India’s north-western region is widely considered to be the country’s granary, with states such as Punjab and Haryana accounting for a large share of the country’s agricultural output and farm incomes. But farming in both these regions is increasingly becoming unsustainable, owing to depleting groundwater levels. A drastic decline in agricultural output would not stop unless the rapid depletion of groundwater is not halted. For example, three quarter of irrigation needs of Punjab are met by groundwater but water levels are dropping by 16-20 inches every year. This phenomenon has begun to affect small farmers who can’t meet the cost for deep drilling and therefore are forced to sell their land to the large-scale farmers. “I took this decision with a heavy heart after I realised that drawing water for all my land is beyond my means,” said Parwinder Singh who had to sell part of his land.
Moving away from traditional crops
In the region that led to the Green Revolution in the 1970s, dealing with the problem would require farmers to shift to non-traditional crops such as pules, maize, vegetables and sugarcane to safeguard the region’s agriculture economy, said an expert. Punjab alone accounts for 35 percent of India’s while using up only 1.5 percent of country’s geographical area during past two decades. But since 1985 the groundwater levels have started dropping alarmingly. In the last thirty years depth of finding water has increased from 10 meters to 20 meters and up to 30 meters or deeper at some places. Over the years there has been a substantial increase in the use of groundwater. To compound worries of the farmers, Punjab has been receiving lower rainfall of about 700mm verses the 1083mm annually. The demand for irrigation in Punjab is 4.76 million hectare meters (mhm) against a total supply of 3.48 mhm from canal and groundwater resources annually. The deficit is met by overexploitation by farmers by using nearly 1.4 million tube wells which further depletes the water level. It literally means that Punjab’s export of rice and wheat to other regions means the export of its groundwater to those regions. Without remedies the transformation of the country from already water-stressed to water scarce is imminent. Switching to new crops is one way to ease the problem in Punjab. For example rice requires about four times as much water as maize, pulse or oilseeds therefore farmers must make this switch at any cost.