Farmers in West Bengal are adopting SRI and reaping benefits. A CSR initiative proves that the corporate world can play a meaningful role in addressing development issues like food security.
Rice is a staple food for people in West Bengal. Around 70% of the cultivated area is under paddy crop grown in two seasons – Kharif and Boro. The average productivity has been low with 2.25 to 3.6 tons/hectare in the kharif season, and 3.75 to 5.25 tons/ha in the boro season.Besides low productivity, high costs of production, small landholdings, nonavailability of adequate quality seeds, unorganized markets etc., are some of the reasons making paddy farming unremunerative.
Inspite of realizing negligible returns, sometimes losses too, farmers continue to grow paddy for subsistence reasons. To help such farmers in realizing better yields and income, Ambuja Cement Foundation, the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) wing of Ambuja Cement Ltd, started working with farmers in this region promoting SRI.
The objective was to enhance food security and profitability of the farmers in a sustainable and eco-friendly way. ACF is involved in people centered and participative community development activities since 1993 reaching out to 1.5 million people in over 750 villages in 12 States of India.
The first steps
In June 2008, ACF launched the SRI program on a pilot basis with 10 farmers on 3.3 acres of land in Sankrail block of Howrah district. Crop demonstration was used as one of the major tools for SRI promotion. Demonstrations were conducted on farmers field with the technical and input support from ACF. Farmers were encouraged to adopt SRI on at least one-third acre to be able to compare yields with the conventional method. Field days are organized at the farmers field at crucial stages of SRI crop. Farmers from the same village and also from the neighboring villages assemble and share their learnings. The average yields from both the fields are compared in the presence of the farmers. This process has been very effective in instilling confidence among the farmers. In the last 9 seasons, around 1755 farmers have taken up SRI on 1628 acres of land.
Along with demonstrations, other capacity building programs like SRI workshops, training, field days, exposure visits etc. have reached around 9548 farmers, village-level workers and agricultural labourers. All these activities have resulted in many farmers adopting SRI method in their own plots of land. Also around 90% of the non-SRI farmers are also adopting various practices like seed selection, seed treatment, line sowing and wider spacing. Presently, SRI has spread across to 38 villages in 7 blocks of Howrah district. Besides Howrah district, ACF with support of NABARD is also promoting SRI with 1578 farmers and in 534 acres of land in Mursadabad district.
Developing paraprofessionals has been a key strategy in spreading and sustaining SRI in surrounding villages. Farmers trained as paraprofessionals conduct village level training programs.
There is an improvement in food security for the farmers. With an yield increase of around 43% (from 42.5 q/ha to 60.9 q/ha), farming households with an area of 0.45 hectares have now food available for 22 months as compared to 15 months earlier. Also farmers are realising more net income, by about 123%, owing to increased yields and reduced costs of cultivation.
Importantly, farmers stopped indiscriminate use of chemicals. Almost all farmers in the villages are following practices like seed selection, seed treatment, wider spacing and line sowing. Farmers have learned to prepare organic manures and bio-pesticides with crop wastes available in their surroundings. Application of these bio-products has further curtailed the use of expensive and harmful chemical inputs. Use of water has reduced, especially in the summer season.
Farming community is more organised than before. Nine farmer clubs have been formed and 151 farmers are already involved in these clubs. These farmer’s clubs are capable enough to provide the necessary technical guidance at the village level.
Each SRI village in Howrah district has been transformed into a learning site for other organizations. Exposure visits from various organizations to these villages is not only motivating others to follow a new method but also opening up new avenues of income generation, which is crucial for a sustainable model.
In the last two seasons it has been recorded that farmers have adopted SRI on around 400 acres without any input support from ACF. This proves that SRI can sustain with a little handholding and does not need support beyond a period to spread.
Some lessons learnt
Working on the SRI Promotion programme has provided some important lessons for us.
Selecting the needy: One of the learnings has been that interventions of this kind are successful when poor and needy farmers are selected, as they take the program more seriously. This selection is critical. ACF conducted several focused group discussions to identify the poorest farmers. During the first three seasons, ACF selected some resourceful and needy farmers, who could demonstrate the farming process, and convince other farmers in the village, as well.
Building accountability: ACF learnt in its first year itself that giving anything free, does not build any accountability. Farmers who registered free and got trained refused to follow the method, resulting in wastage of inputs. From the second year onwards, ACF decided to take cash contribution for registration and provided inputs stage wise and not at a time. Farmers who did not follow the method stopped getting inputs. The free riders dropped out.
Strategy, never to be static: Initially, ACF’s plan was to promote organic farming simultaneously with SRI and gradually move towards fully organic cultivation in 5 years, by promoting organic inputs. But soon, we learnt that this would not work as farmers had their own preferences. ACF changed it’s strategy and limited itself in providing information and allowed farmers to choose what they wanted to do. ACF wanted to build confidence on the SRI methodology first and then gradually capacitate the farmers on sustainable organic farming with the available local resources.
Simple and affordable solutions: The situation of share cropping prevalent in the area often acted against the farmer who wanted to invest in land development and soil fertility management. The solutions suggested by ACF came as a less cumbersome and less capital intensive one. It made use of the local resources and therefore saw fast adoption by the farmers.
Farmers involvement, key to success: Farmers, the primary stakeholders, need to be involved at every stage. They need to be consulted and given the freedom to chart out the path. For example, in the first two seasons ACF tried to provide farmers with good quality seeds. But soon, ACF realized that farmers preferences differed and did not opt the same variety offered by ACF. Organising farmers into farmers club gave more strength to make collective decisions. The farmers club made important decisions like who should be selected and also what kind of capacity needs to be built.
It has been observed over the years that SRI confers encouraging results and has great potential in Howrah district. In spite of constraints, farmers in this area have largely benefited from this method. This has been possible due to strong forward and backward linkages with relevant stakeholders which helped in ensuring constant hand-holding support at every crucial stage of cultivation, vigorous capacity building and motivational programs with different stakeholders and facilitating farmer to farmer exchange.
ACF visualizes ‘research’ as an important tool for expansion of SRI. SRI is a methodology which has evolved and developed in farmer’s field, primarily promoted by NGOs and farmers. The research is expected to provide valuable data which will help every stakeholder to confidently accept and spread SRI. With this objective a 3-year research project is being sponsored by Sir Dorabji Tata Trust and Allied Trusts (SDTT), implemented through a consortium of partners like Bidhan Chandra Krishi Viswavidyalaya (BCKV), Ambuja Cement Foundation (ACF) and Rajarhat PRASARI.
For further upscaling SRI at the State level, collective effort of all the organizations and individuals involved in SRI promotion in the state, is necessary. To initiate such a collaboration, in the year 2009, an association named “Banglar SRI” was formed with 29 organizations and individuals promoting SRI in West Bengal. ACF is one of the leading members of this association. “Banglar SRI” will continue to facilitate SRI promotion and also plans to encourage government ministries and departments to increase their participation in the effort to reach more rice-producing households.
Crop demonstrations by ACF is just a beginning. This has helped farmers in showing a possibility. But a coordinated approach involving all the actors in SRI promotion alone will help in spreading SRI far and wide. And, this is necessary to address the issue of food security.
I express my sincere gratitude to Mrs Pearl Tiwari, Director ACF for her encouragement. I am also indebted to Mr. Prabhat Kr Mishra, APM, ACF, West Bengal for his valuable guidance and support. My heartfelt thanks to all my colleagues in ACF for their sincere and delectated effort and to all the villagers of Howrah district who actively participated in the program and made it successful.
Project Officer, Ambuja Cement Foundation, Sankrail, Howrah