Every year, as winter descends on Northern India, the plummeting mercury brings with it a marked deterioration in the air quality. One of the principal reasons for this worsening of pollution levels is the practice of stubble burning observed by farmers mainly in Punjab and Haryana.
Since the last few years, the stubble burning has become an annual ritual for the farmers in Punjab and Haryana, who burn an estimated 35 million tons of crop waste from their paddy fields after harvesting as a low-cost straw-disposal practice to reduce the turnaround time between harvesting and sowing for the second (winter) crop.
Punjab the top state with the highest number of stubble burning incidents
While several northern states contribute towards the pollution caused by stubble burning, the contribution of Punjab is particularly stark. It recorded highest number of incidents of stubble burning this year among the northern states. The incidents of crop burning in Haryana and Uttar Pradesh have drastically come down but Punjab has seen a marked increase in the number of stubble burning incidents that contributed to the exacerbating pollution in the Delhi-NCR region.
Even though the Supreme Court had rapped the state governments on the growing number of stubble incidents, advising them to incentivise the farmers to give up burning the residual, the Congress government in the state has conspicuously failed in stopping the farmers from doing the same.
As per data released by the Punjab Remote Sensing Centre, the State witnessed 73,883 incidents of stubble burning between September 21 and November 14, which is the highest since 2016. In 2019, Punjab had reported 51,048 cases of stubble burning and 46,559 such incidents in 2018.
Depleting groundwater a menace of equal proportion as stubble burning
Not just stubble burning, Punjab is also racked by the menace of depleting water reserves. The groundwater resources of Punjab paints an alarming picture as agriculture experts in the state have expressed shock and worry over the diminishing water indices from the state. As a per report published in January 2020, the state will have a net groundwater availability of -14.58 billion cubic metre (BCM) within the next 25 years and even the domestic and industrial water supply will reduce by 1.22 BCM.
An eminent agriculture expert Sucha Singh Gill of IIM, Ahmedabad, said that while Punjab had a net ground water availability of only 21.58 BCM, it was consuming at much higher levels of 36 BCM. A latest government report on Punjab’s groundwater resources observes that the groundwater pumpage has increased from 149% (of naturally available recharge) in 2013 to 165% in 2018. It also holds the distinction of being the state with the maximum percentage of wells showing groundwater depletion among all states in India.
A report tabled in Rajya Sabha a couple of months ago by the Department of Water Resources, River Development and Ganga Rejuvenation stated that 79 per cent of the assessment units showed the annual groundwater extraction in Punjab was more than the assessed annual extractable groundwater resource. In 2019, it was 76 per cent.
Injudicious use of water, power subsidies exacerbated the groundwater reserves of Punjab
Agriculture experts believe that the genesis of the crisis could be attributed to the power subsidies extended by the government to the farmers that allowed them to withdraw water 24/7 without bearing any individual consequences. They contend that 95 per cent of the Punjab’s total water consumption goes to agriculture and a major part of it is wasted.
According to Sushil Gupta, Regional Director of the Central Ground Water Board, injudicious surface water irrigation policies, indiscriminate groundwater extraction due to free electricity, along with irrational irrigation and agricultural practices have led to a situation where the fresh ground water reserves in the state have depleted at an alarming rate. He has also claimed that the south-western part of Punjab is facing severe water logging issues, which is the cause for excessive wastage of water.
Punjab stares at a dystopian future as groundwater reserves shrink at an alarming rate
Given its current rate of extraction of water, its already depleting groundwater reserves and a lack of overarching government policies to address the issue of shrinking water resources, experts believe that a dystopian future lies ahead as Punjab would soon turn into a desert.
Heeding to the grievous situation in Punjab, the government had suggested the farmers in the state to diversify their crop produce and reduce their dependence on water-guzzling crops. Through crop diversification and the Direct Seeding of Rice(DSR) technique introduced this year, Punjab has made reasonable progress in saving its water reserves. However, experts believe that such efforts are far from sufficient, and only sustained, comprehensive and concerted efforts over longer durations of time would help Punjab reach sustainability level groundwater.