Sangrur: “Ours was the first family in the village to use a motor, in 1963, for irrigating 16.6 acres of land. The water used to be at eight feet in the well then,” said Bhajan Singh (62), of Kaleran village in Sangrur district of Punjab, about 60 km south of Ludhiana. “By 2000, when the land was divided between us brothers, the water level had plummeted below 80 feet, making it impossible for the monoblock motor to function. The level of groundwater has been dipping even further since then.”

Bhajan Singh now owns 9.5 acres of the family land. The first tubewell he dug, in 2000, hit water at 110 ft, and was dug up to 290 ft--a common practice meant to future-proof the tube well and avoid repeated costs of digging. A 12.5 horsepower (hp) submersible motor was installed at 110 ft to pump the water. Twenty years later, in 2020, he dug another tubewell, this time hitting water at 220 ft, and needing a 25 hp motor to pump it out. This time, they dug up to 450 ft.

In the course of two decades, thus, Singh noted that the water level had declined by 110 ft. This mirrors the larger trend seen across Punjab, where the groundwater level has plummeted to below 98 feet over the course of two decades, as per a study conducted by Punjab Agriculture University from 1998 to 2018.

Bhajan, who cultivates wheat and paddy on his land, is deeply troubled by the receding groundwater levels. Paddy is a water intensive crop, needing up to 5,000 litres of water to grow a kg of the grain. “There is hardly enough groundwater to irrigate fields, especially paddy during the kharif season (June - September),” he said.

Community resilience

Bhajan Singh represents the sentiments shared by numerous farmers hailing from 75 villages in the Dhuri, Malerkotla, Amargarh, and Mehal Kalan blocks of the Sangrur, Malerkotla (carved out of Sangrur in June 2021), and Barnala districts of Punjab. Together, they have been engaged in a grassroots movement advocating for the allocation of canal water for both irrigation and domestic consumption.

Their collective, ‘Nehri Paani Prapti Sangharsh Committee’ (NPPSC), has persistently called for access to canal water for these villages, nestled between the Bathinda branch canal and the Kotla branch canal.

“The villages located between these two canals lack sufficient water for irrigation,” NPPSC convenor Jarnail Singh Jahangir explained. “Groundwater levels have declined to the point where farmers are drilling tube wells up to 500 ft deep to access water. The extracted groundwater is now unsuitable for drinking and affects crop yields.”

Sukhwinder Singh of Mubarakpur village in Malerkotla district, about 60 km south of Ludhiana, refers to poor-quality water as ‘do number paani’ and good quality as ‘ek number paani’. Expressing his concerns, the 50-year-old explained that with good quality water, an acre of land yields approximately 35 quintals of paddy. However, with poor quality water, the yield is merely 20 to 22 quintals. “If we get canal water, we would be getting good quality irrigation,” he said.

Sukhwinder Singh too has dug tubewells thrice on his farmland of 15 acres. He dug the first one in 2000 to 180 ft (hitting water at 70 ft) for Rs 80,000. Then in 2012, he dug another to 360 ft (hitting water below 100 ft) for Rs 1.25 lakh, and finally in 2017, yet another to 450 ft (with water at 130 ft) for Rs 2 lakh. Now, he says, the groundwater level at his farm has receded to below 180 ft. In addition, he installed filters to manage the contamination of groundwater.

Sukhwinder Singh of Mubarakpur village in Malerkotla district, about 60 km south of Ludhiana, spent over Rs 4 lakh in 20 years on digging three tubewells.

“The expenses of farmers have only been growing,” Jarnail Singh said. “As farmers dig deeper wells to tap into groundwater, high power motors need to be installed to pump out the water, which costs them more.”

Farmers in Malerkotla district attend a February 2023 meeting of the Nehri Pani Prapti Sangharsh Committee, on the demand for canal water for irrigation and drinking purposes. Seventy five villages nestled between Bathinda branch canal and Kotla branch canal are demanding access to canal water.

