Green No More

Bharat Dogra

If there is one single region that can be singled out as the bread-basket of India, then it is undeniably the fertile, well-irrigated belt of Punjab-Haryana-Western Uttar Pradesh. In the procurement of two most important foodgrains (wheat and rice) as well as in the production of sugarcane this region is extremely significant.

It was the fertility and irrigation potential (canals as well as tubewells) of this belt which made it the top spot for the implementation of the green revolution strategy for increasing farm production. Since then its importance as the granary of the country has only grown.

At the same time, however, a number of serious threats have appeared in this bread-basket of the country which, if unchecked, can jeopardise the prospects of sustainable farm development in this fertile belt which was originally very well-endowed by nature with all attributes of productive agriculture.
Within the bread-basket, however, it is the ruthless over-exploitation of groundwater which has already contributed to sharply declining water tables even in areas which had generally been regarded as water-abundant. Groundwater officials refer to an increasing number of zones in this bread-basket as 'dark-zones' where groundwater depletion has reached critical levels.

Mismanagement of canal irrigation led to waterlogging and salinity problems in good quality farmland, while indiscriminate construction activity without providing for adequate drainage led to increasing waterlogging and flood problems in many areas. Huge flash floods have been unleashed by dam reservoirs, including Bhakra. In fact at the time of unprecedented rains even the safety of Bhakra dam came under strain, as was admitted by senior officials, and the situation could only be saved by excessive release of water. In future even bigger threats can appear in the context of highly hazardous structures like the Tehri Dam Project.

Neglect has led to the loss or threatened loss of several traditional water bodies. Pollution of water sources has also emerged as a big problem. In the case of smaller rivers like those in Western Uttar Pradesh situation has become very serious. Apart from industrial pollution, chemical fertilisers, pesticides and weedicides used in agriculture on a massive scale have also contributed in a big way to pollute water bodies.

The excessive reliance on chemical fertilisers and pesticides has led to the loss of natural fertility of farmland in a big way. At the same time, due to the construction of embankments and other factors, the deposition of fertile silt by Himalayan rivers in a wide area has been badly hampered. Earthworms who used to be the best friends of farmers, making the soil fertile and porous, have been wiped out over vast farming areas by excessive use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. Similarly other friendly insects (specially bees) and birds have been greatly harmed.

The dependence on excessive use of chemical pesticides was caused at least partly by the seriously mistaken policy of planting vast monocultures of a single crop. Often not only were huge areas planted by a single crop, in addition a single variety was emphasised or else a few varieties with some genetic base were emphasised.

This created conducive conditions for the spread of more and new pests and hence the dependence on hazardous chemical pesticides grew. Earlier the cropping system used to be mixed and diverse and there was a wealth of diverse varieties handed from generation to generation by experienced farmers. The new cropping patterns, such as the dominance of sugarcane in vast areas of western UP or the dominance of rice-wheat rotation in vast parts of Punjab proved ecologically disruptive as the water requirements of these cropping patterns were too excessive.

Human health has also been adversely affected, and not just by direct exposure to toxic chemicals. As serious shortages of micro-nutrients and other critical nutrients in soil have appeared, these have also affected the nutrition of staple food crops. The future plans for GM crops are fraught with even greater health hazards.

Vol. 46, No. 12, Sep 29 -Oct 5, 2013

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