by Dr. Suri Sehgal
In Part 1 of Tryst with Destiny, I said we must “streamline an aggressive implementation of the 4 S’s to double the income of India’s farmers within five years.” The 4 S’s stand for Seed, Soil, Season (rain plus supplemental irrigation), and Stand (density of plants in the field). Here in Part 2, I address each of the four requirements in more detail.
Good-quality seed is the primary delivery system for genetic improvements added through classical breeding or new gene technologies. In any strategy to improve agricultural yields, high-quality seed is a key input for high productivity.
Good soils, rich in organic matter, and a balanced fertility program (fertilizers) are essential to achieve high yields. Good rainfall (monsoon) or provision for supplementary water-efficient irrigation is needed. About 60 percent of the agriculture area in India is rain-fed, and only 40 percent is irrigated. The monsoon is becoming increasingly erratic with global warming.
A host of other factors include credit and crop insurance, fractured land parcels, timely availability of farm supplies, machines, and consultation services. Land titles and accumulation of fragmented land must be digitized with a sense of urgency to improve the land holdings.
Seed Facts: First the Seed
Improved seed can be hybrid or non-hybrid (variety). Both types have been critical in increasing agricultural productivity. The public sector played an important role in the diffusion and spread of HYVs and associated high-input production technologies, whereas hybrid seeds have been primarily bred by the private sector seed industry and commercialized worldwide.
Improved seed, hybrid or non-hybrid, is a critical input in any strategy to improve agricultural productivity. Improved farming techniques, such as mechanization, balanced nutrition, and precision farming, are only effective if seed has bred-in potential for high yield. This means that farmers everywhere require a secure source of good-quality seed for good harvest.
The seed must be bred for the areas in which it is to be gown, and extensively evaluated there prior to its large scale release. Further, an improved hybrid or variety is useless unless its seed reaches the farmers in sufficient quantity, good quality, and good purity. Good bred and high-quality seed is available in the country with both public and private sectors, but its access to farmers needs to be streamlined by improving the delivery chain.
India is a water-stressed country. India is the world’s biggest user of groundwater for farming, and groundwater depletion is beginning to cause severe yield losses that cannot be compensated by increasing canal irrigation.
In 1972, India declared self-sufficiency in food and became a net exporter of food rather than an importer. But self-sufficiency came at a very high cost. Since agriculture takes 70–80 percent of available freshwater, farmers extracted water from the aquifers, literally sucking them dry over the years.
When I was growing up in Punjab, it was very common to use a hand pump to draw groundwater. With intensive agriculture, the bullocks used to draw water for agriculture from the open wells were replaced by diesel or electric motors. A 5HP motor was sufficient at first, but the water level has become so deep that farmers in many places now use 15HP motors to draw groundwater. In some areas, the water level has gone from 50 feet in 1970 to 700 feet in 2021. Bigger and bigger motors are being used to pump water from greater depths.
Groundwater depletion is a serious crisis to farming. Declining water levels mean degradation of water quality. Moreover, free or highly subsidized power further allows farmers to overrun irrigation pumps.
Land: about 30%, and ocean: about 70%
Water: 97% saltwater, 2.5% freshwater
Land: 2.4% of the planet
Population: 18% of the planet
Water: 4% of available freshwater
70% used for agriculture
3% used in industry
27% left for human, animal, and environmental needs
Water storage capacity
US: 1,964 cubic meters per capita
China: 1,000 cubic meters per capita
India: 200 cubic meters per capita
Unfortunately per capita availability of water in India has been steadily declining since 1950 due to environmental degradation, population growth, and climate change. India needs storage structures big and small, including reservoirs upstream and downstream, because most of the traditional storage structures have either not been maintained, silted up, or are under concrete with urban sprawl. More than half of the water supplies in rural areas, where 70 percent of India’s population lives, are routinely contaminated with toxic chemicals and microbes. Exploitation of groundwater has reached critical levels in many parts across the country.
In spite of advances in science, we are still dependent on Mother Nature for freshwater. With India’s erratic rainfall and heavy downpours in the rainy season, which is becoming shorter and shorter, we must give top priority to rainwater harvesting technology. We must harvest every drop of rain that falls on planet Earth and store it in tanks (ponds) for use in the dry season, and/or direct it to recharge the aquifers via strategically placed recharge wells.
Managing wastewater disposal is critical for healthy living. Soak pits are a low-cost intervention with a big impact in reducing waterborne diseases and reducing filth and mud in the streets. Water harvesting is needed to augment water supplies, and storage structures are needed to store the harvested water. Water conservation in agriculture is a must, as well as at each household level. Water leakage from pipes and taps must be stopped with a sense of urgency.
