Punjab has always been consid­ered the bread­basket of India. Plenty of water, a temperate climate in the winter, and rich soils in the flat, allu­vial land of the five rivers south of the Himalayas guar­antee good harvests. However, times are also changing in Punjab.

As feared, the “Evil rain” fell before sunrise. “We had to cover mounds of freshly harvested seed pota­toes until deep into the night, as they cannot have any contact with rain,” explains Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha in the large, mani­cured garden in front of his home. It is located in Quadian Wali, south of the city of Jalandhar, which is home to millions of resi­dents in the state of Punjab – the name trans­lating to “land of five rivers”.

It is a region that has always enjoyed a repu­ta­tion as an agri­cul­tural El Dorado in India and beyond, thanks to its favourable climatic condi­tions, plen­tiful water, and nutri­tious soils. Indeed, Punjab is consid­ered the “bread­basket” of India. For many years, it has offered farmers the option to harvest both rice and wheat within one year. This is a prac­tice that has continued for several decades. Thus, despite the sensi­tive and some­times sub-zero overnight temper­a­tures at the start of the year, the wheat stands luscious, green, and monotone, domi­nating the wide, fertile flats of Punjab. However, there is much more than wheat and rice; sugar cane, cauli­flower, mustard, pota­toes, and other crops are culti­vated.

Punjab is diverse. There is a huge amount of seed potato cultivation as well as …

large biogas plants.

 “We managed every­thing in time, so we don’t have to deal with any damage,” says Bahadur Singh Sangha, visibly relieved. As modest as –he appears, he is, in fact, famous in the potato prop­a­ga­tion world in Punjab, India, and across the globe. Because, with around 2,000ha of seed pota­toes, his company, the Sangha Group, is one of the largest in the global potato cosmos. His team is, accord­ingly, immense. Around 3,000 seasonal workers are deployed in the fields, extending to a radius of 100 km, during the harvest. More­over, there are 250 perma­nent employees on the payroll of the company, founded by his father, Hardev Singh Sangha, in 1962, and expanded with legendary passion.

Through his profound knowl­edge, Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha has earned respect both in the potato busi­ness and among his employees.

Mit Wissen erntet der Chef viel Respekt

The boss enjoys great respect thanks to his knowl­edge. He is one of the self-made men who left big shoes to fill after Indian inde­pen­dence in 1947. His son knows only too well how to fill them since grad­u­ating in agri­cul­ture from Cornell Univer­sity in the USA.

He has earned respect not only through his modesty, but also his profound knowl­edge – both in the potato busi­ness and among his employees. Nowhere is this more visible than in one of his many fields during the harvest. More than 200 John Deere trac­tors are utilised at this time. They pull Shak­timan harvesters from the German manu­fac­turer, Grimme, among others, that lift the seed pota­toes from the sandy, clay soil.

Struc­tural change can be seen every­where. Modern apart­ment blocks are built in the middle of fields.

Under a covered sky, many hands help to sort the sensi­tive tubers according to size and then put them into a sack. Many harvest workers come from the gener­ally poorer regions of India to find jobs here in the north-west. This situ­a­tion is also the reason that many Punjabis migrate abroad to try their luck there. Canada seems attrac­tive – migra­tion agency adver­tise­ments can be seen every­where: “You want to go to Canada? We assist you!”

Sangha goes straight to his employees, picks up the pota­toes and inspects them with eagle eyes, to see if the skin has remained undam­aged. He asks how the start of the harvest, which lasts until the begin­ning of April, has been going. Answers are quickly given, diffi­cul­ties are expressed, the brief conver­sa­tions are to the point. After half an hour, the boss has been able to get an idea of the harvest progress in the area and gets back into his black Jeep.

This year, we are using bacteria for the first time to try and release phos­phate, zinc, potas­sium, and magne­sium in the soil.

Jang Bahadur Singh Sangha

He drives to the new, huge cooling ware­house, where the seed pota­toes, with a diam­eter of around four centime­tres are stored at around 36 degrees Fahren­heit and optimal humidity. And of course, most of the power for the refrig­er­a­tion comes from a photo­voltaic plant that gener­ates 300 kW of power on the roof. The Sangha Group stores around 60,000 tons of seed pota­toes in 11 ware­houses; with a combined power of 1.5 megawatts installed on their balconies.

Sangha is right up to date and fully informed about sustain­ability and climate change issues. But without micro­bi­o­log­ical know-how and clone tech­nology, the company would not be where it is today. And it is favoured by the natural climatic situ­a­tion in Punjab, where the temper­a­ture in December is around four degrees lower, on average, than in other regions in northern India. Perfect for seed pota­toes.

Growing seed pota­toes is a sensi­tive and labour-inten­sive under­taking.

However, Sangha, a board member of the World Potato Congress is concerned about the dramat­i­cally falling ground water level in Punjab – around three metres over the past three years. He is also unhappy with the falling humus content. On the other hand, he is very pleased with the mycor­rhiza bacteria that help to promote the release of nutri­ents such as phos­phorus, zinc, and potas­sium. The fact that Sangha is following inno­v­a­tive paths is also mani­fested in the devel­op­ment of an inno­v­a­tive potato sieve for a sorting machine that draws on the hexag­onal struc­tures of honey­combs.

