The rice is a staple food of not only India but over half of the world population. Over 3 billion people consume the cereal every day. However, it is also one of the most water intensive crops. The rice cultivation in India has taken a hit due to various issues- the most recent of which is the labour shortage stemming from the Lockdown imposed for tackling COVID-19. In this context, granary states like Punjab are encouraging paddy farmers to adopt the ‘Direct Seeding of Rice’ method.
How is rice cultivated in India?
- Rice or Oryza sativa is a food crop that descended from wild grass species.
- Various schools of thought exist regarding the origin of rice. Some believe that it originated in the Himalayan foothill region while others believe that it originated in Southern India and then migrated elsewhere like China, Korea, Philippines, Japan, etc.
- Some of the oldest varieties of domesticated rice includes ‘Indica’ (originated in Eastern Himalayan foothills) and ‘Japonica’ (originated in Southern China).
- India is one of the largest rice producers. It is the leading exporter of Basmati
- There are several distinctive varieties of rice cultivated in India such as Jasmine, Ambemohar (GI tagged to Maharashtra), Seeraga Samba, etc. The Manipur black rice, called ‘Chakhao’ is the most recent addition to GI tagged rice varieties of India.
- West Bengal is the largest rice producer in India. Other states like Uttar Pradesh, Punjab and Tamil Nadu are also significant rice producers.
- In 2011, an Indian farmer broke the record for highest rice production in the world by harvesting 22 tonnes of rice from a hectare.
- In India, rice is mainly grown as a Kharif crop especially in the northern states. But it is also cultivated as a Rabi crop in states like West Bengal, Assam, Tamil Nadu, Odisha and Andhra Pradesh.
- Recently, farmers in Tamil Nadu started their Kuruvai rice cultivation for the first time in 9 years. This is a short term crop season used for rice cultivation in the Cauvery River delta region.
- The crop can grow in a range of eco-systems with different conditions of soil, climate and hydrology. It can be cultivated on irrigated land, rain-fed lowlands, tidal wetlands, upland regions, etc.
- The most favourable conditions for rice cultivation are a hot and humid climate with extended period of sunshine and a reliable water supply. It requires an average temperature of 21 to 37 degree Celsius.
- In India, rice varieties are broadly classified into:
- Upland varieties
- Lowland varieties
- Based on various factors like soil conditions, availability of water, labour, rainfall conditions, etc., various cultivation methods are used:
- Dry/ semi-dry upland rice cultivation methods: Seed broadcasting method and Drilling or sowing seeds behind the plough
- Wet/ lowland rice cultivation methods: Transplantation in puddled fields (transplantation/ puddled method) and Broadcasting germinated seeds in puddled field
- Transplantation in puddled field is one of the most widely used cultivation method. It is done through the following steps:
- The seeds are first germinated and raised in nurseries. The nursery beds are 15 to 20% of the area of the main field where the crops are to be raised later.
- The seedlings are then transplanted onto the puddled field after 25-35 days.
- For the first 3 weeks, in the absence of rains, the fields are to be irrigated almost every day to maintain 2-5 cm water depth.
- For the next 4 to 5 weeks period, the crop is in tillering stage when the stem development takes place. During this period, the fields are irrigated every 2 to 3 days.
- After the tillering stage, there is no longer need to flood the field.
- The principle behind the flooding of field is that initial stages of the seedlings’ growth are compromised by weed growth, competing for sunlight water and nutrition, which this is controlled by flooding the fields.
- The water prevents weed growth- essentially acting as a weedicide– by cutting off oxygen supply. The same does not affect the rice seedlings which have aerenchyma– a soft tissue that enables the oxygen to penetrate through the roots.
What is the status of R&D on rice cultivation in India?
- India has been conducting rice breeding programs since 1911. More widespread research on rice started with the establishment of the ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research) in 1920.
- The research on rice got further impetus with the establishment of the Central Rice Research Institute in 1946.
