The labour shortage on account of the Covid-induced reverse migration made the farmers of Punjab opt for Direct Seeding of Rice (DSR) this year. DSR is undertaken mechanically. This technique reduces the cost for farmers by Rs 6,000 per acre approximately, and uses 30 per cent less water.
For many years, the Punjab government and Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) have been trying to promote DSR in the state. The state’s target was that in 2020, paddy cultivation in about five lakh hectares should be done through DSR. Punjab Agriculture Department sanctioned 4,000 DSR machines and 800 paddy transplanter machines to farmers at 40 per cent to 50 per cent subsidy respectively. The third week of May onwards, farmers planted rice through direct seeding instead of the traditional manual transplantation in over seven lakh hectares approximately. This amounts to about 25 per cent of the total area under paddy in Punjab. But by mid-June, disappointment followed and farmers ploughed the rice seedlings back into the soil.
Farmers had incurred cost of about Rs 5,000 per acre in planting rice through DSR. Despite this, they ploughed back the seedlings and engaged agricultural labour at high cost for manual rice transplantation. Farmers in many parts of the state expressed disappointment that the state government or PAU did not train them or offer any guidance about the problems they would face after opting for directly seeded rice. As a result, the state lost a chance to save water — a critical resource — and to help farmers cut their costs. The farmers said that after paddy was sown through the DSR technique, they had to face massive infestation by rodents in the fields. Rainwater filled up the furrows created by raised beds. Farmers feared that DSR would not give them a high yield. They claimed that growth in 15 days after DSR was implemented indicated that the yield would not be more than 25 quintals an acre. The conventional method, they said, gives at least 35 quintals an acre, and in some cases, up to 40 quintals an acre.
Dejected farmers said they had to plough back the seedlings, hire labour locally and also ferry agricultural labour from Uttar Pradesh so that the paddy could be transplanted manually in the fields.
Media reports said that DSR failed to give the desired results in large parts of the Malwa region. Hence, farmers ploughed the seed back and replanted paddy the traditional way. In Mangewal village in Barnala district, the sowing was done through DSR in 100 acres. The entire crop had to be ploughed back. In Jodhan and Mansuran villages of Ludhiana, farmers said that they were ready to plough back directly-seeded rice and revert to the conventional method.
Punjab’s Agriculture Secretary, Kahan Singh Pannu said this was the first time most farmers were opting for DSR and added that it takes time to learn new technology. Agriculture Department officials said farmers did not follow the standard operating procedures for cultivation. These were teething troubles while opting for DSR, they added.
Paddy is the main consumer of groundwater in Punjab. The state uses 5,300 litres to produce one kg of rice, while the all-India average is 3,875 litres. High water usage has been observed because farmers irrigate the paddy fields far more than needed.
In November 2019, Union Ministry of Water Resources estimated that many parts of India including Punjab and Haryana would face acute scarcity of groundwater if remedial measures were not taken. UP Singh, Secretary, Ministry of Water Resources stated at a public function that several blocks in Haryana and Punjab may absolutely run out of groundwater — not just for irrigation, but even for drinking, over the next 15 to 20 years if remedial measures were not taken.
In June last year, the Punjab government undertook an assessment exercise to study the underground water situation. The study concluded that there is overexploitation of groundwater for agriculture. The report said that about 79 per cent area of the state was overexploited. Among 138 blocks, 109 blocks were listed as 'overexploited', two blocks were 'critical', five blocks were 'semi-critical' and only 22 blocks were listed in the 'safe' category.