Jan 1, 2013 – It is the coldest winter in many years as I drive from my village to Ghumankalan, a village in Tehsil Maur Mandi of Bhatinda district. I can barely see the edges of the road due to intense fog, which has actually blanketed the terrain after 7 am. It was relatively clear at 6 am but now there is zero visibility. I reach Ghumankalan at around 8 am and find Sukhpal on the field, like all farmers. There he will remain till sunset. It is a tough life and, contrary to what one may have heard, there is nothing glamorous about being a farmer if one has no other source of income.
Sukhpal Singh Bhullar is a prosperous farmer with many distinctions. The first, to my mind, is that he lives in a joint family with his parents, brothers and their families. He has, besides, received over 75 awards in various crop competitions since he began farming two decades ago. Amongst them are the Union Ministry of Agriculture’s “Krishi Shiromani” award in 2002, and the “Chief Minister’s Award” by the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU).
Sukhpal’s 19 year-old son studies in Canada and the father is confident that he will return to India and, hopefully, continue farming. The joint family owns 63 acres of land on which it has 58 acres of citrus – kinnow, that is actually a mandarin. It is at this time of the year when to hold a kinnow in one’s hands is like holding on to a slice of sunshine.
Sukhpal has travelled overseas under various schemes of the Punjab government. He has visited the CIS countries to study marketing of fruits and vegetables. On Pepsico’s invitation, he also visited USA to see citrus orchards. On his return to India, Sukhpal did not plant citrus unlike many other farmers, who were asked to switch over by the company. He first wanted a guarantee of compensation from Pepsico, should he ever be forced to uproot the trees because they were found unsuitable for Indian conditions. The company refused to give such a guarantee and Sukhpal desisted, unlike many farmers like me, who planted trees at Pepsi’s behest and actually had to uproot them.
More than 90 percent of the kinnow trees from the Pepsico stable have been uprooted. When the government of Punjab and Pepsico tried to introduce a new variety of trees without research and tried to replicate success from elsewhere – in this case, the USA – they blundered big time. Farmers had to suffer, which brings us to the basic issue around agriculture research and development. It takes 10 to 15 years of research to affect a new, commercially viable intervention. That is exactly why there is urgent need to invest in R&D now to be able to benefit the generations to come.
Sukhdev reminds me that I am tending to one of the oldest kinnow orchards in the country planted by my grandfather. Since then no new varieties of citrus have been successful introduced on a commercial scale. What hurts more is that the orchard was planted in the 1960s. The system has failed the farmers. With another produce though, technical advisory services and tomato buyback by Pepsi had helped increase the yield of tomatoes from 150 quintals per acre to 300 quintals per acre.
Sukhpal is a man of many ideas. He likes to tinker with machinery and has fabricated his own spray-pump and kinnow grading-waxing plant. He also sells such plants to other farmers. Very seriously he tells me that girls do not want to marry farmers because making rotis in the kitchen is a very difficult task and, therefore, he is working on a cheap roti-maker so that the lives of rural housewives become easy.
Sukhpal tells me that in the early 1990s, some scientists of the PAU suggested that drip irrigation was bad for citrus orchards and insisted that an old, existing orchard brought up on flood irrigation could not be shifted to drip irrigation. Sukhpal proved them all wrong when he first installed drip system from Jain Irrigation in 1996 on his orchard planted in 1989. Now his whole orchard is on drip irrigation and he does not flood irrigate anymore.
Drip irrigation has reduced his water consumption by 50 percent while the quality of fruit has improved. Normally, it is believed that the yearly kinnow yield alternates between good and bad. With drip irrigation, Sukhpal has managed to break the cycle of alternate yields. He complains that there is no help from any quarter for training on use of soluble fertilizers. Nor is there any subsidy on soluble fertilizers. Fertilizer consumption would drop by 30 percent if one were to replace solid fertilizers with soluble fertilizers through drip irrigation.
