Farming Crisis in Punjab, India

Updated: Jul 10

Punjab, India is facing an agricultural, environmental, public health, and social crisis due to unsustainable agricultural practices, poor infrastructure planning, and lack of government support. The Punjab region of South Asia is widely considered to be one of the most fertile regions on planet Earth. The State of Punjab is commonly referred to as the breadbasket of India that feeds hundreds of millions of Indians and people all around the world. In the 1960s and 1970s, Punjab (and the rest of India) underwent a ‘Green Revolution’ that changed its traditional farming methods, such as organic farming and diversified cropping to more modern practices (i.e. chemical inputs, machinery, etc.). This change in human behaviour would have a negative impact on the natural systems. The green revolution put Punjab’s soil and groundwater at serious risk of degradation and contamination, threatening agriculture productivity and with it, farmers’ and farm labourers’ livelihood and a major global food supply.


Fig 1.0 (above) American Agronomist and Nobel Laureate Dr. Normal Borlaug (left) is considered the Father of the Green Revolution. Here, he is seen advising a farmer on wheat development programmes in Maharashtra on March 14, 1971. (The Times of India Group, 1971).


After gaining Independence from the British Empire in 1947, India was struggling to rebuild its economy after centuries of economic exploitation by foreign colonial powers. Renowned economist Utsa Patnaik estimates that Britain drained at least $44.6 trillion from India between 1765 to 1938 (Hickel, 2018). Agriculture reform became a priority post-Independence, especially after the 1943 Bengal Famine claimed the lives of 2-3 million people. In the 1876-1877 Famine, it is estimated that 6-10 million people perished, and over 30 million were impacted across India (PTI, 2019). While the Bengal Famine has historically been attributed to drought, and more recently to policy failure on part of the British Colonial Government, the 1876-1877 Famine has been attributed only to drought. Fear of unexpected climate phenomenon and disasters became an inspiration towards seeking foreign support for agricultural programmes and food supply in India (PTI, 2019).


Until the 1960s, India depended on the food-surplus United States for aid to feed its population. This would become increasingly unpopular with American ecologists, including Garrett Hardin, who argued that providing aid to India could lead to overpopulation (Dolsak & Prakash, 2020). The Indian Government sought to turn food-deficit India into a food-surplus country, and American experts were invited to India to plan a green revolution (Dolsak & Prakash, 2020). This revolution advocated for increased land dedicated to farming, two harvest seasons per year, high-yield seeds, chemical inputs, improved irrigation, and policy support. These changes allowed India to triple its yield of cereal crops, with only a 30% increase in the land area cultivated, and also reduce its food prices, poverty, and hunger (John and Babu, 2021). After some years, the hidden side effects of the green revolution began to reveal themselves, in soil and water pollution, depleted groundwater, more dangerous pest attacks against crops requiring stronger pesticides, and extinction of indigenous varieties of crops (John and Babu, 2021).


Human activity is identified to be the cause of soil degradation, primarily the practices of intensive cropping and excessive use of fertilizer (Chhatre et al., 2016; Bajwa, 2018). Groundwater resources are in decline due to over-use by farmers and blockage of natural drainage channels by infrastructure projects, such as roads and highways (Sharma, 2001). 70% of groundwater in Malwa, a large region of Punjab, is ‘highly contaminated’ and unfit for farming (Bharti, V., 2018). Contaminated water often contains high levels of chemical fertilizer and results in higher acidity of soil if used, negatively impacting plant growth (DSWC, 2019).


Groundwater content “parameters such as salinity, electrical conductivity (EC), chloride (Cl−), and nitrate (NO3 −)” have all surpassed their limits in most of Punjab, resulting in much of the water resources being unfit for drinking as well (Kumar, 2018). Poor water quality and pollution is associated with reproductive health problems, bone disease, cancer, autism, and many other acute and chronic diseases (Rao & Bhandari, 2015). In fact, Punjab has the highest rate of cancer in the country (Chaudhary, 2019).


In addition, tens of thousands of hectares of farmland are burnt in Punjab each year to clear land after harvest (Singh et al., 2009). This appears to have resulted in extreme uptrends of small particulate matter (PM2.5) air pollution in major cities across Northern India (Jethva et al., 2019). In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) found that around 7 million people die prematurely each year worldwide as a result of air pollution (Jasarevic, Thomas, & Osseiran, 2014).