Living in the ‘dark zone’

Sangrur, Malerkotla and Barnala districts lie in the Malwa region of Punjab, which is south of the river Sutlej. Except one district, Sri Muktsar Sahib, all 14 districts in this region are found to have over-exploited the groundwater levels in most of its blocks, including blocks where these 75 villages are located, according to a 2020 block-wise groundwater resources assessment by the Central Ground Water Board.

This situation is reflected across most of Punjab, with about 78% of the assessment units in the state being classified as “over-exploited”, and the rest categorised as “critical” (4%), “semi-critical” (6.7%), and “safe” (11.3%), according to the CGWB report. The severity of the issue is such that a study from the CGWB found that Punjab's groundwater levels could drop nearly 1,000 ft by 2039.

Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana has highlighted in multiple studies the proliferation of tubewells and the reduced availability of canal water as one of the key contributors to the depletion of groundwater.

A study revealed that until 1970-71 there were about 190,000 tubewells in Punjab. By 2011-12 this had risen to 1.38 million, following the availability of free or subsidised electricity. Subsequently, the count further increased by an additional 100,000 in 2019.

Currently, 72% of Punjab's land is reliant on tubewells for irrigation, while the remaining 28% depends on canal water.

With the aim of rectifying this trend, the state government has asserted its commitment (see here and here) to reversing this trajectory by ensuring the availability of canal water for irrigation purposes.

Similarly, in response to recent protests staged by the NPPSC, the state's water resource department assured that the construction of three distributaries dedicated to irrigation, namely Kanganwal, Malerkotla Minor, and Rohira, will be completed by March 2024, said Bhupinder Longowal of the Kirti Kisan Union, a peasant organisation in Punjab actively leading this cause.

“This development is poised to significantly bolster farmers in 35 villages located within the Mehal Kalan and Malerkotla blocks, enabling them to efficiently irrigate their fields. However, completion for the remaining villages may take a few more years, we have been told,” Longowal added.

Is canal irrigation feasible?

“[Canal irrigation] can only serve as a temporary solution whereas in reality, the water scarcity issue remains,” said Kahan Singh Pannu, a former bureaucrat who worked with the Punjab Irrigation Department. “Constructing a canal and providing water to one area may result in a reduced share of water for other areas, leading to a similar water crisis elsewhere.”

Pannu elaborated on the water distribution process in each canal, emphasising that the release of water is calculated based on the specific crop requirements of farmers. “The Kotla and Bathinda branch canals currently carry about 3,000 cusecs of water each, determined by scientific calculations to meet the needs of the command area of farms. Therefore, any further distribution from these canals will alter the allocation of water to the farmlands already being irrigated for more than 100 years.”

Additionally, canal water is being provided for drinking and domestic use to several villages experiencing deteriorating groundwater quality, as also to cities like Ludhiana and Jalandhar where water quality has declined. Consequently, the widespread distribution of canal water will contribute to its further scarcity, he added. According to a recent study, over-extraction of groundwater has led to the intrusion of contaminants such as uranium, arsenic, manganese, zinc, copper, lead and iron into the aquifers, deteriorating the quality of the water.

Balbir Singh Seechewal, an environmentalist and a member of Rajya Sabha of Punjab from the state’s ruling party, said the construction of more distributaries will not exacerbate the water crisis. “Previously, a significant portion of canal water remained underutilised, failing to reach the farmers due to frequent damage of distributaries caused by poor construction, with little attention paid to this matter. However, the current government is actively addressing this problem,” he said.

“The state government has decided to increase the irrigated area using canal water from 30% to 70%, recognising that enhanced canal water usage for irrigation will subsequently reduce the extraction of groundwater. Additionally, the government is promoting laser-level irrigation and offering subsidies for the installation of drip and sprinkler irrigation systems to combat this issue,” Seechewal said.

Crop diversification a solution

This year, the state saw the largest ever expanse allocated to water-intensive rice crops, surpassing all previous records, with nearly 3.2 million hectares dedicated to paddy cultivation.

Pannu suggests a potential solution to the depleting groundwater for irrigation in Punjab: to diversify the cultivation of crops away from water-guzzling paddy. He points out that paddy is not Punjab's traditional crop, and proposes that the government (state or Centre) should instead ensure that farmers receive equivalent income from cultivating other crops.