Seed potato cultivation starts in the lab on Singh Sangha’s farm: cloning is a long-used tech­nique.

Sangha is one of around 13,000 customers serviced by John Deere in the state of Punjab. Several dealers, such as the Singh Agro Company in Kapurthala, supply farmers with tech­nology. It is mainly the cereal farmers who thresh wheat in April that sow in mid-November. Rice is planted at the start of June, before the monsoon season, and harvested in October.

Low wages, a lack of perspec­tives, and farmer protests

For Harpreet Singh, farmer and contractor in Jodhan, the economic labour pres­sure is on almost every­where in Punjab. The rice has to be threshed, and the sili­cate-rich straw made into bales; then the seed bed has to be prepared for the subse­quent wheat. The farmers who do not collect the rice straw burn it in the field. Thus, Punjab is often under thick smoke clouds for days in late autumn, which is far from sustain­able in terms of energy, and health.

However, there are plans to ferment rice straw into biogas on a large scale in the future. The first straw fermen­ta­tion plant, oper­ated by Verbio India, went into produc­tion in Lehra­gaga recently and it has been gener­ating biofuel (CNG) since then.

After the harvest, sugar cane is loaded with manpower in Armarjit Singh Laddi’s farm­yard in the village of Rangian.

“During peak harvest times, we regu­larly work into the night with our balers,” explains 45-year-old Harpreet at his farm, where, in his father’s time, they milked 50 cows. But those days are over. Land and lease prices are increasing cease­lessly, while wages stag­nate at a very low rate. For many young Sikhs, this is a reason to emigrate abroad. Producer prices are also extremely modest, which is why Harpreet also takes part in protests under the slogan “No Farmer, No Food”.

At his farm, fresh water from a well regu­larly shoots out of a pipe, drilled 80 metres deep into the earth to tap into the ground­water. A branched system of ducts, found every­where in Punjab, supply the surrounding wheat fields. The ducts are either fed by river water, provided there is enough, or from ground­water.

Harpreet Singh is visibly proud of his work and his machines.

Harpreet Singh is a passionate farmer and contractor. He watches the emigra­tion of many young Sikhs from the rural region abroad crit­i­cally.

The well water is about 68 degrees Fahren­heit. It tastes soft and wonderful. However, the well construc­tions every­where have nega­tive conse­quences.  While falling ground­water levels mean that many farmers must drill deeper, at greater expense, many geol­o­gists and agri­cul­tural experts are now warning about this nega­tive spiral – and even scien­tists at the famous agri­cul­tural univer­sity in Ludhiana.

An ambi­tious educa­tional insti­tute for all areas of agri­cul­ture was created here after the Indian state was founded. It spreads its influ­ence far beyond the borders of the northern Indian state and enjoyed support from the entire Indian polit­ical scene. Not least because it was clear to everyone that high-perfor­mance agri­cul­ture was an essen­tial back­bone for a stable Indian society. The hopes were set down in the “Green Revo­lu­tion”, the cultivation methods and tech­niques changed, and yields rose. However, today, every­body under­stands that solely focusing on high yields is a concept of yester­year.

The campus of the agri­cul­tural univer­sity of Ludhiana is huge and inte­grates numerous test fields.

New impulses from science

Director at the Punjab Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity, Dr S S Gosal says it is time for a rethink – and he speaks with surprising candour. “The humus content has reduced in recent years and the dramat­i­cally falling ground­water levels caused by inten­sive grain cultivation are forcing our hand,” says Gosal. “We always focused on plants in the past, but now we are concen­trating more and more on the soil and inter­ac­tions in the agri­cul­tural system in general.”

Sugar cane harvest in January: Harvesting and loading is done by hand, but trans­port is done by trac­tors.

These are not small prob­lems, partic­u­larly because the popu­la­tion is contin­uing to grow rapidly. The cities sprawl further, and streets and build­ings of all kinds inex­orably encircle good land. Urban struc­tures are also reaching the fields of Armarjit Singh Laddi in the village of Rangian, west of the state capital of Chandi­garh, that was built after the sepa­ra­tion of the Indian subcon­ti­nent into India and Pakistan – during which Punjab was also divided – according to the plans of French archi­tect Le Corbusier.

Now we are concen­trating more and more on the soil and the inter­ac­tions in the agri­cul­tural system in general.

Dr. Satbir Singh Gosal

While 15 of his seasonal employees from the state of Bihar cut the tall sugar cane and load it on to trailers in the picturesque late after­noon light, in the distance, cranes can be seen turning as they build new high-rise build­ings. The sugar cane straw is made into small bales on the already harvested field areas. In addi­tion to his main crop of sugar cane, Laddi also grows wheat and rice; as well as pota­toes and euca­lyptus on small areas and keeps ten cows. Laddi talks openly about oper­a­tional processes.

In doing so, the wiry man embodies the agri­cul­tural power in Punjab with his atten­tive nature. These are self-confi­dent and proud farmers who know exactly what the favourable natural space offers them. And they deci­sively convey a readi­ness to face the agri­cul­tural chal­lenges of the future.