The Government of Punjab has constituted expert groups to formulate its agriculture policy. Punjab, an agriculturally prosperous state, did not have an agriculture policy, and even though agriculture is a state subject, it was guided and driven by the Government of India. It may be a conscious effort to ensure national food security. The government of India (GoI) chose Punjab, Haryana, and western UP for the green revolution (GR) because these areas had quality land, adequate water, and dynamic human resource-the farmers.
In Punjab, the agriculture policy wheel has been spinning for a long time, but the state government preferred not to fix it as it required commitment of resources and reforms on their part. It was left to the government of India, making agriculture a subject of provincial politics.
The State government did not approve the policy drafts prepared in 2014 and 2018. These sought course corrections and commitment to reforms, but the political executives evaded responsibility consigning these to records. Public debate on critical issues stressing agriculture, which the draft policies highlighted, was put off, fearing political backlash.
In pursuit of the objectives of GR/Food Security, subsidised inputs, seeds, chemicals, fertilisers, water, energy, credit, and purchase of produce at the MSP, were assured to the farmers. It is nearly impossible now to breach this widely accepted system in Punjab. On the other hand, the changes may make food unaffordable and expensive, primarily for most of our people who are poor and vulnerable.
However, issues in the agriculture sector in Punjab are too critical to ignore. The State Government should not hesitate to resolve these, whether themselves or through the Government of India (GoI), or both together. The prevalent agricultural practices and operations in Punjab are not sustainable. The wheat-paddy monoculture was not only damaging the natural resources, land, and water but has caused a substantial loss of biodiversity and reduced crop diversity that had prevailed in the past. The groundwater has diminished substantially. The productivity and real incomes of farmers have stagnated. Land holdings are becoming smaller, and the financial stress of the farmers has increased due to rising input costs and non-commensurate market prices. Social extravaganza is also rampant.
Economists oppose food subsidies, but these are nearly global and justified by governments to keep food prices affordable. Some freebies are, however, not need-based. Free of cost water and electricity for all farmers merits correction. The subsidies incurred in procurement of food grains at the MSP are another contentious issue. These are not non-rivalrous, non-interfering, or non-discriminatory. The Central and State governments should enable farmers to access new markets without adding much cost to them. They should be empowered and incentivized to trade in markets, regulating the trading margins and preventing the profiteering by big sharks in agri-marketing. It may help to reduce the burden of subsidies emanating from the MSP regime.
Diversification of agriculture remained a distant dream due to the lack of market innovations and excessive dependence on government purchases at the MSP. The government of India expected the new farm laws to stimulate trading in agricultural produce. The farmers opposed these, apprehending greater market risk, and these were, thus, withdrawn.
The use of digital technology to develop new seeds, conserve soil and water, access distant markets, improve logistics, and save labour is still not pursued as vigorously as it should be. Next-generation extension reforms are also waiting for a big push with the latest technologies. Pre- and post-harvest mechanisation requires further improvement and digitization.
Most development initiatives on agriculture development of the government and the PAU focus on food grain production, and as a result, Punjab is a net importer of fruit and vegetables. The area under cultivation of horticulture crops has remained constant for a long time. Food processing and blockchain technologies are sparse.
Since it is unlikely for the State to come out of grain-based agriculture due to imperatives of national food security, it will be more appropriate that the State finds solutions for the present issues in agriculture through research and innovations. Digital technology should target better and new varieties of grains, which are less water-consuming, and more tolerant of climate change effects and recurrent pests and insects. New fertilisers leading to nano-fertigation, intelligent irrigation instead of flood irrigation, and AI-based logistics should help to reduce costs of the farmers.
The change from extractive practices to precision and conservation agriculture will require more attention to make agriculture sustainable and remunerative. The provision of market-linked incentives and the development of food processing industries and global value chains fully inclusive of small and marginal farmers should also receive priority attention. Farm-based insurance deserves more thought and consideration. The existing crop insurance schemes, though suitable for less developed areas, have not benefited the farmers of GR areas.
Enhanced investment in research and development should fine-tune the existing input-output functions to make these more sustainable and durable. The technologies to convert waste to wealth will enable farmers to raise more revenues from agricultural residue.
The capacity building of farmers, making them more adept in the new technology-driven agricultural practices, should become a regular activity with new and updated training institutions and mechanisms. A greater focus on skilling rural youth in agriculture and allied occupations will help retain them on farms and modernise agricultural operations and new avenues for farmgate food processing and businesses.
The Punjab agriculture policy should thus aim to transform agriculture with a digital push, repurposed and focused subsidies and marketing reforms, making it a preferred occupation of the youth, the next generation of farmers. It should envisage structural changes, ensuring one-stop contact of farmers with the government for all program assistance, extension, and redressal of grievances. The new structures should ensure the effective participation of farmers not only in matters concerning agriculture policy and programs but also in financial budgeting for the farmers. Else, the policy spin will continue with a widening gap between the farmers and the government, and persistent unrest.
The views expressed in this article are the author's own.