Manipur — Agriculture

Maxim: Maximum

Farmers in Imphal West district are swearing by the revolutionary ‘system of rice intensification’ to provide for food security and more

Chongtham Ibotomba was expecting better — and fearing the worst. The first had to wait while the second played out as anxiety gripped the 70-year-old from Kangmong village (Imphal West district) in the days immediately following his decision to try out a new, and for him untested, method of improving the yield from his 1-acre rice field.

Mr Ibotomba should never have agonised so much. He had joined the ‘system of rice intensification’ (SRI) programme being supported by the Tata Trusts in Manipur and there was plenty of evidence that those swearing by its tenets would reap serious benefits. But Mr Ibotomba had to see before he believed.

“I did not sleep the night after planting the seeds,” he says, “and only fitfully in that first week. I was plagued by worry. What if it did not work, what if the rice died on me? This continued for a month, until the seeds began flowering. When harvesting time came I was over the moon: my output had increased by more than 50%.”

The SRI initiative, which has in its fold 4,580 farmers from 41 villages in five districts of the state, is primarily aimed at offering food and nutritional security for households with meagre resources. It does this by organising farmers into collectives, training them in the principles of SRI, and providing them with cono weeders — highly efficient machines that remove the weeds between rows of paddy — seeds, water pumps and guidance on pesticide use and crop diseases. And there are two additional components: an ‘agro business centre’ (for paid services) and an ‘agro information centre’.

The farmers contribute 10% as their share of input costs and that is about the limit of what they can bear. Mr Ibotomba is typical of those in the project. He makes his living as a mason and carpenter and by selling the small quantity of vegetables he grows. The rice he plants goes almost entirely into feeding his seven-member family.

Rice is the focus of the SRI programme but other crops are being considered

The Trusts began backing this phase of the SRI programme in end-2017 and have committed to it till November 2019. Implementation is being handled by the Centre for Microfinance & Livelihoods (CML), the nodal agency for the Trusts in Manipur, through three NGO partners: the Self-Employment Voluntary Association (SEVA), the Resource Upliftment Centre for Human Interest and the Plain and Hills Development Organisation.

Scarce rains? No problem

Enrolling in the project has enabled Mr Ibotomba to up the yield of his 1 acre plot from about 1,000 kg a year to roughly 1,600 kg. The story is the same with others who have taken the SRI path. “Every farmer who has joined the scheme has profited, even in years when rains have been scarce,” he says. “The community as a whole has been lifted. Farmers once wary of SRI have had their eyes opened and ever more of them are joining the project. The benefits are so obvious.”

It wasn’t so obvious to Mainam Rajmani, a 63-year-old farmer and village priest who also hails from Kangmong. “I used to poke fun at those jumping into the programme,” says Mr Rajmani, a recent inductee who cultivates rice on a 1-acre land parcel he has taken on lease. “I wasn’t convinced; my thinking was that it would be wiser to stick to our traditional ways. It was a mindset problem. Using the cono weeder, especially, has been a revelation. It saves me so much on time and labour.”

The reluctance of people like Mr Rajmani is mostly down to a lack of knowledge about the world around them. Educating such holdouts is among the tasks Achom Moirangthoi has set for himself. “I keep telling them about the positives of the programme,” says the 65-year-old head of a local farmers group. “My main role is to motivate them to join the scheme. We work together and help one another, sharing knowhow and, when the need arises, labour too.”

Set to go it alone

Collaboration, adds Mr Moirangthoi, is the key to making the most of the collective. “Some 20 farmers in Kangmong are in the programme and I’m certain that all of them — there are about 50 farmers in this village — will join within the next year. As for the long-term, I have no doubt that we can profit from the programme on our own once the Tata Trusts people leave.”

This is the third phase of the SRI initiative in Manipur for the Tata Trusts and their plans, going forward, include widening its scope and spread (the experiment with growing antioxidant-rich black rice is an example). “We are looking at bringing 2,500 farmers under the SRI umbrella in the next two years,” says Siddharth Gahoi, area manager for the Northeast with the Trusts. “We want to use SRI techniques with different crops, which is why we now call it ‘system of root intensification’.”

Getting the farmers to accept SRI methods is not always easy, but that’s par for the course. “Whether it is with seeds or water use, we have to keep on informing and training them,” adds Mr Gahoi. “The first-time farmer will follow only one or two of the SRI principles but they come around in time. We are comfortable with that because we understand that change cannot happen overnight.”

The partnerships with the NGOs are the backbone of the project as of now, but Mr Gahoi foresees a point when CML will get involved directly in implementation. “The collaborations are good because learning happens both ways,” he says. “We support them with technical inputs and they do the on-field work. But in time we will expand into direct implementation.”

No matter how the SRI programme evolves in the days ahead, rice will likely remain its focus. “This project is essentially about reducing dependence,” says Chingkhei Singh, operations head of SEVA, the Tata Trusts partner. “The demand for rice is heavy in Manipur and we don’t produce enough in the state to meet this demand. SRI is not a breakthrough; rather, it is a simple process of enhancing crop production. And this initiative is helping accomplish that.”

Shout it out for SRI

The only thing clunky about ‘system of rice intensification’ (SRI) is its nomenclature. A straightforward method of improving the production yield of rice, SRI has shaped a revolution in agriculture around the world, especially in Africa and Asia.

Developed in Madagascar in the early 1980s by Henri de Lalanié, a Jesuit priest of French origin, SRI’s core principles are uncomplicated: plant fewer seeds to minimise competition between them; use younger seedlings and space them optimally; control the water the plants receive to keep them alternately wet and dry; and use organic fertilisers.

Initially met with scepticism by some experts, the SRI way has been scientifically validated many times since being taken to rice-growing cultures outside Madagascar from the late 1990s. Credit for the popularity of the method is due to Norman Uphoff of Cornell University, New York. Convinced about its efficacy, Mr Uphoff promoted and pushed for SRI to be employed in Asia.

The SRI system has spread at a quick clip in recent years and is now used by close to 20 million farmers in 61 countries (according to the SRI centre at Cornell University). The system has found particularly rich soil in India, where its adoption has been widespread.

The India connection got global attention in 2011 when Sumant Kumar, a farmer from Darveshpura village in Bihar’s Nalanda district, broke the world record for rice production by using SRI principles. Mr Kumar’s harvest of 22 tonnes of rice from a single hectare (2.47 acres) of land was so mindboggling that he was initially accused of cheating. His record was confirmed after the state’s head of agriculture visited his field and confirmed the yield.

To add to SRI’s lustre, it has been found lately that using the method can significantly reduce emissions of the greenhouse gas methane (this is released into the air when crops remain waterlogged for long periods).