Odisha Fights Back With New Agricultural Practices to Counter Food Insecurity

Buffeted by natural disasters like floods, plagued by droughts, Odisha is fighting back with innovations and new agricultural practices to keep food in its cooking pot. And since rice is the staple in most parts of the state – of the 61lakh hectares of cultivated land, 44 lakh hectares are under paddy – the majority of interventions have focused on rice cultivation.

Food security of local communities is an outcome of availability, access and absorption. Food availability is crucially linked to agricultural production, which has been impacted in many region of the state by climate change. That’s where the challenge to keep the paddy lands cultivated in times of extreme weather is a tough one and often it is women who are in the vanguard of this battle being waged far away from the national gaze. Women like Santi Khanda, 45, of Balabhadrapur village, which lies 110 kilometres from the district headquarters of Nayagarh, and is home to just 27 tribal families. The livelihood of these families have traditionally comes from one annual rain-fed paddy harvest.

In 2011, when the rains failed in 17 out of 30 districts in Odisha, drought loomed large for a second year in succession, and Khanda’s district of Nayagarh was one of the worst affected. After an initial spell of rain in the first week of June, the skies dried up and yielded not a drop until the second week of July. Since most of these poor farmers had started sowing seedlings by mid-June, they were left high and dry. With no follow-up rain, transplantation could not be done on time.

Fortunately, Khanda was trained in cultivating paddy using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method, popularised by non-profit organisations in the state, including the Centre for World Solidarity (CWS), which is supported by the Odisha government’s Panchayati Raj department. Thanks to Khanda’s industry, she was able to supplement food for her family of five by harvesting 30 kilos of paddy from her four decimal land holding (1 acre is 100 decimals) despite the erratic rains.

Her success has attracted notice. Today, Khanda has become a village level leader of sorts, guiding other farmers in SRI and organic farming. “I will encourage all the farmers here to adopt SRI on their land,” she says. Many already have. In the neighbouring village of Godipalli, 190 farmers who opted for SRI method for their recent sowing operations are happy. “Ame dhana karu thilu, kintu emitia dhana kebe kari na thilu (we are paddy farmers but had never used this method),” they reveal.

So how does SRI work? Under it, single 12-day-old seedlings are transplanted at a precise spacing of 25-sq cm. Each plant is thus allowed to grow to its full potential, sending out up to 60 to 150 shoots. This leads to the maximisation of grain bearing potential since healthier plants develop more grain bearing stems. This method entails a saving of water because only the roots are required to be kept moist. Fertiliser, too, is applied only to the roots and not all over the cultivated area. In other words, this method requires less water and fertiliser but yields more in contrast to conventional paddy cultivation practices, which raise seedlings in flooded nurseries for up to 30 days before transplanting them. With no regular spacing between these clumps of plants, the fields in the conventional method need to be inundated with water.

In 23 out of 30 districts in Odisha, the SRI method has already been introduced, as compared to 246 out of 564 districts at the all-India level, according to the Directorate of Rice Development, Patna, Bihar. Globally, the SRI method of cultivation is now used by farmers in 40 countries including India, with the central government having included it in its National Food Security Mission since 2009.

According to Rekha Panigrahi, who is in charge of the Orissa Resource Centre run by the CWS, their organisation has helped to popularise SRI as a method of rice cultivation. In fact, the CWS Centre also promotes and nurtures diverse institutions like farmer’s clubs, women self-help groups, women sub-circles, village knowledge centres, and cooperatives of collectors of non-timber forest products.

If drought has affected Odisha, so have floods. So much so that the frequency of flooding episodes have almost doubled of late, with their unpredictability and intensity also having risen. About one quarter of the state’s paddy land lies in chronically flood-prone areas.

This is where research done by the Central Rice Research Institute, Cuttack (CRRI), along with several agricultural universities in collaboration with the Manila-based International Rice Research Institute, has helped. One of the outputs of these joint research initiatives has been Submergence-1, or Sub1, a paddy variety that withstands water submergence for as long as two weeks.

Sub1 appears to be the answer for the flood-hit rice farmers of Dekheta village in Nimapara block of Puri district, living right next to the unpredictable Dhanua River. Visit this village and you will notice that because of flood-induced migration forcing the able-bodied young men to leave home in search of daily wages in the towns and cities of other states, it is the women who have been left to bear the burden of keeping the farms going. For them, Sub 1 has come as a last hope to fight the floods and, perhaps, even get their sons back home.

In ideal conditions, the conventional ‘Swarna’ seeds yield two tonnes of rice per hectare, but they cannot withstand the floods. It is here that the hardy Sub1 variety comes in handy, providing yields of even 3.5 to 4.5 tonnes per hectare.

‘Vandana’ is another innovative rice variety from the CRRI and is meant specifically to safeguard farming families from food insecurity in the cyclone-prone coastal areas of the state. ‘Vandana’ is an early rice variety sowed normally when the first showers make their appearance in mid-June, but it matures in 90 days – 30 days ahead of the conventional variety – and just before the October-November cyclone season.

Even though Odisha registered a growth rate of 9.57 per cent in the first three years of the 11th Plan (2007-12), its monthly per capita expenditure (MPCE) is among the lowest in the country. The MPCE – an important indicator for calculating the standard of living, extent of poverty and levels of nutritional intake – for rural Odisha stands at Rs 559 (US$1=Rs 51), compared to the pan-India average of Rs 772, according to the 64th round of National Sample Survey 2011, undertaken in 2007-2008. So when the rice farming in the state is supported by innovative research, the dividends are immense.

This is why the words of S. Ayyappan, Director General of Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) speaking on ‘Feeding Crores for Ever’ during the 99th Indian Science Congress at Bhubaneswar recently, are so important. Said Ayyappan on that occasion: “The work of scientists in the areas spanning pesticides, agricultural machines, rural development, renewable energy sources, materials technology, molecular plant breeding and genetically improved grains is changing our agriculture and spearheading a remarkable silent revolution which is shaping our country’s progress through this decade of innovation.”

This, according to Ayyappan, is an opportune moment for the country to review its food priorities and rethink its food production and research methods. Rice farmer Santi Khanda, in distant Balabhadrapur village, would agree.

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