Since saltwater is abundant on planet Earth, consider desalination technology for augmentation. Israel has become a drinking-water-surplus nation by using desalination technology and by implementing conservation techniques such as drip irrigation and recycling of water twice or more. If Israel can do it, why not India?
Small interventions can have a big impact on the quality of life of the poor. Providing clean drinking water and separate toilets for girls in schools will significantly decrease and even stop the dropout rate of girls. These steps have the potential of keeping families from a dark future.
Indian soils are broadly classified into six categories: alluvial soil, black soil, red soil, laterite soil, desert or arid soil, and forest and mountainous soil. These soils, rich in chemical ingredients, are formed by the sediments brought down by the rivers.
Soils have physical and chemical features, from soil type and pH to organic matter contents, water retention, and flow. Biological traits, such as microorganism populations, also influence soil. The soil microbiome is a delicate “universe.” Heavy chemical fertilizer use since the Green Revolution has unbalanced the soil’s natural equilibrium and destroyed the microbiological populations.
Soil is home to billions of organisms contributing to biodiversity; and serves as the original source of most of the world’s antibiotics. A well-structured soil contains a crumbly mix of fine and coarse aggregates that provides excellent housing for soil microbes that help transfer nutrients and water to crops. The aggregation mix spawns good infiltration that helps ensure crop roots can access water. Soil structure is a great indicator of a healthy soil. Indian soils lack organic content.
Since ancient times, most farmers have understood the added value microorganisms bring to agriculture, and relied on such populations to thrive. The addition of micronutrients and improving soil health by adding organic matter leads to a significant increase in agricultural productivity, which assists in enhancing farmers’ income. However, the organic manure from animals in India is used by many villagers more often as a fuel instead of applying it to the fields to enrich organic content.
Of the total 161 MH (million hectors) of arable land in India, about 141 MH are under cultivation at any given time. About 100 MH are becoming increasingly difficult to farm, owing to increasing cropping intensity on fragile soils, inappropriate application of fertilizers, and inadequate application of manure, reduced organic carbon, and severe nutrient deficiencies.
Agricultural experts have used soil tests to assess nitrogen (N), phosphorus (P), potassium (K), and organic matter levels for decades. To achieve balanced nutrition, the best way is to start is with soil tests, and accordingly one can develop what is required for a balanced nutrition for a particular field.
Soil scientists in developed countries have new tests to evaluate soil health like active carbon, which could eventually help boost farmland value just as drainage now does.
Soil health will be a major factor in future agriculture, so India must pay attention to good soil health before 100 MH become useless for cultivation.
A team of scientists from IIT Kharagpur and their collaborators have created a digital soil map for India that provides information on the pH, texture, and amount of organic carbon in the soils of India, which could help to use soil optimally and sustainably.
Good quality seed, good and healthy soil, and good season with provisions for supplemental irrigation are the basic components of good of good harvest. But delivery and supply chains are poorly developed with lots of missing steps in between. Vegetables and fruits are high-value crops that need a lot of water, and without supplemental irrigation, the risk to grow them is too high. In addition, vegetables and fruits are perishable. India needs a well-organized delivery chain with cold storage chains for perishable crops in order to stop wasting about 40 percent of fresh produce that is destroyed due to the lack of required infrastructure.
Price stability for doubling farmer’s income is critical. India produces enough wheat and rice because government guarantees a minimum support price (MSP), which provides price stability. All other crops are at the mercy of the market, and the farmers go through a feast/famine cycle. Price stability is a must for the Indian farmer who can be ruined if he hits one bad year after another, which frequently happens in India.
Empowerment of the community is a must to create sustainability. Communities must have ownership of any development project for the results to be sustainable. One must work with the community or alongside the community, and not for the community. By working in partnership with communities, people become empowered to help themselves.
The Indian Constitution guarantees a dignified life to every citizen. Unfortunately in rural India, most villagers are not aware of their rights. With the understanding that overcoming poverty is a matter of human rights, the S M Sehgal Foundation approach to development is focused on local participation and sustainability. With training programs to inform and support, citizens can be empowered to ask for the goods and services they are entitled to receive. Similar support and training is used to develop the capacities of village-level institutions. People in rural communities are standing up and feeling empowered by the achievements that have been initiated. At Sehgal Foundation, we are flexible and change when the rhythm changes, as in a dance.
Besides the 4 S’s to achieve positive results quickly, empowering farmers is a prerequisite for sustainability. An empowered individual can create miracles if given an opportunity, guidance, and support. Doing so will put India on a rapid path to doubling farmers’ income.
(Dr. Suri Sehgal, has PhD, leading international crop scientist; chair of the Board of Trustees of S M Sehgal Foundation and Sehgal Foundation, USA; founder and chair of Hytech Seed, India; founder of the William L. Brown Center for Economic Botany at the Missouri Botanical Garden, St Louis, Missouri, and emeritus trustee of the Garden.)