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The Ugly Remnants of a Revolution: Rice Cultivation & Severe Water Crisis in Punjab & Haryana

“Each year, we have to deepen the borewell by 2-3 metres. If the groundwater keeps lowering at this rate each year, then what will be left for our children? Just barren land, I guess!”, says Sunil Kumar, a farmer residing in the village of Alawalwas which lies under Ratia block, district Fatehabad, Haryana. Ratia has been classified as a dark zone based on groundwater depletion by the Haryana government. 

The Green Revolution began in 1965 in a bid to make India self-sufficient in terms of food production through the adoption of modern farming techniques. This included high-yielding variety (HYV) seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides, modern agricultural equipment such as tractors and the construction and expansion of irrigation networks such as dams and canals. The revolution which was mainly concentrated in the semi-arid states of Haryana and Punjab made possible what seemed inconceivable earlier – the large scale cultivation of water-intensive crops such as Rice and Wheat invariably helping India achieve considerable levels of food security. This remarkable journey took the country from a miserable state of having to import essential grains to becoming one of the largest exporters of agricultural commodities including wheat and rice and eventually turned Haryana and Punjab into the ‘Food Baskets of India’. Unfortunately, this development wasn’t accompanied by sustainable management of natural resources such as land and water. 

Over the decades, the endeavour to maximise profits has led the farmers of Northern India to overexploit the groundwater, leading to the groundwater depletion at an alarming rate. The cultivation of rice requires high humidity with an annual rainfall of approximately 100 cm, and in states like Haryana and Punjab -which receive less than 60 cm of annual rainfall- groundwater becomes the primary source of irrigation inflicting a severe stress over water tables. A WaterAid India’s report “Beneath the Surface: The State of World’s Water 2019” published in March 2019 showed that water demand of India by 2030 will be twice the then available water supply. Furthermore, the report went on to state that Haryana, Punjab and western Uttar Pradesh are among the world’s top water-risk zones for agricultural production, the others being northeastern China and the southwestern USA. According to a 2018 study published in the Journal of Hydrology, 88.11% of Punjab’s districts and 76.02% of Haryana’s are drought-resilient. The Tribune reported on 13 May 2019, that according to a draft report of the Central Ground Water Board (North-Western region), with the current unsustainable and injudicious use of groundwater, there are chances of  Punjab and Haryana becoming a desert in 25 years. 

In 2012, the TOI reported that according to the groundwater wing of Haryana’s agricultural department, there was a critical fall of 7.29 metres in average groundwater levels in many districts of the state, the highest falls being recorded as 19.45m and 15.79m in Mahendragarh and Fatehabad districts respectively. An assessment of groundwater level carried out by Central Ground Water Board (CGWB) in 2013 substantiated that out of 119 blocks in 21 districts assessed at the time, 64 of the blocks were found to be overexploited or ‘dark zones’ in terms of groundwater usage. The whole assessment when performed again in 2017 in 22 districts of the state revealed that the number of dark zones had risen by 12, summing up to a total of 78 dark zones out of 128 blocks. The districts of Faridabad, Gurugram, Mahendragarh, Bhiwani, Dadri, Palwal, Mewat, Kurukshetra, Kaithal, Panipat and Sirsa were found to be the worst-affected, with the water level in these areas falling at the rate of one metre every year. According to a study, ‘Haryana - Developing Sustainable Agricultural Value Chain’, jointly conducted by Assocham, NABARD and Creative Agri Solution in 2016, the water table in Haryana is depleting 0.33 metre every year, reported RuralMarketing

Expressing his views on the situation, Om Prakash Dhankar, the then Minister of Agriculture of Haryana had said, “Since the beginning of Green Revolution, we have been exploiting underground water more than the water we get from rain. We consume one crore acre-feet of groundwater every year while only 60 lakh acre-feet water gets recharged in a situation of normal monsoon. Hence, there’s a gap of 40 lakh acre-feet every year. The groundwater is like a bank balance, we can extract the amount only which we recharge. Otherwise, it would be finished.”

As per the Ground Water Cell, Agriculture and Farmer Welfare Department, Haryana, the average decline in the water table from June 1974 to June 2018 was 10.38 metres. According to the department’s report in 2019, the worst-affected districts were Kurukshetra, Mahendragarh, Kaithal and Fatehabad, followed by Rewari, Karnal, Panipat, Gurugram, Faridabad and Sirsa. The decline had been sharp in paddy-rich districts like Fatehabad, Kaithal and Kurukshetra, being 30m, 23m and 19m respectively. The village of Alawalwas has about 3300 acres of cultivated land and rice is planted on about 85% of the land every year since 2010. “The farmers of our village practised Cotton farming along with Guar, Moong and Bajra(millets) about 15-20 years ago. Cotton was planted at a large scale from 2005 to 2009 but then it started catching different types of pests due to which the crop started failing and the financial condition of farmers declined. Slowly, several farmers started setting up pipelines and tube wells with the help of bank loans to enable them to plant rice. Rice cultivation turned out to be a huge success and the farmers’ financial condition got better. This success made every other farmer set up tube wells and start planting rice and thus within a few years, the villages’ white landscape turned green.”

