Chandigarh: Sukhjeet Singh has been getting around 250 calls every day from farmers across Punjab seeking tips on how to seed rice this kharif season without manual labour. Traditionally, a nursery of rice saplings is cultivated and transplanted onto fields by human hands but for five years, this farmer from Diwala village of Ludhiana district has been drilling rice seeds directly into the soil with seeder machines.

Transplantation is usually carried out in Punjab by seasonal migrant workers from Uttar Pradesh (UP) and Bihar, but this year the pandemic has not only triggered reverse migration of labour out of the state but also blocked all chances of them arriving over the next few months.

Even though local labour is available for the work, it is not enough, said farmers. “Since rice is not a traditional crop of Punjab, local labour is not adept at transplanting it--they worked in only 20% of the area till last year,” said Sukhdev Singh Kokrikalan, general secretary of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ekta-Ugrahan), a farmers’ collective. “This season, the contribution of domestic labour might increase to 40% because there is no other work available and farmers also need them. But the remaining 60% is still a big challenge.”

Direct seeding of rice (DSR), the method used by Sukhjeet Singh, is more productive, profitable and sustainable than transplantation, as we explain later, but it is not popular because it tends to cause high weed infestation and this means more monitoring effort for the farmer and increased use of herbicides.

However, labour shortage has pushed farmers to experiment with DSR, an alternative that is also being suggested by the Punjab Agricultural University to deal with the migrant outflow.

“We are expecting a shift of around 400,000 hectares to DSR,” Punjab’s agriculture secretary, Kahan Singh Pannu, told IndiaSpend. “Another 200,000 [hectares] will get diverted to cotton and maize.” Last year, the area under DSR was 18,492 hectare (0.63%) of the total 2.9 million hectares under paddy and basmati varieties of rice.

Sukhjeet Singh is expecting to rent out two of his seeder machines to seed around 500 acres this season. Last year, he did not get a single query for his machines. “We were the pariahs, the mad ones who were likely to fall flat on their faces because fields with DSR get more weeds that could impact the crop yield,” Singh recalled. “This year, the same people are lining up to learn about the technique and rent machines.”

Punjab, which reported a heavy COVID-19 caseload early in the pandemic, had 170 active cases as of May 22, 2020, according to Coronavirus Monitor, a HealthCheck database.

Reverse migration of workers continues in the state: Of the 1.1 million migrants who registered to return home with the Punjab government’s special portal, 316,000 had left, as per official figures cited in this news report on May 21, 2020. Most of them are industrial labourers; agricultural workers from UP and Bihar tend to arrive temporarily in May-June for paddy transplantation but have kept away this season, as we said earlier.

Conserving water

Punjab uses 5,337 litres of water to grow 1 kg of rice, double the figure for West Bengal (2,605 litres), a more natural habitat for the crop, showed estimates by the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices, under the Union agriculture ministry.

The state government started promoting DSR in 2011 because of its low use of water, a dwindling resource in a state which has registered overexploitation of groundwater in 110 of its 146 administrative blocks.

Most farmers, however, remained uninterested in the technique because of easy availability of labour, free power to draw groundwater and the set practice of flooding fields. Flooding also prevents weed infestation while DSR allows weeds to prosper, as we said earlier. But if this factor can be controlled with practice, DSR has many benefits, as per experts.

DSR saves 14 person-days per hectare and 18-20% irrigation water compared to rice transplantation in flooded fields, said a 2018 joint study by the Punjab Agricultural University and the University of Adelaide that surveyed 211 farmers to estimate the impact of DSR on farm economics. Since the study covered the annual production, it also included wheat crops.

The productivity of wheat crop, the study found, was also 5% higher without puddling, the process of churning the soil, an important step in preparing the field for rice transplantation. “Puddling hampers soil health by forming a hard pan on the surface which not only prevents the percolation of water but also impacts the root depth of subsequent wheat crop,” said Daler Singh, former district agriculture information officer at PAU, who has been promoting DSR for over 20 years. “The hard pan is one of the factors for rice straw burning because it makes the ploughing of the crop residue into the soil difficult. In fact, puddling is the reason why rice gets all the bad press because it requires a lot of water and impacts soil health. DSR does away with puddling and hence is beneficial for the environment in several ways.”