Punjab receives an average 649 mm of rainfall annually, down from 700 mm average annual rainfall in the years on record before 1998 (PTI, 2020; Kumar et al., 2018). Other than

lower than expected rainfall, the most common climate problem in Punjab is flooding. Recent major floods occurred in 1988, 1993, 2011, and 2019, that wreaked havoc on crops and caused widespread damage to households and commercial buildings, and claimed numerous lives (Preet, 2008; Times of India, 2011; Mudgal, 2013; Sehgal, 2019). Extreme weather fluctuations, such as drought seasons and flooding activity are expected to increase with increasing levels of pollution in the region. Punjab is home to an estimated 30.7 million persons as of 2021, with a population growth rate of approximately 13%, below the national average of 17% (Census Population 2021 Data, 2021). India's population is estimated to be about 1.392 billion as of 2021 (Statista, 2021). Rapid population growth becomes a recipe for disaster when it is coupled with unsustainable agricultural practices that are leading to soil degradation, and groundwater contamination and depletion, and considering the industrial sources of pollution as well.


Punjab has seen an increasing number of suicides among farmers and farm labourers since the 1980s, due to overwhelming prices of chemical agents, accumulated debt and land auctions (Gill, 2005). One aspect of the suicide epidemic is that in the years when crops are ruined by drought or flooding, small farmers are hit especially hard, and many do not see any path to financial recovery. Another cause of debt among farmers is the high cost of health treatments in India, exacerbated by the high levels of water contamination and air pollution in Punjab, that cause serious harm to human health (Pratisandhi, 2020). Many farmers also commit suicide with the belief that the government would never come to their aid (Gill, 2005; Parth, 2021). In the past few decades, there has been a trend of mass migration out of Punjab, and it is said that “no one wants to farm in Punjab. Given a chance, they’d all migrate” (CIC News, 2006).


The systems of crop storage, procurement, and infrastructure planning require serious optimization in Punjab. Punjab’s farmers lack adequate storage facilities for their produce, and as such, have little leverage during negotiations of crop sales due to limited time for crop freshness. In 2015, Punjab's farmers disposed of 193,000 tonnes of rotten wheat, and sold Rs 290 Crore of damaged wheat at 'throwaway' prices(Sehgal, 2018). Punjab's storage facilities can only hold 145,000 tonnes of food grains, and about 320,000 tonnes are stored in the open (Sehgal, 2018). The lack of storage facilities not only results in the traumatic economic exploitation of helpless farmers, but also reduces India’s potential to feed its population, including its poor. Even as a food-surplus country, the United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization (UNFAO) estimates that as of 2020, 189.2 million people are undernourished in India, or 14% of the population (India FoodBanking Network, 2020). Transport infrastructure projects have also had destructive impact on the natural waterways and drainage systems in Punjab, in addition to increased greenhouse gas emissions (Sharma, 2001).

A major problem that has impacted Punjab’s farmers has been policy failure, especially on part of the Central Government of India. In Punjab and many other states of India, crops are bought and sold through the Mandi System. In popular Indian languages including Punjabi and Hindi, 'Mandi' means market. The 'Mandi System' involves a series of designated locations across various states where farmers can bring their produce, including paddy and wheat (Sinha, 2020). These locations are regulated by each state's Agricultural Produce Market Committee (AMPC). Middle-persons, called Arthia, negotiate the sale of farmers’ crops largely to the Food Corporation of India (FCI), and a smaller amount to state (public) corporations, for a commission (Sinha, 2020). The minimum price for any trade is called Minimum Sales Price (MSP).


Fig 1.1: Farmers protest the Central Government's Agriculture Reforms at the Delhi-UP Border on Dec. 20, 2020 (left) and during the 'Rail Roko' (Block the Trains) Demonstration against Indian Farm Bills on Sep. 27, 2020 in Amritsar (right) (Prakash, 2020; Sehgal, 2020)


In September 2020, the Indian Government simplemented contract farming in India, to replace the mandi system. Middle-persons would be bypassed, as private corporations could directly deal with farmers through digital platforms such as Whatsapp. However, farmers have been worried that the new policies forbid them from taking vendors to court, should the vendors deal with farmers dishonestly. The new policies also do not enforce MSP in farmer-vendor direct transactions, leaving farmers in an even worse situation should vendors refuse to pay decent prices for crops (Yeung, 2021).


