As water roared out of the sluice gates of Stanley reservoir in Mettur on August 13, farmers in Tamil Nadu’s delta region rejoiced. It was time for them to prepare their agricultural lands to sow paddy seeds. Over the years however, farmers in the state have been struggling to make decent profits. From being sure of ‘muppoga velachal’ – three assured harvests in a year – the state of affairs has come down to farmers hoping to get at least one assured harvest of paddy in a year.
This precarious situation is due to the inadequate supply of Cauvery water for irrigation and fast depleting groundwater levels due to inadequate rainfall, among many other reasons.
Tamil Nadu is one of the top producers of paddy in the country; the delta districts – Thanjavur, Thiruvarur, Nagapattinam, Ariyalur, Trichy, Cuddalore and Pudukkottai – are the largest contributors to the state’s harvest. And while availability of groundwater and rainfall patterns are definitely an issue, experts say that one way in which farmers can mitigate losses is by adopting newer methods of farming.
Direct sowing, a viable alternative
Farmers in Tamil Nadu have been traditionally cultivating paddy using the ‘transplant method’. This method is water and labour intensive, and depends on flood irrigation method to water the crops. However, the Department of Agriculture, Tamil Nadu, has been suggesting to farmers to switch to a more efficient method of paddy cultivation, which uses less water.
Speaking to TNM about it, a senior official at the Department of Agriculture says that Direct Sowing method is being actively encouraged by the government and demo fields are being set up at each block in the districts to educate the farmers about the benefits of direct sowing. “When we transplant (transplanting method), we force the seed into the soil. But when the seeds are sprinkled, sprouting is better and the time it takes to return as produce is 1-2 weeks lesser than what it would take in transplanting method,” he says.
Adding that the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU) has established that if paddy seeds are sown at a particular distance within a square metre, the yield is maximum, he says that this method is also being taught to farmers at the block level.
“We also have some technology to extract manure-like effects from the weeds that grow in the paddy field. But, if water is abundant, the farmers are not going to listen to us. They will resort to tried and tested, traditional methods only. So the change is slow,” he adds.
Water management methods must be adopted
Apart from sowing methods of paddy seeds, another way to make the best use of water would be to try out different irrigation methods, says Dr Rengalakshmi, Director of Eco-Technology at the MS Swaminathan Research Foundation.
“At present the farmers in Delta regions are dependent on groundwater for their kharif crops (kuruvai) since Mettur water rarely is released by June second week like it once used to. Borewells support the first crop. Only for the second crop of the year (samba) they are getting river water. For the third crop, the farmers are leaning towards gingelly (sesame seeds) and pulses, which need much less water than rice,” she explains.
Highlighting the importance of ponds and recharging of groundwater for supporting farming, Dr Rengalakshmi says that desilting must be taken up at regular intervals to replenish groundwater levels. “At present, the replenishment of groundwater is not happening at the rate water is being used up for paddy cultivation. There must be some system in place to recharge the groundwater if the farmers need at least two successful crop cycles,” she explains.
Crediting the TNAU for coming up with new technology to optimise water usage and paddy output, Dr Rengalakshmi says that there are trade-offs in most of these new methods, which need to be worked on. “The alternate wetting and drying farming method is successful. In this method, the farmers are asked to let the field dry fully before irrigating it again. But weed management is a tough task in that method. That is the trade-off in that technology,” she points out.
Popularise rice fallow crops
While new agricultural methods are being introduced, it is crucial to spread the word about it, says Jayashree B, a Chennai-based Agricultural Research Communication professional.
“One way is to popularise more efficient irrigation and agricultural practices among farmers. Just like how a company or a government campaigns for major schemes, these concepts must also be popularised among the farmers,” she says.
She also adds that farmers must be made aware of other ways by which they can reduce their losses in case a cropping season goes bad. Rice fallow crops – grown while the fields are allowed to replenish for the next paddy crop – are one solution, she says.
“Rice fallow crops end up replenishing soil nutrition. The farmers must be educated about the possible alternate crop options which will ensure that they get money for their produce. These crops like groundnut, pulses and millets will grow in lesser amount of water and also will add nutrients to the soil,” Jayashree points out.
Reluctance and lack of desilting major issues
Meanwhile, S Ranganathan, Joint Secretary of Cauvery Delta Farmers Association tells TNM that direct sowing is indeed adopted by the farmers in the delta regions since 1987. “Out of the 12 lakh acres of farmlands in Cauvery Delta, 3-4 lakh acres of fields are under direct sowing only. This year, though Mettur was opened on August 13 and Grand Anicut has been opened on August 17, we in Mannargudi are yet to receive water,” he says, highlighting the need for the government to take up desilting on a war-footing.
Adding that the farmers have kept their lands ready by tilling, Ranganathan says that while Tamil Nadu’s water duty (the measure of land which can be irrigated by a unit quantity of water) has been among the best in the country, it is true that farmers are slow in adapting to new technologies, he says.
“Since the soil in this region is clayey, the moisture retention is good. Hence we switch to rice fallow crops like pulses in January after one round of Paddy. These pulses harvest in 65 days from sowing,” he adds.