Punjab is heading for record paddy production this year. The state agriculture department has estimated the harvest for the 2016-’17 kharif (monsoon) season will be 186 lakh metric tonnes, nearly 10 lakh metric tonnes more than last year’s yield. State officials are jubilant as it is “an all-time high output”.

With an eye on the Assembly elections next year, Deputy Chief Minister Sukhbir Singh Badal has ordered the immediate lifting of the paddy crop from farmers and sought daily reports on the progress in procurement. Punjab’s high-steroid growth, which started with the Green Revolution in the 1970s, it appears, is refusing to slow down.

But underneath this hype lies another narrative – a worrisome one – of the overexploitation of the state’s groundwater resources. “Over 97% of the cultivated area in Punjab is irrigated, the highest in the country,” said Dr Rajan Aggarwal, head of the soil and water engineering department at Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. “But, 75% is irrigated using groundwater while only 25% of the area benefits from canal irrigation.”

Earlier this month, Chief Minister Parkash Singh Badal stressed that Punjab was in danger of turning into a desert in less than a decade due to falling groundwater levels.

The 2013 Report of the High-Level Expert Group on Waterlogging in Punjab noted that “the water table in the state is falling by up to one metre per year”.

The Central Ground Water Board, too, warned of an impending water and agrarian crisis in the state. “In Punjab, groundwater development is 172%, which is an overdraft,” said Dr SK Jain, regional director (north-western region) of the board’s Chandigarh office. “Simply put, it means that groundwater extraction is much more than the recharge. And, if the present trend continues, then 50 blocks in 14 districts of Punjab may completely run out of groundwater in the next one decade.”

Groundwater development is the ratio of net yearly extraction of groundwater to the total utilisable groundwater resources for irrigation. At 100% groundwater development, water extraction is equal to water recharge. Anything beyond that is an overdraft.

Feeding the nation

Punjab is called the granary of India. While it occupies only 1.5% of the country’s total geographical area, it is the top contributor of foodgrains to the central grain pool, thereby feeding the entire nation through the public distribution system.

According to the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development’s Punjab State Focus Paper 2015-’16, the state alone contributes more than 43% of wheat to the central pool and over 29% of the rice. A few years ago, this contribution stood even higher at 55% of wheat and 42% of rice.

Wheat and rice are the two major crops of Punjab. Of the state’s total geographical area of 50 lakh hectares, 41 lakh hectares is under cultivation – over 35 lakh hectares for wheat and 30 lakh hectares for rice. Since wheat is a rabi (winter) crop and rice is a kharif crop, farmers in Punjab grow both on the same farmland. The time gap between the crops allows them to till their land using the same farm equipment and harvesting machinery. Wheat is indispensable as it is the state’s staple diet, but rice is grown primarily to feed the central pool.

“Farmers continue to grow wheat and rice because it is picked up in large quantities by the government under the minimum support price, thereby giving farmers an assured return,” said Dr Rajan Aggarwal of Punjab Agricultural University.

Before the advent of paddy, the main kharif crops in Punjab were maize, cotton and pulses. In the 1960s, about three lakh hectares of cultivable area was under rice cultivation, which has now touched 30 lakh hectares. In 1970-’71, the gross cropped area under maize was 9.7%, which came down to 1.7% in 2010-’11. In the same period, areas growing pulses and oilseeds also plunged from 7.2% to 0.2% , and 5.2% to 0.7%, respectively.

Falling water table

Paddy, grown on 75% of cultivable land in Punjab, is a highly water-intensive crop. To grow one kilogram of rice, farmers in the state use 5,337 litres of water. During the 2015-’16 crop season, Punjab contributed an estimated 93.5 lakh tonnes to the public distribution system. In terms of water consumption, this is equivalent to five times the capacity of the Gobind Sagar reservoir of the Bhakra dam – which irrigates 40% of Punjab’s net irrigated area – in neighbouring Himachal Pradesh.

Paddy also requires a minimum average annual rainfall of 1,150 millimetres, though the most suitable average annual rainfall is between 1,750 mm and 3,000 mm.

In sharp contrast, the average annual rainfall in Punjab is 650 mm-700 mm. “This, too, has declined in the last two decades to 400 mm-500 mm, putting an additional burden on groundwater, as farmers have sunk deeper tubewells to irrigate their paddy fields,” said Dr SK Jain of the Central Ground Water Board.

