The state that has been literally feeding the country, annually contributing 53 per cent of the wheat and 40 per cent of the paddy to the food stocks of the country, is seeking Rs.1,280 crores support from the central government for relinquishing its self-proclaimed status as the `grain producing machine' of the nation.

Punjab needs this money to compensate its farmers for switching away from the traditional paddy-wheat cropping system. By giving an incentive of Rs 12,500 per hectare, the state will be able to relieve some one million hectares under paddy-wheat rotation to be replaced by alternate crops like pulses and oilseeds. This incentive will also move farmers towards a buyback arrangement with private companies; Punjab points out that this will save the country and estimated Rs.8,976 crore in procurement, handling and storage costs. However, for the Centre, the greater concern is of feeding the country, should the wheat and paddy stop flowing from this machine.

But for Punjab the question is that of ecological survival, of sustaining its natural resources like water and soil in a healthy state for the sheer survival of its farming community. With stagnant crop growth rate of 73 per cent, the state government is compelled to bring about this major shift. Reduction in paddy-wheat production by 30 per cent is being seen as an antidote to the current stress on the state's water resources. Being a water guzzler, paddy is the key crop that is targeted.

Each ton of wheat and paddy sent to the food stocks means a virtual transfer of 1200 and 2700 cubic meters of water respectively.
 •  Rooted in paddy
Undoubtedly, a shift in cropping patterns will ease pressure on already over-stretched groundwater resources in the state. Some 84 development blocks out of 138 have already been declared 'dark zone', where groundwater exploitation is over 98 per cent against the critical level of 80 per cent. Six of the twelve districts in the state have recorded a groundwater utilization rate over 100 per cent. Consequently, in many parts of Punjab water tables are falling by up to 1 meter per year.

With paddy and wheat being heavily water dependant crops, farmers have every reason to over-exploit groundwater. The inevitability of groundwater extraction has been politically exploited too. Successive governments in the recent past have even given free electricity to the farmers in the state. No surprise, therefore, that water tables have long dropped beyond the reach of muscle-driven water lifts, falling to as low as 400-450 meters in many places.

Now the state is all set to reverse the trend. In his report titled `Agricultural Production Pattern Adjustment Programme for Punjab', noted agricultural scientist Dr. S S Johl has drawn up an ambitious plan to wean farmers away from cultivating paddy-wheat on one million hectares. And if this plan has its way, the subsequent reduction in wheat production by 4.7 million tonnes and paddy by 3.4 million tonnes will mean a net saving of 14.7 billion cubic meters of water each year. Without doubt, the shift in cropping pattern will help the state curb unintended trade in virtual water.

Each ton of wheat and paddy sent to the food stocks means a virtual transfer of 1200 and 2700 cubic meters of water respectively, as that is the volume of water required to produce a ton of the harvest. The Punjab government has learned that in producing food for the nation it is losing dearly in terms of its natural resources.

But however justified, the move by the Punjab government raises some fundamental questions. Undoubtedly, subsidies and incentives on crop inputs during the green revolution era have brought about significant changes in the cropping pattern and the crop harvests in the state. Can subsidies now be used to reverse that trend? Albert Einstein had once remarked: ``you can't find a solution to a problem by employing the same thinking that moved you into the problem in the first place.''

The present subsidy being sought from the central government will be used to encourage contract farming wherein private companies tying up with farmers will ensure a buyback arrangement for their produce. Considered innovative, this farmer-corporate partnership will open the floodgates of corporatisation of agriculture on one hand and marginalisation of farmers on the other. Already 90,000 acres have been shifted to alternate crops like basmati, maize and pulses in the past year in the state, alongside the involvement of private companies in marketing tie-ups with the farmers. Though this move will gradually ease the pressure on the state by eliminating farm subsidies on one hand and the onus of minimum support prices on the other, farmers will be at the mercy of uncertain markets driven by global corporate interests.

Clearly, gains in the short terms will be counter-balanced by significant losses in the long term. Developing countries farmers' are already fighting a losing battle for balance in farm subsidies with their counterparts in the developed countries. By losing the cushion of subsidy from the state, farmers will find themselves under total control of the corporations which will not only decide the type of crops to be grown but will determine the procurement price as well.

What has prompted the state to encourage contract farming? Why have minimum support prices for pulses and coarse grains not been announced?
Many feel that the government is taking a blind plunge, and (un)intentionally falling into a trap. A series of questions awaits the government's attention: What has prompted the state to encourage contract farming? Why has the government not adopted a coherent and competitive marketing strategy for crops other than paddy and wheat? Why have minimum support prices for pulses and coarse grains not been announced?

It is apparent that in a haste to reverse the ecological decline in the state, the government has overlooked some of the serious dimensions of its proposed actions. To believe that farmers will not switch from paddy-wheat rotation without subsidy support may be ill-founded, given that farmers are not only getting negative returns on their current investments but are witness to a decline in markets for their present harvest as well.

Clearly, there is more to Punjab's ambitious crop diversification plan than meets the eye!