FREE POWER to Punjab farmers causes Pollution in NCR

Free power extracts ground-water, for rice, might make Punjab a Desert.
  • W. Bengal and Tamil N in top four rice producers. Do people there complain of pollution? 
  • Free power to farmers encourages growing of water-guzzling rice.
  • Reduce pollution in NCR by consuming more indigenous varieties of rice.
  • Sreedevi shares experiences of South India and West Bengal

Delhi is once again reeling under pollution. Farmers are instantly blamed, few look at vehicle owners or realize that Delhi adjoins Thar Desert.

Public outcry follows. A litigant petitions the Supreme Court. My Lordships have to be seen to be doing something even though it does not involve interpretation of law and without knowledge of the complexities involved. The honourable Court asked Punjab, Haryana and UP state governments to pay Rs 100 per quintal (non-basmati) to farmers who shun stubble-burning.

Chief Secretary Punjab pleaded before the Court that the State could not bear the burden. Punjab has money to provide free power to farmers (estimated cost Rs 6,500 crore annually) but not for those who shun stubble-burning.

Moot point, why does Punjab grow rice? After all, for Punjabis rice is essentially rajma chawal, kadhi chawal and chana chawal. Let us review top rice producing states.

Top 5 Rice Producing States FY 2016                                  


Rice Production in million tonnes

Area under rice cultivation in million hectares

1. West Bengal



2. Uttar Pradesh



3. Punjab



4. Tamil Nadu



5. Andhra Pradesh



10. Haryana




Wonder why people of West Bengal and Tamil Nadu do not complain of pollution due to stubble burning? This Tamil phrase says it so well, “Adi kaattukku, Nadu maattukku, Nuni veettuukku” meaning ‘Stubble for the land, middle (straw) for the cattle, seed (rice) for the home’. 

Punjab is at number three and Haryana ten. But, was Punjab always a rice producer? Read on.  

Area under Paddy in Punjab


Area‘000 hectare

1. 1960-61


2. 1970-71


3. 1980-81


4. 1990-91


5. 2000-01

2611 Free Power

6. 2010-11


7. 2016-17 (E)



In 1961, the area under paddy was only 2.27 lakh hectares against 30.46 in 2016-17. Earlier farmers cultivated bajra, sugarcane, jowar etc. Actually till “about hundred years ago, rice was grown largely in eastern and southern India, where rainfall was high and water plentiful.” The Green Revolution changed that. 

The Akali government provided free power to the agricultural sector starting 1997-98. Thus, area under paddy grew by 30% between 1990-91 and 2000-01, and 51% between 1990-91 and 2016-17 (E).   

Writing in Tribune Chandigarh Nirmal Sandhu spoke of the ill-effects of free power. It has " hurt Punjab’s agriculture, depleted Punjab’s water resources by encouraging paddy cultivation, added to farmers’ production cost by forcing installation of submersible pumps and curtailed industrial activity during the paddy season.”   

Today “Punjab comes in the category of water stressed states, with 105 of 138 blocks being categorised in the dark zone” and "about 3 million acres are cultivated for paddy in Punjab and 20 million tonnes of stubble are generated every year, said Jasbir Singh Bains, the state's director of agriculture in 2017.” Source Hindustan Times.


Why do farmers grow Paddy?

Rice is sold at a pre-determined Minimum Support Price. Food grain procurement for Punjab government is funded by a Cash Credit Limit (CCL) set up by banks. Procurement is skewed in favour of Punjab, Haryana and Andhra Pradesh who accounted for 54% of the total rice procured by FCI in 2017-18 with Punjab accounting for 32.7% of the 36.18 million metric tonnes procured. The top two producing states, West Bengal and Uttar Pradesh accounted for less than 10% of the total procurement.

What is forgotten is the gap between outstanding CCL and value of physical stocks with procurement agencies. According to this Tribune Chandigarh report it was Rs 31,000 crs in 2017.

In the name of the farmer, we have created a monster that is difficult to dismantle.