Punjab’s situation isn’t very divergent from that of Haryana’s. Studies have shown that the incessant paddy cultivation from the times of the Green Revolution has been responsible for 80% of the state’s groundwater depletion. The water table in Punjab reportedly declined at a rate of 0.7 metres per year from 2008 to 2012. According to a report published by Groundwater resources of Punjab State in 2018, out of the 138 blocks taken for study in March 2017, 109 were found to be ‘overexploited’, 2 were found to be ‘critical’ and 5 blocks were found to be in the ‘semi-critical’ category.  In March 2020, in several blocks in districts like Mansa, Sangrur, Ludhiana, Bathinda, Hoshiarpur, Jalandhar, Moga, Pathankot and Patiala, the groundwater level had gone below 50 metres.

Reasons for Groundwater Depletion

Rice cultivation is believed to be the chief reason behind the depleting groundwater table in the areas of Haryana and Punjab. These states lie in the semi-arid region of India where the monsoons are uncertain, and unevenly distributed. During the summer months, a large amount of underground water is used mostly for rice cultivation than what is replenished by the monsoon rains. The changing monsoon trends of Haryana and Punjab are making extensive rice cultivation in these states even more detrimental for the environment.

According to a TOI report published in 2014, rain statistics from the Indian Meteorological Department showed that Punjab had received above-normal monsoon rainfall for just two years since 1999. The statistics for Haryana  weren’t very encouraging either, where the state achieved the average rainfall rate in only 4 of the past 16 monsoon. The monsoon rainfall in Punjab has fallen from about 600 mm in 1980 to 480 mm in 2014. In the case of Haryana, the fall was almost similar to Punjab, from 600mm in 1980 to 470 mm in 2014.

Taking into consideration the more recent statistics of rainfall in the two states from January to July 2020 (*June and July are crucial months because transplantation of paddy takes place in these months which requires an enormous amount of water), the cumulative rainfall recorded in Punjab was 209.2 mm which is only 1% more than required 207.2 mm; and in case of Haryana, it was 191.9mm, merely 2.5% more than required 189.4 mm. Out of 43 districts, 11 districts of each state recorded deficit rainfall. Therefore, even if the cumulative rainfall is more than required, many areas still face rainwater shortage for cultivating crops. Inducing huge stress on groundwater. 

The groundwater started falling as soon as each farmer started having his own tubewell. Earlier the monsoon rains used to be good which sometimes led to the overflow of Ghaggar and that used to replenish the village’s groundwater to some extent. But now due to inadequate monsoons, even Ghaggar lies dry.”

During years when the monsoons fail, larger quantities of groundwater is drawn for irrigation, thus accelerating the fall of the water table. In 1966, the area under rice cultivation in Haryana was 1.92 lakh hectares which went up to 14.22 lakh hectares in 2018. Being a water-intensive crop, an acre of paddy is irrigated for about 30-35 times in a period of 4 months by a method called Surface Irrigation. This method requires 3-5 cm deep submergence of the field.

Most farmers aren’t satisfied with 30-35 days of irrigation and thus, flood the rice fields throughout the growing season. The main water source for this flooding continues to be groundwater through private tube wells.  As a matter of fact, about 5,389 litres of water is required to produce 1kg of rice. Nearly 85 per cent of Haryana’s cultivated area is irrigated by groundwater or surface water, as per Indian Council of Agricultural Research. In 1960-61, paddy was grown only over 6% of the cropped area in Punjab, this increased to 69% in 2012-13. The share of area under paddy in Kharif cereals increased from 33% in 1961 to 96% in 2013. The number of tube wells in the state has increased by 200% since 1990. 

These statistics are a clear indication of the merciless extraction and utilization of groundwater by the farmers for watering their crops.  

How do we alleviate the crisis?

According to a 2018 study by the National Bank for Agriculture & Rural Development (NABARD) and Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations (ICRIER); the imminent water crisis by 2030 could be prevented by the shifting of rice cultivation from Haryana and Punjab to states such as Chhattisgarh and Jharkhand.