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Punjab: A tale of prosperity and decline

punjab-mapThe state of Punjab, located in the northwest part of the country, is known as the breadbasket of India. Punjab produces 20% of the nation’s wheat, 11% of its rice, and 11% of its cotton, from only 1.5% of its geographical area.  Punjab is in trouble, however; groundwater is rapidly decreasing. Water levels have dropped 10 meters since 1973, and the rate of decline is accelerating. Under a project sponsored by the PepsiCo Foundation, the Columbia Water Center is attempting to reverse these trends. To understand how the state ended up in its current situation, and to consider solutions, it is important to consider the history of this region.

Punjab, the land of five rivers, is where the Indus Valley civilization (2600-1900 BC) thrived and perished. Cities such as Harappa and Mohenjo-Daro, cities that sprawled as far as 25 miles along the Indus River, had sophisticated granaries, dockyards, flood control and water supply and drainage systems at the household level, marking an unprecedented state of technology for the time. Wheat, barley and pulses have been the traditional crops in this region from prehistoric times through the middle of the 20th century. A change in climate that marked the weakening of the monsoon, or tectonic activity that diverted some of the major rivers—both changes that would have required adaptation of existing technologies—are thought to have been likely causes of the demise of the Indus Valley civilization.

Today, as we ponder the potential impacts of climate change, the region which has Punjab at its core faces a water challenge again that may have profound implications for the food security of the larger Indo-Pakistan region. Just as human modification of climate through greenhouse gas emissions poses a global challenge to sustainability, in this region profligate use of water may lead to a potentially catastrophic depletion of the region’s water resources, and reverse India’s story of prosperity. The food and water security of South Asia’s one and a half billion people could be impacted. While our project is located in Punjab, India, the Pakistan section of Punjab faces a similar critical challenge with respect to its ability to maintain its dominant contribution to the agricultural productivity of Pakistan as water resources are rapidly depleted.

Drought and famine ravaged South Asia through the 1960s. Chronic food shortages stemmed from production losses as the monsoon failed, and from a poor food storage and distribution system. Nations around the world helped through food aid and famine relief, reminiscent of Africa today. Today, the region is self-sufficient in food, even though the population has nearly tripled. This is due in large part to the much heralded “success” of the Green Revolution and by Government programs for the procurement and storage of key food grains.

Farmer works with organic crops. Image from Tribune India

The miracle of the Green Revolution took root on three major pillars: the introduction of chemical fertilizers and superior varieties, irrigation improvement, and agricultural extension programs. The Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana, India emerged as a center of excellence in agriculture research and its applications. Progressive farmers in the region eagerly took up the extension initiatives from PAU, switched to superior seed varieties, introduced mechanization, and responded to government incentives to produce specific food grains at guaranteed prices. Irrigation water was available initially from major dam and canal systems, and as these were fully appropriated, an era of unprecedented groundwater pumping fueled by free and subsidized electricity for agriculture emerged. Today, most farmers grow multiple crops using the fields almost all year to maximize their production.

The initial success of the Green Revolution brought prosperity to the Punjab. As incomes rose from agriculture and the associated trade, industrialization, manufacturing and education took root. In 1956, Prime Minister Nehru christened a new state capital, Chandigarh, and hailed it as the temple of modern India. As this planned city, the City Beautiful, developed, ruins from a city from the Harappa-Mohenjo Daro period were unearthed at the City Center, symbolic of the promise of the land. The city provided reliable electricity and piped water to all, and paved the way for this expectation elsewhere in the region at a time when children carrying buckets of water home from a dug well or a hand pump were common sights. Unfortunately, today, even at this pillar of modern India, water is available less than 2 hours a day. The dug wells that were the traditional source of village water supply are dry or contaminated; the hand pumps have been replaced by tube wells with intermittent supply, and electricity is so constrained that growth in industrial development in the region has been low despite government efforts to attract high technology enterprise to the region. The future is bleaker still as groundwater continues to deplete, melting glaciers threaten to reduce the long term surface water supplies, the frequency of climate extremes is projected to increase, and storage capacity in surface water reservoirs is progressively reduced by sedimentation.

