By Akshat Jain, Madras School of Economics, Tamil Nadu.

India is going through a period that can be regarded as its worst environmental crisis. The air quality index in India is worsening with every passing day. 7 of the world’s 10 most polluted cities are in India. Many reasons have been cited for the plummeting Air Quality Index in north Indian cities; the most prominent amongst which is the burning of the stubble by farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Uttar Pradesh. In Punjab alone, which accounts for more than 50% of cases of stubble burning during the Diwali period, there have been 48,155 recorded cases of stubble burning from September to November, 2019. 

Figure 1: Reported cases of Stubble Burning in Punjab from September to November.

The figure of 2019 is only up to November 10. Source: NASA’s MODIS, VIIRS; Global Forest Watch

Why are the farmers in States like Punjab are burning stubble in the pre-rabi season? The answer to this question takes us to another environmental crisis in India- the diminishing groundwater table in various States of India including Punjab. 

Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Act, 2009

Punjab, the State with 100% area under irrigation, is suffering from a severe water crisis. To mitigate the complication of the diminishing water table in the State, the government came up with the Punjab Subsoil Preservation Act, 2009. As per the Act, farmers were prohibited from sowing paddy seeds in nurseries before May 10 and transplanting the seedlings before June 10. The objective of the Act was to delay the sowing of paddy seeds so that the water used for harvesting these seeds can be reduced. Before the Act, farmers used to harvest paddy seeds in April. It was found that 4500 litres of water are required to grow 1 kg of rice when it is sown in April-May. But when the sowing is done in mid-June, water requirement is significantly reduced to 1500-2000 litres. This is due to the excessively high rate of evaporation in the month of April-May and thus a delay in the harvest of rice could conserve a tremendous amount of water. Once the Act was enforced, the average annual rate of decline in the water table reduced from 0.9m (2000-2008) to 0.7m (2008-2012). 

Figure 2: Rate of decline of water table over the last three decades

The above graph represents the impact of the Act in reducing the rate of decline of the water table in Punjab.

But there was a negative externality associated with the Act. Rice is a 120-days crop. Thus by the time rice was harvested, it was already time for the next crop cycle (rabi season). Since farmers did not have enough time to prepare the field between two crop cycles, they were forced to burn the rice-straw. And this fueled the hazardous and fatal air pollution across North India.

Agriculture and water crisis

To understand the effectiveness of the Act, let’s dig deeper into the cropping pattern and cultivation method in India. Why a state like Punjab, which was called “The Wheat Basket of India”, is now the third-highest producer of rice in India? The reason for the above has two dimensions and is a significant example of policy failure on the part of the government.

The primary reason for the adoption of rice by states such as Punjab and Haryana over other crops is the guarantee of Minimum Support Price (MSP) by the Central Government. There has been a consistent increase in the MSP of rice for decades. In 2010, the MSP of rice was Rs. 1000 per quintal. This increased to Rs. 1815 for the year 2019-20. Even though procurement is still an issue, as rice is a staple food across India, more farmers across the country are inclined towards growing it. For Punjab specifically, we can see the trend of increase in area under cultivation for rice in the last two decades. After the amendments of Union Budget 2018-19, there are a total of 22 crops under the MSP mechanism. Wheat and rice are also part of this scheme. 

Due to the current scenario of regular increase in the MSP and demand for rice, more farmers are shifting towards rice cultivation without paying any heed to the nature of soil and climate. This not only has an adverse impact on the water table of various States but has also led to an increase in cost to the exchequer and an increase in unpaid loans and bad debts leading to farm distress. 

But not all States have been able to take complete advantage of such schemes. The reason for the success of Punjab as an agrarian state is its irrigation facilities. Irrigation facilities and their rampant use due to subsidized or free electricity is the other major reason for the increasing distress in the groundwater table in India. The stage of groundwater development index in Punjab is at 178%. The stage of groundwater development is defined as the ratio of Annual Groundwater Draft to Net Annual Groundwater Availability. The same statistics at India level are 58%. This indicates the exploitative nature of groundwater irrigation in Punjab. 

