Wilting fortunes

Print edition : July 27, 2007

In Punjab, deeper and deeper tubewells are sunk as the water table keeps going down.

ANNIE ZAIDI in Ludhiana

A parched paddy field in Punjab. Farmers are reluctant to shift from rice, a water guzzler, to other crops.-S. SUBRAMANIUM

THE State that has often described itself with pride as the bread basket of the nation is walking an ecological tightrope. Punjab's rivers have less water than they used to have, it gets less rain than normal, and its groundwater has been abstracted with frightening abandon in recent decades.

According to Sushil Gupta, Regional Director, Central Ground Water Board (CGWB), 103 blocks in Punjab (of a total of 138) are overexploited. He used a simple analogy: "Hundred litres are pouring in and 110 are being taken out. It is like mining water, which is not being replenished."

He added, however, that he could not do much since he had no magisterial powers. "Water is a State subject, and in Punjab it is a very touchy subject."

In Punjab, it is also a subject of chronic worry. Chamkaur Singh describes the water scarcity in Moga-1, one of the blocks marked "critical" by the CGWB, as a sort of disease that needs an expert doctor. A farmer in Dudike village, he said tubewells were being dug in the area at 120 metres. "Our well was sunk at 60 m earlier but the water was unfit for drinking and it spoilt the crops. I have got a new submersible pump, at 120 m. It cost me Rs.1.25 lakh," he said.

Until about 1955, Chamkaur Singh's well had the Persian wheel and bullocks. A motor was installed in the well in 1968. In 1975, the family dug a tubewell at 45 m; in about 10 years, it got worn out. A new well was sunk at a new spot, at 60 m. In 2006-07, he got a 15 hp (horsepower) motor installed 120 m down.

In addition to the cost of installing and maintaining motors in tubewells, the family spends around Rs.1,000 a day on diesel. It gets free electricity for eight hours a day, after which the diesel generator is used. Chamkaur Singh's story is fairly representative of the average landowning family.

There are five shops selling pumps and pipes in nearby Ajitwal village. Paramjit Singh opened his shop four years ago. "Two years ago, there were not many customers, but now 90 per cent of the farmers buy pumps," he said. "First we sold 5 hp and 7 hp motors but now everyone wants at least 10 hp motors, which costs Rs.22,500. We are even selling 20 hp motors."

As the tubewells go quite deep, the pump needs to work harder than before and many farmers install two pumps in a single bore. Paramjit Singh said about 70 per cent of the farmers were in debt after getting the tubewells installed, and about 10 per cent could not repay their loans.

When things came to such a pass, residents of Mal Singhwala village in Mansa district simply threw their hands up and declared the village was up for sale. Sarpanch Jasbir Singh admitted that the announcement was an attempt to draw the State's attention to the water problem in the village where at least nine families sold their land and one couple committed suicide.

He estimated that about 100 acres [one acre is 0.4 hectare] were sold, mostly to outsiders who were not aware how critical the water situation was. Often, the new buyers, too, sold the land to other unsuspecting outsiders.

"The village was put up for sale on July 2, 2005, since we had no canal water and the groundwater was saline. If we use this water, the soil turns barren," said Jasbir. "One tubewell costs Rs.4 lakh around here. My own well is 365 m deep."

The water from the handpumps not being potable, villagers fetch drinking water from the neighbouring village of Chhine. The burden of this is on women and children. Manpreet Kaur, a Class VIII student, spends four hours daily to make about eight trips to the handpump. She has been doing so for the last three years.

The State government reacted to the situation by saying that the problem persists across Punjab. Officials came to the village, looked around, asked questions and left. The sarpanch has now issued an ultimatum that if nothing is done, the villagers will block the canal in Chhine.

Dr. Gurudev Hira, who retired as Additional Director of Research at the Punjab Agriculture University, traces the decline of the water table back to the 19th century. "In 1849, the British created an irrigation department, partly to keep the soldiers busy. By 1859, a canal network was built. The water table rose with the creation of the waterworks. Rice was introduced in the 1950s, since large areas were waterlogged," he said. With rice, and the Green Revolution, everything changed.

Until 1960, groundwater accounted for only one-third of the State's irrigation needs; now it accounts for 73 per cent. There are 11.68 lakh tubewells now as against 1.92 lakh in 1970-71. From 1970 to 2004, the area under rice cultivation went up by 580 per cent. The area under maize, and groundnuts and bajra, all of which require much less water, declined by 72 per cent and 98 per cent, respectively.