There is also a problem with ground water quality, which is not very good to begin with and is becoming worse over time. Sukhdev hopes there will be a cheap filtration plant that could desalinate ground water for cultivation.
As all farmers across the world, Sukhpal has demands aplenty and, indeed, his list of genuine woes deserves attention. Electricity for farming is a major issue in Punjab. Sukhpal hopes that policy would ensure free, round-the-clock electricity for drip irrigation. It makes more sense than free electricity for flood irrigation. The government is subsidizing solar pumps for running a 2 HP motor, which is not enough to create adequate pressure for drip irrigation. Therefore, the solar panel subsidy should be available for running 5 HP motors. This is a practical suggestion for unpractical minds making policies.
There is also a very big shortage of staff at the extension service centres. The National Horticulture Mission and Punjab government have various schemes for farmers but the information about these schemes is not available to most of the target audience. The staff is usually busy in offices completing subsidy files. Kinnow has anti-cancer properties of Limonene. If the National Horticulture Board promoted kinnow as being beneficial for health, the demand for kinnow would increase.
He wonders aloud as to why subsidy differs on the same item in different states when every other condition is similar. Subsidy is more in adjoining states. Subsidy is available for buying crates for harvesting kinnows but is not as per requirement of the farmer. Sukhdev has an informed opinion on several projects.
The National Horticulture Mission subsidy for community water tanks is very good. The idea of interstate visits by farmers is good as well and must be encouraged. Sale of saplings by unregistered nurseries must be stopped and more emphasis and support is required for rejuvenation of old orchards.
After walking through Sukhdev’s beautiful orchard for an hour, it is time for tea with the family. I ask for tea without sugar. His father, Sardar Devinder Singh, inquires if I have high blood sugar. I say ‘no’ but he seems unconvinced. We are served home-made atta biscuits that are delicious.
Conversation veers around the state of agriculture and my hosts say that agriculture should be taught in schools, as a subject, till class 10. Today, a graduate farmer cannot even understand a soil test report. I agree because, initially, even I could not understand the soil test report. Shopkeepers normally recommend higher doses of pesticide than recommended by the private companies to increase sale. Sukhdev thinks that those selling pesticide and chemicals to farmers should be professionally qualified with an MSc. or BSc. in agriculture as mandated for employees of pharmaceutical shops.
There is no market intelligence on kinnow harvest, sale and demand from various centres across India. Therefore, the price fluctuates tremendously. Pakistan exports kinnow to more than 100 countries while India exports in such small quantities that it does not even amount to one percent of the total kinnow produced. He rues that instead of promoting kinnow, the commerce ministry signed agreements with Pakistan to allow its subsidized kinnow to flood Indian markets. They would have depressed prices had not tensions with Pakistan stopped the trade.
Another serious problem is transportation and increasing cost of diesel. Truck unions, despite the Supreme Court ban, operate in Punjab and the transportation charge in the state is Re 1 per kg more than in adjoining states. This amounts to around 10 percent of the selling price, which, in turn, translates into farmers being illegally taxed.
Sukhpal’s other observation is about reduction in use of pesticides by farmers growing Bt cotton that has reduced air pollution. There is also the question of fencing of orchards in Hoshiarpur, which is vulnerable to the wild boar menace. Besides, there is the waste of MNREGA money with many sarpanches siphoning off as much as 50 percent of the funds by giving 50 percent to the beneficiary without having him execute any work. Such wastage must be stopped.
Just as we are about to leave, the discussion turns to the fast declining socio-economic condition of Punjab. Expenditure on wedding and social functions has increased considerably and there is, besides, a virtual epidemic of drug and liquor addiction in the state. Sukhpal’s father believes that if Punjab police could bring terrorism to an end, it surely can, provided there is the political will, end this menace.
Commenting on the editorial of the last issue of Farmers’ Forum where we asked if there were chief ministers in India who actually farm, he pointed out that the chief minister of Punjab, Sardar Prakash Singh Badal, is, indeed, a genuine farmer.