Rumblings in food bowl: Punjab's low groundwater and waterlogging

Punjab is facing twin challenges of low groundwater at some places and waterlogging at others. Both are nature’s responses to short-sighted policies bent on altering geography

Manu Moudgil | October 18, 2014


Depleting groundwater: Punjab has 3 lakh motors that pump out water for irrigation
Depleting groundwater: Punjab has 3 lakh motors that pump out water for irrigation

This year’s monsoon has been one of the most miserly for Punjab. Despite the late burst in September flooding certain areas, the deficit stands at 48 percent, one of the biggest shortfalls in India. But in the state, fields played host to a robust paddy crop even as a harsh summer sun shone overhead. There was no sign of drought but the ground underneath grumbled as around 3 lakh electric motors pumped water from deep aquifers for irrigation. 

Much of Punjab’s success in agriculture lies in its irrigation network. Over 98 percent of the cropped area is irrigated, more than double of the national average of 45 percent. Of this, motor pumps serve 73 percent of the area which require huge investments.

According to government estimates, by the end of the current crop season, farmers would have spent Rs 700 crore on diesel and re-digging of bore-wells. The state government would have spent another Rs 747 crore to buy extra electricity.

The twin trouble
Of the 138 blocks in the state, 81 percent are either overexploited or critical in terms of groundwater. This means it would be difficult to replenish the underground aquifers, and Punjab would be completely at the mercy of rains in years to come. But that is not the only crisis the state is facing. A completely contrasting picture prevails in its southwestern region. A vast canal network serves this area, which originally resembled the neighbouring Rajasthan with sporadic sand dunes, desert soils, brackish groundwater and traditional subsistence farming of cotton, millets, maize and wheat. But with introduction of canals, farmers levelled their lands and shifted from cotton to water-intensive paddy cultivation. Seepage from canals and minimal use of the brackish groundwater has now led to a problem of excess. Over 2 lakh hectares of fertile land is under water currently and the area is increasing every year, shifting towards kinnow orchards on the Punjab-Rajasthan border.

The two contrasting pictures seem to indicate that nature is getting back at man for toying with the rules for too long. Geographical limitations aggravated by vote-bank politics have ensured a grim future for the food bowl of India. In 1999, the state government stopped billing farmers for power and water usage in the fields. This led to rampant misuse of water, as farmers started seeing it as an unending resource while the revenue which could have been used for maintenance of the irrigation network stopped arriving.

“Even the British, when they first introduced canals to Punjab, collected water tax popularly known as ‘aabiyaana’ (aab means water and aana refers to 6.25 paise under the traditional currency terminology). This tax would not only help meet maintenance cost but also added revenue to the treasury. Today, Punjab does not have money for the relining of canals and maintenance of drains because we have already emptied our coffers and eventually it is the farmers who are going to lose,” says Manpreet Badal, the former state finance minister who quit the government over the issue of huge debt incurred due to the free power and water scheme.

This year, the state unsuccessfully sought Rs 2,350 crore as compensation from the centre for energy expenses made due to deficient rainfall. A Rs 2,246 crore central project is already under way for re-lining of feeder canals and improvement of the drainage network in waterlogged areas for which Punjab has to bear 25 percent of the cost.

A deeper hit every year
At Gajewas village in Patiala district, Lakhwinder Singh got a bore-well dug at 200 feet in 1999 but it dried out within six years. Another bore-well at 320 feet saw him through for another two years. In 2007, re-digging was done to fetch water from a deeper aquifer at 400 feet but now the water quality has also started deteriorating, which has impacted the crop yield. His cousin, Khushpal Singh, could not manage to get even one re-digging done. He committed suicide at the age of 38 after the first 150 feet bore-well went dry.

“A new well would have cost Rs 2 lakh and he had to repay another Rs 1 lakh loan taken from an ahartiya (commission agent). Without irrigation water, he was unable to make any profit from the 3 acre farmland and decided to end his life,” Lakhwinder says.

Four years ago, the panchayat of Sandharsi village in the district declared itself to be on sale as it had turned virtually impossible to do farming. The good quality water is available only at 1,000 feet. At least 28 families have migrated from Sandharsi in the last 10 years and bought land in regions where the water level is higher and land available at cheaper rates. “While at Sandharsi we used to get 12 quintal of crop per acre, here the yield is 32 quintal. The land is more fertile and the water is also available at a depth of 110 feet. With the profits made, I have been able to increase my landholding from 4 acres to over 7 acres,” says Ajaib Singh who migrated from Sandharsi to Bhawanigarh in Sangrur district eight years back.

Change in the crop pattern is another major reason for the overdraft. Traditionally grown only along rivers and canals, rice has replaced cotton, maize and pulses as the main kharif crop of the state. From around 3 lakh hectares in the 1960s, the area under rice has gone up to 28 lakh hectares now mainly because of the central government’s assured procurement of the produce, at minimum support price, for public distribution.

