Unlike their counterparts in the rest of the country, farmers in Rajasthan's Kota district have large landholdings. But they have not been able to use their land effectively. In part, this is because the region suffers from shortage of water. Garlic, the main crop grown in the district, is not water-intensive, but the second crop, paddy, is a water guzzler.
And so, Kota's farmers typically cultivate paddy only on a third of their land, as water from their borewells cannot irrigate a larger area. But thanks to drip irrigation, things are changing for the better.
Rajesh Vijay, a native of Bhadana village, 15 km from Kota town, overcame this predicament two years ago when he embraced this method of cultivating rice, a concept developed by Jain Irrigation Systems, the world's second largest micro-irrigation company. Today, he grows paddy on 4.8 hectares of land as against 2.8 hectares earlier (2.47 acres make one hectare). His water and electricity consumption have come down by 40 per cent each. And his yield has increased 25 per cent, earning him Rs 6,000 more per acre per crop cycle.
40% saving of water if paddy is cultivated using drip irrigation
The success Vijay and a few other progressive farmers across the country have achieved by adopting drip irrigation holds hope for India's food security. Almost 85 per cent of the fresh water consumed in India is in agriculture. The bulk of that - 70 per cent - is used to cultivate paddy.
Also, when it comes to water productivity in paddy, India's is the lowest in the world, at 150 grams of paddy per 1,000 litres, resulting in an average output of 2.1 tonnes per hectare. "This needs to change if India's food security needs are to be met in the future," says P. Soman, Senior Vice President, Research and Extension, Jain Irrigation.
Currently, India's foodgrain output is at 247 million tonnes. By 2050, it will have to produce 494 million tonnes. That is unlikely to happen unless farmers adopt better farming techniques.
"Irrigation alone improves yields by 60 to 100 per cent and is our only real option to enhance foodgrain output," says Soman. Drip irrigation goes even further. The water saved by drip irrigating paddy - as much as 40 per cent of current usage - can be used to irrigate a larger area.
The only major concern is growth of weeds, which, in the traditional method, is prevented by the presence of a large quantity of still water. "I tackled this problem with a single spraying of weedicide and manual weeding," says Vijay.
Another benefit is the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions. Standing water in paddy fields reacts with organic matter and generates large amounts of methane.
India has 43.7 million hectares under paddy cultivation, and much of it is under flood irrigation. This farming method is a major reason for the country earning the dubious distinction of being the second largest producer of methane in the world, after China, according to the Global Methane Initiative (GMI), a voluntary, multilateral partnership that aims to reduce global methane emissions.
Despite its clear advantages, adoption of drip irrigation has been slow - less than 100 acres of land are under commercial cultivation across six states today. "The government does not give a subsidy for drip irrigation when it comes to growing paddy or wheat," says Soman. "Also, there is a huge mindset issue among farmers. They find it difficult to imagine growing paddy without standing water."
But if the shift does happen, it will be a big step forward in addressing India's water and food problems.