- In 1965, the ICAR launched the AICRIP or All India Coordinated Rice Improvement Project– an interdisciplinary R&D program for improving rice production, productivity and profitability in India.
- Under the AICRIP program, the development of Taichung (Native)-I was one of the most intensive rice breeding initiatives. Some of the first resulting varieties of the AICRIP are Padma and Jaya.
- There are over 1,200 varieties of rice cultivated in India.
What are the challenges in rice cultivation?
- Rice is one of the most water intensive crops in India according to a 2018 water productivity report from NABARD.
- In water scarce regions, overdependence on paddy would add strain on groundwater. Haryana is a case in point- the state was declared as overexploited in terms of groundwater extraction and it depends on groundwater for 95% of its drinking water needs and 61% of its irrigation needs.
- The traditional methods of rice cultivation are labour intensive with the germinated seeds transplanted onto the fields by hand. The COVID-19 crisis induced lockdown and the mass migration of labourers created large-scale labour shortages– greatly affecting rice cultivation in the granary states.
- Insufficient soil moisture conservation is a major issue in both upland and lowland cultivation areas. In upland regions, rain water flows off quickly while in the lowland regions, droughts are a major concern.
- Flash floods, water-logging, etc. are challenges in rice cultivation in flood-prone regions (like Assam), regions with low-lying physiography and poor drainage. Such regions also face consequences like accumulation of decomposition products that are toxic and soil iron toxicity.
- Poor soil fertility due to soil erosion. There are also issues of land degradation and salinity.
- Inefficient use of fertilizers.
- Shortcomings in cultivation techniques. In case of broadcasting method, not all seeds germinate- resulting in poor crop plant population. In case of transplantation method, erratic monsoon causes delays and inefficiencies.
- A huge portion of rice farmers (about 78%) are small and marginal cultivators. They are often unable to afford adequate cultivation inputs and to adopt improved crop production technology due to economic backwardness.
- Rice cultivation has been linked to climate change. It is reported to emit greenhouse gases like methane due to the anaerobic conditions presented by flooded fields. Such emissions account for as much as 5% of total global GHG emissions.
- At the same time, rice cultivation is itself a victim of climate change. It is affected by extreme weather events.
What is the Direct Seeding of Rice method?
- Recently, Haryana and Punjab encouraged their farmers to adopt the Direct Seeding of Rice or DSR method instead of the conventional transplantation method.
- The seeds are directly drilled into the main field using a tractor powered machine. There is no need for nurseries and transplantation.
- Instead of the conventional practice of using water as herbicide, the DSR method uses real chemical herbicides to tackle weed problem.
- One such machine used for DSR method is the Lucky Seed Drill developed by the Punjab Agricultural University. This machine can simultaneously sow seeds and spray herbicides. It is different from the Happy Seeder used to tackle stubble burning issue.
- In the DSR method, the following steps are taken:
- The land is levelled using laser leveller to ensure the equal distribution of water.
- The land is subjected to a ‘rauni’ or pre-sowing irrigation to develop good soil moisture conditions.
- The field is then subjected to 2 rounds of ploughing and planking which is the smoothening of the field surface
- The tractor powered machine is used to drill seeds into the soil and spray herbicides
- 2 types of herbicides can be used:
- Pre-emergent herbicides: These are chemicals applied before the germination. This is the type used by the Lucky Seed Drill machine. It can also be applied immediately after sowing using ordinary seed drills. E.g.: pendimethalin.
- Post-emergent herbicides: these chemicals are sprayed 20-25 days after the sowing of the seeds. E.g.: Bispyribac-sodium, Fenoxaprop-p-ethyl, etc.
What are its advantages?
- It is water saving. It requires 30-40% lesser water compared to the transplantation method.
- The first irrigation after the rauni is required only 21 days after the sowing. This is unlike the transplantation method where almost daily irrigation is required to maintain flooded conditions on the field.
- It is labour saving. This advantage is the main reason for its current focus in times of large scale labour shortages. On the other hand, the puddle method could require as many as 600,000 labourers for cultivating Punjab’s fields alone.
