Cropping patterns: Diversification dilemma on the ground

Punjab farmers seek to move away from paddy-wheat, but not the way policymakers want it

Crop diversification and moving away from the entrenched paddy-wheat cycle has been the buzzword among Punjab’s policymakers for at least two decades now. It will remain so even when the next government takes over in a couple of weeks’ time. But on the ground, farmers are still planting paddy during kharif and wheat in the rabi season as before. Some have gone in for diversification, but not the way policymakers, both in the state government and the Centre, would want them to. There’s no better example of this ‘diversification dilemma’ than spring season maize; and it should be an eye-opener for future policymaking.

Spring maize is currently being grown in about 30,000 hectares of Punjab, especially in the Doaba region covering Jalandhar, Kapurthala, Hoshiarpur and Nawanshahr districts that also constitutes the state’s potato belt. It is planted from mid-February to mid-March, just after harvesting of potato. Spring maize’s popularity is precisely because it fits well into the potato cycle. A 95-110 day crop, it is harvested by June, well in time for planting of basmati/non-basmati paddy or even kharif maize. The latter crops are harvested in October, which is also potato planting time.

A senior scientist at the Punjab Agricultural University (PAU) in Ludhiana, too, seconds this view: “Temperatures start rising after March and hit 35-45 degrees Celsius level by May-June alongside sunshine duration of 9-9.5 hours. This necessitates frequent watering of the standing maize crop”. As an alternative, the government is encouraging farmers to grow spring/summer moong (green gram), mah/urad (black gram), sunflower, vegetables (cucumber, brinjal, capsicum, gourds, beans, etc) and green fodder – which can all be planted in February.

But there are no takers for this logic amongst farmers. “Why should we grow maize during the kharif season when its yields are not even 25 quintals per acre? We get 36-39 quintals or more from spring maize hybrids. And with rates of Rs 1,000-1,500 per quintal, the returns are more than even from wheat, taking 24-25 quintal/acre yield, minimum support price of Rs 1,625/quintal and 145-day crop duration,” points out Jagat Prakash Gill, secretary of the Potato Seed Growers Association who cultivates spring maize of 70 out of his 100 acres land at Thammanwal village in Jalandhar’s Phillaur tehsil.

“We prefer spring maize since it is high-yielding, has shorter duration and there is good demand in the market from poultry and animal feed makers. If the government wants us to grow kharif maize, why are PAU and others not developing hybrids that yield close to what we get from the spring-planted crop? Alternatively, why don’t they breed spring maize hybrids requiring less water?” asks Gurraj Singh. This farmer, who cultivates spring maize on 20 out of his 25-acre holding in Jugral village of Jalandhar tehsil, also points to the Indian Institute of Maize Research, which is being shifted from Delhi to Ladhowal, not far from Phillaur: “What are the people there doing to help us?”

This disconnect between policymakers’ objectives and farmers’ preferences has meant that the market for spring maize hybrid seeds is today controlled by private firms. The most popular hybrids in Punjab include DKC 9108 and 9120 of Monsanto and Dupont-Pioneer’s P1844, P1855 and 31Y45. The biggest grouse of farmers has to do with their prices, which are totally unregulated. Till a couple of years ago,  these branded seeds were being sold to farmers at Rs 150-200 per kg. This season, their rates were in the Rs 525-550 per kg range. At 8 kg seeds per acre, it translates into a cost of Rs 4,200-4,400.

“The distributors/dealers of the seed companies promised us a rate of Rs 1,300-1,400 per bag of 4 kg in early-January. But when sowing began, we ended up paying Rs 2,100-2,200, which was above even the maximum retail price mentioned in the bags. After much hue and cry, they reduced the rates to Rs 1,600-1,700. But by then, much of the seeds had already been sold,” complains Arvinder Singh, a 50-acre farmer from Sofi Pind village of Jalandhar who grows spring maize on 40 acres. He further alleges that the dealers did not even provide bills or invoices against their sales.

When asked about these seemingly anti-competitive pricing practices, the spokesperson of one of the multinational firms told The Indian Express that “we made the seeds available to the dealers at Rs 1,525-1,550 per bag and there was no shortage of material supplied from our end”. He, however, admitted that “we have no control on our distributors”. Equally interesting is the response of the government, which has chosen to be a mute spectator, conveniently citing that it is committed to regulate prices and supply of only kharif season maize seeds. It’s another matter that farmers aren’t interested in growing kharif maize. As a result, they are left with no choice but to deal with private sector monopolies and unscrupulous dealers who have exploited the demand for seeds to jack up prices. “The government wants us to grow pulses and sunflower. But we have seen the way moong prices have collapsed within the last one year. For maize, there is at least a market and no lack of buyers,” notes Jagat Prakash Gill.


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