Ludhiana: If Punjab’s march towards desertification is to be stopped, the best way is to move the cultivation of wheat and paddy out to 50 lakh hectares of land in the Gangetic plains of Uttar Pradesh, Bihar and West Bengal, according to Dr Sardara Singh Johl, one of the most prominent agricultural economists in India.
In an interview to ThePrint, Dr Johl, who turns 93 next month, spoke about a wide range of issues related to agriculture in Punjab, especially the agrarian crisis prevalent in the state for the last decade or so.
Johl, a Padma Bhushan awardee, is currently the first chancellor of the Central University of Punjab, Bathinda, and has also been recognised by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research as a professor of eminence in economics. The alumnus of Panjab University has previously served as vice-chancellor of Punjabi University, Patiala, and Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana.
He has also been chairman of the Government of India’s Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, a member of the Economic Advisory Council for four prime ministers, and also held the posts of director, Central Governing Board, Reserve Bank of India, and vice-chairman, Punjab State Planning Board, among others. He was also president of the Indian Society of Agricultural Economics, Agricultural Economics Research Association and Indian Society for Agricultural Marketing.
Among his many contributions on the global stage, Johl served as a consultant to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, World Bank and Economic Commission for West Asia in many countries.
While Johl stated he has “no views” on the three farm Acts, he did talk in detail about the problems affecting agriculture in Punjab, and how it can return to prosperity. Excerpts:
On what Green Revolution brought to India
In the mid-1960s, we didn’t get food grains even when we were ready to pay in international markets. We used to get wheat from the USA under a scheme named PL-40. India used to pay in rupees, but the price of grains and deposition was determined by the USA.
In the 1960s, the short-duration dwarf wheat seed was introduced in India and distributed across the country. But the research was strong at state agricultural universities in Punjab, Haryana and IARI, Delhi. So we improvised it, and our yield and quality increased according to our conditions. We even turned it into amber colour from the original red one. As yield increased, the input of chemicals also increased, but still, wheat cultivation remained profitable.
Then, in the early 1970s, short-duration dwarf rice was introduced in India from the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines. This created a pattern of both crops. By the middle of the 1970s, we went from a shortage of foodgrains to a surplus, barring a few drought-affected seasons.
In the early 1980s, rice production was more than storage and purchase capacity of the central government. Our current food grain production is four times that of the buffer stock norms. Disposing of these stocks is a problem, as due to MSP, our crop is more expensive than international crops, which cost just 70-80 per cent of our rice and wheat.
The central government has to dispose of the stocks internationally, sometimes even lower than the PDS price of Rs 2-3 per kg, but that too is rejected on the ground of high chemical content in crops. We have moved from a problem of deficit to a problem of surplus.
On why farmers are stressed
Alongside an increase in yield, the landholding has decreased across generations to a very small unit per person. In India, average landholding is 2 acre, and in Punjab, it’s around 2.5 acres. In India, 80 per cent of farmers are small farmers, while in Punjab, the number is 25-30 per cent.
With smaller landholdings and higher cost of input, the MSP could not match the cost of cultivation over the period. And with the increase in MSP, demand remains stagnant at the current price.
Farmers are in stress because no matter how much surplus they produce on a small piece of land, the returns are not able to cover his daily agricultural and livelihood needs.
As a result of the MSP not being able to fulfil the farmers’ livelihood expenses, they have to resort to loans, often informal ones, because there are some urgent needs such as health and family emergencies. Bank loans take time, so farmers take loans on higher interest from the landlord, moneylender or commission agent. Then, they are not able to repay the loans. As a result, the farmers have to sell their assets such as land and machinery such as tractors to repay just the interest on informal loans.
In Punjab, farmers and farm labour have a debt of Rs 80,000-87,000 crore. This has led to stress in the rural economy.
On the paddy-wheat monoculture leading to desertification of Punjab
For paddy and wheat, on the one hand, there is assured price of MSP, and on the other, there is free electricity. This has made paddy and wheat unbeatable as the most profitable crops.
Even though there’s MSP on other crops such as maize, pulses and oilseed, they aren’t procured. The MSP for maize this year was Rs 1,850/quintal, but it was sold at Rs 700-1,100/quintal. This is because despite MSP, the government procures only paddy and wheat, plus a little cotton.
There’s a problem of production, production size, production cost and market, leading to farm stress despite high MSP.
The MSP system has led to a cropping pattern out of sync with the consumption pattern. Other foodgrains’ production has crashed, as has fruit and milk production.
The biggest problem in Punjab is the fall in water level, and its pollution. Punjab has the highest use of fertiliser per unit of land in the country, and the water table is decreasing 25-30cm every year. With the Bhakra Dam, a lot of water was diverted to Delhi and Haryana, and Punjab’s allocation fulfils just 20 per cent of its agricultural needs, so groundwater accounts for the rest.
