Chandigarh: The coronavirus-induced lockdown in Punjab is now forcing more and more farmers to shift away from cultivating water-guzzling and labour-intensive paddy to the highly-profitable but ‘high maintenance’ cotton in this kharif season.
The Punjab government has been encouraging farmers for the last several years to switch from paddy to cotton and its efforts have finally started showing results now.
Although farmers had started to cultivate cotton from last year itself, what has really turned the push into a shove this year is the acute shortage of labour due to the lockdown in the state and other parts of the country.
Punjab’s Principal Secretary, Agriculture, Kahan Singh Pannu told ThePrint that this year the area under cotton cultivation is expected to increase from 3.9 lakh hectares last year to at least 5 lakh hectares.
“This was the target that we had already set for ourselves this year, but the uncertainty caused by the pandemic and the shortage of labour is helping our agriculture officers to convince farmers to shift from paddy to cotton,” Pannu said.
Cultivation of cotton began in the last week of April and will continue until May-end, said Pannu, adding that the department had 25 lakh packets of cotton seeds for the farmers and the government is targeting to sow them on five lakh hectares. “We have already sold 11 lakh packets,” he added.
On the issue of labour shortage, agriculture development officer Harvinder Singh Sidhu said: “Lakhs of migrant labourers in Punjab are returning to their native states and farmers are not expecting them to come back any time soon.
“Even if they manage to transplant paddy this month before the Shramik trains take them back to their villages, there will be no farm hands available when finally the paddy has to be harvested in September-October,” added Sidhu, who is posted in Mansa district, one of the most prominent cotton cultivating belts in the state.
Paddy cultivation to take a hit
A labour-intensive exercise, cultivation of paddy requires transplanting of the sapling physically by farm labourers apart from a huge amount of water for its growth.
Due to the depleting groundwater table, the Punjab government has been asking farmers for years now to diversify from paddy cultivation to other cash crops like cotton and maize, which require much less water and labour.
The burning of the paddy stubble following their harvest in order to prepare the field for the next cycle of wheat cultivation has also emerged as a major source of air pollution in recent years.
Last year, by the end of the last kharif season in December, the area under non-basmati paddy cultivation was reduced from 64.8 lakh acres in 2018 to 57.27 lakh acres.
On the nearly 7.5 lakh acres, crops like cotton, maize, fruits and vegetables were grown. The largest shift was to cotton, which was grown on 3 lakh acres, followed by maize on 1.27 lakh acres.
This year, the area under paddy cultivation is expected to reduce further due to shortage of labour.
Fearing a sharp decline in paddy cultivation, the state government has advanced the date of paddy transplantation by 10 days, beginning 10 June.
On Thursday, the government also issued an advisory to farmers to cultivate less water-intensive and early maturing PR-128 and PR-129 varieties of non-basmati paddy for better straw management.
Cotton cultivation becoming popular
An officer in the state’s agriculture department, who didn’t want to be named, said: “Last year, the state had the highest area under cotton cultivation in the past 5 years when it touched 3.9 lakh hectares. The target fixed for last year was almost 4 lakh hectares, a 40 per cent increase from the 2018 season when cotton was sown on 2.84 lakh hectares.”
The officer said this happened mainly due to the good prices that private cotton millers offered to the farmers.
Gurchet Singh, a farmer of Makha village in Mansa district, said: “The reason why farmers are reluctant to shift from paddy is that it is virtually a maintenance-free crop. Once you have sown it, you can easily forget about it and harvest it some months later.”
But cotton requires “constant maintenance”, he said. “Even a little rain during this period when it is being sown can prove disastrous. It leads to crusting of the soil and we have to loosen the soil several times before the saplings come out,” he added.
“I have 16 acres of land. Last year, I had sown paddy on 9 acres and cotton on 7 acres. This time since there is going to be no labour to help me with paddy plantation and harvesting, so I have sown cotton on 10 acres and paddy on 6,” he said.
Pritam Singh of the same village has also shifted to cotton cultivation this year. “I have five acres of land. Last year, it was all under paddy. This year I have sown cotton on three acres and paddy on two,” he said.
Farmers want better cotton MSP
While swearing by the profitability of the cotton yield, traditional cultivators of the crop are, however, unhappy over the low MSP (minimum support price) the government offers.
“Private players are the first to come into the market when the crop is ready and purchase the crop at the rate of Rs 5,200 per quintal. However, the government procures the crop at Rs 5,450. We find this rate not sufficient because the cost of producing cotton has increased manifold in the past 10 years, but the MSP has remained almost unchanged,” said Surjit Singh, another farmer from Mansa.
“In 2009, the MSP for cotton was Rs 5,000 per quintal and now it is Rs 5,450. However the rates of diesel, seeds, fertilizer and labour have gone up manifold. If the government is really serious about encouraging farmers to shift from paddy to cotton, the MSP should be increased to Rs 10,000 per quintal. (Then) There will not be a single farmer left in the state who will grow paddy,” he said.
Agriculture Commissioner, Punjab, B.S. Sidhu highlighted the procurement issues with the Cotton Corporation of India (CCI).
“The Cotton Corporation of India, which procures the cotton, is extremely reluctant to enter the market and purchase the crop. They insist on making direct payments to the farmers, which in Punjab is not possible. Also they enter the market very late by which time the farmers have already sold their crop to the private players who give whatever rates they feel like. There is a need to iron these problems with the CCI,” he said.