While farmers such as Chamkaur Singh would willingly substitute maize or bajra for rice, they feel the State offers very little support to alternative crops. He knows that since eating habits have changed, the market does not exist. "Also, the crop is susceptible to infection," he said. "The government has not invested in research to get newer, better seeds. Nor is the minimum support price and the off-take comparable to those of rice."

So, the most significant guzzler of groundwater continues to monopolise the land. The transplantation of rice requires the fields to be flooded, and since the monsoon does not arrive until July, farmers resort to tubewell irrigation. That the State government decided to offer free electricity to farmers just made matters worse.

Dr. Hira describes the electricity sop as a form of sweet poisoning. "Punjab gives Rs.2,400 crore as power subsidy, of which Rs.1,500 crore must be spent on rice. In addition to that, farmers spend about Rs.1,500 crore-2,000 crore on tubewells annually," he said. "As the wells deepen, so does the debt."

Sarabhjit Singh, a schoolteacher in Jaitu, estimates that the average farmer spends more than he makes in order to keep the water supply constant. "Those who have only two acres have no option but to sell and move. Five to 7 per cent of marginal farmers have become landless," he said.

The government has done little to prevent early transplantation of rice. Some measures were taken, such as providing free electricity only after June 10 or June 15, but farmers rarely delay the actual transplantation.

At a farmers' meeting organised by the Kheti Virasat Mission, Amarjit Singh, a participant from Kapurthala, told Frontline that the rule could not be enforced without sufficient political will. "The Punjab Agriculture University has been saying this for 20 years, but farmers don't listen. Nawashehr was the only exception because it had a firm Deputy Commissioner," he said. "If any farmer transplanted rice before June 15, he would have the fields washed away. This was a stern example to others."

The double-cropping pattern - two major crops a year, both needing a lot of water - exacerbates the crisis. Experts believe that the same yield can be sustained with 30 per cent less water, but this will happen only if the State reviews its power policy.

Professor H.S. Gill, formerly of Punjab University and currently a researcher with the Institute of Development and Communication, Chandigarh, has been studying the `myth and reality' of agriculture in Punjab. "The free power supply leads to wasteful usage. Earlier, tubewells were used like medicine. Now, they are used like food," he said.

However, he does not agree with the dominant negative view of the groundwater situation. "The situation is complex but not as bad as you think. It is true that we have crossed the danger mark in some areas, but in some southern areas the water table is rising. There is even waterlogging," he said. "Is this a good development or a bad one? Who can say what the optimal level of water is? The government has not yet decided where to stabilise the water table."

Nevertheless, it is best to remember that 79 per cent of the State confronts a falling water table wherever the groundwater is fit for irrigation. The 21 per cent of land that has a rising water table lies in the southwestern parts where the water is saline or brackish. It does not help that the average rainfall in Punjab has fallen: the rainfall was 739 mm in 1980 and 315 mm in 2002.

Governments find themselves in the awkward position of risking the electorate's wrath if they do away with free power to farmers or come down hard on tubewell users. The Central government has been trying to regulate the use of groundwater since 1970 through a Model Bill, which was revised in 1992, 1996 and 2005. Only seven States have enacted the law, even though later versions have taken marginal farmers and manually operated devices from the purview of the law.

In response to the Centre's urging, Punjab set up three committees - the Punjab State Water Resources Council chaired by the Chief Minister, the Punjab State Water Resources Committee chaired by the Chief Secretary, and a Technical Advisory Committee. The "Punjab Ground Water Control and Regulation Act - 1998 (Draft)" was approved initially, but in 2003 it was observed that the proposed legislation was "harsh on the users". An expert group set up by the Planning Commission also described the Model Bill as "deeply problematic".

A paper presented by Kuldeep Singh Takshi, chief of the Directorate of Water Resources and Environment, says: "The Committee observed that due evaluation of each of the suggested measures in terms of cost and benefits be carried out and the measures be prioritised along with finding the possibility of funding from the Government of India. Accordingly, action was taken by various offices for finalisation of the above Report, but so far it has not achieved finality. Such evaluation is difficult to be assessed in view of indirect long-term multifarious benefits from various measures."

In simple terms, this means that no government is willing to take any action for fear that it will lose the popular mandate. Instead, the government proposes measures such as artificial recharging, modern methods of rice transplantation and drip irrigation. On its part, the Central Ground Water Authority has made a list of notified blocks where groundwater needs to be urgently regulated. This would mean that nobody could dig new tubewells without permission. However, according to informal sources, Punjab is not positive about regulation.

"The first step would be to register all the tubewells by a certain date, and then prevent further digging. Haryana is making efforts at regulation, but Punjab does not want to talk of water at all," one of them said.

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