Punjab is finding it difficult to keep farmers away from what scientists call "anti-environment, water-guzzling, long-duration paddy", though the Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, has developed a number of environment-friendlier varieties.
In a state where the groundwater table is fast getting depleted, farmers still prefer PUSA 44, a variety the government strongly discourages though it has not banned it. Ahead of the paddy season this year, a number of camps were organised to encourage farmers to choose other varieties. Yet is is PUSA 44
that has been sown on around 30 to 40 per cent of the area under paddy cultivation in Punjab. In Patiala, Sangrur and Barnala districts, more than 70 per cent of the area is under PUSA 44, says agriculture development officer (enforcement wing), Patiala, Dr A S Mann.
Eight or nine varieties of rice have been sown in Punjab this year on 27 lakh hectares, a coverage almost as wide as the 27.50 lakh hectares of last year. This has been despite the fact that the state has set itself a target of decreasing the area under rice by 10 lakh hectares. Experts feel this can be achieved only by sowing a short-duration variety.
PAU provided seeds of two newly developed varieties -- PR 121 and PR 122 – with an average yield of 76 and 79 quintals respectively per hectare. The output of P-122 is almost as high as that of PUSA 44; besides, it takes less time and is also disease-resistant. It failed to keep the majority of the state's farmers away from PUSA 44, which requires at least three weeks more to mature than the recommended varieties do. PUSA means more water, more insecticide and more pesticide.
"The PAU-recommended varieties save water as these mature in 130 to 140 days, almost 25 days faster than PUSA 44, which is also prone to bacterial leaf blight disease. Yet the demand for PUSA 44 is huge," says Dr Gurdyal Singh, joint director, Food Security Mission, Punjab.
Punseed, a government agency, has sold 1,400 quintals of PUSA 44 seeds this year as against 585 quintals of the variety 118 and 185 quintals of 114. Punseed general manager Sarabjit Singh Kandhari says both 118 and 114 are recommended by PAU.
According to the chief agriculture officer, Jalandhar, Dr. Swatantar Aery, "Punjab needs not only to decrease the area under paddy cultivation but also to decrease the area under PUSA 44, which is highly environment-unfriendly."
In Jalandhar the demand for PUSA 44 has been so high that farmers managed to sow 30 per cent of the total area with this variety despite the fact that it is no available with the agriculture department. "For farmers, yield is more important than anything else," says Jatinder Singh, a farmer from Jalandhar. With PUSA 44, a five-acre farm will yield 160 to 170 quintals (80 to 85 quintals per hectare) as compared to 140 to 150 quintals from other varieties. "There is a need to develop another variety that needs less time to mature and whose yield equals that of PUSA 44," says another farmer, Avtar Singh.
"PUSA 44 gives 9 to 10 quintals more per hectare," says Harjit Singh, also of Jalandhar, who has sown PR 121 and PR 122 too on a small patch, "just as an experiment".
Dr Naresh Gulati, deputy director, Agriculture Technology Management Agency, says "At the camps we organised, we promoted only the recommended varieties such as PR 121, PR 122, 118, 114, and 116 which save water, but farmers still ended up sowing PUSA 44 on more then 30 per cent of their area."
Rakesh Jain, president of the Punjab Rice Shellers' Association, says, "As per our survey, PUSA 44 is a high-yield variety and farmers need more grain from less space." Another advantage, he adds, is that there is less breakage in its seed at the time of shelling.