Rice is neither a staple of Punjab's diet nor suited to the agro climatic character of the region. India must shift rice growing east from Punjab and Haryana, to help prevent an impending water crisis by 2030, IndiaSpend reported in June 2019. About 4,118 litres of water is required to grow one kilogram of rice in Punjab, compared to 2,169 litres in West Bengal, a natural habitat for the crop, estimates by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices show.

Chauna na tey sadey Punjab di fasal hai na hi sadi khurak. (Paddy doesn't fall under our traditional crops or foods),” says Sukhwinder Singh of Mubarakpur village. “In my village, approximately 200 trolleys [a trolley is 60 quintals] of paddy are produced, yet not even half a trolley of paddy is consumed within the village throughout the year.”

Sukhwinder Singh says that if the government had been providing a minimum support price (MSP) for traditional crops like cotton and maize, there would not have been so much groundwater exploitation. A guaranteed minimum support price on other crops is also among the major demands of the Samyukt Kisan Morcha, an umbrella body of farm unions.

Wheat is cultivated at Sukhwinder Singh’s farm in Mubarakpur village in Punjab’s Malerkotla district. If the government had been providing a minimum support price (MSP) for traditional crops like cotton and maize, there would not have been so much groundwater exploitation, he says

However, “In the case of Punjab, mainly wheat and paddy are procured, while other crops have suffered at the hands of private companies due to lack of effective implementation of MSP,” agricultural specialists Shruit Bhogal and Kamal Vatta have pointed out in a researched article. “Public procurement of crops other than paddy and wheat is non-existent in the state. Thus, farmers consider the adoption of alternative crops as an unconvincing option.”

The state government has been promoting crop diversification, asking farmers to grow crops other than rice but with little success, IndiaSpend reported in September 2022. Even after spending Rs 274 crore on a crop diversification programme during 2014-19, the sown area of rice increased by 7.18% in Punjab at the cost of other crops, found an audit report by the Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India.

Future of farming

Last year, Laal Mohammad (42) of Issapur village in Sangrur district cultivated another kharif crop, moong or green gram, based on the advice of CM Bhagwant Mann, hoping to sell it at the MSP of Rs 7,257 per quintal. Heavy rains in September 2022 damaged the crop, leading to no profits.

For this kharif season, he opted to grow bajra as fodder for cattle. Of his 1.75 acres of land, he sold the fodder harvested from 1.5 acres for Rs 27,000 for the season, while he reserved the remainder for feeding his own cattle.

Mohammad originally purchased the land from a local farmer in his village for Rs 25 lakh, with plans to cultivate vegetables and wheat. He applied to the state government for a power connection and took a Rs 3.5 lakh loan from a government bank to drill a tube well for irrigation. However, he never received any updates on his application.

Laal Mohammad (42), a marginal farmer in Issapur village of Punjab’s Sangrur district, chose to grow bajra as cattle fodder this kharif season.

“Using the tubewell of the farmer from whom I bought the land, I can only irrigate my fields once a week, which is insufficient for water-intensive crops,” he stated.

A marginal farmer, Mohammad now shoulders the burden of repaying his loans. In addition to farming, he works as a gardener, earning Rs 400 per day to support his family of seven. Selling the land isn't an option for him. “No one would buy my land as there's no water available for irrigation,” he lamented.

Meanwhile, Bhajan Singh, also waiting for news on his application for a power connection, chose not to farm this year. Instead, he leased his land for an annual price of Rs 48,000 per acre and travelled to Australia to visit his two sons. His eldest son graduated with a bachelors in technology and is currently employed there, while the younger one is pursuing a bachelors in agriculture.

Bhajan Singh never wanted his sons to pursue farming. “Farming is a challenging occupation, and now we're facing water scarcity issues too,” he said.

Sukhwinder Singh, whose two sons have also settled abroad, expressed concerns about the depleting water resources. “Parents don't want their children to struggle in the future,” he said. “How can we sustain farming without adequate water resources?”

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