Punjab, the land of five-rivers has been a fertile land and fed people for thousands of years. It is now facing a shortage of water and the underground water is getting depleted due to several reasons including diverting river water to other (non-riparian) states, growing water-intensive crops, and deforestation. While river water division issue has dominated the politics for many decades, it may not get resolved any time soon. So this article focuses on doing local measures that can be implemented without any political issues and with the help of center government.

For centuries, India has been dependent on timely rains in monsoon season to feed its growing population. There have been periods when rains were not timely or sufficient and it caused millions of people to die due to starvation and food-born diseases. The Bengal famine of 1943 was caused primarily by cyclones and rice crop disease, among other factors. The second world war made the problem even worse as food could not be imported from other countries. As a result, more than 2 million people perished in starvation and diseases in that year. At the time of independence, India’s leaders vowed to become self-sufficient in food and started dam construction so electricity can be produced and water supply can be ensured to farmers. However, farming was still predominantly dependent on rain in most of India. Then again in 1965-66, monsoons failed to arrive in major rice producing areas such as Bihar and rice crop declined to less than half. The newly formed Prime Minister (PM) Indira Gandhi sought help from USA, which had excess food. The US president asked India to sign Green Revolution package, which included using modern techniques (fertilizes, insecticides, improved seeds) for farming. India signed the package and the farmers in Punjab were the first to adopt it mainly due to Punjabis’ openness to try new ideas and Punjab Agriculture University’s (PAU) efforts.

During the early stage of Green Revolution, the main focus was on using chemical fertilizers, improved seeds, and controlled irrigation for all crops. I remember my father telling me that he was the first one in the village to buy and use a tractor (instead of oxen) and fertilizers for crops in 1970, even against the wishes of my grad father and other elders. Eventually, all farmers started using improved seeds, chemical fertilizers, and irrigation pumps for watering. The food supply in Punjab has always been sufficient and there is no history of food shortage or famine in Punjab. The majority of the famines happened in Eastern India where main food supply was rice, which was highly dependent on monsoon rains. To ensure the food safety across India, the center government pushed policies to promote rice and wheat crops. Rice and wheat crops were guaranteed a minimum sale price (MSP) whereas other grain prices were dependent on yield. As a result, Punjab and Haryana started to shift from their traditional crops (maize, pearl millet, pulses and oilseeds) to the wheat-paddy cultivation cycle during late 1970s. The percentage of land under paddy went up from 6.9 per cent of the total area in 1970-71 to 33.8 per cent in 2005-06 while the area under traditional crops was reduced to just 2-3 percent.

This was to help the country have enough food but no one planned for sustainability or long-term effects of this crop cycle. The rice crop is essentially a swamp-area crop, one kg of rice takes about 4000 liters of water to make it. Growing rice crop was boon to certain areas in Punjab, which were waterlogged and could not grow other crops. However, overall effects of rice crop were negative and started affecting the underground water supply. The tube wells were dug deeper and deeper every year and now they pump it from more than 200 feet deep where they used to pump it at mere 50 feet deep in 1970’s.


Water-flooded Paddy Fields

The water table started to decline in early 80’s but the real crisis started to come after 1993-94 when a short-duration rice variety, called Satthi (60-days), was introduced. Farmers started growing two rice crops and it severely impacted the underground water. Punjab State Farmers Commission (PSFC) was setup in 2005 to assess the situation and suggest a possible solution. PSFC soon proposed a law to delay the rice plantation until after June 10 (the days may vary based on monsoon prediction) but the government didn’t want to pass the law fearing farmers disapproval. PSFC didn’t give up and continued following with successive governments until Punjab Preservation of Subsoil Water Act (PPSWA) was enacted in 2009. The law has been effective to some extent and Haryana too copied and passed the same law later. Fortunately, the law didn’t upset the farmers, perhaps due to awareness campaigns by PSFC and some luck with monsoon (it came late during the first year the law was enacted and thus saved many farmers from having their early crops destroyed). While PPSWA is a good law and helped the water crisis getting worse, it is still not a final solution as the water table continues to decline even now. It is time that the government start looking at other alternatives, one being looking to bring back the traditional crops such as maize and sugarcane. While I understand that there isn’t much market to sell maize and sugarcane for conventional uses, now is a perfect time to use them to produce Ethanol, which can be mixed in petrol and used in cars and other engines. This will not only reduce the water needs, it will create good cash crops as well as encourage local industry and employment.

Currently, USA and Brazil are leading in Ethanol production that is mixed in the petrol and used for cars, trucks and other vehicles. USA relies on Ethanol produced from maize (corn) and Brazil produces its Ethanol from sugarcane. While some other crops can also be used to create Ethanol and other oils, sugarcane and maize are the most common. Producing Ethanol from sugarcane is cheaper than from maize but the processes are similar. In USA, it is required to have at least 10% Ethanol mixed with petrol (called E10 mix) to be sold at petrol pumps. Since the law was passed about 10 years ago, it helped maize farmers in a big way and also helped reduce the petrol imports from middle east. India currently imports about 70% of its oil (petrol, diesel and other oils) and the oil prices are subject to large changes depending on the international market. By producing Ethanol locally, India can reduce its dependence on foreign oil, create local industry and employment, and help the farmers at the same time. Modi government understand this and wants to increase use of Ethanol in petrol.

When the crude oil prices rose very high ($145 / barrel) in 2008, India government setup E5 mandate for petrol, implying that 5% Ethanol should be blended in all petrol sold. However, government did not do anything to encourage domestic Ethanol industry and the E5 target was first time met only in 2016. The Modi government announced E10 (10% blend) starting from October 2017 but this target also many not be achieved for several years due to the lack of strict control over refineries and help in developing Ethanol producing industries. A report published by the University of Petroleum and Energy Studies, along with other institutes show that India can save $6 billion by 2021 in petroleum imports by switching to 20% Ethanol mixed petrol. Ironically, India imports most of the Ethanol (primarily from USA) instead of creating it within India.  Modi government seem to be encouraging Ethanol producing industries in states such as MP, UP or other BJP controlled areas but any state government should be able to take advantage of the national laws and encourage local industry.

Punjab government and its people need to take the initiatives, PAU should also play a role as it played in the green revolution. I think Punjab should focus both on corn and sugarcane crops for producing Ethanol. Sugarcane is a water-loving crop but it still takes much less water than paddy. PAU should help defining land zones (for example, water-logged, dry, moderate zones) within Punjab and the government should encourage the cultivation of crops based on zoning. The water-logged areas are perfect for paddy whereas the dry areas are good for cotton and maize. The moderate areas can focus on sugarcane. The Ethanol industries should be setup in collaboration with refineries so that there is a guaranteed supply and price of Ethanol. This can help the Punjab in several ways:

  • Reduce the demand for water and thus helping the underground water resources
  • Creating industry and jobs in Punjab, along with tax revenue
  • Reducing farmers dependence on just one major summer crop
  • Reduce the paddy fields burning issue

There are many other ways to help preserve underground water such as using more canal water instead of pumping it, planting more trees, and providing MSP on other crops too. However, the Ethanol production seem like the most practical of all and will be a great start.


-Davinder Singh Garcha

Virginia, USA