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02 September 2014
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  • Agriculture issues on India Together
  • From rice bowl to fruit farms?
    Meena Menon reports on the decline of Chhattisgarh's agricultural fortunes
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    March 2002: Bansi Yadav is perhaps a typical farmer in Chhattisgarh. He owns two acres and grows high yielding varieties(HYV) of rice. The returns are very less and almost always he has to buy rice to meet his consumption needs. Like most farmers he is in debt and works for daily wages. Many years ago he used to grow a local variety called Gurmatia with fairly good results."I cannot get the seeds of Gurmatia. I have to depend on what the government gives us."

    Chhattisgarh has often been dubbed rice bowl of Madhya Pradesh. Yet productivity is not very high and after the formation of the new Chhattisgarh state, the chief minister Ajit Jogi has been making repeated statements that "paddy is poverty". There is going to be a new thrust on horticulture if the scientists at the Indira Gandhi Agricultural University(IGAU) at Labhandi, near Raipur, have their way.

    The vice- chancellor of IGAU, Dr V K Patil, has proposed a plan to cover 5.5 lakh hectare of the state with horticulture crops and this, he said, will generate jobs for 25 lakh people. Horticulture is the agriculture of the future, he stated at a recent seminar at IGAU. At present, Chhattisgarh has 62,000 hectares under horticulture which was a very small area, he said. The state will no longer be a rice bowl but a fruit bowl, remarked a senior scientist.

    Government officials said rice productivity was 1.4 tonnes per hectare or 14 quintals/ha- the reason being inadequate irrigation. However, according to the University, rice production in Chhattisgarh had increased and this was due to increased acreage under HYVs, increased use of fertilisers and improved production technology. Despite this, average yields remain at 1.6 tonnes per hectare. Compare this to the 1960s when the yield was around one tonne with low fertiliser inputs and no institutional support. According to the old Raipur gazette, in 1967-68, the standard yield of rice was 1065 kg/hectare.

    The use of HYVs has also led to increased use of fertilisers, loss of biodiversity and farmers becoming dependent on the government machinery for seeds, agricultural inputs and loans. There seems to be a total negation of indigenous varieties except as a source of genetic material. Now the University plans to encourage hybrids which can increase rice production by one or one and a half times per hectare. The Food Insecurity Atlas of India prepared by the UN World Food Programme and the Chennai-based M S Swaminathan Research Foundation has identified Chhattisgarh along with Jharkhand, Gujarat, Rajasthan and Orissa as among the most food insecure states in the country. What happened to this region with its vast genetic diversity in rice? An IGAU report said rice is the main crop of Chhattisgarh and it is grown on 39.91 lakh hectares and covers 77 per cent of the net sown area. Rice is mainly grown under rainfed conditions and the main source of irrigation is canals fed by major, minor and medium irrigation projects which are also dependent on rains. There are about 30,000 wells and 35,000 ponds which provide some small percentage of irrigation. The government is talking of exploiting groundwater resources for double cropping.

    The region has a low cropping intensity of 121 per cent. The productivity of rice in rainfed areas ranges between 10.0 to 11.0 quintals per hectare whereas it is 16 to 19 quintals per hectare in irrigated areas which is very low compared to the national average and other states, according to IGAU's Status report, 2000. Chhattisgarh suffers from lack of irrigation, and periodic droughts while the average rainfall is 1400 mm. Migration is the norm and the majority of farmers have very small landholdings.

    The University found that farmers were slow to adopt rice varieties developed and recommended by scientists and launched a Farmers Participatory Breeding Programme in 1998 in collaboration with the International Rice Research Institute(IRRI).

    It is ironic that Madhya Pradesh produced a top class rice scientist whose plan for increasing rice production was never put into practice. Few know about the pathbreaking contributions made in rice research by Dr R H Richharia whose career was jeopardised more than once by the government's whims and policies. Dr Richharia who was director of the Central Rice Research Institute,(CRRI) Cuttack, had developed clonal propagation of rice. In this method, indigenous varieties could be improved to instill a hybrid vigour in them. Each region had varieties which were suited to the soil, climate and other variations of the area and this was the key to increasing rice production, he maintained. In fact, the only memory of his extensive work is the germplasm bank at IGAU which now contains over 22,500 accessions of rice from Madhya Pradesh, over 19,000 of which were collected under his supervision and called the Raipur collection. He opposed the introduction of the dwarf varieties which he felt were susceptible to pests and would not be suited to Indian conditions and for this he was shunted out of CRRI. Later, he was made agriculture advisor to the Madhya Pradesh government. However, the Madhya Pradesh Rice Research Institute(MPRRI) which he headed, was also summarily shut down.

