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Reverse crop diversification: Cotton no longer King in Punjab

Assured MSPs and development of new short-duration high-yielding varieties have led farmers in Punjab to desert the fibre crop for paddy
Amarjit, aka Honey Singh, has been growing cotton for as long as he can remember. Being at the tail end of the Sirhind Canal’s Bathinda branch, his fields can be irrigated by the Sutlej River waters only after farmers upstream have done with satiating the thirst of their crops. And with no electric tubewell connection either, cotton is what he has always been cultivating at this time of the year.
But in this kharif season, Honey has done the unthinkable: Growing paddy, a crop requiring 6-7 times more water than cotton, on all his five acres. “There’s too much price uncertainty and risk of damage from chitti makkhi (whitefly insect pest) in cotton. Besides, we have lot of spurious seed going around now,” says this farmer from Bhucho Khurd, a village about 10 km from Bathinda town.
Paddy, in contrast, has no such issues, as it is procured by government agencies that also pay an assured minimum support price (MSP). Equally important is the advent of new short-duration, yet high-yielding, varieties. Punjab’s farmers earlier mainly grew Pusa-44, a 160-day paddy whose nursery sowings had to be done by mid-May, followed by transplanting a month later, to enable harvesting before end-October.
“This time, I am planting the PR-121 variety, which matures in 140 days, on four acres. In the remaining one acre, I am trying out PR-126, which takes even less time — 125 days from seed to grain. The paddy yields from these are 30-32 quintal per acre. Although marginally below the 34-35 quintals from Pusa-44, I can transplant them even after June 25, and harvest by mid-October. It gives me enough time to clear the parali (paddy stubble) from the field and sow the next wheat crop well in time before the middle of November,” says Honey, who is in his early forties.
The new short-duration varieties require only 20-21 irrigations, compared to the 31-32 for Pusa-44, as transplanting happens around the time of the southwest monsoon rains. “Paddy needs continuous standing water in the first 50-60 days after transplanting. In this case, the irrigation requirement is lower, because the crop gets much of its water from the monsoon and the fall in temperatures also reduces the evaporation rates,” explains Honey.
Apart from assured MSP-based procurement and short-duration varietal development, there are two other factors making farmers like him switch from cotton to paddy.
The first is irregular supply of canal water. Cotton is planted in Punjab from mid-April to mid-May. “The crop needs good-quality water at the time of sowing, without which there will be no proper germination. This time, the irrigation department started cleaning the canals only in April. So, water could not be released before the last week,” Honey says.
The second factor is the sanctioning of new tubewell connections — over one lakh in just the last year of the previous Shiromani Akali Dal-led government. Honey’s own village has seen nearly 100 of these being installed in the last couple of years, allowing even farmers like him to buy tubewell water for irrigating paddy.
Bathinda, along with the other southwest districts of Mansa, Barnala, Muktsar, Fazilka, Faridkot, Firozpur and Moga, constitute Punjab’s cotton belt. This year, only 2.84 lakh hectare (lh) in the state has been planted with the fibre crop, as against 3.82 lh in 2017, and the Punjab government’s target of 4 lh. Acreages were previously even higher — at 5.03 lh in 2013, 5 lh in 2014 and 4.12 lh in 2015 — before a combination of low prices and whitefly attacks brought these down to 2.52 lh in 2016. There was no widespread whitefly incidence last year, but that has still not helped boost sowings this season.
“The majority of farmers here have replaced cotton with paddy. The cotton area target for our district was 1.40 lh, but we have achieved only 1.10 lh. Restricted supply of canal water during sowing time, sanctioning of large number of new tubewell connections, and introduction of short-duration paddy varieties are the main reasons for farmers deserting cotton,” says Gurditta Singh, chief agriculture officer of Bathinda.
“There is no price or yield stability in cotton. In 2016, the rates for kapas (raw cotton with seeds) were Rs 5,700-6,200 per quintal. Last year, we got Rs 4,200-4,300 for the initial pickings in September and Rs 4,600-4,700 in October. Some of us stocked up hoping to realise better prices, but they barely crossed Rs 5,000-5,100 even in February-March. Yields, too, fluctuate between 8 and 14 quintals per acre, since the crop is prone to damage from pests and unseasonal rains,” points out Jasbir Singh of Burj Mehma village in Bathinda tehsil. The five-acre farmer is among those who have acquired a tubewell connection recently, prompting him to turn fully to paddy.
Rajwinder Singh, a farmer from Raipur village in Mansa district’s Jhunir tehsil, estimates the per-acre cultivation cost of cotton at around Rs 30,000, and for paddy, Rs 17,500. Taking per-acre yields at 12 quintals for the former and 30 quintals for the latter, and corresponding rates of Rs 5,000/quintal and Rs 1,590/quintal (the MSP for last year), the returns work out to more or less the same. But the risks are far less in paddy. “Saanu jhona di vaddia keemat mil rahi hai, te phir kyon assi narma da risk layye (when the returns from paddy are good, why risk growing cotton),” says the 31-year-old, who has replaced cotton with paddy on his entire seven-acre holding.
Darbara Singh of Moola Singhwala village in Mansa tehsil grew only cotton until five years ago. But when Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana began releasing its new short-duration paddy varieties from 2014-15, he gradually reduced his area under cotton. In this kharif season, he is sowing paddy on 25 of his total 26 acres, and cotton on just one acre. Moreover, he has sown his nursery as late as on June 11, and will transplant the seedlings from it only after July 5. “PR-122, PR-124 and PR-126 are a real boon. I plant them after the monsoon rains have arrived, which generates huge groundwater savings. Also, it now enables me to grow a 60-day summer moong (green gram) crop between harvesting of wheat in early-April and paddy nursery sowing,” the 42-year-old points out.
All this may not be good news, though, for the Punjab government, given its focus on weaning farmers away from paddy. “The short-duration varieties are becoming very popular among farmers. The end-result could be that the paddy area, instead of reducing, only increases further,” Jasbir Singh Bains, the state’s director of agriculture, told The Indian Express. Proof of it is cotton, which, in 2007, occupied 6.04 lh area in Punjab. That has since dropped to 2.84 lh, even as paddy acreage has risen from 26.09 lh in 2007 to 29.26 lh in 2017, and may cross 30 lh this year.