THERE IS over 50 per cent chance of a La Niña condition in the equatorial Pacific Ocean during the autumn of 2020, suggests the latest update by the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It adds that once formed, the La Niña condition might continue into the winter season.
Currently, El Niño Southern Oscillation (ENSO), an irregularly periodic variation in winds and sea surface temperatures over the tropical eastern Pacific Ocean, is in neutral condition. The warming phase of ENSO cycle is known as El Niño and its cooling phase as La Niña. It is characterised by the unusual cooling of the central and east-central equatorial Pacific Ocean.
During the past four weeks, equatorial sea surface temperatures were below average from the International Date Line to the eastern Pacific and were above average in the western Pacific. The International Date Line is an imaginary line on the Earth’s surface, defining the boundary between one day and the next.
Both El Niño and La Niña are deviations from normal surface temperatures that occur due to the anomalous behaviour of trade winds. In the case of El Niño, the trade winds weaken, leading to warming. In La Niña, the opposite happens and the trade winds strengthen, leading to cooling. Both these events can have large-scale impacts not only on ocean processes, but also on global weather and climate.
During El Niño, the central and equatorial Pacific Ocean becomes unusually warm. This disrupts global wind patterns, affecting climatic conditions in tropical areas like Africa, sub-tropical areas like India and extra-tropical areas like North America. El Niño and La Niña episodes typically last nine to 12 months, but some may last for years. While their frequency can be quite irregular, on an average El Niño and La Niña occur every two to seven years. Typically, El Niño occurs more frequently than La Niña.
‘IT CAN IMPACT INDIA’S MONSOONS AND WINTERS’
Raghu Murtugudde, a climate scientist at the University of Maryland, US, tells Down To Earth about the impact the developing La Niña condition can have on India.
Will La Niña impact India’s ongoing monsoon season? El Niño tends to produce a weaker monsoon. La Niña tends to do the opposite. Considering the monsoon is below normal along much of the west coast and central India, La Niña could produce more rain during the rest of August and into September. The interannual variability of monsoon, in fact, tends to be the largest in September, so La Niña may produce a wetter September and a delayed withdrawal if it grows stronger.
Will it also affect the winter season?
A La Niña can affect India’s winter. The winds during the winter are from the northeast near the surface and this is accompanied by a southwesterly jet in the upper atmosphere. During El Niño this jet is pushed southward which allows more western disturbance to bring rain and snow into northwestern India. But a La Niña produces a more north-south low pressure system which brings in Siberian air and the cold wave can extend much further south. During some years we have had frost in Mahabaleshwar and cold waves in Tamil Nadu hills and so on due to La Niña.
Only 35% cities partially segregate waste at source
THE GOVERNMENT recently released the Swachh Survekshan 2020 report, with much fanfare. The report, however, highlights a peculiar problem: only 35 per cent cities are segregating waste at source in at least 50 per cent of its wards. This percentage is substantially lower than what the government has so far maintained. The Output Outcome Framework 2020-21, released in February by the Union Ministry of Finance to suggest expenditure reforms, observes 74 per cent wards in the country were on track to follow 100 per cent source segregation by March 2020. It says that under Swachh Bharat Mission-Urban, the country has achieved 100 per cent source segregation in 63,000 of the 82,000 wards in the country.
In contrast, the Survekshan report, which has covered 4,242 cities that have a combined ward strength of 64,315, claims only 1,476 cities are segregating at least 50 per cent waste at source. The survey was conducted in January 2020 and the finance ministry report takes data till March 31, 2020. So for both the reports to be correct, the country must have added nearly 40,000 more wards to the segregation at source list in just three months. The Survekshan report does not divulge city wise details on source segregation.
Similarly, it claims that 2,606 cities practise door-to-door garbage collection in more than 50 per cent of the wards, whereas the Swachh Bharat Mission–Urban dashboard, accessed on August 21, claims 4,372 cities (that cover 81,875 wards) are practising 100 per cent door-to-door garbage collection. This also seems extremely ambitious and unlikely.
The Survekshan report has once again declared Indore as the cleanest city, followed by Surat and Navi Mumbai among cities with more than a million population. Maharashtra’s Karad, Saswad and Lonavala bagged the first three positions for cities with population less than 100,000.
Among the cities with population between 100,000 and 1 million, Chhattisgarh’s Ambikapur was declared the cleanest, followed by Mysore in Karnataka. Chhattisgarh is the first and the only state where every city has achieved open defecation free++ status.
