Monday, May 16, 2011

The wheat mountains of the Punjab

M.S. Swaminathan

The arrival of large quantities of wheat in the grain markets of the Punjab-Haryana region is a heart-warming sight, while poor storage is a matter of national shame.

It was in April-May 1968, that the country witnessed the wonderful spectacle of large arrivals of wheat grain in the mandis of Punjab like Moga and Khanna. Wheat production in the country rose to nearly 17 million tonnes that year, from the previous best harvest of 12 million tonnes. Indira Gandhi released a special stamp titled “Wheat Revolution” in July 1968, to mark this new phase in our agricultural evolution. The nation rejoiced at our coming out of a “ship to mouth” existence. Later in 1968, Dr. William Gaud of the U.S. referred to the quantum jumps in production brought about by semi-dwarf varieties of wheat and rice as a “green revolution.” This term has since come to symbolise a steep rise in productivity and, thereby, of production of major crops.

Wheat production this year may reach a level of 85 million tonnes, in contrast to the seven million tonnes our farmers harvested at the time of independence in 1947. I visited several grain mandis in Moga, Khanna, Khananon and other places in the Punjab during April 23-27, 2011 and experienced, concurrently, a feeling of ecstasy and agony. It was heart-warming to see the great work done by our farm men and women under difficult circumstances when, often, they had to irrigate the fields at night due to a lack of availability of power during the day. The cause of agony was the way the grains produced by farmers with loving care were being handled. The various State marketing agencies and the Food Corporation of India (FCI) are trying their best to procure and store the mountains of grains arriving every day. The gunny bags containing the wheat procured during April-May 2010, are still occupying a considerable part of the storage space available at several mandis. The condition of the grains of earlier years presents a sad sight. The impact of moisture on the quality of paddy is even worse. Malathion sprays and fumigation with Aluminium Sulphide tablets are used to prevent grain spoilage. Safe storage involves attention to both quantity and quality. Grain safety is as important as grain saving. Due to rain and relatively milder temperature, grain arrivals were initially slow, but have now picked up. For all concerned with the procurement, dispatch and storage of wheat grains in the Punjab-Haryana-Western U.P. region, which is the heartland of the green revolution, the task on hand is stupendous.

Farmers in Punjab contribute nearly 40 per cent of the wheat and 26 per cent of the rice needed to sustain the public distribution system. The legal entitlement to food envisaged under the proposed National Food Security Act cannot be implemented without the help of the farm families of Punjab, Haryana and other grain surplus areas. Farmers are currently facing serious problems during production and post-harvest phases of farming due to inadequate investment in farm machinery and storage infrastructure. The investment made and steps taken to ensure environmentally sustainable production and safe storage and efficient distribution of grains will determine the future of both agriculture in Punjab and national food security.

On the production side, the ecological foundations essential for sustainable food production are in distress. There is an over-exploitation of the aquifer and nearly 70 per cent of irrigated area shows a negative water balance. The quality of the water is also deteriorating due to the indiscriminate use of pesticides and mineral fertilizer. Over 50,000 ha of crop land in the south-west region of Punjab are affected by water logging and salinisation. Deficiencies of Nitrogen, Phosphorous and Zinc are affecting 66, 48 and 22 per cent of soils in Punjab respectively. No wonder factor productivity, i.e., return from a unit of input, is going down. Unless urgent steps are taken to convert the green revolution into an ever-green revolution leading to the enhancement of productivity in perpetuity without associated ecological harm, both agriculture in Punjab and our public distribution system will be in danger. Worried about the future fate of farming as a profession, the younger generation is unwilling to follow in the footsteps of their parents and remain on the farm. This is the greatest worry. If steps are not taken to attract and retain youth in farming, the older generation will have no option but to sell land to real estate agents, who are all the time tempting them with attractive offers. Global prices of wheat, rice and maize are almost 50 per cent higher than the minimum support price paid to our farmers. Our population is now over 1.2 billion and we can implement a sustainable and affordable food security system only with home-grown food.

