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Inside India’s Climate-Resilient Agriculture, This Tamil Nadu Farmer Beats Climate Change with Rice

The former economist has adopted a direct sowing practice of indigenous varieties of paddy that require lesser time to grow, while also developing an alternate drying and wetting techinque.

Aditya Sharma | News18.com@aditya_shz

Updated:November 6, 2019, 11:43 AM IST
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Inside India’s Climate-Resilient Agriculture, This Tamil Nadu Farmer Beats Climate Change with Rice
File photo of Bhaskaran (News18)

New Delhi: Back in 1981, when a young Bhaskaran was studying regional development at the Jawaharlal Nehru University, little did he know that one day, he will be recognised for his contributions to the climate-resilient farming discourse in India.

“I was serving as a scholar of economics at the Indian Institute of Management (IIM), Kolkata, when I decided to get into agriculture. I was an academician in and out, but with a deep interest in real time development. Our ancestral farm land in Tamil Nadu was just the perfect excuse,” he said.

The 63-year-old’s foray into farming happened in the absence of sustainable agricultural practices in India. In 1990s, when chemical farming was rising in the country, Bhaskaran chose to shift to organic farming. But, after a decade of thinking that everything was going well, he was confronted by his biggest challenge - climate change.

“We started to experience erratic rainfall 2004 onwards. It was unpredictable and erratic at the same time. There was rainfall in rain prone areas and there was a heavy downpour during a short period. This made agriculture impossible to flourish because it could not be planned,” Bhaskaran said.

According to Bhaskaran’s analysis of climate change in Tamil Nadu, there is a drought period every five years followed by one year of excess rainfall. This is followed by a severe drought year. His climate-resilient approach emerged as a result of observation and documentation of these patterns.

The former economist has adopted a direct sowing practice of indigenous varieties of paddy that require lesser time to grow, while also developing an alternate drying and wetting technique. These alternate methods of farming are aimed at timed, lesser use of water.

“The initial growth of paddy does not require much water. The strategy is to use the occasional rainfall to plough the field and then go for direct sowing during August end or September,” he said, adding that “the main focus should be avoid failure of crop during germination, which most often happens during rainfall season in September or October”.

Much of his alternate practices have come from calculated attempts at getting the timing of sowing and the crop right. Bhaskaran insists that every farmer must be told that for every climate condition, there are location specific indigenous varieties available.

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Sustainability in Indigenous Variety

Farmers using indigenous varieties of paddy for cultivation and applying mixed cropping methods is a growing movement in India, whose momentum has increased with visible effects of climate change.

The ‘Save our Rice’ campaign, launched in 2004, the Second International Year of Rice, in Kerala is one such movement. It is aimed that “achieving food and sovereignty, reviving the rice and sustaining rice eco-systems”.

In 1960s, India had close to one lakh varieties of indigenous paddy that were lost over the decades with the introduction of high-yielding varieties. The campaign has recovered around 1000 of those lost varieties because of their nutritional and ecological efficiency. These span across the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and West Bengal.

Suresh Kanna of Kudumbam, an NGO working for sustainable social rural development based in Tamil Nadu, told News18 that most indigenous paddy varieties like mapillai samba (red rice) are more nutritious, have medicinal properties, taste good and are best suited to grow under the erratic climatic conditions.

“Farmers that we work with are growing indigenous varieties resistant to draught and flood conditions, and also have the potential to withstand the heavy salinity in the coastal areas,” he said.

The 'Save the Rice' campaign has helped recover more than 200 indigenous varieties in Tamil Nadu alone. Most of these varieties have low glycemic index ranking which is recommended for people with diabetes. The Indian Institute of Food Processing Technology in Thanjavur in a report has also listed 10 indigenous paddy varieties known for its anti-cancer properties, added Kanna.

A similar story has emerged out of the Sundarban region in West Bengal where Alauddin Ahmad, a farmer and development practitioner, has developed a new mixed cropping model using indigenous varieties to give visible monetary benefits to the farmer.

“In Madhavpur village of the Sundarban islands, land is sandy and rain water harvesting is the only means of fresh water for crop cultivation. Here, the system of mixed cropping (pulses and paddy) along with rainwater harvesting ponds with fishes has enabled the farmer to quadruple his income in 10 years,” he told News18.

Fishes and vegetables grown on the embankment separating the pond with agricultural land, along with the paddy and pulses produce have become four different sources of income in the middle of climate change adversities.

Advantage Climate Change

As one of the first steps towards the use of indigenous varieties, the Odisha government, the Centre and the World on October 23 signed a USD 165 million loan agreement for a project on climate-resilient agriculture.

Under the project, around 1.25 lakh small farmers from 15 districts managing 1.28 lakh hectares of land will receive the benefits of “disaster-resilient seed varieties and production technologies, diversifying more towards climate-resilient crops”.

Rajesh Krishnan, a young organic farmer based in Wayanad, Kerala, believes that projects like this shall pave the way for the meteoric rise of indigenous varieties. However, as modern farm entrepreneur or a ‘farm-preneur’, he equally believes that community involvement and not modern mechanization, is the right approach in the revival and use of these varieties.

“The main challenge in the revival of indigenous varieties is to convince farmers to adopt them and grow them in a sustainable way. Unlike other crops, paddy requires collective effort. To build a sustainable model, you need a village to take up collective farming of paddy,” he said.

According to Krishnan, the very act of paddy cultivation is about climate resilience, especially in a place like Kerala, because of the need to conserve water. This, he said, isn’t rockets science.

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Here’s how he breaks down the math: one acre of paddy conserves 1 lakh litre of water per annum. “If you don’t retain paddy land, and convert that into land for crops which require water to be drained out, it leads to further severe droughts under low rainfall conditions. Paddy land is essentially wetland and it needs to be conserved,” he explained.

A major boost to paddy cultivation that indigenous varieties give is the time taken to harvest. Indigenous varieties usually come in three kinds: short duration varieties which are harvested between 50-70 days, medium duration varieties which are harvested between 100-120 days and long duration varieties which are harvested between 160-180 days.

A normal variety of summer rice, which is sown in November is harvested between March and June, taking more than 4 months. This long stretch can often be detrimental to farmers by resulting in complete crop loss due to climate change. Here, the likes of Krishnan and Bhaskaran stand as example for other farmers.

For instance, in drought-hit 2014, Bhaskaran went for selected black gram and green gram pulses varieties instead of paddy. He avoided a crop failure due to less rainfall. The pulses grew very well without irrigation, and application of growth promoting inputs and pest control efforts.

“I learnt to skip paddy according to the season. I learnt what not to grow,” he said.

In 2016, under unfavourable conditions for paddy cultivation, Bhaskaran experimented with two indigenous rice varieties. One of the two varieties worked, thus, proving its suitability for the June sowing period.

Although Bhaskaran may not be the canonical figure of Indian agriculture, his example has passed the test of time and geography. His calculated attempts are the bold moves aimed at making the most of climate change by cultivating multiple crops.

Other farmers such as those growing soya bean in Madhya Pradesh are trying to learn by example and avoid complete crop loss by moving into maize. With uncertain rainfall, they have been trying to make the shift over the past two years. And soon shall they be successful.

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