With the expansion of land under paddy in Punjab, the number of tubewells has also increased from 200,000 in the 1970s to the present 4,000,000. Over 14 lakh tubewells run on electricity and the state government plans to allot 1.5 lakh more power connections for tubewells.

Predictably, an indiscriminate use of groundwater for paddy cultivation has led to a sharp decline in the water table. Of the 138 administrative blocks in Punjab, 110 blocks are overexploited, four are critical and two are semi-critical, reports the Central Ground Water Board. Only 22 blocks are safe, but they have other problems such as arsenic, fluoride and uranium contamination.

The overexploited blocks are those where groundwater extraction is more than 100% of the recharge. In critical blocks, groundwater development is between 90% and 100% of the recharge. And under the semi-critical category, groundwater development is between 70% and 90% of the recharge.

No checks in place

In 1999, the Punjab government stopped billing farmers for the electricity and water they used for their fields. This tradition of freebies has continued, and the power subsidy for farmers in 2016-’17 stood at Rs 6,364.4 crore, which is borne entirely by the state government.

The government has also refused to regulate the use of groundwater. In 2010, it refused to adopt the Central government’s model bill for management of groundwater. In Punjab, no permission is required to dig tubewells, and there is no restriction on the depth of the tubewells, which are sinking deeper by the year.

“Both the state and the Centre have done nothing to protect, regulate and manage Punjab’s aquifers that irrigate 75% of the state’s land and are its lifeline,” said Himanshu Thakkar, coordinator of the South Asia Network on Dams, Rivers and People.

The state government claims it is working towards conserving groundwater by promoting drip irrigation, which saves water by taking it directly to the plant roots or into the soil surface through a network of pipes and valves. However, at present, only 1% of total cultivable land in Punjab is under drip irrigation.

The state government also enacted the Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act in 2009 that bans paddy transplantation – the shifting of rice saplings from the nursery to the field – till June 10. Early transplantation leads to groundwater depletion as the water in the fields evaporates quickly as a result of high temperatures, which ease with the advent of pre-monsoon showers in mid-June. Last year, this deadline was pushed to June 15.

But, keeping in mind the extent of the groundwater crisis in the state, these measures are not enough.

Saving Punjab

As part of the Central government’s National Project on Aquifer Management, the mapping of Punjab’s aquifers is underway and is expected to be completed by next year. This will give a clear picture of the state of its aquifers.

“Aquifer mapping is good, but we need to see what use these maps will eventually be put to, and if they translate into effective management of groundwater,” said Dr Himanshu Kulkarni, executive director of the Pune-based Advanced Centre for Water Resources Development and Management.

Apart from the mapping of aquifers, the Centre has given the Punjab government a Rs 100-crore subsidy to lay underground irrigation pipelines under the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana. “In the present flood irrigation system for wheat and rice crops, a lot of water is wasted due to evaporation as the water channels are unlined and open,” said Jain. “Underground irrigation pipelines will address this problem.”

The state government, in turn, is offering farmers a subsidy for the same.

But, Thakkar is critical of these capital-intensive solutions. “These half-baked measures do not address the real issue of high paddy cultivation and consequent unsustainable groundwater consumption in Punjab,” he said.

Also, the main irrigation canals of the Bhakra dam are open to the air, leading to evaporation. “How will farmers laying underground pipelines in their fields solve the problem,” he asked.

The Punjab Agricultural University has consistently suggested reducing the area under paddy cultivation by at least 12 lakh hectares. This area can then be diversified into growing other less water-intensive kharif crops such as maize, which has only one-sixth the water requirement of paddy. Pulses and soyabean are other alternatives.

But this is easier said than done in a state where farm distress leads to around 2,000 farmer suicides every year. The farmers themselves are against making the switch unless they are given an assured market and minimum support price.

Punjab’s share in the central grain pool is on the decline, though it still remains the main contributor. Between 2007-’08 and 2010-’11, its share of wheat and rice fell from 60.9% to 45.4%, and 27.8% to 25.3%, respectively. Its current share of wheat is still lower at 43% while that of rice has risen slightly to 29%. If it wants to retain its top position, it has to diversify and reinvent itself without any further exploitation of its aquifers.

Nidhi Jamwal is an independent environment journalist based in Mumbai. Her Twitter handle is @JamwalNidhi