THE HILLS ARE COMING ALIVE
Deserted villages of Uttarakhand are springing back to life as residents return to the hills after decades. The state government has announced several schemes to retain them, but has it reached people?
RAJU SAJWAN PAURI-GARHWAL
VIKAS RAWAT, 38, is content plucking vegetables from his farm in Kathur village, about 15 km from Pauri town in Uttarakhand. He will sell the vegetables in nearby villages after keeping some for his family. Till six months ago, Rawat, who had a flourishing ‘hotel’ (dhaba) business outside an engineering college at Ghurdauri near Pauri, had not even dreamt of taking up farming. In March, when the government announced a nationwide lockdown to stop the spread of covid-19, he feared his business would collapse. So he called up many of his childhood friends from Kathur who had migrated to other cities for livelihood.
Rawat proposed that cultivation could be the solution to the looming crisis. The friends agreed and decided to return home and rejuvenate their farms lying unused. By April, Rawat and his friends were together growing beans, tomatoes, cabbage, capsicum and brinjal in 0.4 ha. They have also planted pulses and paddy.
All of them are confident to earn as much as they did in the city. Rawat has already sold 3 quintals of beans at `40 per kg. Tomatoes, cabbage and capsicum are ripening now. He hopes to fetch a good price for these too. The input cost is also quite low as they use cow dung bought from neighbours as manure, not urea.
RETURN TO THE HILLS FOR GREENER PASTURES
Rawat is among the 330,000 residents who returned to the state after the lockdown. Data with the Uttarakhand Rural Development and Migration Commission (URDMC) shows that while 80.68 per cent people returned to Uttarakhand from other states, 18.11 per cent came back from other districts of the state, and 0.92 per cent of the migration was within the district. The percentage of those who returned from abroad was 0.29. URDMC’s two-phase survey collected data on the number of people who returned from February 1 to March 1, and from April 1 to June 21. It states that PauriGarhwal and Almora districts witnessed maximum reverse migration.
Take the case of Bondul village in Pauri’s Kot block. Down To Earth (DTE) had visited the village in 2015. Then, it was labelled a ghost village as only three families lived there. Of these, two families had only two elderly women—Bimla Devi and Pushpa Devi. DTE returned to the village after the pandemic and saw the deserted village had come alive. The women were jubilant as their sons had returned home along with their families. Pushpa’s son Kishan Juyal did small jobs in Pune, but is happy now with the
prospects of farming in the village. He has removed shrubs from his field and sowed vegetables there. For now, he works under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA).
“It is better to be in the village considering the situation in cities after the pandemic,” says Bimla’s son Durgesh Juyal, who worked in a construction company in Gurugram. But he is apprehensive about his family’s future. His school going daughter had started attending online classes after the lockdown. Here, getting education is difficult. The nearest school is 5 km away and there is no public conveyance. Due to the hilly terrain it takes an hour-and-a half to reach school and about three hours to return. “Also, there is no work for me here. What will I do?” he wonders.
But 28-year-old Kishan Dev Singh Katyal, who returned to his village Bonga in Pauri’s Kaljikhal block, is optimistic. He had to leave Delhi after Bausch & Lomb, the multinational he worked with, asked him to resign. He was among the hundred employees told to quit. The company was already hit by the economic downturn, but the pandemic was crushing. Katyal now plans to grow mangoes and lychees in his 0.4 ha. “Land is so fertile here that farming can be really profitable,” he says. The problem is that Katyal has nothing apart from his ancestral land. To sustain himself, he has started working under MGNREGA digging pits and picking up stones. He hopes to get government help to start the business.
CAN THE GOVERNMENT HOLD PEOPLE BACK?
The Uttarakhand government is determined not to let its people flee again, says Chief Minister
Trivendra Singh Rawat, (see ‘45 per cent of our people will stay back’, p18). “We have launched schemes one after another to turn this disaster into an opportunity,” he told Dte. Under the Mukhyamantri Swarozgar Yojana, people will get 15 to 25 per cent subsidy to start business, be it in manufacturing, agriculture, horticulture or animal husbandry. Loans will be provided through banks.