- It is more economical in terms of cost. Experts point out that while transplanting labour costs even during normal times can be in the range of 2,400 INR/ acre (which would be even higher in the current crisis period), herbicide costs under the DSR method would be within 2,000 INR/acre.
- It is a time conserving method. A week-long period is required for transplantation in the puddled method. In case of DSR, just a few days would suffice for drilling in the seeds.
What are its disadvantages?
- Availability of herbicide is a major challenge.
- The seeds required under the DSR method is higher. While transplantation method requires 4-5 kg of seeds/ acre, the DSR method requires double the quantity (8-10 kg of seeds/ acre).
- Laser levelling is mandatory for the DSR method to produce results. This process costs 1,000 INR/ acre. The same is not compulsory in transplantation method.
- The sowing has to be timed properly with respect to the monsoon’s onset. The sowing has to be done by the 1st fortnight of June and germination must happen before the monsoon arrives. In case of transplantation, this isn’t a problem as the seedlings are already raised on the nurseries.
- There are also challenges with regards to adoption of new technology like the Lucky Seed Drill given the economic backwardness of rice farmers.
- Farmers oftentimes get impatient when the seeds don’t sprout in an ideal way during the 21 day period and resort to irrigations affecting the outcome of the method.
- Some experts have also flagged the concern of the method leading to ‘corporatization of agriculture’.
- Earlier cases of mechanization of agriculture have shown to lead to under-employment of agricultural labourer. This might be an issue in the post-COVID period when and if the labourers decide to return to these fields.
- The environmental impact of the herbicide use is also a cause of concern.
What is the way forward?
- The demand for rice is not going to decline in the near future. According to IRRI (International Rice Research Institute), rice production must increase by 25% over the next 2 decades to meet global demand.
- In the short term, a huge portion of the farmers in the granary states are expected to cultivate rice despite all odds given the crops profitability. In Punjab, 27 lakh hectares are expected to go into rice cultivation. Of this 7 lakh hectares is to be used for cultivating high quality high value Basmati rice.
- The DSR method is already in use (on a smaller scale) by several farmers and they have reported yields comparable to the transplantation method. Hence, adoption of the method should be comparatively easier as they just have to expand the practice.
- The Punjab government has been trying (with only limited success) since 2009-10 to achieve widespread adoption of the DSR method. The current acute shortage of labour will help reach this goal. Even initial estimates show that the area under DSR cultivation method is over 8 times higher than last year.
- In addition to this, the governments are providing the DSR machines at a subsidised rate. This is vital as understood from the uneven adoption of technology realized during the initial period of Green Revolution. One of the lessons learnt from the 1950s and 1960s is that the government hand is crucial in ensuring equitable distribution of benefits from a new agricultural technology to all sections of the farming community.
- In addition to this, farmers themselves have taken steps to address several problems. E.g: some farmers have modified the Happy Seeder machines, generally used for sowing wheat, for sowing paddy seeds under the DSR method- eliminating their need to purchase new machines.
- However, all is not well on the fields. The farmers’ confidence on the DSR method have been weakened with few sprouts appearing even after the early June rains. Fear of losses, especially during the economically weaker times, and the return of labourers from the labour source states have caused farmers in several districts of Punjab to plough back seeds sown via DSR method and revert to the transplantation method.
- This is only adding up the losses to the farmers in terms of time, money, inputs and efforts.
- There is a need for proper guidance and assistance from the agricultural authorities to dispel the fears regarding the method. Farm extension system and virtual guidance via social media or the state agriculture website could be used for this.
- There is a need to create more awareness and exhibit success stories to encourage more farmers to adopt the practice with more confidence.
- A huge percentage of the agricultural labourers employed in granary states like Punjab and Haryana are from Uttar Pradesh and Bihar. Creation of local employment opportunities here will help compensate for the losses caused by mechanization of agriculture to the farm labourers.