    In a paper delivered at a conference on The Crisis in Modern Science in November, 1986, in Malaysia, Dr Richharia said he was convinced that rice productivity in India which had reached a high pitch in ancient times, can be restored by not replacing the existing cultivars which had descended from their original stock passing through many generations in its home environment. It was possible for rice breeders to select resistant high yielding varieties, he said. However, he added, "... But pressure was brought about by the World Bank to close the activities of this Institute(MPRRI) in lieu of offering a substantial financial assistance as I had refused to pass on the entire rice germplasm to IRRI without studying it." In his book, "Our strategy on the Rice Production Front in Madhya Pradesh," he had written that with lower doses of fertilisers and without plant protection measures, the adapted indigenous varieties yield better or remain at par with the dwarf(varieties), grown with high doses of fertilisers and without plant protection measures." And that is what possibly many farmers in Chhattisgarh have discovered for themselves.

    In 1977, in "A strategy for Rice Production to Ensure Sustained Growth in Madhya Pradesh", Dr Richharia advocated genetically upgrading dominant varieties which could yield 30 to 40 times more rice with the judicious application of fertilisers. He said this could be pursued along with the intensive agriculture programme. In 1975, experiments were carried out to improve select indigenous varieties whose yields were observed to be close to 3000 kg /ha and in some cases twice or even thrice as much. It was felt that these improved selections could be the basis for augmenting rice production in Madhya Pradesh as the varieties were pest resistant and to some extent, drought resistant as well. "Choice of suitable varieties to suit the environment rather than to create environments to suit a given type is the fundamental issue involved," he wrote.

    After the MPRRI was closed or merged with the state agricultural university in 1978, rice research continued under the World Bank supported National Agricultural Research Project(NARP), which aimed at strengthening regional research capabilities of state agricultural universities. A report on the impact of NARP, May 1996, said rice productivity increased by 41 per cent during the decade long programme and this was due to improved varieties which were resistant to gall midge and bacterial blight which were in an epidemic stage. Under the Intensive Agricultural District Programme, HYVs were first introduced in Raipur in 1966-67. The new variety,TN1 , gave good yields compared to local varieties though it was a drought year. Farmers then took to its cultivation, according to a progress report on IADP in Raipur. Safri 17 was also popular due to its adaptability to local conditions and high yields. Safri 17 was a selection from the several types of Safri grown in the whole of eastern Madhya Pradesh. This variety is widely cultivated and till recently, occupied about 50 per cent of area of all recommended varieties of the state and is included in the seed distribution of the state, according to a report Rice Research in Chhattisgarh 1994, published by IGAU. There is evidence that some indigenous varieties of rice in the region are high yielding, some are even resistant to gall midge which is a major pest threatening rice. Some local dwarf varieties were also identified and tested by the MPRRI. But this vast repository of rice varieties seems to have been given the go by in the race for increased production and developing newer varieties of rice.

    Dr Richharia's many books are not even kept in the new library at IGAU. Some of his research notes and books are with the department of plant breeding which also looks after the germplasm bank. An encyclopaedia which he was working on, has been taken away by his daughter, claims the University. It is strange that the University does not even have a copy of this voluminous work.

    Scientists at IGAU do recognise Dr Richharia's contribution but feel traditional varieties cannot be relied upon for high production. Dr M N Srivastav, dean of the Agricultural college which was established in 1961, part of IGAU, said, "Agriculture has advanced to such an extent that talking of improving traditional varieties is obsolete-we have to see if some genetic resources can be used and talk in terms of improving further varieties- working with traditional varieties will be a reverse process," he felt. "Their importance lies in the genes they have to resist pests and adaptability. Rice must yield at least 3 to 4 tonnes/ha otherwise land should be used for something else as 1 or 2 tonnes/ha is mere subsistence."

