Bengaluru: Frequently pulled up for continuing to expand its water-intensive crops like paddy and sugarcane even after nearly four drought years, the Karnataka government is trying to strike a balance between the state’s acute water shortage and the aspirations of farmers by reviving old techniques of farming in paddy and sugarcane cultivation.
The state government is trying to revive direct seeded rice (DSR) or direct sowing of rice—a technique that requires about 30-40% less water, cost savings as well as a faster crop cycle—in various parts of the state.
“This year will be the breakout year for DSR," said Karnataka agriculture minister Krishna Byre Gowda. His optimism stems from the fact that DSR cultivation of rice now accounts for almost 1.5 lakh hectares when compared to around 14 lakh hectares of total paddy cultivation in the state.
According to agriculture department estimates, this year DSR cultivation could jump to three lakh hectares.
Gowda said that after some resistance, progressive farmers in the state have started adopting this method, which involves direct seeding of rice into the soil as compared to raising a seed in a nursery and then replanting it on flooded fields.
Farmers in the state had to wait till almost the end of July for water from reservoirs to be let into canals for lands coming under irrigation to start sowing paddy, as it involves flooding of fields from the beginning. In DSR technique, farmers can directly sow the paddy seeds into the soil after rains in June-July and wait at least 15-20 days before providing any irrigation. Then another gap of 20 days can be given before releasing more water. Only after about 50 days, you start flooding the fields, resulting in fewer plant moralities, faster crop cycle and lower water consumption, Gowda said.
“Initially it took us a lot of effort to convince farmers, but now they are adopting," Gowda said, adding that big farmers (who own around 50 acres) are moving towards this method and many others are following in their footsteps.
So far, the government has seen farmers in the Tungabhadra command area adopt the DSR practice far more than in other parts of the state. It is now being promoted in regions around Malnad.
To recover from nearly four years of drought, failing rains, historical river water disputes and only 25% irrigated area, Karnataka has also been experimenting with techniques like drip irrigation, millet cultivation and less water-intensive methods in the field of agriculture, but few farmers have shown interest in switching from paddy and sugarcane, mostly because these crops give higher yields and prices.
However, farmer groups in various parts of the state continue to fight for better protection against natural and market forces from the government, rather than switching from paddy and sugarcane. Paddy has a minimum support price (MSP) and is part of the public distribution system. Even though Karnataka has been offering Rs2,300 for a quintal of ragi (finger millet)—far higher than Rs1,600 for rice—many farmers have been reluctant in making the switch that has both economic and social connotations involved.
The four years of drought in Karnataka saw farmer distress reach new highs with debts, loan defaults and increase in farmer suicides.
Around 3,515 farmers in Karnataka have committed suicide between April 2013 and November 2017, according to data from the state agriculture department, Press Trust of India reported last month.
With high investments and new campaigns for millets, organic farming and drip irrigation in sugarcane, the state government now believes that DSR could be the way forward for paddy cultivation in the state, given the response.
“So far it was a evolutionary growth, next year may be multiplier," Gowda said.