Renowned agriculture economist Dr SS Johl presented two reports on the need for crop diversification in Punjab in 1986 and 2002. After over three decades, overflowing cereal granaries and large budget deficits have finally compelled a serious policy rethink at the level of the Union Government on the open-ended public procurement system limited to paddy and wheat. These two staple crops were favoured for the Green Revolution because with assured irrigation the yields are less prone to erratic weather, can be cheaply stored for long periods of time and are thus more suitable for food security purposes. Punjab provided the ideal conditions for growing these crops and was chosen as the Green Revolution state. When India gained Independence, Punjab had a diversified agriculture landscape. But, under the Union Government’s directives, policies and incentives to ensure India’s food security during its most difficult decades, it turned to specialised agriculture.

Unarguably, a critical need for crop diversification is to address the depleting groundwater. Two-crop monoculture is obliterating biodiversity, but most remain ignorant of it as an existential crisis. There is also a direct correlation between areas of the two-crop monoculture and farmer suicides. The man-days of work created by the paddy-wheat cycle are possibly 130 days a year or less. Spending days without work in a state of unemployed ‘worklessness’ leads to depression that is rampant in such communities. Creating diversity of rural occupation is just as important as creating off-farm jobs to improve rural livelihoods. Reduction in paddy cultivation is also essential to solve the vexed issue of crop burning.

People wallow in satisfaction as India habitually celebrates its ‘self-sufficiency’ in food amidst continued massive malnutrition. The misperception crops up only because the majority of the people cannot afford nutritious meals and demand remains subdued. Consumption patterns change as economies grow, with people able to afford and demand more nutritious and diverse foods. Even as demand of diversified food increases, climate change will adversely impact food production targets, leading to erratic production on a regular basis. Across India, the groundwater table is depleting to a point where even access to drinking water has become a problem in tens of thousands of villages. In light of these challenges, Punjab, uniquely endowed with natural resources, is the key to helping attain India’s nutrition security.

The question may well be asked: if crop diversification is so important, why has we failed so miserably for decades? The answer is simple enough: irrespective of the noise, the Union Government has always been wary of diversifying cultivation in Punjab. India’s priorities change with rising international commodity prices and occasional droughts across the land. Assured procurement of paddy and wheat at good prices from village market yards, coupled with prompt payment, has created the scourge. It is impossible to replace or replicate it for other cropping systems. The public procurement by the Central procurement agencies infuses about Rs 60,000 crore annually into financially strained Punjab. The state is not in a position to offset the inflow and revenue accruing to the state, and has therefore too opted to maintain the status quo. Globally, most trade across the world takes place with neighbouring nations as in the Americas or in the European Union. In the case of Punjab, landlocked far from seaports and neighbouring hostile Pakistan, trade is strangulated, resulting in loss of opportunities for agricultural export and creation of off-farm employment. In the process, Punjab has lost export markets of Afghanistan and Pakistan, its traditional trading partners. It is also denied road access to Central Asian markets that are closer to Punjab than Mumbai or Bengaluru.

Financially strapped Punjab Agricultural University, too, failed to meet expectations and ‘agriculture research and extension’ are in desperate need of a reboot. An agriculturally rich state like Punjab has ironically become a net importer of fruits and vegetables, growing which would provide nutrition and on-farm work. Crops to replace paddy such as maize, groundnut, moong, cotton, bajra, arhar and soybean just do not yield comparative profits. Profit is not the only reason for farmers to choose to grow a particular crop. Comparative weather-induced production risks in other crops makes paddy a favoured crop. The late Dr GS Kalkat had observed that small and marginal farmers won’t adopt new crops unless they are assured of marketing of their produce. Diversifying crop production will require a myriad of actions, including creating regulated space for private traders, helping farmer producer organisations become aggregators, futures and options, warehouse receipts, risk insurance and dismantling trader monopolies in APMC market yards. But governance remains the biggest challenge in debt-ridden Punjab’s struggle to regain its glory. Much of what is required for successful diversification also lies outside the state boundaries. For example, Punjab dairy industry’s demand for maize is met from Bihar, where it sells for half the value of the MSP. This subdues farmgate prices in Punjab and hinders crop diversification. The food processing industry is essential for crop diversification, but policies of the Union Government haven’t delivered. The regularity of arbitrary import-export restrictions hurts more.

The way forward

Punjab secured India’s first 50 years of food security; the time is ripe for the Union Government to fund crop diversification in Punjab for securing the next 50 years of India’s nutrition security. What should work is for the Centre to allocate Rs 5,000 crore per year for a six-year period. This should be over and above the current procurement payouts to Punjab farmers. Regretfully, the establishment in Punjab cannot be trusted to use the money for the intended purposes, ensuring a just transformation; nor can the Union Government be expected to address the pain of diversification in perpetuity. To make the transition permanent, we have to go beyond just bridging the profitability gap between paddy and the diversification crops. Therefore, a Niti Aayog-headed ‘Transition Commission’ should be constituted and be responsible for assessing the states’ plans and allocate resources conditionally.

Expecting a financially constrained Punjab to share the cost of crop diversification will be unrealistic. The process becomes even more complicated when one also seeks to secure dignified livelihoods for those dependent on agriculture while transitioning to regenerative alternatives. Solving the maze of the state’s policy of free power for tubewells will require political will, which is sadly lacking. Both politicians and leaders of farmer unions root for populist, short-term economic benefits for farmers by consciously sacrificing livelihoods of future generations. Such challenges make the task of diversification too daunting for the administration to even contemplate. Consequently, even when something seems logical or even when resources are available, it does not mean that transformation will be accomplished. Let’s not lose hope, let’s pray.

Five suggestions for Budget-2022

  1. Seek assessment of government programmes by organisations of beneficiaries to enable various departments to ensure delivery of objectives and optimum utilisation of budgetary allocations.
  2. Statutory imposition of import duties on crops/ food where landing cost is below MSP (where declared) or below remunerative prices (where no MSP) so that these don’t enter Indian markets below a threshold price.
  3. Double funding for agricultural research institutions and farm extension services.
  4. Finance a consortium of farmer organisations for developing a metric for measuring what matters: true cost of food; and payment for farm ecosystem services.
  5. Establishing an autonomous body under the aegis of Ministry of Agriculture, mandated to provide real-time market intelligence and a nationally consistent database of food systems to all stakeholders, including the states.