    "The yields of the crop are the lowest where the crop originates from. You look at soyabean yields -they are very high. With less than 20 per cent irrigation, mostly from canals and tanks in a region where the evaporation is equal to the transpiration, we do not have the best conditions. Uncertain rainfall is our first enemy- and our yields are less than the national average of more than 2 tonnes per hectare. While the yields are improving, there is not much progress. Irrigation at 16 per cent is hampering the use of fertilisers and insecticides. Farmers are hesitant to use these inputs unless there is assured water supply,"he said.

    Of the total area of 3.8 million ha under rice, 30 to 40 per cent is under HYVs- but since was there was no survey it was only an estimate, he said. In Raipur which had more irrigation than other places in the state, HYVs occupied about 50 per cent of the area. Mahamaya which was released in 1995, was the most popular variety, he said. "All varieties we release have to be drought resistant. Mahamaya under ideal conditions can yield upto 7 tonnes/hectare but the average yield with irrigation is about 5tonnes /ha, he added. The potential of Safri 17 is only four tonnes per hectare. But a good farmer can get upto 2 tonnes per hectare - the average yield is about 1.6 tonnes/ha." "Our mandate at the university is to have varieties with pest resistant genes and also give stress to short or medium duration varieties as the monsoon does not last for more than 100 days. Horticulture development is also a mandate of the University --We will encourage rice only where the yields are good - in the 21 century, agriculture is an enterprise-wherever it is not productive we will encourage horticulture," explained Prof A.S.R.A. S. Sastri, associate director, research, IGAU. In Chhattisgarh, despite the drought last year, the FCI godowns are full and the prices have dropped to Rs 560 a quintal, he added.

    The demand for foodgrains and other agricultural products will continue to grow by about 2.5 per cent per annum during the next 10-20 years. The ninth five-year plan estimates that about 230 million tonnes of foodgrain will be needed by 2002. Driven by higher growth in income, the demand for fruits, vegetables, edible oils,livestock products and other processed food products will grow rapidly, according to a lecture by R B Singh, director Indian Agricultural Research Institute, in December 1998.

    Dr P N Sharma, director extension services, IGAU, said," We try and see if research conducted at the University caters to the needs of the farmers.We have succeeded in introducing double cropping in a mono cropped area. Thanks to the focus on non- rice crops - the area under pulses is increasing and is now at 2 lakh hectares. We are also encouraging farmers to grow vegetables," he said, adding that growing only rice would not be beneficial for the region.

    According to Rainfed Rice, a sourcebook of best practices and strategies in Eastern India, (IRRI) April, 2000, six states in eastern India, Assam, Bihar, Orissa West Bengal and Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh account for about 63.3 per cent of the total rice cropped area in the country (26.8million hectares out of 42.3 million hectares)but produce only 48 per cent of the total rice. Though the average yield of the rainfed ecosystem of eastern India is only about 1 tonne/ha (except for West Bengal), its potential is very high as seen from demonstration/on farm trials. Farmers realise only 50 per cent of it due to the non-availability of seed and other timely inputs and lack of awareness about new varieties and improved technologies.

    Referring to the loss of biodiversity, the book says that the rate of loss of diversity in rice has been slower in the rainfed than in irrigated ecosystem. In rainfed systems, replacement of traditional varieties has been lower. Increased vulnerability due to narrowing of genetic bases has been cited as one of the reasons. Most modern varieties have been developed through hybridisation involving the single dwarfing gene source De geo woo gen(DGWG) which increases the plant's vulnerability to pests and diseases, such as devastation by the brown plant hopper in Kerala in the late 70s and bacterial blight in Punjab in 1980.

    The sourcebook adds that in the past, varietal development has focused mainly on increasing yield. Lately the focus has widened to include resistance to major pests and diseases. Now quality is also being emphasised. Over the past 35 years, more than 512 high yielding varieties have been released in India. About 67 of these are on the national seed chain but only one third of these 67 have been widely adopted and popularised. However, it states that while modern HYVs have greater yield potential than traditional varieties they were more prone to risk in situations involving stress or epidemics. Traditional cultivars on the other hand, have the capacity to withstand stress and adverse environments. These varieties may have low to moderate yields under adverse conditions whereas modern varieties may fail completely. All this notwithstanding, scientists believe that the dwarf gene caused a revolution in rice in the country. Dr R S Tripathi, director, research at IGAU said that about 70 per cent of the farmers were growing HYVs and about 60 per cent of the state was covered with HYVs. New varieties like IR 36 had brought a revolution in the farming system in backward areas likes Sarguja and Ambikapur. Swarna, another HYV, has replaced Safri 17 to a large extent though the crop was highly susceptible to bacterial blight. "Actually yields have doubled-officially it is around 1200kg/ha but it is much more-otherwise how will there be a rice surplus? Varieties like Kranti and Mahamaya are much sought after from outside the state," he said. Dr B P Choudhary, one of the oldest rice breeders at the University, said, "Initially- 30 years ago-the quality of rice was not the focus keeping in mind the needs of the country. "Traditional varieties were adapted to a particular set of environmental factors-they also respond poorly to fertilisers. Our goal was to increase production at that time and fertilisers were a must for this- so from the yield point of view the local varieties cannot fulfil high production demands which was the need of the hour. Look at IR 36 --globally it is popular and it has wide adaptability. We have not compromised on genetic diversity which is maximum in Chhattisgarh as we have released a number of varieties over the years keeping this in mind. "

