With water becoming an important cost, and with climate change and soil degradation, the System of Rice Intensification offers disadvantaged farming households better opportunities

A truant monsoon is in the offing, with El Niño weather patterns expected to bring about drier conditions. India has the world’s largest area devoted to rice, a very water-intensive crop. This is a good time for giving impetus to “more crop per drop” practices, now that the rice-growing kharif season is upon us.

The System of Rice Intensification (SRI) has demonstrated in several States the ability to save water while raising yields in a cost-effective manner. About 60 per cent of the country’s rice area is irrigated, accounting for 75 per cent of production, but also by guzzling disproportionately large volumes of water. A subnormal monsoon accentuates the problem of water scarcity, keeping in view that India supports 16 per cent of the global population with just four per cent of the world’s freshwater resources.

The SRI is in step with the goal of enhanced food production keeping water availability in mind. With enhanced industrial and domestic demands, the demand for water is increasing and the agriculture sector is expected to adapt to a water discipline without letting up on the demand for increased agricultural produce. For small and marginal farmers, SRI can be a game changer because of reduced input requirement. The SRI method involves only reorganising the way in which available resources are managed. It was in Madagascar, some 30 years ago, that the SRI technique was developed by a Jesuit priest, Henri de Laulanie. In India, it was first tried out in Tamil Nadu in 2000-01, following which several States have demonstrated higher rice production using less water. SRI has shown an ability to raise rice yields to about eight tonnes per hectare (the current national average is 2.1 tons) without requiring new varieties, and with significantly reduced fertilizers and agrochemicals, while using only about half the water in business-as-usual irrigated rice. With the use of best practices, SRI yields of about 15-20 tonnes per hectare have been achieved.

‘Climate-smart’

As pressures mount to ensure that every drop of water counts, SRI is seen today as “climate-smart agriculture.” Benefits of SRI include lower costs, improvement in soil health, and the capacity to withstand biotic (pest and disease) and abiotic (climatic) pressures. From being an obscure rice cultivation method of Madagascar, SRI has now grown into a global trend defying the scepticism of the scientific establishment and the resistance of conventional agronomists and rice breeders. Much of the impetus for SRI has come from innovative farmers, civil society, a few universities and academics, and some government professionals.

It is estimated that there are now over five million farmers using SRI worldwide. In the 50 plus countries in which the benefits of SRI have already been demonstrated, there has been a 30-50 per cent decrease in water use compared to growing the same varieties on similar soil under flooded conditions. The spirit of SRI — “more from less” — is best expressed by the pithy slogan on a billboard in Tripura: Beej kam, saar kam, jal kam, aushadh kam, kharcha kam, phalan bishi, aay bishi (lesser inputs in seed, fertilizer, water, pesticides, costs, with increased output and incomes).

SRI, referred to as the new “green grassroots revolution,” is not dependent on purchased inputs, but on certain ideas and changes in practice that can be explained and justified in scientific terms. It is an assemblage of good agronomic practices which might vary across different agro-ecological and cropping system conditions, but earmarked to benefit farmers through higher yields and lower cultivation costs. Under SRI, farmers transplant young, single seedlings, spacing them widely in a grid pattern, while keeping soil moist and fertile, but not flooded. Soil aeration is ensured by regular weeding both manually and by specially designed Cono Weeders. Compost and other sources of organic nutrients are preferred over fertilizers to enrich soil biota.

Professor Norman Uphoff of Cornell University, who is credited with spreading the word about Laulanie’s work, sees the principles of SRI as being quite different to the first Green Revolution of the mid-1960s, which focused on improving yields through breeding new traits, using agrochemicals to enhance soil nutrients and providing assured irrigation. That resulted in adverse ecological effects. In the 21st Century, with water becoming an important cost and constraint, with soil degradation and shrinking land resources and climate change adverse impacts, SRI offers millions of disadvantaged farming households better opportunities. There are no patents, royalties or licensing fees — only the farmer benefits from SRI.

Across States

SRI started early in Tamil Nadu. With scientific and extension support from Tamil Nadu State University, the area under SRI management has now reached about half of the State’s rice area. In Tripura, from just 44 farmers using the methods in 2002, the number has increased to about 3,50,000 on 1,00,000 hectares, nearing half of that State’s rice area. Bihar started it with only a few hundred farmers, in 2007; four years later, the area under SRI was reported to be about 10 per cent of the State’s rice area, with a target area of 40 per cent set for 2013-14.

Some SRI results have made headlines. Two years ago, Sumant Kumar from Nalanda in Bihar set a record by claiming a harvest of 22.4 tonnes of rice per hectare. S. Sethumadhavan from Alanganallur in Tamil Nadu reported a yield of nearly 24 tonnes per hectare. While both these claims were verified by the State governments, they have been challenged by agricultural scientists who dismiss them as beyond the biological maximum. A woman farmer, T. Amalarani of Vasudevanallur, who harvested 18 tonnes per hectare, was awarded the “Krishi Karman Award” by the President in January this year. The votaries of SRI tend to play down these super-yields as statistical “outliers,” on the premise that it is the averages which are more significant than the extremes.

Constraints

SRI is generally considered to be labour-intensive, one of the constraints to its rapid adoption. This characteristic has prompted possibilities of linking it with the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act. Labour is required for more weeding, on-farm water control, and organic fertilizer application. Under the Employment Guarantee Act, works can be taken up on private farms of small and marginal farmers. SRI methods have also been used in crops like wheat, sugarcane, millets, potato and rapeseed-mustard, with similar benefits as for rice. These are referred to as the System of Crop Intensification (SCI). Wider adoption of SRI/SCI techniques will have implications for institutional arrangements such as canal and tube well irrigation system management, markets for inputs and agricultural commodities.

Despite its success in several States, there is no Central official site where the all-India impact of SRI may be found. If SRI is such a winning technique, it would appear that the national agriculture research and education and extension establishments would eagerly embrace it and begin to quantify and document its benefits. Adequate resources would be set aside for it. Its dissemination would be a priority with the Central and State governments. But that has not happened.

Although SRI is no longer a voice in the wilderness, the pristine science and research establishments still continue to hold out. Meanwhile, a dedicated band of innovative farmers, grassroots non-governmental organisations, development professionals, committed academics and researchers valiantly labour on — waiting for the walls of Jericho to finally collapse at the nagging of their persistent trumpet.

The rice-growing season is here. The disposition of the rain gods is speculative. Inter-State water wars are getting fiercer. An SRI movement is stirring and beginning to win some battles. Public policy and research must lead from the front in this area and not merely react. The time is ripe to champion the SRI cause.

(Rita Sharma is a former Secretary to Government of India and the National Advisory Council.)

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