Business Today

Rice farming: Direct to Field

Print Edition: Jan 6, 2013

Punjab is known for its enterprising farmers, and Mohkam Singh, from Khiva Khurd village in Mansa district, is no exception. Eight years ago Singh began to use a different method of sowing rice that promised to cut his production costs. Initially, he set aside only one acre of his 25-acre land for the experiment. Today, he uses the method over10 acres. "It reduced labour, irrigation and electricity costs, and I kept increasing the area," he says. "I am lucky to have opted for this as rainfall this season has hardly been adequate."

Singh is referring to the direct seeding of rice (DSR) technique that involves sowing seeds directly in the fields with the help of a machine. This is different from the more popular method where seeds are first germinated in a nursery for up to four weeks, and then the saplings are transplanted to the fields. This method became popular during the Green Revolution in the 1960s, as it enhanced productivity. But it is also labour - and water - intensive, as saplings must be manually shifted and the fields kept under three to four inches of water to prevent growth of weeds.

100mn tonne rice produced by India annually

100,000 hectares estimated area in India where rice is grown using the direct seeding method

The transplantation method has led to extensive use of groundwater resources over the past few decades, and is an important reason for the fall in the water table. In Punjab, for example, the water table is falling by up to 33 cm every year, according to various studies. This has prompted scientists to take a fresh look at rice farming. To be sure, DSR is not a new method - it is the oldest means of growing rice - and was used extensively before the advent of transplantation.

Farmers would throw rice seeds in the fields and depend on monsoon rainfall. This was not scientific though, and productivity was low. Since then, the DSR method has undergone several modifications and is again gaining popularity.

"The DSR technique has been very popular in the US and Australia and is fast spreading in many other parts of the world," says Jagdish K. Ladha, Principal Scientist and India representative at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), The Philippines. According to a research paper shared by Ladha, DSR cuts water requirement by 30 per cent on average. Considering that India produces about 100 million tonne of rice a year and it takes between 3,000 litres and 5,000 litres of water to produce one kg of rice, DSR can save a massive amount of water.

Private sector companies such as cola giant PepsiCo India and consumer-goods maker ITC are also encouraging farmers to use DSR. Pepsi, often criticised by civil society groups for depleting groundwater resources around its plants, in 2004 began supporting farmers such as Singh who adopt DSR as part of the company's corporate social responsibility programme. "We have seen our initiative grow from 20 acres in Punjab in 2004 to 15,000 acres now spread across Punjab, Haryana, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka," says Vivek Bharati, Executive Director, Agriculture and Corporate Affairs, PepsiCo India. Ladha estimates that DSR is now used on 100,000 hectares across India. This may seem small given that rice is grown on about 44 million hectares in India, but DSR's influence is increasing.

Bharati also says that DSR cuts production costs by a fourth. While the transplantation method costs Rs 8,000 per acre, DSR leads to a saving of about Rs 2,000 per acre, he says. It is environment-friendly, too. According to Bharati, DSR reduces emission of greenhouse gases by up to 75 per cent when compared with the transplantation method.

It is not as if there are no concerns about DSR. "Some farmers report a drop in yield," says B.C. Marwah, Agriculture Scientist, Farm Solutions Business, DCM Shriram Consolidated, which makes fertilisers, cropcare chemicals and hybrid seeds. He adds that DSR also requires extensive use of herbicides to prevent weeds.

Still, the advantages outweigh the smaller niggles: "Paying for herbicides is a lot easier than dealing with labour trouble and electricity and fuel costs involved with pumping water," says Singh. "In fact, I am now thinking of pooling resources with a few other farmers to buy a DSR machine."

Shamni Pande

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