Challenges of growth and sustainability: agriculture in Indian Punjab

Kamal Vatta


Parisha Budhiraja



Indian agriculture

After gaining independence, India faced the daunting challenge of attaining food security to feed its population of nearly 350 million, a large proportion of which was estimated as being seriously poor, with most children experiencing malnourishment (Dev and Sharma, 2010; Ittyerah, 2013). Prioritizing agricultural growth was an important strategy to reduce poverty. However, a slowdown in growth of agricultural GDP from 2.9 percent per annum in 1950-51 to 1.3 percent per annum in 1960-61 pushed the country back into a food deficit for the next two decades (CSO, 1988, 1989a, 1989b). Owing to the widening gap between demand for and supply of food grains, India heavily relied on importing agricultural commodities worth Rs.6,860 million during this period (Rath and Patvardhan, 1967). Frequent droughts and ever-rising imports further strengthened the argument that agricultural growth was crucial for the overall development of the economy.

The above pattern of slow growth was reversed during the late 1960s, as price reforms and new technologies for agriculture were adopted. The introduction of high-yield varieties (HYVs) and the expansion of irrigation networks brought a substantial increase in agricultural productivity while stimulating agricultural growth. The Green Revolution ushered in a dramatic increase in domestic food grain production, eliminating the need for food grain imports. Punjab, at the center of the Green Revolution, had been at the forefront of achieving food security for the nation. Because of the increased use of HYVs, irrigation, and adoption of a package of improved agricultural practices, wheat production rose remarkably from 1.9 to 5.6 million tons over

Challenges of growth and sustainability 161 five years (Parayil, 1992; Gill, 1994). Yet, the continued use of intensive agricultural practices over many decades in Punjab, necessitated by the Green Revolution, had harsh implications for groundwater usage, use of agrochemicals, groundwater pollution, agro-ecosystems, and intensification of regional inequalities (Rao, 1998; World Bank, 2008; Hira, 2009).

The rise in agricultural productivity leveled off in Punjab after 1975 (Chengappa, 1989). The negative effects of intensive agriculture have been exacerbated over time by the reckless utilization of groundwater resources, heavy subsidies on agricultural power consumption, and declining profitability and crop diversity. The rise in water and power consumption has the potential to seriously threaten the sustainability of agriculture and farmers’ incomes. This study highlights patterns of agricultural growth along with its determinants, identifies the major challenges for sustainability of agriculture in Punjab, and outlines alternatives for achieving long-term sustainability.

Agriculture in Punjab

Punjab, located in northwestern India, is a prosperous state (Map 8.1). Of its geographical area of 5,036 thousand ha, the net cultivated area in the state is 4,158 thousand ha. Punjab, as a leading adopter of new technologies, has performed to an exemplary degree in the agricultural sector over the last five decades. The introduction of HYVs together with assured irrigation, use of chemical fertilizers, farm mechanization, and effective food grain procurement policies paved the way for its success in the Green Revolution.

Punjab’s astounding agricultural growth is apparent in its increased wheat production from 1.9 to 5.6 million tons during 1965-72 (Zarkovic, 1987). The growth in rice production has been equally remarkable. During the last ten years, Punjab state alone has contributed almost half of the rice and one-third of the wheat to the central pool of food grains to ensure national food security. Currently, almost 19 percent of India’s wheat production, 11 percent of its rice production and 5 percent of its cotton production come from Punjab, from merely 1.5 percent of the geographical area of the country. It is often called the ’food basket of India’ or the ’granary of India’ for this reason. In 2014-15, the state’s share of the nation’s product was 24.2 percent of paddy and 41.5 percent of wheat. Current levels of paddy productivity (6.2 tons/ha) and wheat productivity (5.1 tons/ha) are comparable to productivity levels in developed countries. The per-capita income at 2004-05 prices is Rs.44,885, giving Punjab a rank of seventh in per-capita income among the major states in India.

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