Since September 2020, millions of Punjabi and other Indian farmers are peacefully protesting against the Government of India’s historic agriculture policies, lack of support for farmers, and also the 2020 Indian Farm Bills. Protests have resulted in over 400 deaths as of the beginning of May 2021 (Banerjee, 2021). Numerous human rights violations have taken place such as the use of tear gas, water cannons, and baton charges by police against the peaceful protestors (Parth, 2021). Many of the deaths are due to cold weather, road accidents and even suicides due to feelings of hopelessness (Parth, 2021).


Farmers believe that the Mandi System is favourable due to a minimum sales price and the ability to sue buyers should they be unfair in their dealings. However, due to lack of storage facilities, the Mandi system does not prevent the possibility for buyers to exploit farmers while waiting for crop freshness to decline. The Indian 2020 Farm Bills sought to eliminate this problem, by allowing farmers and vendors to come to terms in fixed contracts with fixed time periods. By eliminating middle-persons who work at the Mandis, the government claims that farmers would be able to increase their profits (Sood, 2020). However, the farmers argue that the new bills deny farmers the power to sue corporations should they not formally register farming contracts, and that there is no guarantee of a minimum sales price (Sood, 2020). There is no obvious solution in the 2020 Indian Farm Bills to the problem of exploitative buyers who wait until crops spoil, due to lack of storage facilities.


A myriad of policy solutions and changes in human behaviour are required to effectively address the farming crisis in Punjab:

  • Rainwater harvesting can be implemented on rooftops in Punjab as well as alongside highways and roads, to capture rain and especially floodwater. This would help to restore water supply for drinking and farm use. The cost of the infrastructure requires study and may be significant in Punjab’s annual budget. With these investments, the crisis may be averted.

  • The public consultation process requires drastic improvement in Punjab and all of India. There is no clearer evidence for this than the widespread protests by farmers, and their supporters including workers and students, against the 2020 Indian Farm Bills. Consultations may be lengthy and costly due to India’s large population of farmers and farm labourers. However, the benefits heavily outweigh the negatives of the lengthy process, as the protests continue even during the current pandemic, and may result in widespread transmissions.

  • Scientific committees to study the long-term environmental, social, health, and economic impacts of damming and diversion of river water, and alternatives to large dams considering the damage from opening of dams during flooding (Kumar, 2018)

  • There is an immediate need for negotiation of long-lasting disputes about diverted water flows with neighbouring states and countries including Haryana and Pakistan, respectively (Kumar, 2018). Such negotiations could alleviate the shortage in water supply, but would be very sensitive discussions coming in from long-term stalemates and slow progress (Kumar, 2018).

  • Enforced limits on use of groundwater for farming purposes could be an effective means of preserving water supply. It would require government to compensate farmers for their losses, especially in years of crop damage due to flooding.

  • Farmers may begin to trust the government again should MSP (minimum sales price) be enforced on all crops throughout the country.

  • Investments into digitization and record-keeping of crop transactions, as well as a robust monitoring and enforcement of contracts between farmers and vendors, would not only support Mandi System transactions, but may allow a Contract farming system that impresses farmers.

  • Scientific committee to study the optimal organic crops in Punjab’s climate and possible foreign partnerships to transition farmers from carbon-intensive practices to sustainable agriculture

  • Financial committees to study possible public-private sector partnerships to increase storage facilities and biofuel facilities for farmers to drop off their crops and agricultural waste, to reduce crop waste and air pollution, respectively

While farmers and their supporters protest in the millions, the Government of India has serious considerations to make regarding the future of food supply in India. Farmers want the government to listen to their grievances, which trace back to the Green Revolution. It is evident that the farming crisis of Punjab has been triggered by heavy reliance on chemical agents, and ignoring the indigenous wisdom which has resulted in the extinction of indigenous crops. The environmental problems include decline in water and soil quality. The public health problems include spiking rates of cancer, respiratory, reproductive, and other diseases resulting from the polluted environment. The social problems include the struggle of millions of Punjabis to leave their homeland for more developed countries. These tragedies require multifaceted solutions, that will begin with good faith consultations between government, corporations, land owners, and farm labourers.


The severe lack of trust between farmers and government can be healed starting with government investments into scientific and financial committees to study the root causes of the farming crisis, and alternatives to the current agricultural methods. There is a lack of substantial study into the potential for organic crops in Punjab, flooding patterns as a result of climate change in Punjab, air emissions from agriculture-related transport in Punjab, business models and financial analysis of increased storage and biofuel facilities in Punjab, rainwater harvesting capabilities, and also alternative healthcare systems to address the health crisis in Punjab and reduce costs of treatment.


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