Punjab groundwater crisis: what it will take to move from paddy to maize.

Punjab Agricultural University (PAU), Ludhiana, decided to strengthen maize — the most important alternative to rice — by working towards narrowing the gap in economic returns between the two crops. The idea is to nudge farmers towards increasing the area under maize. Over 70% of blocks in Punjab are in the dark zone on underground water stocks. At current rates of depletion, Punjab’s entire subsurface water resource could be exhausted in a little over two decades.

To conserve the resource, the Punjab government brought a law in 2009 to mandatorily delay transplantation of paddy beyond June 10, when the most severe phase of evapotranspiration is over. This law has been blamed for creating the bad air crisis of North India — especially Delhi — by delaying harvesting to end-October and early November, when atmospheric and wind conditions cause particulate matter and gases from burning paddy stubble to hang close to the surface. Of the 42-odd lakh hectares under cultivation in Punjab, maize was grown on 1.60 lakh hectares this year — just 3.8%. Since 2000, the area under maize has varied between 1.09 lakh and 1.63 lakh hectares every year. The area under maize in Punjab is only 1.6% of the total area under the crop in India (98 lakh hectares).

Nearly 46% of India’s maize area is in the pensinsular states of Karnataka, Telangana, and Andhra Pradesh. Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra too, have large areas under maize. In Punjab, maize can be grown in three seasons — spring (March-June), rabi (December-April) and kharif (June-October). Kharif is the state’s main maize season. There is need to increase the area under kharif maize, which is also the paddy season. Spring maize is grown on around 25,000 hectares, but the crop is not promoted due to its long duration, and because it consumes water during the hot summer days. The area under non-basmati paddy must be cut by at least 12 lakh hectares, and maize, basmati, and cotton must be grown on this land — besides increasing the area under agro-forestry and vegetables. Non-basmati paddy is currently grown on 23-26 lakh hectares. At least 5.50 lakh hectares should pass under maize, the experts say — an addition of about 4 lakh hectares. Sixteen PAU-recommended high-yield varieties are already sown in Punjab. Long-duration varieties take 95-100 days, and short-duration ones 80-85 days. Farmers also grow several hybrid varieties developed by various companies. All these varieties give high yields of around 25 quintals per acre in the kharif season. More high-yield varieties can be developed, but that won’t guarantee an increase in area under maize unless government policy supports the marketing of the crop