Punjab bats for direct seeding of rice. But will it help farmers?

Lack of migrant labourers in the wake of COVID-19-fuelled reverse migration has prompted state government to abandon traditional transplantation of paddy this year 

By Rajeev Khanna
Published: Tuesday 09 June 2020

The Punjab government has decided to deploy direct seeding of rice (DSR) technique instead of the traditional transplantation of paddy this year due to the shortfall of agricultural labourers triggered by reverse migration in the wake of the novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. 

The state government wants to bring about a quarter of the paddy sowing area under the technology, claiming that doing so will help slash cultivation cost in terms of labour and water.

The cultivation technique involves fertilising and planting directly into the soil in one or two steps. The soil is mildly disturbed by the seeding machine.

Farmers and agricultural economists, however, expressed reservations about the shift. From the lack of know-how among farmers to rampant problem of weeds — they are sceptical if the new method would be feasible. 

Chief Minister Captain Amarinder Singh, while talking about problems in paddy sowing due to the shortage of migrant labourers, pointed out that less than 0.5 million of 1.3 million migrant labourers in Punjab left the state.

He also claimed that with over 0.8 million migrant workers still there along with the state’s own local labourers, fields or industrial units were not facing any problems. Farmers, with the support of Punjab Agriculture University and the agriculture department, were opting for direct sowing in large numbers, according to the CM.

According to a government spokesperson, the agriculture and farmers’ welfare department sanctioned 4,000 DSR machines and 800 paddy transplanting machines to farmers on subsidy ranging from 40-50 per cent.

Secretary (Agriculture) KS Pannu said Punjab had earlier fixed the target to bring around 5 lakh hectares under DSR technique in the current year — but given the labour shortage and interest shown by farmers, 6-7 lakh hectares is expected to come under this technology.

He claimed that the DSR technique would be instrumental in saving about 30 per cent of water besides cutting the cost of paddy cultivation by nearly Rs 6,000 per acre. Paddy has emerged as a water guzzler in Punjab and its cultivation is held responsible for the depleting ground water table in the state.

Pannu claimed that the yield of paddy from DSR was at par with paddy crop grown by conventional technique of transplanting. He also said that farmers have been advised to sow paddy crop by DSR and officials have been guiding them.

Farmers across the state are expected to cultivate paddy on about 27 lakh hectares. This includes 7 lakh hectares under high quality Basmati variety of rice.  

Farmers, however, pointed out that the shortage of labour and economic compulsions arising out of COVID-19 lockdown has compelled them to move towards DSR. They all seemed to agree that the technique did save water.

“A major problem with the DSR is that of weeds. In traditional system, the sapling is taller than the weeds right from the time of transplanting and there is no problem at the time of harvest. But in DSR both the weeds and the plant grow simultaneously and it is bound to cause major problem at the time of harvest,” Gobinder Singh of Bharatiya Kisan Union (Ugrahan) said.

He added: “The farmers have not been trained and guided properly in the DSR. The government should have organised training camps. They do not know at what depth they need to put the seed. DSR method may also give less yield.”

Lacchman Singh Sewewala of Punjab Khet Mazdoor Union contested that promoting DSR was not in the interest of labourers, for it cause farmers to lose employment in the long run. “It is strange that the government is promoting this technique where the yield is less by offering huge subsidies when it can use the same money to provide gainful employment to farm labourers.”

But a farmer from Sangrur had a different story to share. “We tried DSR in six acres last year and the results were satisfactory. We are extending it to 20 acres this year. While we had to shell out Rs 5,000 to labourers to transplant paddy in one acre, we were able to do it by spending Rs 400 on fuel since we have a seeding machine,” he said.

He added that the DSR needs an ideal soil to deliver optimum results and that it was not fit for land having loose soil as proper seeding cannot be done.

“Second, the farmers have to be told that they do not have to irrigate their field for 21 days after seeding. Our experience is that the farmers lose patience when they do not see the sapling coming out in ideal shape and resort to irrigating the field and this is bound to have a detrimental impact on the yield,” he added.

Promoting DSR could corporatise agriculture which will harm the farmer and the country, said Gian Singh, agricultural economics expert based in Patiala.

“The marginal and small farmers are not in a position to purchase seeding machines and pushing them towards these machines will add to their burden of debt. The DSR needs to be first well-established and it needs to be ensured that farmers will get the required seeds and herbicides from the government agencies and not the multinational corporations,” he said.

Farmers disclosed that DSR machine cost Rs 70,000 and more.

Pointing towards the journey of mechanisation of agriculture so far, Singh said, “While operations have become simple, they have taken a toll on employment. In Punjab, agricultural labourers used to be employed for eight to nine months; this has now come down to 45-50 days.”

Referring to the problem of labourer shortage, he said the CM’s suggestion to the Centre about letting labourers and cardholders under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act scheme work in farm operations for both Kharif and Rabi crops during 2020-21 in the state was the ideal solution.

Gobinder and Sewewala also raised concerns over the effectiveness of herbicide and weedicide in the DSR technique.

Pannu, on the other hand, underlined that the most critical element in new technology was the control of weeds. He said farmers needed to be careful about procuring weedicide and spraying it within 24 hours of sowing the crop before undertaking DSR .

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