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Hitting rock bottom in the land of five rivers

It doesn't get more ironic than this. Punjab is the shortened version of Punj Aab (the land of five, rivers). True, post-Partition, Punjab was left with only two and a half rivers - Satluj, Beas, and part of Ravi- but a state with even two and a half rivers should not plunge into the kind of water crisis that Punjab has. No one had seen water tankers in Punjab before, but now they are a common sight. Things have come to such a pass that people are being forced to buy water, sometimes even unpurified water.
And there's even more irony in the case of Punjab. The Green Revolution helped India become self-reliant in foodgrain production, but it also triggered the water crisis in Punjab. Farmers switched to water-intensive paddy cultivation, and things have gone downhill ever since. Experts estimate that Punjab may completely run out of groundwater in another 16 or 17 years. Besides, excessive use of pesticides has led to ground and surface water getting contaminated.
Then, in 1997, the SADBJP government made electricity-free for the farm sector. Nothing better than that incentivizes groundwater extraction at a whole new scale. Paddy cultivation boomed, but the water table started plunging rapidly.
Out of the total cultivable area of less than 41 lakh hectares, water-guzzling paddy, which includes basmati, is grown in over 31 lakh hectares - or over 75% of the land. And it takes about 5,000 liters of water to grow 1 kg of rice, according to scientists at the Punjab Agricultural University. To make matters even worse, 73% of the irrigation is dependent on groundwater and only 27% on canal water.
"Going by the water situation in Punjab, we will have to adopt crop diversification very seriously. The present water usage model is not going to work anymore. We need to value the importance of water," said Prof Gian Singh, who has written a number of books on groundwater depletion in Punjab.
There's also the issue of contamination of groundwater as well as surface water. Heavy chemicals - fluoride, chloride, nitrate - were found in water, and in some districts, there were even traces of uranium. Water contamination is causing lots of problems in the border areas of Fazilka, Ferozepur, and even in adjoining Muktsar where kids have developed deformities. The hair of a number of children has started greying prematurely. Some have problems with their teeth and skin.
Contaminated water is also taking a toll, on horticulture as citrus-growing farmers have had to uproot kinnow orchards in the recent past in the Abohar area, the only big citrus belt in the state. For many of the water pumps and taps in the border belt, samples have failed the purity test. They have been declared unfit for human consumption.
The Director of a Faridkot-based center for special children, Pritpal Singh, said surface, as well as groundwater, is not fit for drinking purposes in many of the areas in the state. It is causing lots of disorders, including autism and mental retardation. A study was conducted in the last few years to assess the body burden of toxic metals and the urine samples of autistic children were sent to the research lab of German scientist Dr. E Blaurock-Busch, an authority on heavy metal testing, and the results were frightening.

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