Guwahati: In Assam, where the rising water levels of Brahmaputra River wreak havoc upon millions of farmers annually by washing away their croplands, what can be more beneficial than being able to cultivate on water? Though it sounds heretical, a few hundred farmers in the world’s biggest river island of Majuli in Assam have made this a reality. Thanks to the unique farming method, the hydroponics, in which the traditional use of soil is replaced with water. For this bunch of farmers in Majuli now the annual deluge means more water which further equals more cropping area.
Every year almost 38 per cent of the cropland gets completely and about 23 per cent gets partially submerged by floodwaters affecting nearly 77 per cent of agrarian land and bringing disaster to the community. This year too, over 1,875 hectares of cropland were damaged by floods in Majuli.
In the hydroponic method of farming, instead of the typical soil, plants are grown in nutrient solutions that supply essential elements needed for growth. Hydroponic trays, special containers designed to hold plants are used. It is found to be cost-effective in comparison to traditional agriculture with no requirement of tilling and sowing. Besides, the solvent can be recycled for reuse too.
Arun Kumar Pathak, a district agriculture officer in Majuli, said, “Around 90 per cent of Majuli’s population depends on agriculture, but the island remains submerged either fully or partially for almost four to five months during the flood. In this scenario, this new hydroponic technology is a game-changer. With this unique method, they can easily grow vegetables, shrubs along with several medicinal plants on water. The ponds, lakes and swamps can be used for such farming.”
The Director (Communications) of South Asian Forum for Environment (SAFE), a civil society organization promoting the hydroponics farming, Amrita Chatterjee, said, “In April 2015, the float-farming method of hydroponic was introduced in Majuli as an adaptive farming practice for marginal indigenous communities towards secured livelihood, flood preparedness and climate resilience. The main objectives of the intervention were to enable local capacities in hydroponic float-farming and aqua-culture as an integrated climate adaptive agricultural practice (ICAAP) for augmenting flood resilience in the island and to ensure sustainable livelihood and food security for marginal farmers and raise awareness about community-level disaster preparedness.”
Under the project, the initial emphasis was given to create ‘floating’ cultivation fields and convinced local farmers to adopt the new technology. As the method began to make its inroads amongst the young cultivators of the island, the scenario began to change and currently around 620 odd farmers have adopted this method for cultivating vegetables and herbs on 528 hydroponic trays, an equivalent of some10 acres of farmland.
Already, young and motivated farmers in some 57 hamlets of Majuli Island were sensitized and some 2500 farmers and fisherfolk were trained. The training includes raft making, cultivation techniques, weed, pest management and post-harvest management of the rafts. The crop cycle planning was a participatory process, wherein the beneficiaries decided upon the crops to be planted. In the first phase, this floating raft based vegetable farming project was introduced on six ponds in Majuli.
Pabitra Hazarika who is one of the first to adopt the unique farming method in Majuli said, “Nothing can be better than this technique for a place like Majuli which remains flood-affected for major parts of the year. I do Brahmi production in five hydroponic trays and I’m willing to add more.” The production of Brahmi among other plants is found to be very successful in the method and popular because of its medicinal use and market value. However, the growth of the plants in these trays needs nurturing and proper maintenance for a beneficial production.
Processes are also on to grow flowering plants like marigold and tuberose on hydroponic trays. “Our next aim is to try growing winter greens like spinach, broccoli and cabbage on these trays. On average, a harvest from 10 trays is almost 25 kg. For one harvest cycle of vegetables like okra and chilli, a farmer can fetch around Rs 5 thousand while for herbs like Brahmi, coriander and mint, it’s a lot more,” said a SAFE field official.
The flood resilient hydroponic farming practice owes its origin to the deltaic districts of Bangladesh, wherein huge floating beds constituting of rotten hyacinth is loaded with humus for family farming. However, in Majuli, innovation was brought about in design, material, size and capacity of each tray by using local natural resources. Hydro-foam and sponge were used for hydroponic circulation of water and the flood resilient structure was made of locally available non-timber forest products and bamboo. The growth medium comprised of the proportionate amount of vermicompost, coco pitt, biochar and sand. Normally a tray costs around Rs 2500, much lesser in comparison to the cost of a livestock unit.
Assam Chief Minister Sarbananda Sonowal who also represents the Majuli constituency said, “We have inherent skills in organic farming. A judicious mix of biotechnological know-how and conventional farming would immensely gear up the agro-based industry in the state and Assam can become the organic hub of South East Asia.” In 2016, the state government had announced its plan to make Majuli the country’s first carbon-neutral district and the administration started promoting hydroponic farming.
A cluster of islands in the riverine floodplains of the Brahmaputra and Subansiri rivers, Majuli became the country’s first river island district in 2016. Majuli is also known as the abode of the Assamese neo-Vaishnavite culture. But suffered from recurring major floods and earthquakes over the centuries, the geomorphology of Majuli has changed severely. From an area of 880 square kilometres at the beginning of the 20th century, flood and constant erosion have shrunk it to around 352 square kilometres in 2014.
In flood this year too, Majuli is one of the worst flood-hit 31 districts of Assam. The flood has already killed at least 50 people and affected another 57 lakh forcing some 1.51 lakh to relief camps. Almost 1.7 lakh hectares of cropland got damaged beside roads, schools and embankments in Assam. The flood situation continues to be grim.