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Growing ‘Safe’ Paddy: Punjab’s crop diversification comes a cropper

Plunging prices, coupled with an assured market in the form of governmental procurement for regular parmal (non-basmati) paddy, have put paid to Punjab’s much-hyped crop diversification programme (CDP) yet again. The state’s policymakers have sought to bring down the area under water-guzzling paddy, especially the parmal varieties that are transplanted by mid-June. The current CDP, […]

Written by Anju Agnihotri Chaba | Ballan(jalandhar), Jalandhar |
July 30, 2015 4:17:17 am

Plunging prices, coupled with an assured market in the form of governmental procurement for regular parmal (non-basmati) paddy, have put paid to Punjab’s much-hyped crop diversification programme (CDP) yet again.

The state’s policymakers have sought to bring down the area under water-guzzling paddy, especially the parmal varieties that are transplanted by mid-June. The current CDP, launched in 2012 after a similar initiative 10 years ago in the name of ‘contract farming’ failed, aims at diverting at least 12 lakh hectares (lh) from parmal rice to other kharif crops, including basmati, maize, cotton, bajra, pulses and oilseeds. Punjab’s parmal area, in fact, fell below 20 lh last year, thanks to a record 8.6 lh coming under basmati rice varieties. This was mainly a result of basmati prices soaring to Rs 3,700-5,500 per quintal levels in 2013. But this year, the area under basmati — mostly transplanted during July or even early-August, hence requiring less irrigation — is expected to drop to around 7 lh, according to MS Sandhu, director of Agriculture, Punjab government. The reason: farmers realising just Rs 2,500-2,900 for their 2014 basmati crop.

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“The high rates in 2013 led me to sow my entire 10 acres under basmati last year. But the prices crashed to almost half. Also, many of us got paid very late,” says Satnam Singh. This farmer from Chuharwali in Jalandhar’s Adampur tehsil has switched back to parmal, which has ready buyers — namely, government agencies — even if at a minimum support price (MSP) of only Rs 1,450 per quintal.

“Parmal has assured market with quick procurement. Even the arhatias (commission agents) have told us not to go for basmati this time,” says Manjinder Singh, a farmer from Jalandhar. He blames the government for not fulfilling its promise of announcing an MSP for basmati. Farmers cannot take risks with non-MSP crops, he added.

Basmati prices have collapsed because of exports falling by 7.2 per cent in dollar terms in 2014-15 and by 17.7 per cent YoY during April-May. The end-result of is that farmers have returned to growing parmal paddy varieties such as PR-124 and Pusa-44. The rice area in the state in 2015, projected at 28.20 lh, will be more than what it was in 2002 when the first CDP was announced, while eating into acreages under other kharif crops.

Punjab’s policymakers had identified maize as a major crop under CDP, targeting an area of up to 5.50 lh by diverting 4.2 lh from parmal. But even after providing subsidised seeds and installing maize driers, acreage hasn’t crossed the 2002 level of 1.65 lh. Notwithstanding an MSP of Rs 1,310 per quintal, farmers have realised between Rs 675 and Rs 1,200 in the past couple of years.

“We shifted from paddy to maize. But after two years of losses and no government support, we are backing to cultivating paddy,” notes Ajit Singh, a farmer from Gurdaspur. Punjab Mandi Board chairman AS Lakhowal admits that in the absence of any dedicated procurement agency, “we cannot meet the target of 5.50 lh under CDP”. It’s worse in cotton — where the area sown has come down by nearly 1.8 lh since 2002 — and sugarcane, which has also registered a 40 per cent decline during this period. Again, the culprit has been prices. Cotton prices were Rs 3,900-4,000 per quintal in 2014-15, as against Rs 5,000-5,500 in 2013-14. In sugarcane, though the government has declared a Rs 285 per quintal rate, farmers are awaiting payments of over Rs 400 crore even for the crop delivered to mills six months back.

Farm economist S S Johl, who headed a committee on crop diversification in Punjab in 2002, believes that the state does not have the water to irrigate more than 10-12 lh of paddy. Rather than recognising this basic fact, successive governments have encouraged farmers to grow paddy by giving free power and water. “Why spend Rs 5,000-6,000 crore on free power for running tube-wells to irrigate paddy, when these can be used to support crop diversification? Just give farmers the promised MSP along with an assured market for other crops and farmers will automatically leave paddy,” he says.

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