Introducing a new farming technique in the Gangetic plains - The Bihar Experience

Nagasubramanian works for the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme (India), a non-denominational, non-government development organization working in Gujarat since 1984. AKRSP (India) works as a catalyst for the betterment of rural communities by providing direct support to local communities to enhance their livelihood and develop models for sustainable natural resource management and human resource development. Its operations in Bihar were started in mid-2008 and in this narration, Nagasubramanian shares his experience of promoting System of Rice Intensification (SRI) among the farmers in Bihar during the initial phase.

All views represented in this post are all personal and do not reflect the views of my employers

It was the end of May. That meant that from an agricultural standpoint, we were about a month away from the start of the kharif season. Paddy is the main crop here during that time. In South Gujarat,especially amongst the tribals, we promote SRI. But Bihar was a different ball game. One, we did not have the services of an experienced staff. Two, the team was raw; hardly any experience in working on agriculture. Three, we did not know the farmers. This was an experiment in the first year and that meant that we had to try this with farmers who could take the risk which obviously meant the large landed cultivators and not the small and medium ones. Four, the so-called theory on SRI - that it is suitable only in places where quantity of water in the field can be regulated. North Bihar is flood prone and the fields would be water-logged. As a result, it was prescribed that this region is not suitable for paddy cultivation using the SRI methodology.

These factors notwithstanding, we decided to take the plunge. Two events boosted our confidence. Firstly, the training cum workshop on SRI conducted by PRADAN in Gaya around that time. It gave our staff the first exposure on the technique and thus the initial boost in confidence. Secondly, the timely visit of Jivraj Sutaria, Agriculture specialist from our South Gujarat programme area. He spent a fortnight in our field and what a period that was. Along with Rajani Bhushan and Yashwant Kumar, the agriculture staff members, they spent considerable time in visiting farmers, talking to them, motivating them, training them and literally getting their hands dirty with the slush and mud to plant the seedlings in the SRI prescribed way. This was not as easy though. Every day, armed with a few hastily printed leaflets on SRI and a laptop in hand, we would set out to convince villagers on the benefits of cultivating paddy using the SRI methodology – less quantity of seeds, replacing chemical fertilizers partly with organic compost, higher yields. The dissemination video on SRI demonstration prepared as part of the annadaata series by E TV was the star attraction in every meeting. Farmers would flock such meetings and watch the video intently but then during the discussions post the show would throw up their hands saying, ‘all this is fine but the labour cost will increase substantially’. They would earnestly request us to concentrate our efforts on tobacco as this was their cash crop. When asked how many of them would volunteer to try out SRI in their fields that year, there would be one or two stray raised hands. This was almost turning out to be a routine exercise. We would have done the video demonstrations to about 200 farmers but each time the response would be similar. Not losing hope, we marched on.

Eventually only 26 farmers co-operated. No promotional freebies were on offer. Farmers were asked to use the seeds that they would have otherwise preferred. The seeds were treated and the beds were carefully prepared. Now came the difficult part. Nobody dared to do the transplant between the eighth to the twelfth day instead waited till about 14 days. Linings were prepared in the field but farmers refused to plant one sapling at a point instead they wanted to play it safe and make it two. We did not protest. Change perhaps happens only in increments. The rains arrived on time and the timing of the transplantation of the seedlings was just perfect. Every week, we would track the progress of the paddy crop; how many were the number of tillers and later on the number of panicles etc. We waited with baited breath, coaxed the farmers into performing the weeding process, a rarity in paddy cultivation and kept updating the progress of the crop in the fields to the concerned staff at Gujarat, taking instructions along the way and dutifully implementing them in the field. The standing crop at the end of it all was really encouraging and harvesting was just a week’s time away. Strong westerly winds played spoil sport and drastically impacted the overall yield. Nevertheless, the average jump in production in percentage terms was 30 % from the previous year. This proved that SRI works in flood affected regions as well albeit to a lesser degree.