Figure 3: Stage of Groundwater development (%) across Indian states. Data Source Ground Water Year Book 2013-14 (Ministry of Water resources and GOI)

A staggering 83% of land in Punjab is under agricultural cultivation, clearly indicative of the fact that a major population of Punjab is completely dependent on agriculture. Irrigation has become a crucial political subject and providing free/subsidized electricity for irrigation has become an equally crucial political policy. This has had an extremely adverse effect on the groundwater utilization in Punjab. The farmers have been blatantly using groundwater for irrigation for producing water-intensive crops. Since 2002, a total of ₹50,000 crores has been spent by the State Government on electricity subsidy. This led to an exorbitant loss to the Power and Distribution companies and the exchequer.

At the heart of the air pollution fiasco in North India is the enactment of Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Act, 2009. The Act came into existence to save Punjab from desertification by reducing the use of groundwater for the cultivation of paddy. Even though the Act has been successful in reducing the rate of decline of the groundwater table, it barely touched the most prominent issues concerning agriculture and water stress in India. MSP has changed the landscape of Punjab agriculture sector. With a share of around 25% of total rice production in India, Punjab is uncharacteristically now called the “Rice Bowl of India”. 

Policy Recommendations:

To make the Act more effective, following recommendations need to be considered by the government:

  • Promote shifting from rice production to wheat productionA 2018 study by the National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development (NABARD) and Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER) has advocated for shifting of rice production to India’s Central and Eastern regions while encouraging wheat production in Punjab and Haryana.[10] The report came up with a new metric – Irrigation Water Productivity (IWP), which stands for crop output per unit of irrigation water used by the farmer. As per the findings of the study, IWP for rice in Punjab was at 0.22 kg/m3 in comparison to states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand, which had IWP at 0.68 kg/m3 and 0.75 kg/m3. IWP for wheat in Punjab was at 1.22 kg/m3 in comparison to drier states such as Maharashtra and Gujarat where IWP was recorded at 0.63 kg/m3 and 0.71 kg/m3.

  • Need for diversification – There is a need for diversification in Punjab’s agriculture sector. Wheat and Rice constitute almost 90% of the entire production of Punjab. The State Government needs to incentivize farmers for cultivating various crops such as maize and pulses. MSP of pulses has been higher over the years in comparison rice. To nudge farmers into crop diversification, the state government needs to improve its procurement strategies. The government should also consider including private players so that distribution and logistics can be further improved.

  • Central Government’s role in setting MSPs needs a relook– The Central government should consider introducing MSP schemes based on each States’ agriculture characteristics or it should let the States decide the crops in which they desire to intervene. A nation-wide declaration of MSP mandated crops has not resulted in desired outputs. 

  • Solar Power as Remunerative Crop (SPaRC)- World’s first Solar Pump Irrigators’ Cooperative Enterprise (SPICE) commenced operations in the village of Dhundi, Gujarat in 2016. Dhundi Cooperative uses solar pumps instead of electric pumps for groundwater irrigation. The model of SPICE is as follows: Some farmers pool in money to buy subsidized solar pumps. These pumps are to be used to generate electricity for the extraction of groundwater. The excess solar electricity generated is then sold to the state electricity distribution company, thus transforming solar power into a remunerative crop. The above model not only results in improved agricultural productivity and profitability but also nudges the farmers to use groundwater irrigation efficiently as excess power can be sold for generating additional income. This carbon efficient model has had tremendous positive impact on the village’s economy since the cooperative’s inception. This model can be introduced as a pilot in some villages of Punjab. This can result in solving numerous issues related to agriculture and subsidy given the fact that discontinuance of the existing subsidy will be considered as a political suicide by all the parties.

  • Drip Irrigation– The government should also spend on building infrastructure for practices such as drip irrigation; unlike flood irrigation, there is no loss of water due to evaporation and it leads to judicious use of water. Countries like Israel have transformed their entire irrigation system into drip irrigation and are pioneers of water conservation around the world.  

To solve the water crisis in Punjab, the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Act, 2009 needs to do more than just delay the sowing and transplanting season of paddy. Only when the most prominent agricultural issues are addressed, the issue of water crisis in the State can be alleviated. And only when such issues are addressed, citizens of North India will be able to breathe easily.