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The prospect of a sub-normal monsoon is never good news, but this time it comes on top of a rabi harvest destroyed by being rained on at the wrong time, and a spate of farmer suicides. The only option is to turn monsoon adversity into an opportunity for closer inspection of water usage in agriculture. We need to look at cultivation pathways that generate more output per unit input of water. We also need to release farmers from the clutches of the corporate seed mafia.

It is here that a miracle solution, which has been on offer in this country for at least 15 years, needs to be pressed into speedy action. No, this is not genetically modified seed. It is just a system of intensive cultivation that cuts water requirement in half, and uses less seed, less fertiliser and less pesticide, and delivers higher output per acre by anywhere from 20% to 100%. Initially developed for rice alone, it now extends to other crops such as wheat and sugarcane as well.

Called the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), it is an altered method of planting and cultivation rather than an altered seed, and thus holds promise for preserving the rich crop diversity of India from being drowned by the corporate seed mafia. In the context of other crops, SRI changes to SCI, replacing the word rice with crop. It offers the best hope for insulating the country’s crop production from the fall in rain predicted by climate change scientists. After the Met department’s initial forecast that this year’s monsoon will likely be deficient, the coming kharif season offers a great opportunity to test its promise.

Too good to be true? Data on relevant parameters of SRI are available on the website of the Cornell College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (sri.cals.cornell.edu). Cornell University is at the forefront of popularizing SRI, through the untiring efforts of Norman Uphoff, a political science professor oddly enough, who works on rural development and happened upon SRI in Madagascar, where it originated.

Tripura leads Indian states, with 40% of rice cultivation now practising SRI. Clearly, the rate of adoption in any state will be driven by the commitment of the state agriculture department, and here there are a number of political obstacles to overcome. First, the agricultural scientist fraternity sees SRI as scientifically unsupported, since it originated not in a laboratory but in the field. Second, there is powerful opposition stemming from the weight of rice planting practices over the centuries. Surely, so the argument goes, farming practices embodying the distilled wisdom of the ages could not be wrong, or improved upon?

In traditional rice transplanting, women wade their way down a row in a flooded field with a clutch of seedlings held in one hand, from which small clumps are detached and pushed into the soil at regular intervals. Rice originated in water-abundant regions of the world, and this received practice, involving flooding of the field during transplanting and early growth of the plant, has been used in states like Punjab where poor drainage and high use of chemical fertiliser have had a devastating impact on soil quality. Punjab is said to be contemplating a ban on rice cultivation. What it could do instead is to switch to SRI.

The unique feature of SRI is that in place of a clump of seedlings, a single seedling is planted in slots at measured distances supplied with water, in a field otherwise kept unflooded. The source of the enhanced crop yield is said to be this very change, because the single seedling does not lose strength from having to battle competitors for nutrients. The single seedling consequently is more sturdy, develops more tillers, and puts down deeper roots. SRI yields do well without chemical fertiliser, and pest infestation is reduced because of the wider spacing of plants.

SRI thus radically departs from tradition, with methods of planting and nurturing which are more artisanal. That also makes SRI more labour intensive. And there lies the catch today in rural India, where real rural wages have spurted over the last 10 years. An embedded solution is however possible right there. The list of activities covered by the rural jobs programme can be extended to SRI cultivation. No better use of a public make-work scheme could surely be devised than one which directly increases agricultural productivity, instead of the indirect effects of building roads and other infrastructure, which are well known to be of poor quality because of materials to wages limits in the programme. There is a National Consortium on SRI which actually suggested this in a formal submission as far back as January 2012.

Based on that, a detailed suggestion was sent by the Planning Commission to the ministry of rural development, justifying inclusion of SRI cultivation in the list of works covered by the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), on the grounds of the saving in water usage. However, like all such government documents, it specifies qualifying conditions that are impossible to monitor. Inclusion of SRI in the qualifying list was to be confined to blocks that declare themselves SRI blocks, and that too for a maximum of 5 years; and there were detailed prescriptions of how many person-days would be allowed for transplanting and weeding. These were further hedged by the overall eligibility conditions for MGNREGA labour on private land, the boundaries of which are defined in an unwieldy way. In the event, SRI did not get included in the MGNREGA list. Going forward, it would be best to include it as permissible, and leave it to the block panchayat to secure local consent.

In addition to higher labour requirements, SRI also calls for a hand-held mechanical weeder that turns over the weeds growing around the rice plant into the soil to enrich it. This holds the key to the reduced requirement of chemical fertiliser. The traditional flooding of rice plots tends to kill off weeds that do not thrive in excess water, unlike the rice plant. With SRI, these weeds grow unchecked. The weeder calls for an additional fixed expenditure of roughly 1,000 for a farmer switching to SRI cultivation. A subsidy on this device would be far below present subsidies on irrigation water, electricity for pumping up ground water, fertiliser and pesticide.

The global spread of SRI is impressive. SRI cultivation is now estimated to be practised in over 50 countries (essentially all countries which grow rice), with empirical evidence of enhanced yield ranging from 20-100%, with 90% reduction of seed, and up to 50% water savings. It is unquestionably the climate-smart way to go. In terms of cost of cultivation to the farmer, SRI saves massively on seed, water, fertiliser and pesticide, but adds to labour cost, and there is of course the one-time fixed cost of the weeder.

The International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) in Manila has only recently granted its imprimatur to SRI, with space on its website. You have to search for it though, under the tab “news", and within that, under “hot topics". The description of SRI falls short of total endorsement, describing it as a flexible package of crop practices which renders it a “challenge for evaluation and assessment", as against a menu of practices that is science-based, with “a solid track record of performance". IRRI explicitly states that it will refrain from research comparing SRI to other cropping practices, and will stay with its policies of disseminating only scientifically proven improvements. At the same time, IRRI declares its willingness to work with farmers practising SRI. By this, and links to the Cornell website, IRRI has finally conceded that SRI is worth mentioning, even though it did not jump out of a lab.

The reasons impelling adoption by farmers of SRI, even with its present lack of scientific endorsement, is that it scores in cost over the best management practices recommended by IRRI and other pillars of the establishment, predicated as those are on expensive hybrid seed bought from multinationals, and intensive application of water, chemical fertiliser and pesticide.

Paddy cultivation is the single biggest consumer of water in India. Even if the incremental yield is zero, the saving in water usage alone makes SRI the climate-smart way to go. Leading states like Tripura could be entrusted with the task of disseminating SRI methods to other paddy cultivating states. It is not too late to start with an SRI push for kharif 2015.

The timing of the forecast of an impending sub-normal monsoon could not be worse. We have just had a parade of welcome price data. March, the last month of the last fiscal year, showed wholesale prices as having fallen year on year for the fifth straight month. Consumer prices did rise in March year on year but, at 5.17% as against 5.37% in February, the increase was the lowest in three months. We desperately wanted the monsoon to rain on this parade.

Indira Rajaraman is an economist and is currently on the board of directors of the Reserve Bank of India.

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