New methods of paddy cultivation are replacing the old puddling technique
How Punjab planted paddy minus labour
Raj Machhan, Chandigarh
Agricultural workers from Bihar and UP left Punjab in droves during the lockdown. Looming ahead was the paddy season. What would farmers do? Those on whom they depended had all gone home. Yet, paddy was planted in record time, just before the monsoon. How did farmers manage it?
“We anticipated this problem. So we decided to try out a new technique of planting paddy which does not involve much labour,” says Gurpreet Singh Chandbaja, a farmer in Ferozepur’s Chandbaja village, who is clearly satisfied with the the paddy plants in his fields.
With the help of a nearby agricultural implements manufacturer, Chandbaja and his friends fashioned a rice planting machine which could directly sow seeds in specially prepared beds.
“We had heard of the ridge and furrow technique of planting rice developed by Dr Daler Singh. Last year we had visited a number of fields in Moga where this technique was used for planting. The farmers got a good yield, and that too at half the cost involved in the traditional method,” he said.
Daler Singh, a former employee of the Agriculture Department, does not hold a doctoral degree, but farmers affectionately call him Dr Daler due to his tireless efforts to develop and then popularize the ridge and furrow technique of planting rice.
The method used by Chandbaja is an offshoot of the ridge and furrow technique. While Daler Singh’s method involved transplanting of seedlings on ridges created for the purpose, Chandbaja has taken to directly sowing the seeds on the plant bed by using a planting machine. In this method, the farmer first creates plant beds 20 inches wide and plants the seeds in three lines on these beds. The rows of plant beds are separated by a furrow, where water is released at a later stage. The preparation of the beds and sowing of seeds is done by using machinery.
Chandbaja says that the method not only reduces his dependency on labour but also enables substantial cost-saving. “With this, we straightaway save Rs 4,000 to 4,500 per acre on labour costs and use less fertilizer, pesticides and insecticides,” he says. More important, he says, the method uses half the water needed in the traditional method. “In this technique, the soil remains loose and water is easily absorbed. Since water only flows through the furrows, we do not need to flood the entire field,” Chandbaja says. He, however, advised farmers to take steps to eliminate rats and a borer insect as these could harm the crop when it is planted in this manner.
Rice planting is traditionally labour-intensive. Seeds are first sown in a nursery and the seedlings are then transplanted into the field. The field is specially prepared for transplantation. This involves flooding the field with water one to two days before ploughing to allow the water to seep in. The field is subsequently ploughed, levelled and compressed, and the seedlings are then planted manually or through a machine.
“Very often, the rice crop is solely held responsible for the depleting water table in Punjab. But that is not the case. It is not rice, but the traditional puddling technique of planting rice that is responsible for the present situation where the water table has plunged to as low as 500 feet,” says Jaskirat Singh, a Ludhiana-based entrepreneur and social activist.
Daler Singh, a septuagenarian, says the answer to Punjab’s water problems lies in adoption of the ridge and furrow technique of rice planting as it uses only half the water required in the traditional puddling method. The ridge and furrow method was first put to use by him in 1997. How did he arrive upon this idea? “We grow a number of crops including potatoes by creating ridges and furrows in the field. I observed that rice too could be grown this way and I found it was better than the traditional puddling method in a number of ways,” he explains.
He started by planting rice through the ridge and furrow method on 16 acres in Ladowal village near Ludhiana. Initially, weeds were a big problem. “I persisted with the technique and by 2000 I had figured out methods to control the weed problem,” he says.
This method has been appreciated and recognized by rice experts across the world including Gurdev Singh Khush, a prominent agronomist and geneticist who recommended it to the Punjab Agriculture University, Ludhiana, for popularizing among farmers. “The PAU did not take it up. I could not understand the reason. In 2002, the then director of research at PAU categorically rejected the Direct Seeding of Rice (DSR) method without even visiting my field,” says Daler Singh.
In 2007, he met with an accident and was hospitalized for the next 10 years. “I took it up again in 2017. I invited Punjab’s agriculture secretary, K.S. Pannu, to the farm. A large number of people promoted it on social media and it has increasingly been adopted by farmers across the state. Now, no one can stop it. It’s nothing short of a revolution in growing rice,” says Daler Singh.
“The ridge and furrow method does not kill earthworms since water doesn’t remain standing in the field. The plants do not get diseases like foot rot or sheet blight caused by still water. Whatever water is used goes into the soil as compared to the puddling method where 80 percent of it evaporates in the hot June sun. The soil remains aerated and has plenty of sunlight,” he explains.
Moreover, he says, the crop matures 10 to 15 days earlier. The fields need to be watered every two or three days during the first 15 days and thereafter only after a week or 10 days. Except for a weedicide, the farmer doesn’t need to use any pesticides, insecticides or even much fertilizer. It’s easier to control weeds too. “And we have seen a 31 percent increase in productivity under this method,” Daler Singh says.
He says that the method has been registered as the Daler Ridge Furrow Transplanting Technique. “I ask the people at PAU to tell me at least one area where the puddling technique is superior to this method, and they don’t have any answers. In fact, the puddling technique should be banned altogether,” he says.
