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TIGR2ESS: Transforming India's Green Revolution by Research and Empowerment for Sustainable food Supplies

A Global Challenges Research Fund project

Image credit: Paramvir Singh Bhogal

Following the Green Revolution, Punjab’s farmers adopted a system of monoculture. A combined ~90% of land is dedicated to rice/paddy in the monsoon season and to wheat in the winter (Mann, 2017). These high-yielding crops helped prevent a food shortage in India and increased farmers’ profits, but their long-term ecological and socio-economic effects are becoming apparent (see Sinha, 2021, for example). Given the high irrigation requirements of these crops and the inefficient irrigation systems feeding them, a lack of diversity in agriculture has been credited as a major cause of Punjab’s groundwater shortage.

Arguments for crop diversification can arise from an analysis of the benefits of alternative crops but also from the study of past practices via archaeological methods, such as those employed by FP4 researchers Cameron Petrie and Adam Green. In a recent paper, FP4 researchers Shruti Bhogal and Kamal Vatta, respectively from the Centres for International Projects Trust and Punjab Agricultural University, discuss the potential contribution of crop diversification to improving water use in Punjab, and analyze the hurdles to implementing effective policies related to crop diversification. 

Groundwater depletion in Punjab

Water-inefficient agricultural practices are fomenting groundwater deterioration in India, especially in the Indo-Gangetic Plains in northwest India, the major supplier of foodgrains in the country. Of all the states in this region, the water situation in Punjab – the model state of green revolution – has reached an alarming level. The water table in the state is declining by ~37 cm/year (GoP, 2018), posing a serious challenge to agricultural sustainability.  

Archaeological evidence suggests crop diversification might reduce groundwater use.

An exploration of the Bronze Age South Asia Indus Civilization by Cameron Petrie and Jennifer Bates provided evidence that 4000 years ago, a broad range of crops was cultivated in the region covering modern-day Punjab. This diversity could be attributed to differences in crops grown between seasons and settlements, and the cultivation of multiple crops in one season. Working with Cameron as part of FP4, postdoctoral researcher Adam Green has compiled archaeological and historical data that shows there has been a progressive and inexorable reduction in crop diversity since the Indus period, with the most precipitous step being the shift that occurred with the Green Revolution.

More recent exploration of land use after the Green Revolution in India shows a continuation of archaeologically-identified trends. Historical records from 1966-1967 indicate that during this time, land allocation in Punjab was divided almost evenly between rice/wheat and a range of other crops including maize, cotton and sugarcane (“alternate crops”) (Mann, 2017). However, since then, rice and wheat have expanded at the expense of crop diversity, resulting in only about 10% of Punjab’s land being dedicated to crops other than paddy and wheat in 2014-15 (Mann, 2017). This shift correlates with groundwater depletion. 

Alternate crops generally use less water than wheat and rice and can be grown to better suit local water resources. Crop diversification is thus important to agricultural sustainability in Punjab.

Why has crop diversification not yet occurred in Punjab?

(Bhogal and Vatta, 2021)

  • Policy: The existence of minimum support price (MSP), assured procurement, and subsidization for pumps and fertilizers all incentivize farmers to grow wheat and paddy. On the other hand, alternate crops lack effective policy support, especially for marketing (MSP and public procurement).
  • Economics: Without assured procurement, farmers risk a decline in profits when growing alternate crops. Additionally, there may not be a market for the crop.
  • Awareness & Implementation: About half of Punjab’s farmers are unaware that diverse crops have MSP. This MSP is also often not enforced for non-wheat, non-paddy crops.
  • Infrastructure: Diverse crops have infrastructure requirements that currently cannot be met.

Looking forward: policy targets for the diversification of Punjab’s crops

Dr Bhogal and Dr Vatta outline a number of strategies to further crop diversification in Punjab. These policies include:

  • Focusing on large farm landholdings, which are more likely to retain monoculture, than small farm landholdings (less than 2 ha).
  • Spreading awareness to farmers of the need to diversify agriculture.
  • Designing new macro-level cropping patterns that use less groundwater.
  • Implementing MSP for alternate crops, and subsidizing inputs for alternate crops to ensure profitability.
  • Increasing the availability of credit for farmers looking to diversify their crops.
  • Initiating and strengthening the supply and value chains for alternate crops.

Beyond policy: interdisciplinary solutions

Despite the importance of policy to future crop diversification in Punjab, policy does not exist in isolation. Returning to archaeological evidence of past practices that supported the growth of diverse crops, agricultural practices of the Indus Civilization should be considered alongside policy suggestions (Petrie and Bates, 2017; Green et al. 2020). For example, the timing of sowing and harvesting will be less synchronized for alternative crops, as will their water requirements, thus ancient agricultural practices will have supported these patterns. Thus, through interdisciplinary research informing change, FP4 researchers are working to find solutions to Punjab’s impending water shortage. 

This blog was written by Julia Stewart-Wood, Dr Shruti Bhogal, and Dr Cameron Petrie and edited by Karen Hlaba and Dr Adam Green. Dr Bhogal and Dr Petrie work on Flagship Project 4 (Water Use and Management in a Changing Monsoon Climate) at the Centres for International Projects Trust and University of Cambridge Department of Archaeology, respectively. This post is based on a paper published by Dr Bhogal and Dr Kamal Vatta in Current Science, 120(8), 2021. 


Bhogal, S. and Vatta, K. (2021). Can crop diversification be widely adopted to solve the water crisis in Punjab? Current Science, 120(8). 

GoP, Ground water resource of Punjab State. Water Resource and Environment Directorate, Central Ground Water Board North Western Region, Government of Punjab, Chandigarh, 2018.

Green, A.S. et al. (2020).  An interdisciplinary framework for using archaeology, history and collective action to enhance India’s agricultural resilience and sustainability. Environmental Research Letters, 15. 

Mann, R.S. (2017). Cropping Pattern in Punjab (1966-67 to 2014-15). Economic & Political Weekly, 52(3), 30-33. 

Petrie, C.A. and Bates, J. (2017). ‘Multi-cropping,’ Intercropping and Adaptation to Variable Environments in Indus South Asia. J World Prehist, 30: 81-130. 

Sinha, S. (2021). From cotton to paddy: Political crops in the Indian Punjab. Geoforum.