Consequently, long-grain rice from water deficient Punjab and Haryana is flooding the market in eastern India where the demand for traditional parboiled rice is shrinking. Agriculture expert Ashok Gulati suggested that Punjab and Haryana should focus only on high value Basmati and move out about two million hectares of rice to eastern parts of India where water is abundant.

Financial incentives will not induce farmers to shift away from paddy. Unless the Punjab government starts charging for power, nothing will change.  Converting rice stubble to energy via bio-gas plants will work when state government has money to buy energy.   


The political reality is that Punjab, since it became a state in 1966, has been ruled by Jaat Sikhs who are also the biggest farmers, a legacy of the Punjab Land Alienation Act 1900.


So the “state Assembly defied the Supreme Court to resolve that the Sutlej-Yamuna Link Canal (SYL) will not be built. The issue has been used as a political football since the days of the Khalistani Movement.” Source  


Charging farmers for power is suicide for Akalis and Congress. Unless Punjab has a non-Jaat Chief Minister, nothing will change.


He/she will nurture and tell farmers that high-yielding varieties of crops were introduced earlier when the country faced a food shortage. Today, ill-effects of high fertiliser-pesticide usage are visible and production leapfrogged in other states.  

Farmers should know that Punjab will be rendered a desert within 25 years if the exploitation of its underground water resources continues at the current rate, according to a draft report of the Central Ground Water Board (North-Western region).

Do farmers wish to leave a desert for future generations? However, farmers must be helped in making the transition out of rice. Government support must come through reform, not subsidy. 


Actually, India needs a second green revolution that requires rediscovery of indigenous rice and wheat and importantly millets.

Fortunately, indigenous rice varieties have reappeared in Tamil Nadu, Karnataka, Kerala and West Bengal thanks to ‘Save Our Rice Campaign’ and initiatives like that of Dr Debal Deb (established models of self-sustainability established founder of the rice seed banks Vrihi and Basudha) amongst others.

Sreedevi Lakshmi Kutty co-founder Bio Basic, a social-venture retailing organic food, says, “Among the indigenous varieties, a general trend observed is that all these do well under organic conditions with no chemical inputs, i.e. making them earth friendly. Many varieties have climate resilient properties like Kattuyanam in Tamil Nadu, which is drought and flood resistant.”

Sreedevi adds, “In Kerala rice paddies are used to grow pulses after paddy, using the residual moisture in the field and then vegetables during summer. Also some rice varieties have medicinal value e.g. for lactating mothers, pregnant women and those suffering from arthritis. Similarly traditional wheat varieties like emmer and paigambari have lower gluten and higher fibre leaving the eater feeling light. Since they are not high-yielding they are neglected.”

Since Punjab was not a rice growing area indigenous varieties are unknown. Here rice is grown for assured returns.

Actually this focus on high yield and mono-cropping is one the causes of farm distress. Here are learnings from other states.

The Development Research Communication and Services Centre (DRCSC), an NGO involved in sustainable agriculture, has in West Bengal reinvigorated the rice-fish-vegetable farming.

“This involves growing fish in ponds near the paddies and vegetables on the bund. The fish cultivation does well when the rice is grown without pesticides. This improves food security and the farmer has three sources of income namely rice, fish and vegetables.”

From Maharashtra, fifty year old Dr A Salunkhe spoke about how his father did farming.  

Earlier, agriculture and livestock farming were intertwined. The remnants from farms fed cattle and cow dung / household waste was used as fertilizers. Thus, a farmer's income from both ensured that the family had enough to eat. They never purchased seeds, but reserved last year seeds in muddy pots for next year's cultivations. Use of natural products meant lower production cost, better soil fertility amongst others. 

We need to give up our obsession for green revolution varieties and a handful of improved and hybrid varieties, thus destroying our agro biodiversity, says Sreedevi. 

Actually, agricultural practices need to be reinvented keeping in mind that India is no longer a food deficit country. 

Lastly, everyone wants pollution to fall. Now suppose the Delhi government quadrupled “street parking charges” or “hiked car registration charges” for cars, can you guess the response?   

Author is a Chartered Accountant and founder

Also read

1. Indigenous varieties of rice

2. Benefits of Millets

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