Apart from providing relief from distress to farmers and taking policy measures, as elaborated in a companion piece to improve their incomes, the coming budget must incentivise sustainable agriculture. If there is one programme I would commend for enhanced outlay and attention, it is Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India (BGREI) because of its huge payback.
BGREI was initiated by Pranab Mukherjee as finance minister. He provided Rs 400 crore for it in the 2010-11 budget. BGREI recognises that the eastern states — West Bengal, eastern Uttar Pradesh, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Bihar, Assam and Jharkhand — missed the Green Revolution, and that, being water-rich they are better suited for the cultivation of rice than the north-western states of Punjab and Haryana, which are growing it unsustainably by over-using groundwater. The objective of the programme is to increase the production and productivity of rice and wheat by adopting the suitable technologies and promote the cultivation of the second crop of pulses and oilseeds in the fields that remain fallow but have moisture left in them, after the rice harvest.
The programme has notched some success. The country’s production of rice has increased from an average of 94.75 million tonnes in the three years ending 2010-11 to an average of 106.65 million tonnes in the three years ending 2016-17. Of the 11.9 million tonne increase 74 percent or 8.81 million tonnes have come from the eastern states mentioned above. Their share in the country’s rice production has gone up from 51 percent to 54 percent during this period.
The 2018-19 report of the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), which determines the minimum support prices of 23 crops finds that Bihar has recorded the highest increase in rice productivity (30.2 percent), while Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand and Assam have seen it rise by 23.1 percent, 18.3 percent, 17.7 percent and 14.8 percent respectively. It says BGREI has “played a key role” but observes that the yields are still “significantly” lower than the national average of 24.6 quintals per hectare.
The National Rice Research Institute (NRRI) at Cuttack in Odisha which coordinates the programme says simple techniques like line sowing with a spacing of 20 cm and 15 cm between rows and plants results in a 10-15 percent increase in productivity compared to fields with broadcasted rice. Less density allows the use of machines for weeding. Plants also get more nutrients and sunshine. Less density reduces humidity and the incidence of pests and diseases. Farmers are advised to use sprays only if the number of pests exceeds threshold limits (determined visually or with the use of pheromone traps). They are told to treat the seeds with fungicides and apply micronutrients like zinc sulphate and boron.
SR Das, professor emeritus at Odisha University of Agriculture and Technology wonders whether the gains will be sustained after March 2020 if the programme is not extended. The supply of rice to very poor people at Rs 1 a kg has made agricultural labour scarce, he says. Line sowing needs two persons to hold a rope to mark rows in puddled fields. He says mechanical transplanters and weeders need to be provided at subsidised rates.
The rice-based cropping systems are affected by drought, flooding, submergence and salinity. BGREI promotes climate-resilient agriculture through cluster demonstrations. Direct seeding of rice (without transplanting) using seed drills saves the cost of labour. Tilling is not advised, and if not done, additional savings accrue. Sowing is to be timed to the onset of monsoons – long duration rice when monsoon sets in early or short duration rice if it is delayed. Transplanting does not afford this flexibility. Four demonstrations of direct-seeded rice covering a cluster of 25 villages and spread over 1,000 acres in each of them are currently on, says Raj Kumar Jat who is in charge of the field station of the Borlaug Institute for South Asia (BISA) at Pusa in Bihar’s Samastipur district. (BISA is a joint venture of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Mexico’s CIMMYT where Norman Borlaug, the father of the green revolution did his research, and from where India got high-yielding dwarf varieties of wheat which revolutionised wheat production). BISA is demonstrating direct-seeding of rice in Purnea and Katihar districts.
The production of rice in the eastern states would have increased with better procurement effort. If farmers are at least assured of minimum support prices they will have an incentive to grow more. This would also address the issue of poverty in these states. Only three of the seven eastern states figure in the list of major contributors of rice to the public distribution system. The share of Odisha has increased from around 8 percent to about 10 percent. That of West Bengal wavers between 4.5 percent and 6 percent. Chhattisgarh’s share has remained flat after an increase in between. In Bihar, there is no mandi system. Procurement is done episodically by primary agricultural cooperative societies because of uncertainty in receiving payments from the government. It was riddled with fraud when outsourced to private rice millers, says Jat.
The market prices of rice were ruling below the minimum support price in Assam and eastern Uttar Pradesh in October-December 2017 when rice arrivals were at their peak, according to CACP. They were above MSP in Bengal because of good procurement effort and the setting of temporary centres for procurement during harvest time.
The government could rope in private new age private outfits like the Delhi-based Sohan Lal Commodity Management (SLCM), which has proprietary software that uses weather and geographical data to reduce post-harvest losses (from 10 percent to 0.5 percent, it claims).
Eastern India’s rice fallows— about 12 million hectares — can be used for growing pulses and oilseeds during the winter season. This would increase the cropping intensity, provide additional income to farmers, enhance the quality of soil (legumes store atmospheric nitrogen in root nodules) and stabilise the supply of these commodities in which India is still deficient.
Pooran Guar who oversees research programmes at Icrisat, the international agricultural research institute at Hyderabad, says the assurance of minimum support prices can do the trick. The cultivation of pulses and oilseeds should be incentivised because of their environmental services (they also use less water). Since pulses and oilseeds deteriorate if not properly stored, he says there should be a determined effort to set up a large network of warehouses in these states (like in Andhra Pradesh). Low-cost storing techniques like triple-layer plastic bags (two of polyethene inside a polypropylene woven sack) can prevent the infestation of bruchids by cutting off the air supply. The Odisha government has distributed 60,000 of these to groundnut farmers this year.
India has the expertise to make the eastern states bloom. Apart from money, dedication is needed. The Prime Minister’s Office should monitor the programme. It may have too much on its plate but BGREI needs to be there because it can put food on many more plates if implemented earnestly.
(The author is a senior journalist)
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Updated Date: Jun 24, 2019 18:55:35 IST