Beyond the frightening cries of coronavirus outbreak and displaced migrants, a section of farmers in Punjab, Haryana and Telangana, to begin with, are debating this: Can government decide which crop they cultivate in their fields?

It began with Punjab. The story began during 1970’s as a side-effect of green revolution but in mid-2000’s, it assumed critical proportion. Incumbent Captain Amarinder Singh was chief minister of Punjab back then.

Wide-scale cropping of paddy had caused extensive decline of water table in Punjab. Some suggested bringing a law to regulate paddy culture. “A law telling farmers when to sow paddy? Nobody will accept it,” Captain had said.

Finally, a law came in Punjab in 2009. It is called the Preservation of Sub-soil Water Act and authorizes the government to notify the dates for paddy transplantation.

Neighbouring Haryana emulated the law, which empowers the state government to destroy standing paddy crops or a nursery to save water.

The cost of uprooting the roots of the plants is to be borne by the farmers, who will be penalized Rs 10,000 per hectare per month for violation of the law.

Notifying dates is an important tool with the government to save water. It is estimated that if paddy is sown in April-May, producing one kg of rice requires 4,500 litres of water.

If transplantation dates are advanced to mid-June, water requirement comes down to 1,500-2,000 litres per kg of rice. Difference is due to rate of evaporation and onset of monsoon during the period.

Punjab has since been encouraging farmers to shift to cash-crops such as cotton instead of paddy. Now, Haryana and Telangana have adopted additional measures to virtually dictate what farmers should grow.

The Telangana government of K Chandrasekhar Rao has said it will pay the minimum support price (MSP) for paddy to only those farmers who follow its suggestions on cropping.

The Rao government runs a popular scheme called Rythu Bandhu as an income support programme. The farmers are paid Rs 5,000 per acre per year as an incentive for following the state government’s suggestions, which are aimed at moving them away from paddy cultivation, which is considered as a water guzzling agriculture, to cotton and red gram crops.

Haryana has banned paddy sowing in some of its blocks earlier this week. These blocks were identified as water stressed ones after it was found that the ground table had gone down 40 metres in these areas. This followed a campaign, Mera Paani Meri Virasat (My Water My Heritage), launched by Haryana Chief Minister ML Khattar last week.

The concerns of the governments in these three states are not misplaced. Paddy cultivation has been a worry for water conservationists for long worldwide. And, paddy is not the only water guzzling crop to have come under scanner.

There is an intense debate worldwide over virtual water trade. China, which is the largest consumer of rice, had been an exporter of rice till 2010. It started importing rice in huge quantities later and became the largest importer of rice primarily on the growing concern of water scarcity.

Today, China is net importer of virtual water. This means it is importing water intensive crops much more than the volume of water consumed by its agricultural export products. India is a massive exporter of virtual water. This realisation has changed the cultivation pattern in many countries.

With some state governments trying to wean away farmers from paddy culture to what a Haryana minister called “social reform”, India appears to have arrived at a cusp at a time when Covid-19 outbreak has increased the use of water in homes and public places for sanitisation.

Interestingly, two of the three governments mentioned above are encouraging cotton cultivation over paddy crop but for one kg output, cotton requires up to 7-10 times more water than same weight of rice.

PS. If Punjab and Haryana actually get to change cropping behaviour of their farmers, a lot of Indians will have to change their eating habits. Rice will definitely become costlier. Punjab and Haryana produce more than one-third of all India’s quantum of rice.

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