Can We Have Techno-Farmers, Please?

Sanjay Dixit

Jun 08, 2015, 01:59 PM | Updated Feb 11, 2016, 10:07 AM IST

Through the centuries, winning wars has rarely depended upon the sheer numbers, because if that were the case, the Rajputs would have won every one of them. Wars have been won by sides not with better numbers, valour or courage, but by those with better technology, tactics and strategy. Agriculture is no different. Countries who have been able to leverage technology in agriculture have been able to not only solve their consumption issues, but have actually been able to contribute significantly to their national economies. I have been lucky to be able to see the agricultural sector of many countries and Indian states. Today I will deal with technological developments in crop husbandry and horticulture and allied issues.

First, let me dwell on the use of water through irrigation networks. This is an area where considerable reforms are required. Traditional irrigation canal networks have used a wasteful water allowance of 5.23 cusecs per thousand hectares. They’ve encouraged increasing doses of fertilisers and have degraded the lands as a consequence. Large parts of Punjab doabs, and Ganganagar-Hanumangarh districts of Rajasthan (an area as large as Punjab) are affected by salinity and drainage issues. It is not surprising that the 2nd stage of Indira Gandhi Canal is much more productive with a water allowance of 3.5 cusecs per thousand hectares, as it encourages them to go for less water intensive crops which fetch greater value in the market. These are the areas which prefer groundnut and lentils to rice and wheat.

The inability of the government to persuade the farmers of Stage I has translated into sacrificing an additional 8 lakh hectares of land which was initially designed to be brought under command in areas adjoining the border in Jaisalmer and Barmer districts. At 39,000 and 28,000 sq. kms. (67 lakh hectares), the two districts together are bigger than 18 States of India, and have been grievously hurt by this excision of 8 lakh hectares due to the suicidal use of excess water in the upper reaches of Indira Gandhi Canal.

It was fitting that the Soil Health Card scheme was launched nationally from Suratgarh in Ganganagar district for no other region of the country has degraded its soil more by application of excess water. Yet, every time there is an attempt to rationalize water use in this area, it provides fodder to leftist groups active in the area to start an agitation.

I had carried out a simple experiment while working as Secretary, Horticulture. I introduced 1 HP solar pumps out of the funds available from newly launched Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) coupled with the existing farm pond scheme of National Horticulture Mission (NHM). I had introduced just 12 experimental pumps in the year 2007. I am happy to state that the solar pump-water tank model is today a roaring success, with a full-fledged government scheme of solar pumps subsidy and thousands of tankas (water tanks) using solar pumps to run sprinkler or drip systems.

Andhra Pradesh has had a highly focused drip irrigation programme for nearly a decade. YSR was the first to accept the recommendations of modern irrigation technologists and some bureaucrats and put all future irrigation canals on pressure irrigation (sprinklers and drip). In Rajasthan, the Narmada Canal system followed suit and did away with system of field channels for flood irrigation of the fields. Now the channels take water to tanks, from where the farmer can lift this water to irrigate his field through either sprinklers or drip systems.

In Narmada regular system, farmers are thriving with the highest productivity in Rajasthan, even though the water allowance is between 2 (for lift channels) and 3 (for gravity channels). This is the first system in Rajasthan based entirely on pressure irrigation as opposed to flow irrigation, enhancing water efficiency and productivity. Though experts often differ, the ballpark figures generally put the efficiency of flow/flood irrigation at 15-20%, sprinkler irrigation at 30-40% and drip irrigation at 75-85%. Drip irrigation has the highest impact on productivity by mixing liquid fertilizer with the water. It’s high time we converted all our canals to the Rajasthan Narmada Project pattern. This alone would increase the irrigated area from 40% to 60% of culturable area.

Second, we are still in a rudimentary stage as far as productivity is concerned. Israel is the acknowledged leader in irrigation technology. One could say that its geography made it a compulsion, but they converted it into an opportunity. I have travelled across Israel extensively. It is the most classic case of the techno-farmer. Irrigation technologies combined with the best practices prevalent in the world and close hand holding by the government agencies makes Israel the fruit and vegetable store for the entire Europe, especially in winters.

The Netherlands is another example. Though it has no water shortage, its adoption of drip technology is based entirely on productivity considerations, as drip irrigation is the only one suitable for fertigation (where liquid fertilizer is added directly in the water). The Netherlands has a problem of soil due to high water tables and long extreme winters. So they have perfected the art of cultivating vegetables in glass houses with artificial lighting and using coco peat or hydroponics as growing medium in lieu of soil. Their highly lucrative Dutch flower industry is entirely dependent on this kind of cultivation. I spent some time in the Netherlands Agriculture University at Wageningen (near Arnhem).

I can confidently say that India is still half a century behind Israel and leading European countries. In the Horticulture space, I had got an International institute established with Dutch collaboration in Jaipur (IHITC) which lies mostly neglected today. The Dutch are also the pioneers in Animal Husbandry sector. The high point of their research is that the warm water buffalo has been indigenized by them in order to compete with Italy in mozzarella cheese space. Our research has fallen into the hands of ICAR bureaucracy so completely that little of what they have done ever gets into the field.

There is a large area – nearly 15 lakh hectare and growing – under drip irrigation and another 30 under sprinklers. We need to increase it by ten-fold in the next ten years. Presently drip is mostly confined to long spacing crops, such as horticulture, cotton, castor, and vegetables. We need to take the next step to short spaced crop. Application of drip technology to wheat and rice has yielded 2 to 5 times increase in productivity in demonstrations. However, with total irrigated area of nearly 600 lakh hectares out of 1600 lakh cultural area, we have a long way to go.

I had figured out very early that there was no section so deep rooted in traditional practices as the farmer, notwithstanding whether they were the social customs or agricultural practices. No amount of technical literature and figures was going to help. So I concentrated on the age old extension technique of exposures and demonstrations. I sent out nearly a thousand farmers in A/C coaches to Kutch to expose them to the modern irrigation and cropping practices.

My conversion rate was less than 10 percent but the 80-90 who converted to modern practices became the torch bearers. However, if the country has to have a hope of leapfrogging the povertarian discourse about farming, we need millions of them to be exposed to modern technologies. Plenty of high initiatives are available within India itself.

Given that with such a high number of workers engaged in agriculture and its growth rate over the last 3 years being just about 1.7%, we have to pull out all stops to go full throttle on making the best use of all our resources. Coupled with the efficiency of irrigation, there is also the issue of precipitation management. Israel makes use of 95% of its precipitation, and recycles 85% of the used water. India uses 5% of its precipitation and recycles virtually 0% of the used water. Such a humungous waste.

I will deal with the other aspects of technology in crop husbandry, horticulture and social forestry and would also highlight the benefits of integrated farming by looking at the Animal Husbandry sub-sector of Agriculture sector. Let’s get rid of the poor farmer syndrome. Techno-farmer is the only solution now.

Sanjay Dixit is IAS 1986 batch in the rank of Principal Secretary to Govt of Rajasthan. Posted as Commissioner of Enquiries. He tweets @Sanjay_Dixit

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