Agrarian Algorithm

April 24, 2017 01:26 PM
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Driven by a passion for agriculture-based livelihoods, Vinod Jain takes us through the interesting journey of Trust Community Livelihoods, where technology and timely interventions have converted barren land into high yielding green fields

By Kavitha Srinivasa

How did your agricultural journey begin?

I’m an agricultural engineer from the Indian Institute of Technology, Kharagpur. I began my career in Eicher Tractors, moved on to the NGO space and then became a consultant with The World Bank in their various poverty alleviation Projects. It was during this time, I got interested in agriculture-based livelihoods promotion and decided to start work on the ground (literally). The idea shaped up as Trust Community Livelihood (TCL) in 2011 which focuses on the Bahraich and Shravasti districts located in the floodplains of Uttar Pradesh. This initiative called Sujalam Sufalam is supported by Tata Trusts.

TCL also works with other NGO partners in UP and Bihar, to extend the outreach of proven technologies through them. At the community level, TCL engages with women SHGs, where support and training come from NABARD.

What are the factors that led to riverbed farming?

In Bahraich and Shrawasti, farmers living near flood-prone rivers Ghagra and Rapti are reduced to penury, affected by recurring floods that destroy their lands (with sand casting), house and household assets. They migrate as there are no economic opportunities. We started focusing on this group looking for opportunities in the parched and hot sandy river beds.

In order to regulate the income of farmers, we put the riverbeds to good use by introducing mixed crops like bitter gourd, bottle gourd, sponge gourd, pointed gourd, cucumber, muskmelons, watermelons and bitter gourd. This ensures regular fruiting and income over a long period of time as these crops mature differently. Monocropping the traditional practice has peaked in production resulting in price crash. Secondly, mixed crops are assurance against vagaries of price fluctuations. In order to ensure early planting and overcome the severe winter of North India when the sapling dies due to frost, we introduced the practice of developing samplings in shade nets and low tunnel poly houses as nursery enterprises. These poly houses improve germination and ward off pest attacks.

During the hot summer months, the sands become scorching hot and devoid of bees. Without bees, there’s no pollination, so essential for fruiting. That’s how large sunflowers were introduced, it attracted bees to the fields which led to pollination and increased the yield. Sunflower cultivation gives farmers an additional income. Farmers are ambassadors of sunflower cultivation and several communities have adopted it.

While nurturing the crops, we also introduced eco-initiatives to reduce the carbon footprint and rejuvenate rivers by freeing them of chemicals. Organic fertilizers made with cow dung, have replaced chemical fertilizers. Similarly, organic pesticides have been introduced as also solar powered drip and micro-irrigation systems.

State and central government subsidies have been tapped to install solar water lifting pumps to lower cultivation costs. Farmers bear 25% of the cost (often taking loans) while the rest of it comes from government subsidy.

Are there any new riverbed farming initiatives?

Agriculture adoption is a long annual cycle. When we got to an area, we tweak processes and demonstrate our innovative approach for the next two years, by which time it gets accepted. Riverbed farming alongside river Rapti in Shrawasti district and river Ghagra in Bahraich district has been successful. We would like to replicate the experiment in north India, especially the Ganges along with its tributaries.

How do farmers sell their produce?

Farmer woes have come to an end as we have opened out channels for them to go to the mandi rather than sell to local traders. It’s a Collective Marketing initiative wherein the farmers use the common transport and one of them goes to the mandi to sell on behalf of all and hence is able to strike a better bargain. 

How have you improved the lentil production in Bahraich district?

Though Bahraich was known for pulses, the lentil and pigeon pea (arhaar dal) production have dropped over the years. We introduced new varieties, seed, and soil treatment interventions. Seed treatment happens before sowing to protect against diseases. We have introduced nutrient and micro-nutrient sprays before fruiting. Excessive application of fertilizers make the soil sterile, so we introduced the aerial spray of urea which requires 10% of the amount used in soil application. All this has resulted in doubling of productivity of lentil from less than two quintals per acre to four quintals per acre. We have initiated seed production using foundation seeds of tested varieties with help of Krishi Vigyan Kendra. With aggregation and marketing of lentil by women SHG federation, we are changing the ecosystem of lentils in Bahraich district. 

Similarly, the Pigeon pea productivity has improved through new varieties, line sowing, and increased spacing, epical bud pinching, and adopting timely pest control measures.  We plan to enter introduce black gram lentil (urad dal) as intercropping in the area.  

In the next five-to-ten years, it’s hoped that Bahraich will become a major pulse production area.

Can you throw light on the unconventional crops grown in the region?

Shrawasti and Bahraich districts grow staple food crops like wheat and paddy, which don’t generate much income. Farmers are encouraged to grow unconventional crops like bananas and chilies which fetch better incomes. Tissue culture-based banana cultivation has been promoted by providing saplings, and training, monitoring, and handholding in its cultivation. These are uniform and of good quality. TCL has an inclusive approach; small and marginal farmers are oriented to grow chilis. But because it’s labour-intensive, women in the household to being roped into the production. Many of them have become entrepreneurs. The net return per acre is Rs 1.50 lakh.

What are your future plans?

Our goal for 2020 is to reach out to one lakh farmers. Bahraich is a hub of migrant labourers, who go to Punjab, Delhi-NCR, and Mumbai in search of greener pastures. It’s also been noticed that many migrant labourers and farmers (who also move out due to various reasons) leave behind their wives at home, who end up with little or no money. We plan to link them with financial institutions for accessing various services and building financial capability of migrants and their families including for cashless transactions. Our aim is to get 30,000 households linked with financial institutions in the next three years.

Coming to education, TCL has just begun to work with 25  government schools in Bahraich. The idea is to improve the learning levels of children through creative and interesting methods of learning and teaching aids and materials. Extensive use is made of games, and use of child-centric poems and stories. We are also working with School Management Committees (SMC) to galvanize them and make them aware of their roles and responsibilities in monitoring schools.

We have a handful of volunteers who take courses in language and math in schools from class one to third, the elementary level to give them good foundation. It’s still in its infancy.

In sync with the Digital India campaign, TCL has started two Common Service Centres with help of NEG-FIRE for adolescent girls for improving life skills and computer literacy.

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