Higher yield, bigger window to manage stubble

Rice grown through direct seeding can be sown early and it also matures 10-15 days earlier than through the transplantation process. This gives farmers a wider window to manage rice straw before sowing the next wheat crop. The lack of time to prepare for the next crop forces farmers to burn the post-harvest stubble in October-November, one of the reasons why north Indian cities are hit by toxic pollution levels in these months.

The net returns from the DSR-wheat system exceeded the transplanted rice-wheat system by Rs 5,050 to 8,100 per hectare, said the 2018 study. DSR reported 2-5% less rice production but as farmers became accustomed to sowing and weed control techniques, the loss dwindled within one-two years.

DSR saved labour worth Rs 5,250 per hectare, irrigations to the tune of 40% and gave an additional yield of 2.61% over transplanted rice, concluded another study by PAU researchers in 2016.

Direct seeding is recommended only for medium to heavy soils and does not give good results in sandy or light textured soils. “Around 80% of the rice-growing area in Punjab would fall in medium to heavy soils. So, there is a great potential for expansion of DSR in the state,” said Daler Singh.

Machine modification

The booking of direct seeding machines, which drill the rice seed into the soil, has seen an exponential rise, we found. “We did not sell a single machine last year but have a target of 400 to meet the unprecedented demand,” said Sarabjeet Singh, managing director of Dashmesh Mechanical Works, one of the biggest manufacturers of agricultural machinery in Punjab. “Every machine serves around 20 acres in a day which means all these machines will be available on hire to others. Next year, we may see a bigger transformation as farmers grow more confident in this technique of rice cultivation.”

The lockdown has, however, impacted the manufacturing of the machines. “We are assembling around 50 machines and all are booked,” said Avtar Singh who runs an agricultural machinery firm in Sehna village of Barnala district. “There is a demand for more but spare parts are in short supply and their rates have increased by 46% due to the lockdown. Even if the industries start now, it would not help because the sowing season is about to start.”

The state government has also asked farmers to modify their wheat seeders at a cost of around Rs 1,000-2,000 because a new machine, at Rs 70,000-Rs 1 lakh, is much more expensive. “Around 3,000 rice-seeding machines will be available to farmers but there are also around 250,000 wheat-seeding machines which can be easily modified for use in rice sowing,” said Pannu.

The main purpose of modification is to reduce the seed dispersal of the wheat seeders, to suit rice sowing: While 40 kg of wheat seeds are used per acre, 8-9 kg seeds per acre is the recommendation for rice. “The cost price of rice seeders have almost doubled this year because of high demand so instead of buying these, farmers can easily work with their old machines,” said Gurpreet Dabrikhana, a social activist who has been training farmers in DSR. “Besides wheat seeders, pea and maize seeders can also be modified to directly seed rice.”

Fear of change

There are many who still prefer the old way. They are vying for rice transplanters, a machine that transplants blocks of rice saplings from the nursery to the field. “The machine is available for rent of Rs 4,500 per acre in our village and I would prefer them over direct seeding if labour is not available,” said Gurtej Singh, a farmer from Mehatpur village in Jalandhar district. “It’s much easier to manage transplanted rice without worrying about results.”

The apprehension about results is evident among farmers across the state who have already started sowing direct-seeded rice even though the government declared June 1, 2020 as the starting date for the crop.

“If DSR doesn’t work, they want to have enough time to plough the fields again and revert to the transplantation method,” said Sarabjeet Singh. “Considering this is their first time, chances are that many will not have adequate knowledge.” The lockdown has thwarted possibilities of training workshops and field visits.

The state government is also advising caution. “We are asking farmers not to convert more than 20% of their farm area into DSR,” agriculture secretary Pannu said. “This way, even if they suffer loss due to lack of technical knowledge, it will be kept to the minimum.”

(Moudgil is an independent journalist writing on environment and governance. He tweets at @manumoudgil)

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