So, is this all a result of overpopulation and intensification of agriculture? It is never easy to pin an emerging environmental disaster on a single cause, or a linear argument of cause and effect that can then be leveraged to address the problem. However, in the situation being discussed here, there is a clear fingerprint of the source of the emerging crisis. In the 1980s the Central Government of India recognized that it needed a reliable source of food grains for its national procurement program. Given the region’s high productivity in agriculture relative to the rest of the country, Punjab provided a natural place to focus national procurement efforts. Transaction costs could be reduced and reliability could be increased. The idea met with success. Unfortunately, the impact on the region was dramatic. Agriculture shifted from a diversified, climate adapted crop choice to a predominantly rice-wheat rotation with much higher water use. The Central Government procurement pool benefits, while the state politicians have vied with each other to maintain free or subsidized electricity for pumping groundwater to win farmers’ votes. A disaster of the commons looms as this cycle continues.

A farmer stands in a flooded rice paddy in Punjab, India. Image from Akshay Mahajan,
A farmer stands in a flooded rice paddy in Punjab, India. Image from Akshay Mahajan.

The Columbia Water Center is working to find solutions to this socio-political dilemma. To restore the original crop mix and thus save water, a mechanism for providing an attractive and stable price for crops other than rice needs to be developed. The development of a private sector agricultural supply chain holds some promise in the long run in this regard. Changes in irrigation technologies also hold the promise for major impact on water use. Reform of the electrical subsidy for pumping to promote some form of metered use is a prerequisite for any investments in this arena. Finally, the power of a grassroots effort by farmers to address the long term crisis and to forego some short term gains cannot be underestimated. There are progressive farmers who are developing and implementing water saving technologies even for rice. The question is how their efforts can be multiplied and propagated. Future blogs will cover our ideas and efforts in this arena. Readers, please do send your comments and thoughts so we can develop a richer suite of strategies to meet the challenge.

For more information on the Columbia Water Center’s work in India:

*Conference on Water Security in India

*The India Water Forum

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14 years ago

This post revives a sense of nostalgia coupled with a driving sense for improvement. Receding water levels in Punjab is indeed an alarming factor in India’s saga of finding enough grain to feed an even more alarmingly large population. As Punjab’s groundwater levels recede, more thought is being given to India’s unsustainable farming methods. NPR reports on this crisis as well:

14 years ago

[…] an earlier blog, I highlighted the story of declining groundwater in many parts of India. This story is one of […]

14 years ago

Verma ( suggested to implement virtual water trade within India to solve its water problem. Meaning the water rich eastern states should extend their agricultural production in order to export it to the south, west and especially to the north.
In my opinion the concept of virtual water trade does only work if social, economic and instituional conditions are considered to be in a well developed stage. But this is not the case either in Bihar, Jharkhand nor in Orissa.

Rajpal Gurm
Rajpal Gurm
13 years ago

I am a farm owner in village Gurm (google map search) and rent out to a local farmer. My cousin also uses our tube well for irrigating his crops. Recently got a call from him theat we need to drill deeper because groundwater was receding. I am visiting my village this December 2010 and would like to know hoe I can help on a small scale. And preserve my farm for next generations.

Simran Kaur
Simran Kaur
6 years ago

I am a Civil and Environmental engineer from Punjab. From all the research I have done so far on this topic, everything comes down to the political scenario in Punjab.
There have been countless studies so far indicating the future sad condition of the state but if the politicians are not ready to heed to expert advice and instead opt to provide free electricity + water supply to all the farmers without any restrains to garner enough votes, its hard to bring about a change through the current system.
What we need is more education.
Learning and imparting as much education as possible! So that every common person is aware and informed about the short term and long term implications of his/her decisions.

Dave B Duhre
Dave B Duhre
3 years ago

Quite often Punjab is the victim of heavy flooding especially when extra water is let out from the Bhakhra dam. Infrastructure should be created to pump this extra water into the aquifers. The rain and floodwater should be filtered before it is sent into the aquifers. This can be another step towards recharging the aquifers and stopping the water table fall.