Rice and Cries

By: Latha Jishnu

Rice feeds two-thirds of India. But the cereal is faced with a crisis. While farmers cultivating it are battling changing climate and escalating costs of farming, the government needs to ramp up rice production by two million tonne annually to ensure the nation’s food security.

There are other concerns as well. Every kilogram of rice requires 4,000-5,000 litre of water – India being a highly water-stressed country, this puts a question mark over the issue of increasing rice production. A bigger worry is stagnant yields. India has the largest area under rice in the world – about 44 million hectare (ha) – but its productivity is way behind other countries. China churns out 6.61 tonne of paddy per hectare, while India can manage a meager 3.37. High yielding varieties cover over 80 per cent of the rice acerage, but their yields have plateaued.

There is a sharp dichotomy in the approach of the farmer and the policymakers to these concerns. Some farmers, such as Boregowda of Shivahalli village in Karnataka’s Mandya district, have switched to traditional rice varieties from modern high yielding ones. Boregowda, who was cultivating these varieties with fertilizers and pesticides, found his livelihood threatened by falling outputs and unpredictable weather. So he started cultivating traditional drought-tolerant varieties like Doddibatha. He now harvests 2.7-3 tonne per acre and gets a better price for his crop.

In Koraput, Odisha, the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation has given tribals an assured income through conservation and cultivation of the traditional Kalajeera rice. But can traditional varieties alone meet the country’s growing food needs?

The Planning Commission estimates that India requires 122.1 million tonne (MT) of milled rice by 2020 to be food secure. At the existing 1.34 per cent rate of growth India can hope to produce no more than 106 MT. How will the country bridge the deficit?

A major initiative to meet this challenge was kicked off in 2007 with the launch of the National Food Security Mission which has been mandated to bump up rice production by 10 million tonnes by 2011-12. The three-pronged mission—for rice, wheat and pulses— has been allocated generous funds of Rs 4,882 crore with rice getting the lion’s share of Rs 1,963 crore. This year, Finance Minister Pranab Mukherjee announced another scheme, more ambitiously titled the Second Green Revolution for the eastern states, in his budget. With an outlay of Rs 400 crore from the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojna (RKVY) funds, the thrust is to step up rice yield, along with that of pulses and oilseeds, in the states of Bihar, Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Odisha, West Bengal and eastern Uttar Pradesh.

According to Union agriculture minister Sharad Pawar the best bet is the Chinese model. At the first conclave of agriculture ministers of the newly designated Green Revolution states in July, Pawar said there was much to learn from the Chinese model of agricultural growth, particularly in using hybrid paddy.

Two decades of concentrated research on hybrids by premier research institutions in the country—the Directorate of Rice Research (DRR) in Hyderabad, the International Agriculture Research Institute (IARI) in Delhi and the Central Rice Research Institute (CRRI) in Cuttack—have not made much headway. Since the 1990s, the Centre and states have released 43 hybrid rice varieties, of which 28 are developed by public labs. In addition, says Tapan Kumar, director of CRRI, 30-40 truthfully labelled hybrids developed by the private sector are being cultivated in the country. Yet, just about 3 per cent of the area under rice has gone over to hybrids.

It is perhaps on account of such poor acceptance that the National Food Security Mission (NFSM), too, is focusing much of its energy on popularising hybrid rice. It has set a target of bringing three million ha under hybrids by 2011 although mission officials have not found the response of farmers encouraging so far. Mukesh Khullar, joint secretary in the agriculture ministry, who heads NFSM says, “Farmers don’t appear to see much benefit in using hybrids, and there are issues relating to quality and availability of the seed.” The mission provides financial assistance for production of hybrid rice seed, Rs 1,000 per 100 kg, because it concedes that “hybrid rice seed production is a very complex and risky task.”