Did PAU ignore Daler Singh’s initiative despite its claimed advantages? The vice chancellor of PAU, Baldev Dhillon, said that, knowingly or unknowingly, the farmers on their own keep experimenting while planting various crops. “We recommend some of the methods and others we don’t.”
“But we have recommended the method propagated by Daler Singh. The only difference is that we use the word bed and he calls it ridge. In fact, we had recommended it in 2007 itself, but the farmers did not take it up.”
Dhillon said that earlier, in the late 1990s, the PAU and Haryana Agriculture University had recommended bed sowing in wheat, but it did not pick up even though there was a lot of water saving. The reason given was that it was difficult to harvest.
“Daler had some objections to calling it bed sowing, so we have now termed it ‘bed/ridge’ sowing. We have tried out this technique and our results show that it does lead to water saving but there is not much difference in the yield,” said Dhillon.
He added that the university had recommended Direct Seeding of Rice (DSR) in 2010. It picked up initially and people planted it on four lakh acres. But then it fizzled out and it was used only in 70,000 to 80,000 acres in 2018-19, especially in areas plagued by water logging.
“This year the area under the new planting methods has increased. And farmers are doing it themselves. We are recommending ridge transplanting and DSR, but not broadcasting. Water is a big problem in Punjab, so if we can save 10 percent water or, as some people say, 15 percent, using these methods, it is a very good thing.”
But why did the DSR or bed seeding technique not pick up earlier? Dhillon says that weed control was a big problem in the initial years. “But now we have developed a new weedicide that is very effective. The other reason was the wrong choice of soil. The new methods should ideally be used only in medium and heavy soils. Light soils lack micro-nutrients. But people tend to have a herd mentality. We need to see which method is appropriate, keeping soil types and the agro-climatic conditions in mind,” he said.
Incidentally, Dr Baldev Singh Dhillon and Daler Singh were classmates in college.
Pannu said that a lot of time and effort were involved in perfecting any technique. “Experiments need to be conducted again and again. Even I have failed again and agai n at my farm in Patiala district. It is only in the last two years that we have been successful with the DSR method,” he said.
In 2019 paddy was grown on 29.3 lakh hectares. The state had decided to shift 2.5 lakh hectares to other crops in 2020. “The new method of sowing, DSR, has been recommended by PAU. Though the government had planned to bring five lakh hectares under DSR, the area has gone up to seven lakh hectares,” Pannu said.
He said that farmers across the state had purchased over 4,000 specialized DSR machines. “Thousands of wheat sowing machines have been modified to plant rice. The engineering department of PAU is guiding farmers on how to modify machines by spending as little as Rs 1,000. Also, this year, the number of paddy transplantation machines have doubled to 1,200,” he added.
He said that Punjab’s traditional rural labour has tried to fill the vacuum created by the loss of migrant labour. “Fortunately, migrant laboor engaged in potato and vegetable growing is available for paddy. Though it is a challenging time for Punjab farmers, we are sure they will be able to complete the paddy crop cycle by July 30.”
However, not everyone’s experience has been fruitful with alternative methods of plantation. Take the case of Kanwar Singh Kang, a young farmer from Boor Majra village. Kang had used the DSR technique to plant paddy on 12 acres. “We used a machine for sowing. But the crop could only be sown after sunset, because we were told we needed to simultaneously spray a weedicide, which needs to be kept away from sunlight for a minimum of six hours. We could sow only four to five acres in a day,” he said.
Kang and his family completed the sowing operation in time. But untimely rains laid their effort waste. “We were told by the PAU experts that the fields were not to be watered for at least 21 days after sowing, but this year we got untimely rain and it ruined the crop. We sowed paddy again, and again the rains played spoilsport. Ultimately, we arranged for the required labour and planted it using the traditional puddling method,” he says. Kang, however, said that the results from the new methods had been good elsewhere. “We received the machine late this year. But I will surely try out the new method again next year,” he says.
There are others who have decided to adopt a wait and watch policy. “I was able to assemble the labour and instead of experimenting, I decided to go with the traditional method. But my neighbours and others I know are getting good results using the new technique. I will try it out next year,” says Gurtej Singh Buwal, a progressive farmer, who owns 110 acres in Machhiwara village near Ludhiana.
With electricity available for free, the mindless pumping of groundwater by farmers in Punjab has emerged as a critical worry for the state. According to a report by the Central Ground Water Board, the water table in major parts of the state had declined drastically. The pace of decline continues to increase with each passing year. Every year Punjab consumes 31.16 million cubic metres (mcm) of groundwater. “Paddy crop remains the single largest consumer of groundwater,” says Jaskirat. The state gets around 22 mcm per year, leading to a deficit of around 9 mcm, which is made up by drilling deeper for groundwater each year. According to a long-term average study by PAU, the groundwater level goes deeper by 41.6 cm annually.
The state is fast headed towards a point where it will be forced to put a full stop to its policy of free electricity and growing paddy the old way, or else risk turning into a desert. It’s time to farm differently.