Left to starve
The COVID-19 lockdown is likely to render millions of children in India malnourished
NEARLY HALF of India’s children are already undernourished and the country’s handling of the pandemic is expected to push many more to malnutrition. “Anganwadis have not provided food to children since April, when the centres were either converted into quarantine centres or closed down
due to the pandemic,” says Sundari Tirki, general secretary of Anganwadi Karmchari Sabha in Jharkhand. She adds that for many children, the food served at anganwadi centres is the only nutritious and filling meal of the day. Yet the lockdown has meant that none of the women self help groups responsible for running these rural child care have served food in the past five months.
The damage such disruptions can cause is scary. It can, for example, make millions of children malnourished, says a paper published in the Journal of Global Health Science. In Jharkhand alone, 0.35 million children can become severely malnourished and another 0.36 million underweight, warns the paper, “Living on the edge? Sensitivity of child under nutrition prevalence to bodyweight shocks in the context of the 2020 national lockdown strategy in India”. The worry does not end there. Another 0.5
million children in Jharkhand can become wasted, and 0.4 million severe wasted. A child is wasted when s/he has low weight for height. It is triggered either by poor diet or infectious diseases like diarrhoea.
Underweight is defined as low weight-for-age. A child who is underweight may be stunted, wasted or both.
The study has a similar prediction for the rest of the country. It warns the food shock, defined as the disruption in nutritious food due to the lockdown, would be worst felt in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. “They have the highest child population base along with high levels of poverty head count ratio, maternal mortality, infant mortality and low coverage of public health and nutrition
services,” warn the researchers (see “India needs urgent malnutrition assessment” p26). The three
states can record over 5 million new malnourished children due to the lockdown.
Every second child in India is already malnourished, suggests the latest National Family Health Survey (NFHS) of 2015-16, which is the basis for the study. It means roughly 77 million children—which is the combined population of Jharkhand, Telangana and Kerala—are undernourished in the country. Using this data, the researchers have ascertained the additional children population that will become malnourished in three distinct scenarios—if children lose 0.5 per cent, 2.5 per cent and 5 percent of their weight during the lockdown. “Under a scenario of bodyweight shock of 0.5 per cent, the prevalence of underweight and wasting will increase by 1.42 and 1.36 percentage points, respectively. These estimates get translated into 410,413 and 392,886 additional cases of underweight and wasting, respectively,” the report says.
It estimates that the number of severe underweight and wasted children is expected to increase by 268,767 and 166,342, respectively. In a scenario of five per cent weight loss, India will experience a staggering increase of 4.4 million underweight and 3.2 million severe underweight children. It can also make 5,140,936 additional children wasted and 2,129,522 children severe wasted.
The researchers explain the numbers by saying that a high concentration of children in the country are already around the under nutrition threshold, and any minor shock to nutritional health of the children can have major implications. Given the challenge in the current scenario, the paper says it is “critical to ensure an uninterrupted supply of nutritious meals and food supplements to the poor children while arresting the infection spread”.
It concludes that it is still a conservative estimate and these minor shocks can lead to large and devastating effects on nutritional health of India.
Fostering a Sustainable Community in Mawphlang
The Khasi tribe of Mawphlang, near Shillong in Meghalaya, shares a close harmony with nature. When Himalaya first visited Mawphlang, we were inspired by their love for nature and rich heritage. For centuries, they have been preserving the forest lands. But in the recent past, the younger generation has migrated to cities in search of better employment opportunities.
Himalaya in association with SYNJUK, a local NGO, is helping Mawphlang turn into a sustainable
community. As a first step, we’re creating opportunities for the local youth by training them in the traditional methods of livelihood, such as vermicomposting, apiculture, and mushroom cultivation. We have conducted extensive training programs on scientific techniques and live demonstrations by experienced professionals. To kickstart the program, we have provided the necessary resources and equipment and will continue to extend technical support through our on-ground partner.
Himalaya organized tree plantation drives and planted close to 30,000 indigenous tree saplings to conserve the biodiversity of the region. We also conducted comprehensive health camps in the region as part of our ‘Healthy India, Happy India’ campaign and reached out to over 1000 individuals from the villages of Mawphlang and Nongrum. Himalaya is working towards improving the financial condition of the local community in Mawphlang and helping them become self-sufficient says, “Every day, we used to procure vegetables worth `500 from the community nutrition garden. About 375 kg of tomato, chilli, brinjal, spinach, coriander and bottle guard came from the garden.”
Soon, the demand for works under MGNREGA shot up. In Chhatarpur of the state, while the work demand between May and July 2019-20 stood at 26,218, 27,346 and 23,567 households respectively, the same for this year jumped to 37,334, 46,097 and 45,151. As many as 141 people applied for new job cards; some of them have got work at the community nutrition garden.