Overall, the obsession with promoting hybrid rice as a priority has not gone down well with the larger community of agriculture scientists. They point out that the new stress-tolerant varieties that have been introduced in several states have done much to revive the fortunes of rice cultivators—and add to the foodgrain kitty. One of the biggest breakthroughs has been the development of rice varieties that can take on prolonged submergence, drought and grow well in extreme salinity.

But according to insiders, a group of scientists from the apex Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR) has brought up this issue with Pawar and Krishi Bhawan officials, pointing out that tilt towards hybrids would only benefit the private seed companies. Hybrid seeds cannot be reused by farmers like other seeds and have to be procured each season from the developer.

The new Green Revolution may well usher in a rice revolution in the east but before that it could lead to a bitter battle for India’s rice market.
System of Rice Intensification is new mantra for reducing water usage and increasing productivity SRI is the acronym for System of Rice Intensification, a new technique to grow rice more efficiently using much less water and seeds but yielding far greater quantities of rice. It is a system that is being spread by a band of somewhat unlikely evangelists: academics, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), top-flight charitable trusts, crop research institutions, wildlife organisations, the World Bank and most surprisingly the Government of India.

Muralidhar Adhikari, who works with Koraput NGO Pragati, exemplifies the spirit of the SRI missionaries. He goes from farm to farm with a message that comes across as heretical to rice cultivators. Stop growing rice in standing water, use as little of the precious resource as possible, reduce seed consumption and throw out pesticides and chemical fertilizers. Initially it is tough to convince the farmers but later on it works.
In SRI 8-14-day seedlings instead of the normal three-four-week-old seedlings are transplanted at wider spacing through a marker system for uniformity. Only one seedling is planted per hill. Water is used sparingly to keep the soil moist but not continuously flooded. Weeding is carried out mechanically through a rotary weeder (small hand-driven machine), but instead of throwing out the weeds these are pushed into the soil for aeration and providing organic compost. Use of farmyard manure is encouraged because SRI cultivation responds better to organic fertiliser than chemical fertilisers. It is these simple but time-consuming and intermittently labour-intensive practices that could prove the saviour of rice farmers.
The World Bank, is a champion of SRI. Working with Tamil Nadu to improve its irrigation service delivery, the Bank has helped to bring around 450,000 ha under the SRI system. Its logic: “any significant growth in agriculture depends on increasing the efficiency and productive use of water.” It warns that by 2020, India’s demand for water will outstrip all sources of supply.

Since India needs to increase rice production by 2.5 million tonnes a year, it cannot hope to do so by the conventional method of cultivation. That guzzles 4,000 to 5,000 litres of water per kg of rice. Nor can it expand its irrigated area to the required level because of constraints on land and water resources.

Perhaps as a result of Tamil Nadu’s project, SRI has caught the imagination of the mandarins in Delhi, too, which has set aside Rs 8 crore under the National Food Security Mission to propagate SRI in the selected districts where the programme runs. The mission has a target of covering five million ha by 2011-12 and is a key element in efforts to push up rice productivity.

NGOs are the foot soldiers of this innovative programme with nodal organisations stringing together district- wide networks to reach as many small and marginal farmers as possible. The NGO network from Pradhan in Bihar to CROPS in Jangoan, Andhra Pradesh, has been made possible thorough generous funding from private charities. Whereas the public sectors also plays a philanthropic role in the funding, for example; NABARD.
 Shambu Prasad, associate professor at the Xavier Institute of Management, Bhubaneswar, who has put together a national alliance on SRI, believes that scientists tend to be dismissive of SRI because the technology has come from the farmers and not the formal research establishment. He admits that there are issues with SRI. One is labour costs. Although small farmers can come together to do the transplanting and weeding at the critical times, costs can be a concern when farmers have to hire labour for these chores. One yardstick of the technique’s success is that SRI is being adapted for a range of other crops from wheat to millets.

Modern agriculture, Prasad concedes, has been the most successful system of production in history. But it has also been the most stressful for natural resources—for soil, water and air. What is needed now is grassroots innovation that relieves these stresses.