Chandigarh: The Aam Aadmi Party (AAP) government in Punjab is aggressively campaigning for the direct seeding of rice (DSR) method for the cultivation of water-guzzler paddy, with an aim to conserve groundwater — a major concern for the state.
Senior AAP functionaries and government officials told ThePrint that groundwater conservation could become a major political issue in times to come.
With this in mind, the AAP is aiming to bring at least 12 lakh hectares of paddy fields in Punjab under DSR cultivation this year — up from 5.6 lakh hectares in 2021 — according to a senior officer in the agriculture department of the state government.
Under the DSR method, pre-sowing irrigation is applied in a levelled field and pre-germinated seeds are sown directly into the field with the help of tractor-powered machines, instead of transplanting seedlings prepared in a nursery.
While there has been some resistance from farmers, who have alleged a loss in output, experts back the use of DSR amid the looming groundwater crisis, and say lower yields could be addressed by spreading awareness about the “right way” to pursue this cultivation technique.
Savings in water & costs
The DSR method can help save up to 20 per cent of the water traditionally consumed in paddy cultivation, senior officials in the state government said.
Also, under DSR, the fields need only around 15-18 rounds of irrigation as opposed to 25-27 rounds in the traditional cycle, they added. Government functionaries claimed the technique can save around Rs 4,000 input cost per acre of land.
“Soon after the wheat procurement season started in Punjab in April, the chief minister held a meeting with his ministers, experts, senior officers, farmer groups and environmentalists, to discuss the state’s water crisis,” said the aforementioned state agriculture department official, who was present at the meeting.
“The meeting left everyone with the strong impression that the water crisis could become a major political issue in Punjab in a very short time. Hence, the AAP government decided to give a major push to the DSR method.”
Punjab CM Bhagwant Mann has directed all his cabinet ministers to visit villages in their constituencies and kickstart district-wise campaigns promoting the DSR method, a senior government official told ThePrint.
“DSR is one more step by the AAP government towards a greener Punjab,” state Finance Minister Harpal Singh Cheema told reporters while launching a DSR campaign in his assembly constituency, Dirba, on 22 May.
State government records show that, in 2020-21, the Centre procured around 203 lakh metric tonnes (LMT) of paddy from Punjab, which, after being milled, produced around 136 LMT rice.
“On an average, around 4,000 litres of water is required to grow one kilogram of rice in Punjab,” said another senior officer in the state government who wished to not be named, citing estimates and Punjab Agricultural University reports.
By that estimate, Punjab needed around 54,400 billion litres of water for paddy cultivation in 2020-21. “It is estimated that 8,000 to 10,000 billion litres of water can be saved if the entire paddy cultivation area of Punjab is brought under the DSR method,” the officer added.
Punjab’s water crisis has been in the making for the past three decades — the major factor being over-exploitation of groundwater.
Paddy is considered one of the main consumers of groundwater. Although, historically, Punjab was not a paddy-growing area, the Green Revolution transformed the state’s cropping system into wheat-paddy rotation, say agriculture experts and government officials.
According to a report published by the state government in 2018, groundwater in about 79 per cent of the state’s area is over-exploited, and groundwater resources are likely to be used up by 2039, following which only annual replenishable resources will be available, said the agriculture department official quoted above.
When groups of farmers met Mann on 18 May, complaining that the government’s notified date for staggered cultivation of paddy not covered under DSR was too late, Mann said: “I am the son of a farmer, I know how it can happen.”
He added that he will take all possible steps to save Punjab from a groundwater crisis and further urged farmer unions to join the state government’s efforts to check depleting groundwater levels.
‘Persistence is key’
According to government estimates, Punjab records an average of around 27 lakh hectares under paddy cultivation annually. So, even if the government achieves its target for this year of bringing at least 12 lakh hectares under DSR, it would be around 44.4 per cent of the total land under paddy cultivation.
“But it is easier said than done. Past experience shows us that the government often fails to achieve its DSR targets,” said a government official. For instance, government records show, Punjab recorded 5.6 lakh hectares under DSR cultivation last year against its aim of 10 lakh hectares.
Groups of farmers, too, have been showing resistance. “There is a lack of clarity on how DSR saves water by reducing rounds of irrigation. Our past experience contradicts the claim. There is also mass concern regarding how it affects the yield,” said Ravneet Brar, spokesperson of the Bharatiya Kisan Union (Kadiyan).
Sutantar Airi, former director of Punjab’s agriculture and farmers’ welfare department, said difficulties faced by Punjab farmers in adopting the DSR method proved a deterrent when the method was first implemented in the state in 2002-03.
“Over the years, a large number of farmers came up with complaints of loss of output. But those issues could have been solved by spreading awareness on the right way to do DSR and crop management techniques via workshops, outreach programmes, etc,” he added.
“The state government lacked the political will. Now, the groundwater crisis has become severe. Extraction of groundwater is extensive in districts such as Sangrur, Moga, Ludhiana and Jalandhar. If things like DSR are not aggressively pushed now, these places will run out of groundwater in another 10 years or so.”
Makhan Singh Bhullar, head of the agronomy department at Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, agreed, saying awareness is key.
“Punjab is facing a severe groundwater crisis and, at some point, farmers across the states will have to go for cultivation methods that aim to reduce exploitation of groundwater,” he said.
“There is a section of farmers that has successfully been growing paddy using the DSR method for many years and getting better yield. PAU’s advisories on DSR already exist and are widely available. If farmers follow them and ensure better weed control, it can be a win-win strategy in terms of saving groundwater as well as increasing yield,” he added.
(Edited by Zinnia Ray Chaudhuri)