By Meghna Jain

(Photo © Benefit Publishing Pvt Ltd)

In 2012, Sumant Kumar, a farmer from Darveshpura village in India’s impoverished Bihar state made the global agriculture set sit up and take note when he achieved a record breaking yield of 22.4 tonne rice on one hectare of land, using the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method of cultivation. Now, SRI has become a “hit” in the region, with 100,000 Bihari farmers having adopted the technique

Darveshpura—a nondescript village in Bihar—near the tourist hotspot of Rajgir and Nalanda, has become an extraordinary example of growth and development for small scale farmers across the world. It has been in the news since 2012, when native farmer, Sumant Kumar, created a world record by producing 22.4 tonne of rice per hectare using the SRI method of paddy cultivation without genetic modification or herbicides. Kumar defeated not just the 19.4-tonne record achieved by the ‘Father of Rice’, Chinese agricultural scientist, Yuan Longping, but also superseded World Bank-funded scientists at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines.

Dr Norman Uphoff, an American social scientist currently serving as Professor of Government and International Agriculture at Cornell University, USA, explains the phenomenon that baffled the agronomy world, “SRI results are highly dependent on soil organisms, particularly microorganisms, and these can vary widely, even within days. I think that in Kharif 2011, these farmers ‘hit the jackpot’ with soil temperature and humidity levels, given the soil pH, augmented by sufficiency and diversity of organic nutrient sources (their soil amendment practices were quite fine), being conducive to a great sufficiency and biodiversity in the soil.”

“SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households far better opportunities. The record breakers show us what is possible. They help to expand our imagination about what can be achieved with outside-the-box thinking and practice”

Dr Norman Uphoff, Professor of Government and International Agriculture, Cornell University, USA

“The world record is the result of rigorous labour and experiments with organic farming for paddy. We have been blessed with good support (sic) and subsidies from the government, which encouraged us to experiment with our cultivation process. The SRI method is a hit amongst the farmers now and many more are adopting it here in Bihar,” says Sumant, who is recipient of the Krishi Karman (Farmer Action) Award, bestowed by Indian President Pranab Mukherjee.

Sumant Kumar was not the only one counting his blessings. His peers, Nitish Kumar, Vijay Kumar, Sanjay Kumar, and Krishna Kumar, also recorded over 17 tonne of rice production each. The quintet became unlikely heroes in a state where nearly half the families live below the Indian poverty line.

Then, Sumant’s friend Nitish broke the world record for potato production six months later by producing 72.9 tonne of tuber per hectare, defeating the 45-tonne per hectare held by farmers in the Netherlands.

Subsequently, Ravindra Kumar, a farmer from a neighbouring village, broke the Indian record for growing wheat. Hence, Darveshpura became known as India’s “Miracle Village”, and teams of scientists, development groups, farmers, civil servants and politicians descended upon it to discover its secret. The reason for the high yields is believed to be due to SRI. It has, many believe, dramatically increased yields with wheat, potatoes, sugar cane, yams, tomatoes, garlic, aubergine and many other crops and is being hailed by many as one of the most significant developments of the past 50 years for the world’s 500 million small-scale farmers and the 2 billion people who depend on them.

SRI has been developed over 30 years by small farmers from more than 20 countries. It centres on improving the management of soil, water and nutrients, rather than bolstering the seed, which has been the focus of scientific research for decades. SRI entails reducing the number of rice seeds planted, transplanting them to the fields when they are much younger than usual, using different amounts of water at critical times of their growth cycle, and improving soil conditions with organic manure. The method has been adopted by approximately 9.5 million farmers across Cambodia, China, India, Indonesia, Vietnam and the chief rice-growing nations.

Initially, the farmers were reluctant to embrace SRI despite the state government providing free seeds, biofertilisers and experts to guide them. But now, impressed by the success of their peers, more farmers are adopting SRI in the region. As many as 100,000 other farmers in Bihar have now adopted SRI. It is back breaking work to transplant the young rice shoots from the nursery beds to the paddy fields but the success of Sumant and the others has fuelled their comrades with confidence and hope.

Owing to SRI and the farmers’ success, Darveshpura, which was inaccessible by road until a few years ago, now has two small bridges on the river Sakri, a smooth road passing through it, a high school, a public health centre and electricity for almost 23 hours a day.

Anil Verma, an agronomist and executive director of NGO, Pran (Preservation and Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature), which espouses the SRI method to hundreds of villages, says, “The SRI technology has done wonders in Bihar and we are now promoting climate resilience technology here. We have come up with seed varieties for drought and flood-affected areas, which can give good results in extreme circumstances. We are experimenting with millet intensification as well, as it yields good results, even with less water.”

SRI appears to offer a long term, sustainable future for small scale farmers, especially in developing countries. “SRI offers millions of disadvantaged households better opportunities. The record breakers show us what is possible. They help to expand our imagination about what can be achieved with outside-the-box thinking and practice,” says Uphoff, who became acquainted with SRI in 1993 in Madagascar, where he witnessed quadrupling of yields by impoverished farmers on poor soils without changing of varieties or usage of chemical fertilisers, and with very little water for irrigation. “These unexpected and anomalous results ‘hijacked’ my attentions for the past 20 years. And I don’t regret a minute of it,” he says.

 


This article appeared in the January 2016 issue of Pure & Eco India

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