With climate change, soil degradation and water becoming an important cost, the 'System of Rice Intensification' (SRI) offers disadvantaged farming households better option of paddy transplantation.
A truant monsoon is in the offing, with El Nino weather patterns expected to bring about drier conditions. India has the world's largest area devoted to rice, a very water-intensive crop. Experts feel that this is the right time for giving impetus to 'more crop per drop' practice during the current rice-growing kharif season.
Chief agriculure officer, Dr Ravi Kumar Sabharwal, says, "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," Sabharwal adds.
Agricultural development officer, Dr Amrik Singh, points out, "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". It is estimated that there are now over five million farmers using SRI worldwide. In more than 50 countries wherein the benefits of SRI have already been demonstrated, there has been a 30-50% decrease in water use compared to growing the same varieties on similar soil under flooded conditions, Dr Sabharwal claims.
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", says Dr Sabharwal.
According to Prof Uphoff, 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.
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% of the state's rice area, with a target area of 40% set for 2013-14, Dr Sabharwal adds.
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.
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 Scheme (MNREGS). Labour is required for more weeding, on-farm water control, and organic fertiliser application. Under the MNREGS, 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.
"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," says Dr Amrik Singh.