NEW DELHI :
Punjab is turning to options such as the use of technology as it aims to boost its crop diversification attempts amid a labour shortage against the backdrop of the coronavirus with the sowing season beginning this week.
The move is significant because the state’s push for crop diversification to deal with a local labour shortage, also improve farmer income, and promote less water-intensive crops has been going on for over a year now. This, coupled with a move for greater mechanization, could yield better results for the farmers, according to government officials and experts.
Sowing of paddy in Punjab began on Wednesday even as the state government led by chief minister Amarinder Singh encouraged farmers to opt for direct seeding of rice (DSR), which is considered less labour-intensive.
“Regarding diversification, we started in an organized manner since last year,” said Sutantar Kumar Airi, director of the department of agriculture and farmer welfare in Punjab. The focus is on diversification of three main crops, maize, cotton and basmati, which needs less labour than paddy, said Airi.
Paddy, which is water-intensive, is one of the major crops sown in Punjab. It is among the top five states in the country in rice production.“Earlier also farmers had these machines but when labour shortage became visible, they were more keen to purchase it. We are diverting our budget to that side and demanding more budget also for it. Labour shortage is definitely a problem and farmers are looking for local labour now,” he said.
Paddy and basmati account for 40.26% of the gross cropped area, while wheat is grown in 39.35% of the area, according to a report by the Punjab planning department. Cotton, potato, maize and sugarcane, respectively, occupy 3.75%, 3.13%, 2% and 1.35% of the gross cropped area.
A rise in wages is also prompting farmers to move to technology and diversify into other crop-growing techniques, said experts.
“Whenever a pandemic has happened earlier, there has usually been labour shortage and an increase in the wage rate. This is also a time when technology is expected to substitute labour but there are other ways through which farmers are coping. One is that local labourers, who were not doing this work earlier, are being utilized now. Second, direct seeding is being done. That will be saving some water also. However, these methods will also lead to decline in production and if farmers save on labour money today, they will lose productivity and will have losses,” said Lakhwinder Singh, director, Centre for Development Economics and Innovations Studies, and head of economics department at Punjabi University.
The impact is of two kinds, Singh said. The area from paddy is being diversified to cotton and paddy is directly being sown instead of transplantation. The ultimate impact is that the harvest will yield less income for farmers. The net effect will be negative on farmers, Singh said. With the spread of the novel coronavirus, farmers are looking to revert to older techniques but the shift to newer crops is not happening as crops such as maize do not have a big market.
“Maize is not the right crop for Punjab. Prior to the Green Revolution, people were mostly sowing maize but unseasonal rain destroys the crop. Maize consumption is good for winter and consumption is low in summer. So it is either used for ethanol or as animal feed. The rate per quintal is not very good and farmers are not motivated to make the shift,” Singh said.