With the global food crisis threatening India’s food security, a new method of rice cultivation might make all the difference. Sayantan Bera reports
NIKODAM TUTI owns a smallfarm in a village amid lush green forests, barely 50km from Ranchi, the capital of Jharkhand. His one-acre land feeds five stomachs. Until two years ago, Tuti, who belongs to a tribe named Munda, grew rice, finger millets and pulses on the nonirrigated patches, yielding barely enough to feed his family for four months. He worked half the year as a construction labourer in Mumbai to make ends meet — purchasing food grains, meeting medical emergencies and affording private schooling for his two children.
Life was a continuous struggle. Crop failure or sudden illness would mean going hungry for days. But thanks to a simple process of rice cultivation introduced by an NGO in his village, Dulli, Tuti’s half acre of paddy now yields 16 quintals of rice opposed to less than three quintals earlier. In 2007, for the first time, he even managed to sell enough to repay debts.
“I now want to lease land and buy bullocks to plough my fields,” Tuti says, full of hope. His is a lesson worth emulating for India’s paddy farmers, 70 percent of whom have no access to either irrigation or mechanised inputs.
Agricultural scientists shrugged off SRI as ‘too good to be true’ because of its simple method
System of Rice Intensification (SRI) — the technology that has brought him the miraculous turnaround — was developed in 1983 in Madagascar. Initially, agricultural scientists shrugged off the practice saying it sounded “too good to be true”. For long, it was hard to make farmers understand that they could double their yield using one tenth the seeds and half the water in this technique. But slowly, that is changing.
The SRI is based on the principle that the rice plant doesn’t necessarily need to be submerged in water to grow. Traditionally, a nursery bed is first prepared, the seeds are sown, and the saplings are allowed to grow for 25 days, after which they are transplanted into the main field in bunches of six to seven, scattered six inches apart. But in SRI, 8-12-day-old saplings are transplanted — individually — and spaced 10 inches apart.
Young saplings adjust easily to the soil while the distance between them allows for more nutrition, unlike the traditional system which has them competing for nutrition. Less water and more spacing between plants create an ‘aerobic condition’ that promote better plant growth. SRI uses less seeds and chemical inputs, which promotes soil biotic activities in and around plant roots, making them more resistant to pests. A liberal application of compost, and weeding with a rotating hoe that aerates the soil, improve productivity with yields of eight tons per hectare — about double the present world average and thrice the Indian average.
While a kg of rice produced traditionally consumes anywhere between 3,000 to 5,000 litres of water, implementing SRI halves the requirement. Earlier considered unworkable without irrigation, SRI is now seeing results even in areas with highly sporadic rainfall and no irrigation. Recently, it was also researched that SRI can be extrapolated for sugarcane, millet and wheat. For most of India, this should be a magic wand.
In India, rice is the main agricultural crop. As much as 23 percent of the country’s total cropped area falls under rice cultivation. Therefore, at the macro level, the potential of SRI or adopting some of its ‘process’ features is immense.
“The first advantage of SRI is that a household of five to six is assured of food security round the year from less than an acre of land,” according to D Narendranath, the Program Director of PRADAN, the NGO that has been promoting SRI in eight states of eastern and central India. He says components of the technology have worked well in areas with rains but little or no access to irrigation. This, he says, is significant because as much as 44 percent of India’s rice growing areas remains non-irrigated.
PRACTICED SUCCESSFULLY in 34 countries, the potential of SRI is getting global. In India, its outreach has been steadily gaining foothold. North India has seen SRI implemented in parts of Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Punjab. In south and central India, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh, Orissa, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh have adopted it quickly. In most areas farmers have been introduced to SRI primarily through NGO initiatives. Unfortunately, apart from in Bihar and Tripura, the participation of the state governments and departments of agriculture in promoting SRI has been negligible. A common reaction has been to dismiss it has a highly labour intensive and cumbersome process of cultivation. Yet, in comparison with India, the whole of Southeast Asia, as also China, has been aggressive in practicing SRI.
The District Agricultural Officer of Ranchi, Hemangini Kumar, is all praise for the new technology that her office demonstrated among 100 farmers in 2008 through the National Food Security Mission (NFSM), the Rs 4,800-crore Central scheme that aims to increase production of rice, wheat and pulses to bridge the country’s shortfall in basic foodgrain. “Extension to more farmers will take time as there is a staff shortage,” she says. “But this is the only cost-effective way to increase yields for small and marginal farmers.”
In a paper published in the Economic and Political Weekly [February 2009], noted development economists, Jean Dréze and Angus Deaton, estimate that 79.8 percent of India’s rural population does not get the prescribed norm of 2,400 calories per person per day. The statistics from the India State Hunger Index 2008, released by the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI), shows that not a single Indian state is even ‘low’ or ‘moderate’ on the index score; most states have a serious hunger problem.
THE INDIAN FOOD CRISIS
Between 1990-2007, India’s population grew 1.9 percent. Food production grew a disproportionate 1.2 percent
79.8 percent of rural population falls short of the prescribed food intake of 2,400 calories per person per day
India is 66th among 88 countries in the World Hunger Index
Rice is India’s main food crop, with 44 percent grown in non-irrigated land
Since rice is India’s principal food crop, augmenting production can, therefore, go a long way to ensure year-round food security for rural households. Increasing the area under rice cultivation and achieving higher yields with improved methods like SRI is one way this can be accomplished.
Bera is an economics research scholar at Jawaharlal Nehru University, Delhi