On April 12, on hearing the news of his father’s demise, Kishori Lal Kushwaha started his journey from Haryana’s Hissar district to Ragoli on foot. It took Kushwaha 20 days to reach home. Once in Ragoli, he was met with a different uncertainty. “I didn’t have a single penny left,” he said. But fortunately, the community nutrition garden has provided him with work. Along with 12 other people, he is now responsible for maintaining the orchard that has 500 trees. I now receive `₹190 a day under mgnrega,” Kushwaha says.
“What we are witnessing now is the real potential of MGNREGA. If people’s labour is invested on water conservation and agriculture-related activities, the return is very high; in fact, it is higher than the immediate wage,” says Sanjay.
WHEN EVERY SMILE COUNTS
Individuals, small groups now join MGNREGA not for immediate relief but as long-term investment
To encourage more and more people to join the workfare programme, the focus of MGNREGA has shifted to creation of assets that would benefit individuals. This ensured that people, particularly farmers from below the poverty line (BPL) category, got paid while creating their own assets like cattle shed. One such beneficiary is Javed Khan, a livestock rearer in Pratapnagar’s Tajewala village. “I had a makeshift structure to keep the cattle and would always be under the fear that it would catch fire. Now that the government has built a hygienic and sanitised shed, I hope that milk production from my cows will go up,” says Khan. In the four months till July, Haryana has completed 784 individual works; at least 200 cattle sheds have been sanctioned in Thanesar block.
MIS reports available on the MGNREGA website show that 336,272 individual works have been taken up during the four months across the country; this is about one-fifth of the total such works done during the whole last year. Of this, 199,820 are under rural housing category, and close to 33 per cent works are for land development, creating infrastructure for livestock and plantation. This is a significant development, given that the creation of individual assets had fallen out of favour after 2017-18. It seems the lockdown and the consequent economic crisis in rural areas have made both people and the government realise the importance of MGNREGA.
It is a Thursday, an official weekly holiday for MGNEGA works in Rajasthan. Yet, some 40 women in Bhilwara district’s Marwon Ka Kheda village are busy uprooting jungli babool (Prosopis juliflora) trees from a 10-ha land with hardened hillocks. They know they would not be paid for the work done that day. “But we know what this will result in: a piece of land for agriculture and a future where we don’t have to struggle every day for daily wage,” says Suman Devi, a 58-year-old resident. Once the land is cleared of the invasive trees, they are going to level it and make it cultivable using MGNREGA funds, as the government has permitted community cultivation. Then they will split the land into plots for nurseries and vegetable cultivation. They have already identified a pond and a feeder canal for irrigating
the land. Though silted up and covered with weeds, the women plan to use MGNREGA to first revive the water bodies and then implement drip irrigation system for judicious use of the harvested water.
Across the village, several other households are also working on their own farmland under MGNREGA . In total, the village has 19 ongoing works, all related to natural resource management.
In Rajasthan, 3.2 million people had demanded works last year. This year, it has increased to 5.2 million in just four months. Following the lockdown, some 0.99 million workers have returned to the state by July end. During the four months post lockdown, the state data shows completion of 4,545 works of which 66 per cent are related to water conservation.
“More than just opening up works, we have made sure that the communities pick up the works they feel can add to their future earnings. And most of them asked for water conservation and land-related works,” says Gopal Ram Birdha, who supervises MGNREGA in Bhilwara. This could be the reason, more and more people, particularly women, have joined the programme this time, he adds.
In Ajmer’s Meenao Ki Dhani village, first time almost all households have applied for work under MGNREGA. Nearly 60 per cent of them are women. When district officials asked them to choose a work, they opted to revive a dry tank, aaw, and its 5-km-long feeder canal that had silted up. Four months
later, when the system was revived the entire village gathered around the tank to see the first gush of water into it. It was a rare sight for most in the village. Women would no longer have to walk 2 km a day to fetch drinking water as this tank would recharge the 24 wells in the vicinity, which too have dried up in the recent years. Hansraj, a village elder, estimates that the tank with 16,000 cu m storage capacity will offer an assured irrigation to 80 ha of farmland. “My wheat yield will simply double,” he says.
