image caption: Gurmukh Singh OBE

Panjab can become a Desert State in 20 Years ?

      Groundwater level in Panjab started falling in the 1970s. Yet, Panjab continues to  extract groundwater at the highest rate in the India. Once again, we are reminded of the pending doom in Punjab. This man-made disaster is described as the desertification of Panjab!  

A recent government report warns that at the current rate of groundwater usage, Punjab will become a desert in 15 to 20 years. And so, as in the past, the topic will get headlines and the report will be shelved. The situation has been created entirely by misguided agricultural practices, policies and vote-bank politics over the decades. Yet, recent reports in the Indian media seem to blame mainly the farmers.

Despite continual reminders by agricultural experts over the years, no government has taken any action. To quote a well-known scientist, Dr H S Virk, the Green Revolution brought prosperity as well as present misery in Punjab due to excessive use of fertilizers, pesticides and groundwater for irrigation.

Lack of diversification of crops, market-driven sowing of paddy (rice) and supply of free electricity by the government to extract groundwater to irrigate paddy fields is one combination which means short-term gains but the ultimate demise of the proverbial goose which lays the golden eggs.

Today, three-quarters of Panjab is dependent on underground water for agriculture and only one-fourth on the canal water. There are 14 lakh (1.4 million) tube-wells for which the farmers are receiving free electricity. So, even though canal water is better for crops than groundwater, not surprisingly, farmers have been switching over from canal to groundwater. Also, drains from the canals to the fields have been neglected and are blocked with weeds and the farmers find it easier to use tube-wells.

The underground water level fell by about 10 meters (33 feet) between June 1984 and June 2016. More recently, in many areas it is going down by as much as 2 meters (over 6 feet) each year.

According to Dr Virk: The worst part of the Picture remains untold. Due to over-exploitation of groundwater, the presence of Uranium in Malwa belt Arsenic in Majha belt and Selenium in Doaba belt have reached dangerous levels much beyond World Health Organisation limit.  Due to the presence of heavy metals in the groundwater, he had cautioned the government about the spread of cancer type of diseases. Despite such dire warnings by experts no resolute action has been taken by the central or state authorities to save Punjab.

According to one farmer, there is no check on wastage and contamination of the groundwater due to industries. The provision of penalty for washing cars in households and other wastage checks remain on paper. The seepage of toxic leachate into groundwater near garbage dump yards is a grave area of concern.

Misguided pricing and marketing mechanisms and the diversion of river waters away from Panjab are related issues. All share the blame for the pending disaster in Punjab: the farmers on the one hand and the state and central government agencies on the other. Yet, we need to bear in mind that the overall agricultural policy has always been in the hands of the state and central administrations. It was enforced in the marketing area when it suited the government.

There is always hope that survival sense will prevail and Panjab saved from the brink of disaster.

 Gurmukh Singh OBE