Last week, I began the story of declining groundwater tables in India. I talked about the current system of subsidized energy, the need to change it, and the willingness of farmers to adapt to such changes.
Even before changing the irrigation in the crop’s lifecycle, however, an initial step that farmers can take starts with the seeding of the crop. Recognizing that the regional farmers of Punjab are some of the most productive in the country, it is unlikely that rice production and government procurement will move away from Punjab in the near term – at least until agricultural and procurement infrastructure is improved in other states in northeastern India that are climatically better suited for rice cultivation.
If rice remains the crop of choice for many farmers, at least into the near future, the way the crop is planted could still be changed to reduce water use. Direct seeding of rice into the soil, as opposed to transplantation after starting the crop-growth in a nursery is already being successfully tested by many farmers in the region, and is promoted by Pepsico corporation. The direct seeding approach does away with having to maintain flooded paddy fields.
While a few different strategies for direct seeding are being tested, one strategy is to use row cultivation and dry seed the rice in the sides of the hills of each row. Water is applied at the time of seeding and then subsequently only every 10-20 days depending on the soil conditions. Water savings of 30% to 60% are claimed without impacting the rice yield, and tests are being conducted on different seeding rates. Weed emergence in non-flooded conditions is an issue, but pre-emergence weedicide application, manual weeding, and reduction in near surface soil moisture can control the growth of weeds. Labor costs are apparently in line with those for transplanting.
If just this innovation sees widespread adoption, and is as successful as predicted, then much of the groundwater depletion problem could be addressed. Related recent policy changes regarding rice cultivation already claim to have a significant positive impact. At the behest of the Punjab Farmers Commission and the Punjab Agricultural University, the Punjab Government recently banned early sowing and transplantation of rice. This resulted in significant water savings and a rebound of the groundwater table, since the timing of the crop was effectively shifted into the wet monsoon season from the pre-monsoon season, which is hot and dry, and when the flooded paddy fields are effectively large evaporation ponds. In the neighboring state of Haryana, the government banned “Saathi”, a fast growing (60 day maturity) variety of rice that was being grown in between the winter wheat season and the monsoon season. Similar benefits are claimed from this policy change.