Despite Green-Revolution Rhetoric, Punjab's Farmers Have Faced Increasing Difficulties

Bharat Dogra

A few years after the advent of the green revolution it started becoming clear that Punjab’s farmers were in the grip of a severe agro-ecological crisis. Before the advent of the green revolution, Punjab grew a wide diversity of crops and crop-varieties using time respected crop rotations and mixed farming systems. These were able to exist in compatibility with local soil, water and climate conditions so that even after hundreds of years of cultivation there was no heavy stress on soil and water. However, the green revolution technology started creating stress for soil and water within just one or two decades. Loss of biodiversity and narrow genetic base of crops brought by the green revolution technology led to greater vulnerability to heavy damage from diseases and pests, in turn requiring heavy use of hazardous chemical pesticides and other agri chemicals.

High dependence on heavy and unbalanced use of chemical fertilizers depletes the fertility of land.  Chemical fertilizers cannot enhance the soil’s organic matter which is the key to fertility. Heavy reliance on chemical fertilizers ultimately leads to a situation where more and more of these have to be used just to maintain the existing yields at rising costs. This is precisely what appears to have happen in Punjab at a relatively early stage. For example, during the five years from 1977-78 to 1981-82 use of chemical fertilizers in Punjab increased from 465 thousand tonnes NPK to 812 while the yield for the major crops increased only moderately or stagnated.

What is more, chemical fertilizers are much less suitable for tropical climate and soil compared to temperate areas. Here their contribution to pollution as well as long term damage to soil fertility is much more. The contribution of earthworms in maintaining soil fertility is also much higher in our country and the agri chemicals have been very harmful to them. Chemical sprays also destroy some other friendly insects. The deeper root growth important for preventing any deficiency of micronutrients has also been hampered due to the formation of pan by chemical fertilizers.  

So it is not surprising that farmers in Punjab soon experienced rising costs and stagnant yields. The farmers’ costs also increased further due to over investment in mechanization. At present there are 477000 tractors, 624000 thrashers and about 13000 harvesting combines in Punjab. As per information provided by Punjab State Farmers Commission, the state has double the number of tractors it requires. At the same time farmers’ returns were further eroded by exploitative practices in marketing of farm produce. All this led all too soon to increasing economic distress of farmers resulting in high levels of indebtedness. This situation was not altered to any significant extent by farm subsidies which had very low reachout to small farmers. For example, only 6 per cent of the power subsidy in 2012-13 reached small farmers who comprise 34 per cent of the total farmers in Punjab. 

A study of Punjab’s small peasantry by Sukhpal Singh and Shruti Bhogal has stated, “Punjab’s farmers are reeling under debt. Of the sampled farmers, 88% had an average debt of Rs 218,092 per household. The amount of debt per hectare was inversely related to farm size. It was the highest among marginal farmers (Rs 1,70,184), followed by small farmers (Rs 1,04,155), and other farmers (Rs 44,069). In the era of globalisation, the rate of increase in the costs of cultivation has been much faster than that of farm produce prices. Therefore, the increase in income from farming was not sufficient to meet domestic and farm expenditure, which led a large proportion of farmers in Punjab into a debt trap.”

The increasing distress of farmers has unfortunately also led to thousands of suicides. A census survey on suicides conducted in the most affected six districts namely Bathinda, Sangrur, Mansa, Barnala, Moga and Ludhiana revealed that 3507 farmers committed suicide in these districts during the period 2000-11. Out of these suicides 74 per cent were committed due to economic distress and indebtedness. 80 per cent of these suicides were by small farmers cultivating less than five acres of land. The average debt in such cases was Rs. 234541.

The extreme distress of marginal and small farmers has been accompanied by the no less traumatic distress of landless farm workers. The two categories are by no means mutually exclusive as many marginal farmers also toil as farm workers. In addition, several small and marginal farmers have been forced by indebtedness and economic distress to leave their land and turn into farm workers. This can be a traumatic experience for them as family honour can be very closely linked to land ownership.

In the middle of these difficulties, alternatives which emphasize low-cost, eco-friendly, sustainable farming should be considered by more and farmers and government policy must also move in this direction.

The writer is a freelance journalist who has been involved with several social movements.

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Jul 7, 2020

Bharat Dogra

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