This was a real shot in the arm for the young and fledgling team. In a period of 4 months, we were able to demonstrate successfully a new methodology contrary to traditionally held beliefs on paddy cultivation and achieve significant increase in yields. Even though the pilot was done with the landed class, it helped in establishing the credibility of the organization amongst the influential people in the area. We were taken seriously on matters regarding agriculture and this in spite of the fact that the Agriculture University was next door and had run up a not so favourable reputation for its extension efforts.

A pilot activity in the first few months, in a new area with new people being taken up by 26 farmers was a good beginning. But what really intrigued us was that the conversion rate for dissemination was 26 to 200 or one out of every eight farmers. We felt that the returns were not commensurate with the efforts put in. During the course of the season we realised our big folly. Our efforts were largely focused in the villages of Baghauni and Mohammadpur Koari. Both are predominantly Muslim and the big farmers among them in general prefer to leave their field idle, wait till the rains are over before they embark on the late kharif crop of tobacco. Little did we know this fact and only when we took a closer look at our beneficiary profile did we realise that our future endeavour needs to factor this in. This was our first major learning.

There is more to the SRI saga. About 10 farmers tried out cultivating paddy during the summer of 2009; SRI thrives on reduced availability of water and hence this was worth a try in the low lying fields, called chaur, that are mostly submerged in water three quarters of a year and start yielding ground by early February. Summer ’09 was very harsh, the mid-summer rains did not come on time as expected and the farmers had to supplement it with more rounds of irrigation. The margins in a food crop are not that great and we realised that summer paddy is not viable the hard way. However, the kharif 2009, in spite of an erratic monsoon, produced the best paddy yields for about 400 farmers, a far cry from the first year’s 26, in the whole of the area. We plan to take up SRI on a much larger scale and probably act as a resource organisation for promoting paddy cultivation using this method for the whole of north Bihar in the times to come.

Image Credit: Nagasubramanian

Our experiences from Gujarat tell us that agriculture extension is best conducted through the formation of institution of farmers. This would not only help in dissemination of new and improved techniques of cultivation among the likes of SRI, SWI(System of Wheat Intensification) etc but to begin with also help farmers in pooling in their agricultural input requirements like seeds, fertilisers, pesticides etc. A bigger pool would mean a better bargain at the wholesaler’s doorstep. This formation of farmer groups is easier said than done. For one, the farmers belong to the small and medium category. They are heavily dependent on the local retailer for their inputs that is typically available on credit. To strike a similar deal for bulk purchasing from the wholesaler at first go is to wish that horses have wings. So, one of the foremost activities that has been taken up by the groups that are being promoted is monthly savings and making credit available from it.

NABARD has been approached to help link these groups to banks that then can extend credit against the deposit and also help pass on other government sponsored benefit programmes. The first few accounts are being opened. One of the groups, consisting largely of small and medium farmers, has gone on to buy a tractor by pooling in additional funds and now makes it available to the other farmers in the nearby villages on a rental basis. Yet another, this time of small and marginal farmers has pooled in with handful contribution from AKRSP to install a tube well with a diesel pump that can be used for irrigating their fields that were hitherto unattended during the rabi season.

However, these are initial trends that exhibit the potential of farmers’ institutions but this is a long drawn process and we as an organisation need to keep pegging away patiently. Once the platform of a number of stable farmer groups is built, then more opportunities shall open up especially on the output front, where the margins of collective action are definitely much higher especially when one is talking about vegetables. Today, there are many such farmers’ groups and this has basically been possible thanks to the first tentative steps that we took in paddy cultivation through the field extension of the SRI technique.

The agriculture programme today encompasses of extension efforts of SRI and SWI, which have a potential to be scaled up using a campaign mode, the varietal trials of select vegetables and piloting kitchen garden, getting closer to the MIAD (Multi Input Area Development) audience of the marginal farmers and building institutions of the farmers. A small army of extension workers are being identified, their capacities being built and they being incentivised to reach out to the neediest lot.