What made me interested to try SRI in Purulia District and other locations in the Eastern Indian Plateau where PRADAN was engaged in promoting/strengthening farm-based livelihoods of smallholders.
Former PRADAN team leader, Purulia, West Bengal, India
Two persons almost at same time first introduced me to SRI. One was Mr. Subodh Gupta who together with his wife Smita had spent some sabbatical time at Cornell University, and there they came in touch with Professor Norman Uphoff and learned about SRI through him. Subodh sent me some literature on SRI. The other person was Mr. Deep Joshi, the founder of PRADAN, who sent me some literature on SRI about that same time, asking my opinion about it. About this time also I received an issue of the LEISA journal, which had an article about SRI that further introduced me to the subject.
As it happened, in November 2002, Professor Uphoff was in New Delhi for an international meeting, and he was in touch with PRADAN. It arranged for me to meet him and his wife at the hotel where they were staying. From our half hour meeting, given all that I had already heard and read, and from our half-hour discussion, I decided to try out SRI in Purulia, where I was team leader for a PRADAN program working in one of the poorest districts of the country.
My colleague, Mr. Alok Jana, was the first person who came forward to conduct a field trial of SRI with four farmers in the Jhalda Block of Purulia district. That was during the 2002-2003 boro season (from December-January to April-May). Unfortunately because of repeated hailstorms during the flowering and grain-filling stagea, none of the farmers could have good harvest. However, seeing the large numbers of tillers that came out of single-seedling transplantation of young seedlings motivated more farmers to try out SRI in the subsequent Kharif season (June-December 2003).
The significance of trying SRI methods under the rainfed conditions of Purulia district has already been documented by several studies conducted by the International Water Management Institute (IWMI) and the Sir Dorabji Tata Trust (SDTT) and has been mentioned by Professor Uphoff. Hence I am not going to discuss this here, and I do not have all of the records with me once I left PRADAN.
I would rather like to talk about what experiences and observations provided me with the bases to believe that SRI was a potentially valuable idea. I did not need any exposure to understand what this SRI was. My rural upbringing and early orientation in farming helped me to relate personally to the science of SRI. I born in a blacksmith family whose primary livelihood was manufacturing and repairing traditional farm tools (e.g. country plough, spade, sickle, etc., all of which were needed for traditional farming). In addition we had about an acre of land. Rice was the main crop grown, and in addition on part of our land we used to grow potatoes, onions and other vegetables.
The amount of rice that my father could produce from this land was hardly adequate to meet our food grain demand for more than 4 or 5 months (from November/December when the rice was harvested to April/ May). The period that I am talking about would be between the years 1971 to 1976. Ours was big family with 12 members, including our grandparents. Thus, meeting our food grain demand was a life-long challenge to my father.
To meet this food grain deficit once he tried to grow a boro rice crop (transplanted in December/January and harvested in April/ May) on about 20 decimals of land (0.2 acre) of land. The source of irrigation was an open dug well, 3 feet in diameter and about 20 or 22 feet deep. My father installed a traditional lifting device locally known as Tanda or Latha–kundi. This was basically a bucket tied at the end of thin bamboo pole about 15 or 16 feet long, hanging from one end of the pole that is fixed in its centre with an fulcrum on a pair of bamboo poles. Later on as I studied in school, I came to know how the principle of a 1st class lever has been applied there. My father used to operate this lifting device most days and nights to keep the rice crop on that small piece of land alive during the summer months.
He adopted several change in practices to reduce the demand for irrigation water. First, he did not puddle (flood) the soil of the field before transplanting. He thought that if the soil is not compacted, then the stress due to dryness would be less. He prepared the land under dry conditions as one does it for wheat. Then he divided the plot into very small check basins connected to irrigation channels. Before transplanting, he irrigated those check basins and then transplanted the seedlings. Such a transplanting method was generally followed for transplanting onion seedlings.
Second, as lift water was a lot of work, he would irrigate the crop only when the plants’ tender leaves showed signs of wilting. He was growing the rice like an upland crop, not a paddy crop.