    Dr R K Sahu, senior scientist and plant breeder at IGAU, feels that the University has been successful in introducing top yielders in the region like Mahamaya which is second only to Swarna, a variety from Andhra Pradesh. In the plains, farmers who had irrigation, preferred HYV but in the hills but in the tribal areas- it was still local varieties which held sway. He also said that there was a yield plateau with traditional varieties and they cannot go beyond four tonnes per hectare. It is only the big farmers who can take to HYVs, for smaller farmers the risk is too big and they stick to Safri 17 or traditional varieties.

    In a zero fertiliser experiment on rice, Dr Sahu said he got a yield of 2.5 tonnes per hectare which was very good and better than the average yield of rice . Rice is the crop for this region and only it can survive, he felt. The fields are bunded and the soils are not drained- all this including the topography is only suited for rice, he maintained.

    The University evaluated traditional scented varieties of rice their productivity and some of the rice gave yields as high as 24- 30 quintals per hectare. In fact this is a major thrust area, as there is a demand for export.

    Of the latest rice varieties released by the University, Bamleshwari is resistant to bacterial blight which is the number one threat to rice and Dhanteshwari is gall midge resistant. Dr S K Srivastav, senior entomologist, Krishi Vigyan Kendra, Durg, part of IGAU, said, "We are working on a market-- oriented approach for rice where we want productivity at any cost. Ninety per cent of the farmers in Chhattisgarh are small farmers who are fighting a losing battle with rice production. The new varieties that are being released have predetermined qualities of pest resistance- but the question is can they resist a varied attack. (for instance in Balaghat last year farmers planted a popular variety called Swarna and it was wiped out by blast). Local varieties like Safri 17 are more adapted over the years as they have developed resistance to a wide spectrum of diseases. When the problems of the area are not identified, how can we set them right," he asked. Dr Srivastav worked as a research fellow with Dr Richharia at the MPRRI.

    NGOs like Rupantar, in Raipur which works on traditional farming systems and seed collection, in 30 villages in Nagri block of Dhamtari district, are trying to document farmers' skills. Illina Sen of Rupantar, said," The old system was self --reliant and productivity under normal conditions, did not compare unfavourably with HYVs. But now farmers have to use fertilisers and they have lost their independence. There is also this issue of diverting land from food crops and water meant for irrigating crops is being diverted for industry. Soyabean is being encouraged and now this new plan for horticulture does not make sense- all this is being done with an eye on the export market. Self-- sufficiency in food is not the issue any more."

    Five years ago, the (Madhya Pradesh) state government wanted an evaluation of IGAU as it felt the University was not doing a good job and it wanted to shut down the institution. However, the evaluation agency suggested a revival and recommended more funds to be given to the University. The report of this evaluation is not public, Dr Tripathi said. While the effects of the green revolution are being questioned by ecologists in the country, the agriculture research establishment is driven by a keen desire to promote newer forms of inputs with the latest being the emphasis on hybrid varieties, ensuring farmers have to buy seeds every year. It is time a comprehensive evaluation was carried out on the effects of "modern" techniques on agriculture in the context of the loss of biodiversity which is assuming critical proportions now more than ever before. Solutions cannot be found to the question of ensuring food self-sufficiency, by diverting to cash crops. The answers may lie in farmers' fields rather than in some "hallowed" research establishment.

    Meera Menon is a freelance journalist based in Bombay. She may be contacted at cats@bol.net.in

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