- Promotion of micro-irrigation, drip irrigation and sprinkler systems to improve water use efficiency.
- Farmers who make use of high HP motors could be restricted from rice cultivation to reduce the stress on groundwater resources.
- Cultivation of rice could be shifted to new areas where the crop was no cultivated in recent years.
- Instead of using chemical herbicides, other venues like mulching and non-synthetic herbicides could be explored.
- Given that rice cultivation in regions, that did not cultivate the crop historically, was mainly driven by government policies to boost food production in the Green Revolution period, it is again the government’s duty to stimulate a ‘reverse/ upward transition’.
- It needs to be understood that the water scarcity prevailing in many regions make them unsuitable for rice cultivation. The government must come to terms with this and adopt diversification programs. E.g.: The Haryana government has decided to shift 1 lakh hectare of land under rice cultivation to other crops’ cultivation (like maize).
- Incentivizing diversification is a possible option. E.g.: The Haryana government recently launched a financial incentive-linked diversification scheme called ‘Mera Pani- Meri Virasat’ under which farmers switching over to crops like maize, bajra, cotton and horticultural crops in place of rice are paid 7,000 INR/ acre.
- The profit gap between rice and other crops like maize can be reduced by provision of MSPs. A key ingredient is fulfilment of such promises to gain the trust of farming community.
- Further support for diversification can be given by replacing a portion of the rice rations via Public Distribution System with other cereals like maize, millets and other traditional cereals. Such cereals can also be included in Mid-day Meal Schemes and Nutrition schemes to promote better health and create demand for these alternatives.
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What are the other sustainable rice cultivation methods?
- Save and Grow method: a method introduced by Food and Agriculture Organization that seeks to ‘produce more with less’. It focuses on aspects like conservation agriculture, proper crop selection, efficient water management, etc.
- Fish- rice farming method: In this method, fishes are reared in the flooded rice fields. These fishes reduce methane emission from the rice fields and act as additional income source for the farmers apart from adding nutrients to the soil. This reduces dependence on pesticides and fertilizers.
- SRI method: System of Rice Intensification method was discovered in the 1980s in Madagascar. In this method, fewer seeds are planted in the field in a well-spaced out manner. Organic manure is used for fertilizing the fields. Instead of continuously maintaining flooded conditions, the crops are subjected alternatively to dry and wet conditions. The method increases the crops’ resilience to floods and droughts while increasing the yield by 20% and reducing water use. The method works by reducing competition among the plants and improving oxygen supply.
- The Sustainable Rice Platform, backed by IRRI, UN and other stakeholders, aims to encourage 1 million farmers across the world to adopt sustainable rice cultivation methods by 2021.
Rice cultivation is a major part of Indian agriculture with over half the states cultivating the crop. A huge portion of the agricultural community is dependent on it for their livelihood and a larger portion of the population is dependent on it for food. Hence, there is a pressing need to secure the crop from various issues like water scarcity, labour shortage, etc. Introduction of any new technology into the rice cultivation is to be done with utmost care given the high stakes. The DSR method is an answer to the short-term problems. While the 1950s-60s Green Revolution sought to increase food production, the current times calls for a different kind of ‘Green’ Revolution with focus on how it would affect the environment and the agricultural community.
Practice Question for Mains
Amidst the acute labour shortages presented by the COVID-19 crisis, the northern granary states’ governments sought to make use of Direct Seeding of Rice method to sustain the rice cultivation. Explore the pros and cons of this method in comparison to the traditional method. (250 words).
https://indianexpress.com/article/cities/chandigarh/why-are-farmers-ploughing-back-paddy-sown-through-dsr-method-6464784/ https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0167198710001960#:~:text=Direct%20seeding%20of%20rice%20refers,transplanting%20seedlings%20from%20the%20nursery.&text=In%20the%20traditional%20transplanting%20system,zone%20and%20reduces%20soil%20permeability. https://www.downtoearth.org.in/coverage/climate-change/save-and-grow-a-guide-to-sustainable-cereal-production-52518