The prowess of Punjab’s agriculture has long been celebrated as a cornerstone of national food security. Having led the Department as Additional Chief Secretary (Development) from 2013 to 2016, I had the privilege of witnessing firsthand the admiration and recognition that Punjab’s efforts, knowledge, and governance received at both the national and state levels. Punjab’s achievements were lauded by counterparts and experts across the country, showcasing the effectiveness of its policies and governance. The lasting impact of the Green Revolution, pioneered by Punjab, Haryana, and Western Uttar Pradesh, continues to resonate through India’s agricultural landscape, a testament to its enduring success in eradicating hunger and freeing the nation from imposed food dependency.
The prosperity that blossomed in Punjab’s fields owed its success to a harmonious convergence of responsive administration, dynamic farming communities, and proactive government policies at both the provincial and national levels. The central government astutely recognized the abundant resources—land, water, and human resources—that Punjab possessed, extending comprehensive input and market support through forward-thinking policies. This support included ensuring the availability of affordable seeds, fertilisers, insecticides, pesticides, credit, and the ground-breaking Minimum Support Price (MSP) based procurement system for essential food grains. Simultaneously, the State government ensures equitable access to water and energy, transforming agriculture marketing infrastructure under the aegis of the Agriculture Produce Marketing Act. By establishing the Agriculture Marketing Board, the state protected farmers from exploitation in agricultural produce markets, fostering a fair trading environment.
The harmonious synergy between effective governance and well-coordinated policies yielded bountiful results, propelling Punjab’s agricultural production and productivity to unprecedented heights. This achievement has remained unparalleled in other states, even as commendable endeavours strive to replicate the success of the Green Revolution in a renewed form.
For over five decades, Punjab’s robust agricultural growth uplifted livelihoods both within its rural heartlands and burgeoning urban centres. Yet, even amid such success, the appetite for progress persisted. The people of Punjab, particularly its farmers, clamoured for further increases in their incomes to match the surging economic growth in other sectors of the economy, mirroring national trends. However, the farm income in Punjab reached a plateau, hemmed in by prevailing public policies governing various economic spheres. Mounting input costs, although mitigated by declining incidence of farm subsidies, coupled with stagnating output prices, spotlighted an unwritten yet widely endorsed policy to maintain food prices within reach of the common citizen. The unfortunate consequence has been the gradual erosion of farmers’ margins, leading to negative returns in many crops. Unpredictable weather patterns and climate change exacerbated this precarious situation, transforming the farm economy into a veritable nightmare for those toiling the fields.
The absence of value addition to farm produce, particularly among small and marginal farmers, compounded the challenges, thwarting the cherished goal of agricultural diversification. Unlike the past, the discordant harmony of various governmental policies, encompassing economic, fiscal, infrastructure, and agricultural spheres, now thwarted the unified pursuit of agricultural excellence. Even within the agricultural domain, discrepancies between food security and diversification objectives surfaced. While the Ministry of Food, Government of India championed heightened food production to ensure sustenance for all, the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India underscored the urgency of crop diversification to counter plummeting groundwater levels, dwindling soil quality, and stagnating farm incomes. The incongruence between these objectives, exemplified by the government’s focus on increasing wheat and rice production while simultaneously advocating for crop diversification, reflects a glaring misalignment in governance and policy direction. Even the state policies on water and energy did not align with the objectives to conserve soil and water. The knowledge, skill, and information of agriculture administrators and technocrats did not match the demands of markets and the expectations of the farmers, rendering them nearly redundant to the point where even farm associations and politicians echoed a consensus that the present level of agri-outputs can be sustained by the producers themselves.
Evidently, the central government, its diverse ministries, and the state government failed to synchronise their visions for agricultural governance and administration. This disconnect resonates between the aspirations of farmers, the governments’ ambitions, and the policies’ orientations, resulting in an unsettling narrative of agricultural distress. As farm incomes stagnate and youth unemployment climbs, Punjab’s farmers find themselves ensnared by escalating debt burdens—the highest in the country. The most heartrending truth is the surge in farmer suicides, coupled with an exodus of the younger generation from agricultural pursuits. Contrary to expectations of land fragmentation, distress sales have led to a reverse consolidation of land holdings.
This distressing state of affairs persists due to a failure to address crucial needs within farming communities. Urgent requirements for skill enhancement, improved access to stable markets, and assured minimum prices for alternative crops remain unmet by current policies. Instead, a growing emphasis on handouts has fostered a culture of dependency, potentially perpetuating a toxic cycle of political expediency. Meanwhile, research and development in new seeds, technologies, and techniques have languished, stymying progress in diversification efforts. Institutions like the Punjab Agricultural University, responsible for propelling the state’s agriculture, have exhibited a limited departure from the grain-centric paradigm. Insufficient endeavours have been made to steer farmers away from monoculture, encouraging the adoption of more lucrative alternatives like horticultural crops.
The evident schism in agricultural governance became unmistakably conspicuous during the farmers’ agitation in 2020-21. Instead of addressing legitimate concerns regarding income augmentation, market-linked incentives (MLIs), and technological advancement in agriculture, policymakers imposed more laws (MLAs) that elicited vehement resistance from the farming community. These laws, perceived as autocratic and devoid of participatory consultation, underscored a glaring disconnect between policy-making and grassroots realities.
The malaise of disjointed policies is not confined to the state level; it extends to the national arena, where a lack of alignment between the overarching needs of the country, state-level priorities, citizen welfare, and the opportunities presented by data science and technology further exacerbate the crisis. Farmers have been largely excluded from the benefits of globalisation, data-driven innovations, and evolving labour markets, underscoring a growing chasm between policy aspirations and on-ground impact.
The path to a new era of agricultural dynamism necessitates the evolution of comprehensive public policies that prioritise both economic and non-economic dimensions, safeguarding the social and economic welfare of the populace. A singular fixation on enhancing agricultural output for surplus production may prove insufficient in the long term. Bridging the governance gap in agriculture mandates a holistic approach, harmonising policies to elevate the income potential of farming households. This calls for a previously unexplored and perhaps uncharted governance model, one that unifies diverse sectors to forge a cohesive strategy for sustainable growth.
The triumphant legacy of Punjab’s agriculture remains an inspiration, a testament to the remarkable potential that resides within India’s heartland. However, as the clamour for progress grows louder and the challenges intensify, it is imperative to rectify the disjointed policies and governance that hinder the sector’s full potential. Only through a concerted effort to harmonise policies, empower farmers with necessary tools, and foster an environment conducive to innovation and diversification can Punjab and India as a whole embark on a sustainable agricultural renaissance. This demands a new chapter in governance, one that heeds the lessons of the past, embraces the realities of the present, and steers the course towards a prosperous agricultural future.