The focus on using MGNREGA for water conservation is definitely yielding results in term of enhanced agriculture and availability irrigation locally. This has economic benefit in long-term. Amit Mathur, MGNREGA in-charge of Ajmer, says, “Getting such works done has helped people in two ways. First, they received cash as an immediate relief. Now, they are using the land and irrigation facilities to grow vegetables, which will offer them regular income.” During the four months till July, the government has spent about `65 lakh on the works; close to 70 per cent of it went to people as wages.
Enthusiasm can be clearly gauged from the completed works. In states like West Bengal that received a large number labourers who had left the state earlier, a huge amount of works have been completed between April and July this year compared to the same period last year. Over 72,000 works related to natural resource management have been completed this year, compared to just 7,000 during the whole of last year. Bihar, another state with a high number of people returning to their state, completed nine times more works in the four months of 2020 than in 2019.
CASHING IN ON NATURE
MGNREGA is an asset transferring programme. This aspect makes it attractive to communities
Creation of productive assets, whether for individual or for community benefits, has been the hallmark of MGREGA. Starting with just 29 types of works allowed under the programme at its inception, it now includes some 260 types of works. From the hills to the plains, deserts to floodprone areas, and from the uplands to coastal areas, rural residents are paid for development works like deepening of ponds, creating shelter for livestock, or clearing a silted spring in the hills. All this on one condition: people have to demand jobs under the programme. Addition of new types of work over a period has been made to upgrade the list, so that it reflects people’s needs critical to their livelihood like farming, fishery and livestock rearing. But over the years, the works related to natural resource management had taken a backseat.
Take the example of water-related structures, which are common village assets. Between 2006-07 and 2019-20, more than 10 million such structures have been built under MGNREGA at an expense of not less than `₹201,000 crore. But the fact is the number of water-related projects under MGNREGA and associated expenditure had declined over last five years. Between 2014-15 and 2019-20, it has been seen that on an average 35.14 per cent of the money is spent on water related works in comparison to the expenditure on the total works under MGNREGA . This is when the Act mandates that at least 75 per cent of the total works must be related to water conservation.
But this year, in the four months between April and July, people have completed 60 per cent of the water conservations works undertaken during the whole of 2019-20. There is no doubt that a huge
amount of work on NRM, especially on water conservation, is being done under MGNREGA during the covid-19 times.
On the other hand, availing work under the scheme, individuals can now level their fields, create a farm pond or do vermicomposting, besides 35 other such activities in their own land and be paid wages under the programme.
Since 2015, major emphasis has been given to two kinds of works: irrigation facilities and rural sanitation. A study published in 2018 by the Institute of Economic Growth, Delhi for 21 selected states says the work related to irrigation facilities increased from 30.6 per cent in 2015-16 to 58.9 per cent in 2017-18. According to the study, it is seen that creation of individual assets also increased from 31 to 48 per cent during 2015-16 to 2017-18. The creation of individual assets in individual lands includes contour bunds and farm ponds apart from vermicomposting and cattle shed.
In 2010-11 the demand for works under the programme showed consistent dip. One of the reasons was that people were losing incentive for joining the programme. So, the government allowed several works with private benefits under the programme. It has not only led to an increase in job demand but also a boom in asset creation for individuals. Since 2015- 16 till 2019-20, some 1.83 million farm ponds have been created. These water harvesting structures benefit individual farmers. Given that a typical farm pond holds 1,200 cu m of water, farmers have already created storage of 2,201 million cu m.
A 2016 study by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) shows that there was a huge increase in groundwater recharge due to the MGNREGA work done in the three water-scarce states of Andhra Pradesh, Chhattisgarh and Rajasthan. The net irrigated area also increased between 5 and 95 ha. The water harvesting structures have increased the yield of the bore wells and reduced soil erosion. Economic gains are also well observed in certain districts. For example, after creating rainwater harvesting and groundwater recharge under MGNREGA, farmers in Abhaypur panchayat of Rajasthan have now shifted to growing wheat in place of mustard as practised in earlier days. This has doubled the net income of farmers to `₹50,000 per ha.
In one way, MGNREGA is an asset transferring programme. This makes it attractive to local communities, and also adds to the income-generating activities. Several officials in-charge of MGNREGA are demanding to include more works related to natural resource management in MGNREGA.
“Agriculture is the dominant occupation in eastern Uttar Pradesh. There are many jobs related to farming here. All such works should be included in MGNREGA. This will not only improve the situation of agriculture but can also be a permanent solution to unemployment,” says Sanjay Sharma, who has successfully implemented the programme in Siddharthnagar.