With increasing urbanisation, rainwater is also not absorbed into the ground, as everything is concrete now. But the water that is absorbed from farm lands is high in pesticides and fertilisers, polluting the groundwater. Drinking water in Punjab can only be found at 350-500 feet with a deep tubewell.
In two or three decades, groundwater for drinking might not be available. Punjab will become a desert if this continues.
On mandis in Punjab
Mandis in Punjab are regulated under the APMC Act of 1936, which has been amended a bit subsequently. The mandi board conducts an auction so that farmers know what price they’re getting for their crops.
No crop can be purchased outside mandis, except in a few cases. The farmer has to mandatorily bring crops to the mandis, where there is an auction of his produce and commission agents take their share and then their crop is sold. With an increase in paddy-wheat production, there is at least one market sub-yard in every village. The market committee takes fees for maintaining infrastructure in the mandi yards and sub-yards, and for keeping these villages linked with roads.
However, these roads are not maintained by mandis due to lack of funds, as the money is often not used for what it’s supposed to be for. The money collected by the market committee is not a part of the state budget, but is extra-budgetary income at the discretion of the mandi board chairman and the chief minister. The previous Akali Dal government, for example, took a loan against three years’ worth of future market committee collections. This is a misuse of the funds.
The commission of arhatiyas was earlier just 1 per cent, which has been increased on their demand to 2.5 per cent now. Their argument for further increase remains that inflation has increased, so should their commission. But their commission is a percent of MSP, which is already revised every year according to inflation.
On solution to Punjab’s agrarian crisis
Economic diversification of crops is necessary. I’ve given two reports, in 1986 and 2002, proposing to maintain the water balance of Punjab. In 2002, 16 of my fellow committee members proposed to bring at least 10-15 lakh hectares of land out from under paddy cultivation, and to compensate farmers for growing other crops.
At that time, India imported Rs 14,000 crore worth of oilseeds and pulses. Instead, we proposed utilising Rs 1,600 crore for compensating farmers for growing pulses and oilseeds on 10 lakh hectares of land. The funds were subsequently released by the finance ministry to the agriculture ministry, but didn’t move thereafter. Now, the government can give Rs 10,000 per hectare to farmers to encourage the diversification of crops
MSP and procurement should be provided to other crops such as maize, cotton, oilseed and pulses. Punjab alone imports 2 million tonnes of maize for poultry feed; this money can instead be a subsidy for growing maize.
On the future of agriculture subsidies
No farm sector in the world can survive without subsidy. The USA, Japan and European countries provide billions of dollars to their farmers. They get subsidy even with farms as big as 1,000-1,500 acres.
But Punjab’s free electricity subsidy is wrong; it’s misused. Farmers will not do this if they are made to pay for it. The government can divert the current electricity subsidy of Rs 5,500-10,000 crore to the farmer on a ‘per-acre under cultivation’ basis. Then, they should be made to pay for electricity. If I have Rs 100 of electricity subsidy in my account, I will spend less than Rs 100, leading to judicious use of water. I will even cultivate a less-water consuming crop.
Big farmers with their dozens of tubewells squeeze the subsidy, whereas small farmers who don’t even have one tubewell don’t get any. So, switching to a per-acre basis will benefit small farmers too, while big farmers shouldn’t get any beyond 25 acres.
This direct income subsidy is also perfect as it will make India match World Trade Organization standards, unlike the current one.
On increasing farmers’ income
The problem of farmers’ income cannot be solved in the farm sector alone. Small farmers should be encouraged to switch to a part-time model, and should be given subsidies to move them towards dairy and other sectors, like it’s done in Japan.
Like in Himachal Pradesh, industry should be introduced in Punjab with a mandate/preference to fill at least 70-80 per cent jobs with local youth, with the other 20 per cent being technical staff from other states. The other profits they earn can be invested in agriculture.
On the new contract farming law
Contract farming initially failed in Punjab in 2002-03, as the farmer was not insured against any losses caused in the course of agriculture production. The new contract law introduced by the central government is a copy of Punjab government Act of 2013.
It has excellent provisions like no mortgage, stricture etc. The farmer can also take a loan against probable profit. All inputs and machinery are to be provided for by the contractor. Risks such as flooding or pests will also be shared with the contractor. The farmer and the field are safe.
But the Punjab act failed because no one practised it.
On the new farm laws
I’m at a stage where my extended family and I are farmers with eight acres of land. We cultivate 50-60 acres on lease. My children are farmers. My situation is like Arjun in Mahabharata — these farmers are my children, elders and brothers. They are on the way to disaster and I want to turn them around.
I’m 93; I don’t have to do anything with any other political party. I’ve worked on agriculture policy for 60 years, including in China, USSR, central Africa, West Asia, and they have all implemented it. In Iran, they implemented my 25-page report a day after my presentation to their parliament.
I have given two reports to solve the farm crisis in Punjab, but no one has taken a page out of it. Umpteen times, I have asked to be allowed to give a half-hour presentation and answer questions before the council of ministers, but that has never happened.