Punjab: Less Water, More Money (Part 3)
In previous weeks, I began the story of declining groundwater tables in India. In the first post, I talked about the current system of subsidized energy, the need to change it, and the willingness of farmers to adapt to such changes. The second post talked about the possible benefits and methods of direct seeding for rice paddy, as opposed to nursery growth and transplantation into flooded fields.
This third and final post considers yet another option: a switch to a more climatically appropriate crop. In water-stressed regions, this strategy asks individual farmers to move away from rice, and towards instead slightly riskier but more water-efficient options such as corn, basmati rice (which requires much less water than regular rice), and fruits and vegetables. This last option would need to be coupled with risk-mitigating mechanisms, investments in product and marketing infrastructure, insurance, and market intelligence.
This third innovation would have to come from individual, progressive farmers who are willing to take some risks and make niche plays. While public sector policy changes and changes to corporate practices are important, the role of the individual is a critical, and often overlooked, ingredient. The willingness of some of these farmers to take significant risks in their crop choice has resulted in both greatly increased income, as well as reduced groundwater consumption.
As we noted earlier, the predominant cropping pattern in the region has become a rice-wheat rotation given the Government of India’s procurement program for these grains and the associated minimum support price. Farmer incomes were stable and actually rose in response to this policy, facilitating the transition. However, in the last 10-15 years the income has stopped increasing and has become stagnant. According to Rajinder Sidhu and Kamal Vatta, professors at Punjab Agricultural University, if just 10% of the agricultural land was moved away from rice and wheat and to less water intensive crops, such as flowers and vegetables, the groundwater depletion problem could be solved.
The issue is getting people to change to these crops and the ability to stabilize the markets. A number of individuals have explored alternatives, often leasing the land from existing farmers to experiment with a new strategy.
One example of the innovative and progressive way of farming is pioneered by Avatar Singh. After graduating from Punjab Agricultural University, Mr. Singh decided to go, not into the rice and wheat industry like most people, but instead into the flower industry. He began by exporting the flowers he grew, but due to flowers wilting in transit, he discovered that by selling the seeds, he could make higher profits. He started by farming 3.5 acres of land, and his profits have been so high that he now controls the farming of several hundred leased acres through contract farming. The land is leased from other farmers at the value of their income from rice-wheat, and then used to grow higher value items. He also contracts to grow his flower crop by his guidelines.