Third, he would hoe the field as much as he could to reduce water loss from soil. All of us, I along with my other siblings, use to hoe the field with our tiny hand-held hoes once a week or so, after the irrigation water had been absorbed in soil and the field was in dry condition for hoeing. Later on in my agronomy class, I came to know that this practice is called soil-mulching. This practice would reduce the demand for irrigation by a couple of days, allowing my father to take some rest.
In spite of doing all these possible changes in practices, he failed to keep the crop alive and it dried up after some vegetative growth (about 40 days after transplanting). He gave up hope and lost his energy to work with his Tanda / Latha-kundi. The entire crop got dried, and whatever was green there was grazed by cows, until virtually nothing remained visible on the surface.
Surprisingly, after a couple of weeks, there was a good rain followed by several more showers, and the entire field was again full of new healthy green plants of rice. By that time, it was late in season, however, and my father was not sure if that new crop would be productive enough for us. He decided to plough the land to make it ready for normal kharif transplantation. This experience was helpful for me to relate to what I heard from Professor Uphoff, however, and to appreciate the amount of emphasis that he gave on roots. I was convinced that rice does not need flooded conditions for its growth. Intermittent dryness to soil helps in getting better root growth. And growth of the plant above-ground part depends primarily on the growth of healthy roots.
A second instance relating to SRI was also from my childhood observations. We had a small pond, with an area of only 5 decimals and 6 to 7 feet deep, that would get dry in the summer months and again get filled up with water when it rained. It used to collect the runoff coming out of adjoining homestead areas. Often we used to keep bundles of rice seedlings (after their uprooting from nurseries) in the water of that pond to be taken to the main field later. That is how some rice seedlings got left in the pond at the onset of monsoon and started growing there.
Incidentally, in one year the rainfall was such that the level of water in the pond rose slowly until it got filled up to the brim. The growth of the rice seedlings that year was interesting. These were some HYV rice varieties, either IR-8 or Jaya. In those days, these were most popular varieties in our locality (Garhbeta block of West Midnapur district). The total height gained by those rice plants was about 8 or 9 feet, 1.5 to 2 feet more than the depth of the water in the pond. Those plants flowered and had good panicles with proper grain setting. This was an observation that remained vividly in my mind and to which I could relate when I studied how living organisms respond to a changing environment and make adaptations.
A third experience was about spacing and single-seedling transplantation. Our farming was done entirely with family labour. All my brothers learned most of the farming operations (also manufacturing farm tools in our smithy shop, called as kamar shal in local parlance). They became versed in ploughing, transplanting, and weeding at very early age.
All of us used to help our father in doing the transplanting. I observed a kind of tension that he had if there is shortage of seedings due to less-than-expected germination in the nursery. He would guess the sufficiency of seedlings for the field before we started transplanting. If there was some shortage, he would instruct us to reduce the number of seedlings per hill and to increase spacing between hills. In some years, we would end up doing transplanting of just one seedling per hill with more spacing. Sometimes the spacing would be as much as 1 foot row-to-row and plant-to-plant. He would say if the rice plants can get 2 months of time for their vegetative growth, from transplanting to panicle initiation, those single seedlings will be as good as the rest if not better.
There were several other interesting observations from my past experience that I related to SRI practices as I listened to Professor Uphoff talk. It was very common in my village and elsewhere for healthy rice plants to grow on the roofs of mud houses thatched with paddy straw that had retained some grains even after threshing. Very high tillering was observed on rice plants that had germinated on compost pits or on drainage lines passing through paddy fields in the villages. Once I counted 113 tillers on one plant that had grown from a self-sown rice seed on a drainage line.
The truth is though that I never thought of translating those observations into a ‘package of practices’ until I met Professor Uphoff in 2002. From my experience, I could quickly absorb all that he told me during our meeting about the science and arts of SRI, and it was easy to become convinced. When we put these ideas to use in Purulia, their performance was quite remarkable and beneficial for farmers and their families.