There is a political déjà vu around MGNREGA. After coming to power in 2014, and in his first speech in Parliament, Prime Minister Narendra Modi had termed MGNREGA as a symbol of the erstwhile UPA government’s “monumental failure”. Modi junked the programme as an affront to Indians’ dignity as it let them dig tanks and ponds. Soon after the labour crisis went out of control due to job loss under lockdown, Modi made MGNREGA the centre piece of his relief package for rural India. This year the
Union government has budgeted ₹1.20 lakh crore for the public wage programme, including an additional allocation of ₹40,000 crore in July.
All states, barring Delhi and Union Territories, have made special provisions under MGNREGA to create employment for returning workers. They are using the programme as the sole vehicle to tide over the crisis of unemployment in rural areas. At present, the political leadership is using the programme as a tool to tide over the crisis created by the pandemic. Trivendra Singh Rawat, chief minister of Uttarakhand, where several villages now lie deserted due to mass exodus of people from rural areas, feels that the programme can play a critical role in reviving the state’s rural economy. Following the lockdown, the state has seen a wave of reverse migration for the first time in years. Rawat, who wants these people to stay, pins his hope on MGNREGA. People should be allowed to work on their own fields under MGNREGA, he demands. That means paying people to help them once again take up their primary occupation, which is agriculture. This is what the programme is already doing. It may be the
inadvertent fallout of the pandemic; but it’s a new understanding of MGNREGA.
How much is zero?
AGRICULTURE IS both the cause and victim of water scarcity. Excessive use of water threatens the sustainability of livelihoods dependent on water and agriculture, says the Food and Agriculture
Organization. In India, the Green Revolution had a phenomenal impact on India’s food production, but it also rendered the land infertile, led to extensive water consumption and aggravated groundwater loss. As per the Central Water Commission, the country’s agriculture sector already consumes over 83 per cent of the available water resources. And the demand will grow.
In the recent past, there has been a global demand to shift to sustainable farming systems, such as Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF). India, too, introduced ZBNF in its Union Budget 2019-20. As the name suggests, it is the adaptation of an ancient practice which reduces farmers’ direct cost and encourages them to use natural inputs, such as cow dung and cow urine. The inputs help manage soil nutrition, fertility, pests and seeds. The technology requires less tilling and completely rejects the use of inorganic fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides. It is also water-efficient. Of late, all these benefits have been popularised, but in 2019 a group of researchers tried to quantify it.
At the Center for Study of Science, Technology and Policy (CSTEP), researchers conducted an exploratory study in Andhra Pradesh to compare ZBNF and non-ZBNF techniques in paddy, groundnut, chilli, cotton and maize farming. The comparison was made on six parameters— water, electricity and energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, yield and net revenue. The study was conducted in West Godavari, Prakasam, Vizianagaram and Anantapuramu districts during kharif season, ensuring variation in agro-climatic zones, farming techniques, production and social aspects.
The study, published in February 2020, found the maximum benefits of ZBNF in paddy farming, with a saving of 1,400 to 3,500 cubic metre of water per acre per paddy cropping period (one acre equals 0.4 hectare). This was accomplished by increasing the time interval of irrigation cycles—every eight to 10 days— unlike the conventional method which requires watering every five to six days. The water saving was attributed to multiple aeration practice. This water management method involves periodic aeration of the soil between watering periods.
Water consumption in paddy cultivation depends on the frequency and depth of irrigation. Paddy farms under ZBNF were irrigated with only 2.54 cm to 5.7 cm deep water while those under non-ZBNF had to be watered up to 12.7 cm. ZBNF advocates mulching of crop residues to promote moisture retention in soil and increase humus. It also involves waaphasa, or soil aeration, to reduce water consumption. The traditional flood irrigation is plagued with inconsistent spread of nutrients with excess water use, which can also drop crop productivity.
Although the study did not observe much impact on crop yield, multiple aeration and reduced water use showed other benefits. In just one crop season, electricity consumption of farms relying on groundwater reduced by 1,500-3,900 units per acre, and saved `6,000-16,000. Further, multiple aeration
hinders microbial activity and cuts methane emissions by 88 per cent, compared to the conventional flooding practice. This leads to an additional saving of fossil fuels used for electricity generation and emissions reduction.
