid population growth becomes a recipe for disaster when it is coupled with unsustainable agricultural practices that are leading to soil degradation, and groundwater contamination and depletion, and considering the industrial sources of pollution as well.

Punjab has seen an increasing number of suicides among farmers and farm labourers since the 1980s, due to overwhelming prices of chemical agents, accumulated debt and land auctions (Gill, 2005). One aspect of the suicide epidemic is that in the years when crops are ruined by drought or flooding, small farmers are hit especially hard, and many do not see any path to financial recovery. Another cause of debt among farmers is the high cost of health treatments in India, exacerbated by the high levels of water contamination and air pollution in Punjab, that cause serious harm to human health (Pratisandhi, 2020). Many farmers also commit suicide with the belief that the government would never come to their aid (Gill, 2005; Parth, 2021). In the past few decades, there has been a trend of mass migration out of Punjab, and it is said that “no one wants to farm in Punjab. Given a chance, they’d all migrate” (CIC News, 2006).

The systems of crop storage, procurement, and infrastructure planning require serious optimization in Punjab. Punjab’s farmers lack adequate storage facilities for their produce, and as such, have little leverage during negotiations of crop sales due to limited time for crop freshness. In 2015, Punjab's farmers disposed of 193,000 tonnes of rotten wheat, and sold Rs 290 Crore of damaged wheat at 'throwaway' prices(Sehgal, 2018). Punjab's storage facilities can only hold 145,000 tonnes of food grains, and about 320,000 tonnes are stored in the open (Sehgal, 2018). The lack of storage facilities not only results in the traumatic economic exploitation of helpless farmers, but also reduces India’s potential to feed its population, including its poor. Even as a food-surplus country, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) estimates that as of 2020, 189.2 million people are undernourished in India, or 14% of the population (India FoodBanking Network, 2020). Transport infrastructure projects have also had destructive impact on the natural waterways and drainage systems in Punjab, in addition to increased greenhouse gas emissions (Sharma, 2001).

A major problem that has impacted Punjab’s farmers has been policy failure, especially on part of the Central Government of India. In Punjab and some other parts of India, crops have been bought and sold through the Mandi System. 'Mandi' means market. The 'Mandi System' involves a series of designated locations across states where farmers can bring their produce, including paddy and wheat (Sinha, 2020). These locations are regulated by Agricultural Produce Market Committee's (AMPC). Middle-persons, called Arthia, negotiate the sale of farmers’ crops largely to the Food Corporation of India (FCI), and a smaller amount to state (public) corporations, for a commission (Sinha, 2020). The minimum price for any trade is called Minimum Sales Price (MSP).

Fig 1.1: Farmers protest the Central Government's Agriculture Reforms at the Delhi-UP Border on Dec. 20, 2020 (left) and during the 'Rail Roko' (Block the Trains) Demonstration against Indian Farm Bills on Sep. 27, 2020 in Amritsar (right) (Prakash, 2020; Sehgal, 2020)

In September 2020, the Indian Government implemented contract farming in India, to replace the Mandi's that still exist in some of the states. Middle-persons would be bypassed, as private corporations could directly deal with farmers through digital platforms such as Whatsapp. However, farmers became worried that the new policies forbid them from taking vendors to court, should the vendors deal with farmers dishonestly. The new policies also did not enforce the minimum sale price (MSP) in farmer-vendor direct transactions, leaving farmers in an even worse situation should vendors refuse to pay decent prices for crops (Yeung, 2021).

From September 2020 to November 2021, millions of Punjabi and other Indian farmers peacefully protested against the Government of India’s historic agriculture policies, lack of support for farmers, and also the 2020 Indian Farm Bills. Protests have resulted in over 700 deaths after a year. Numerous human rights violations took place such as the use of tear gas, water cannons, and baton charges by police against the peaceful protestors (Parth, 2021). Many of the deaths were due to cold weather, road accidents and even suicides due to feelings of hopelessness (Parth, 2021). While the farm bills were repealed in November 2021, the farmers still face numerous challenges including lack of storage facilities, and lack of guaranteed minimum sales price on crops.

A myriad of policy solutions and changes in human behaviour are required to effectively address the farming crisis in Punjab:

  • Farmers may begin to trust the government again should MSP (minimum sales price) be enforced on all major crops throughout the country. This would prevent farmers from becoming trapped in lengthy contracts with corporations that force them to continuously grow cash crops. Instead, they would be able to diversify their produce which would help improve and maintain soil health.

  • The public consultation process requires drastic improvement in Punjab and all of India. There is no clearer evidence for this than the widespread protests by farmers, and their supporters including workers and students, against the 2020 Indian Farm Bills. Consultations may be lengthy and costly due to India’s large population of farmers and farm labourers. However, the benefits heavily outweigh the negatives of the lengthy process, as the protests continue even during the current pandemic, and may result in widespread transmissions.

  • Rainwater harvesting can be implemented on rooftops in Punjab as well as alongside highways and roads, to capture rain and floodwater. This would help to restore water supply for drinking and farm use, and dilute many contaminated sources. The cost of the infrastructure requires study and may be significant upfront in Punjab’s annual budget. With these investments, the crisis may be averted.

  • Scientific committees to study the long-term environmental, social, health, and economic impacts of damming and diversion of river water, and alternatives to large dams considering the damage from opening of dams during flooding (Kumar, 2018)

  • There is an immediate need for negotiation of long-lasting disputes about diverted water flows with neighbouring states and countries including Haryana and Pakistan, respectively (Kumar, 2018). Such negotiations could alleviate the shortage in water supply, but would be very sensitive discussions coming in from long-term stalemates and slow progress (Kumar, 2018).

  • Enforced limits on use of groundwater for farming purposes could be an effective means of preserving water supply. It would require government to compensate farmers for their losses, especially in years of crop damage due to flooding, and provide subsidies to implement sustinable drip irrigation.

  • Investments into digitization and record-keeping of crop transactions

  • Development of the organic food industry in India to transition farmers from carbon-intensive practices to sustainable agriculture

  • Development of co-operative storage facilities and private-public partnerships for biofuel facilities for farmers to drop off their crops and agricultural waste, to reduce crop waste and air pollution, respectively

The Government of India has serious considerations to make regarding the future of food supply in India. These tragedies require multifaceted solutions, that will begin with good faith consultations between government, corporations, land owners, and farm labourers.