A disturbing finding of Census-2011 is the deteriorating sex ratio in the Punjab-Haryana region. The female-male ratio among children has come to its lowest point since independence. Already, women are shouldering a significant portion of farm work. If the current trends of youth migrating from villages coupled with a drop in the sex ratio continue, agricultural progress will be further endangered. The prevailing preference for a male child is in part due to the fear of farm land going out of a family's control, when the girl child gets married. I hope the loss of interest in taking to farming as a profession among male youth will remove the bias in favour of male children. I foresee an increasing feminisation of agriculture in the green revolution areas. While the drop in the sex ratio should be halted, steps are also needed to intensify the design, manufacture and distribution of women friendly farm machinery.

Tasks ahead: The first task is to defend the gains already made in improving the productivity and production of wheat, rice, maize and other crops. For the purpose of providing the needed technologies, it will be advisable to set up soon a Multi-disciplinary Research and Training Centre for Sustainable Agriculture at the Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana. This centre can be organised under the National Action Plan for the Management of Climate Change developed under the Chairmanship of the Prime Minister, which includes a Mission for Sustainable Agriculture. Such a centre should initiate a Land and Water Care Movement in the Punjab in association with the farming community. The other urgent task is the promotion of appropriate changes in land use. Over 2.7 million ha are now under rice leading to the unsustainable exploitation of the ground water. Our immediate aim should be to find alternative land use for about a million ha under rice. This will be possible only if farmers can get income similar to that they are now earning from rice. Possible alternative crops will be maize and arhar (Pigeon pea). Quality Protein Maize will fetch a premium price from the poultry industry which is fast growing in the Punjab. Arhar being a legume will also enrich soil fertility as well as soil physical properties. Other high value but low water requiring crops like pulses and oilseeds can also be promoted. At the same time, there could be diversified basmati rice production in over a million ha. In addition to Pusa Basmati 1121 which occupies the largest area now, Pusa Basmati-I (1460) and Pusa Basmati 6 (1401) can be promoted. These have resistance to bacterial leaf blight. Varietal diversity will reduce genetic vulnerability to pests and diseases.

For handling the over 26 million tonnes of wheat which will be purchased during this season, a four-pronged strategy may be useful. First, distribution through railway wagons could be expanded and expedited. One wagon can handle 2,500 tonnes. Currently 30,000 to 40,000 tonnes of wheat are being dispatched each day through wagons. With advanced planning, this quantity can be raised to over 1 lakh tonnes per day. They can be dispatched to different States for meeting the needs of PDS, Integrated Child Development Services (ICDS), School Noon Meal Programme, Annapoorna, etc. Second, the present Common Agricultural Policy (CAP) and godown storage systems can be improved with a little more investment and planning. In Punjab there are 146 mandis and 1,746 Purchase Points. They could be grouped and their infrastructure improved. Third, storage in modern silos, like the one put up at Moga by Adani Agri-logistics, and another one coming up in Amritsar, should be promoted. This will help to adopt an end- to-end system from the point of view of procurement, cleaning, quality assurance, safe storage and distribution. The cost of building silos to store a million tonnes of food grains may be about Rs.600 crore, if the required land is made available by state governments. An investment of about Rs.10,000 crore would help to establish a grid of modern grain storages with a capacity for storing, in good condition, over 15 million tonnes in the Punjab-Haryana-Western U.P. region. Lastly, export options can be explored after taking steps to make food available to the hungry, as suggested by the Supreme Court. Also, we should ensure that adequate food grains will be available for implementing the proposed Food Security Act. Export should be done only if the global food prices are attractive and if the profit made is distributed as bonus to our farmers, as suggested by the National Commission on Farmers.

It is time that we organise a National grid of grain storages, starting with storage at the farm level in well designed bins and extending to rural godowns and regional ultra-modern silos. Post harvest losses can then be minimised or even eliminated and food safety ensured. Unless the prevailing mismatch between production and post-harvest technologies is ended, neither the producer nor the consumer will derive full benefit from bumper harvests.

( M.S. Swaminathan is Chairman, MSSRF, and Member of Parliament of the Rajya Sabha.)

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