IN ONE CROP SEASON, ELECTRICITY CONSUMPTION OF FARMS RELYING ON GROUNDWATER REDUCED BY 1,500- 3,900 UNITS PER ACRE (0.4 HA), SAVED ₹6,000-16,000. MULTIPLE AERATION HINDERS MICROBIAL ACTIVITY, CUTS METHANE EMISSIONS BY 88 PER CENT
GROWING PADDY CAN SAVE WATER
If all of India’s paddy area—43-44 million ha—is brought under ZBNF, 150-400 billion cubic metre of water can be potentially saved. The volume is equivalent to storage potential of 40 to 100 Tehri dams, one of India’s biggest dams located in Uttarakhand. Additionally, ZBNF can address several on-ground challenges, such as groundwater-stress, water disparity in canal water usage, and overuse of resources (flooded irrigation).
In India, 70 per cent of the farms rely on groundwater, which depletes reserves. In water stressed zones, tubewells have to be dug up to about 300 metres. ZBNF can avoid the current drawing of groundwater by 50 to 60 per cent, ensure adequate groundwater reserve, improve water table and reduce financial and labour stress on farmers.
ZBNF farming can also solve disputes between farming communities where upstream farmers employ canal irrigation and end up guzzling more water, leaving downstream farms with insufficient volume.
ZBNF does show water-saving potential and can address India’s food and security in the long run, but deep investigation is required to ascertain if it can be replicated in the various agro-climatic zones across the country. As they say, Rome was not built in a day, similarly, ZBNF requires time and policy support so that the government provides monetary help for it to be adopted in all the states.
Let’s not cheer, not yet
THE CURRENT kharif season has been exceptional. Over 8 million more hectares are under cultivation compared to last year. There are now more people in the farms; most of them had once quit agriculture and migrated to towns and cities but are now back in villages due to the covid-19 lockdown. There has also been a significant increase in the acreage of almost all crops; the area under rice, which sustains the maximum number of farmers in the country, is largest in the past five years.
To add to the cheer, the latest report by the State Bank of India (SBI) says the agriculture sector has been immune to the impacts of the pandemic. Rather, this is the only major economic sector that would witness a growth of 3 per cent this fiscal year; the rest are going to shrink. Earlier on June 2, the Union government increased the minimum support price (MSP) of 14 kharif crops to provide relief to farmers.
Hopes float in the corridors of the finance ministry. Many say this would help revive the economy, if not this financial year, then definitely in the next one. They say it because they believe that an increase in agricultural yield will lead to more income, which, in turn, would lead to more consumption among rural Indians and eventually add to the sluggish national economy
But farmers don’t appear jubilant. In recent times, they have not seen a natural correlation between the yield from their farms and the income from it. Rather, the more they produce, the less they earn. This is despite the consistent increase in demand for food in the country. Small wonder, immediately after the declaration of MSP, farmers took to the streets, demanding a higher assured price and citing huge losses even with an enhanced support price. According to a report by the Organisation of Economic Cooperation Development and the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, Indian farmers have lost Rs45 lakh crore due to “non-proper” pricing of the product between 2000 and 2017. Even MSP which the government pursues as the primary support system to ensure fair price, covers just 6-10 per cent of farmers.
This is also a concern for the political leadership as the promise to double farmers’ income by 2022-23 is hardly 30 months away. Ideally this year should have been that springboard to catch up with the target. By 2022-23, to achieve this target, a farmer’s annual income has to be at least ₹192,694 from
₹96,703 in 2015-16. This needs a 10.4 per cent annual income growth till the target year, according to
the government’s own estimate. For this, the income ratio of a farmer has to fundamentally change: the current ratio of 60:40 from farm and non-farm income has to be turned into 70:30. But this involves a farmer increasing his/her investment on farming by 12.5 per cent annually. This is possible if he/she earns enough to invest more.
The government committee that recommended ways to double farmers’ income also said that the biggest challenge is to monetise farmers’ produce, meaning to ensure more economic return. This has
not been possible. Rather in the past five-six years, farmers are increasingly facing a glut in the market for their produce.
A bumper harvest is expected again in the winter. But under the prevailing circumstances, no one can say for sure if the government will ensure a fair price for it. The food stock in its granaries are already too high, thus curtailing its capacity to buy more at MSP. For the farmers, it means another round of distress selling or even not being able to sell their harvest. This will lead to a loss in income and add to their debt burden. It is a disturbing climax to a seemingly milestone year.