According to estimates of the Punjab agriculture university (PAU), the area under paddy has to be reduced by 12 lakh hectares to avoid further depletion of groundwater levels. Though several attempts have been made to push diversification and break the wheat-paddy cycle, it is not easy, as rice dovetails best with wheat which is an indispensable rabi crop. “The time gap between these two crops is sufficiently long, which allows farmers to carry out necessary tilling without any strain. Most of the farm implements have been designed to cater to these two crops and the same harvesting machinery is used for both wheat and rice which lowers the per unit capital cost,” says Dr HS Shergill, an economist who has done research on diversification of the cropping pattern.

Though new techniques, like direct seeded rice and system of root intensification, which use less water, have been introduced, they are yet to gain popularity due to technical barriers. The only thing that the government has been able to implement is delay in paddy sowing to June 10. Though it is a progressive move, a drastic improvement cannot be expected. “According to estimates, only when the sowing is done by June 25, the water draft and recharge through rains will be equal. For that, a short duration variety of rice will be required, for which research is currently underway at PAU,” says PS Rangi, consultant to the Punjab state farmers’ commission.

Some solace can be found in efforts of individual farmers like Harmesh Chand of Sandharsi village from where 28 families had migrated because of the low water table. Chand has got a pond excavated on 3 bigha of his farm to harvest rainwater which serves the irrigation needs for six months. “My two bore-wells are not yielding good water while the pond water is dependable as you can determine the time period till which it will last and hence plan accordingly,” he says. Around 12 other farmers of the village have got similar ponds dug to irrigate their fields. 

Those with excess
On the other extreme of Punjab lies the south-west region which has been the focal point of waterlogging. Parkat Singh has 4 acres of land in Ratta Khera of Muktsar district. This should have fetched him Rs 4 lakh every year from the two crop cycles. However, all of his land is submerged. Every year, he takes 2 acres on lease to grow fodder for the four buffaloes he keeps. His son, Sukhwinder Singh, has been working in foreign lands for the last four years. Unlike other parts of Punjab, the south-west region is not known for youth going abroad, simply because they cannot afford to migrate. Sukhwinder is one of the only two men of his village who have been abroad, that too illegally. From going to Malaysia to getting stranded in Kazakhstan and then moving to Russia, he came back after paying a fine to get an exit visa. “I will go back soon. There is no point being here since our land is not worth tilling and I can earn much more by working abroad,” Sukhwinder adds.

Three canals – Rajasthan feeder, Gang Canal and Sirhind feeder – pass through this region taking water from the Harike barrage in Sultanpur to areas of Punjab and Rajasthan. A study sponsored by the Indian council of agriculture research (ICAR) found that the water table in the area has been rising by 15-20 percent per annum after the introduction of canal irrigation. What made matters worse was natural drainage of Punjab from north-east to south-west. The re-lining of canals, construction of drains to divert excess water, aquatic farming and eucalyptus plantation are some of the solutions that have been suggested and tried. However, none of them have helped the farmers.

No concrete solution yet
When the problem was noticed first, a network of drains was laid to remove excess water. A Rs 400-crore project was first sanctioned in Muktsar district in the late 1990s but the approved plans were not fully implemented on the ground. Influential farmers bribed officials to ensure that the drains did not pass through their fields, as that would have bifurcated their lands.

At Ratta Khera, the drain which was supposed to take out excess water through gravity now stands filled to the brim. “It was supposed to go straight but the farmers asked engineers to take a diversion via the graveyard. Since that area is at a higher level, instead of moving out, the water pushes back into the fields,” says Salwinder Singh who has 16 acres of his land under water. The annual maintenance of drains has also been shoddy, which was evident during the late burst of rainfall when the villages got flooded. With drains blocked, the groundwater level rose and land lost its capacity to absorb and retain water. The rainwater mostly flowed laterally.

The state government has also been pushing for aquaculture in the severely waterlogged areas. However, it is not such an easy option. The inland fish varieties breed in fresh water while the ground water in this area is highly saline. The few fish ponds currently operational are transporting ground water from areas near the canals, which is of better quality. Atmaram, who has constructed two ponds at his own cost in Shajrana village, earns Rs 1 lakh annually. But he spent Rs 7 lakh to lay the 2.5 km pipeline for water supply. “The fisheries department is giving 100 percent subsidy but from where are we supposed to get the good quality water to breed fish? The water has to be changed every two-three months or the fish would die,” he explains. While sourcing fresh water is an issue, disposal of used water is a bigger headache. In a water-logged area where should the pond water be released to make space for fresh supply?

Dr Asha Dhawan, dean, College of Fisheries at the Guru Angad Dev veterinary and animal sciences university (GADVASU), agrees that saline water is a big issue when it comes to fisheries. “Experiments are underway on saline water varieties and hopefully we will be able to offer a solution soon,” she says.

Going by past experience, there is little hope for Punjab, because instead of changing policies, its leaders have been adamant at changing geographies.

Moudgil is a consultant with India Water Portal.

The story appeared in magazine Volume 05, Issue 18, October 16-31, 2014 issue

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