Oct 01, 2014 – As I travel through Haryana, on way to Village Taraori (pronounced Tauori) in district Karnal, where the mighty king Prithviraj Chauhan had his fort, I am reminded of the rich history of the region. After having defeated Shahabuddin Muhammad Ghori many times, Prithviraj Chauhan lost his last battle to him here. The fort still stands as testimony to more violent times but is currently in dire need of the ‘Swachh Bharat Nirman’ (Cleanse India campaign) of the government of India.

I am on my way to meet Vikas Choudhary, whom I had met in Islamabad at the ‘Regional Workshop on Youth in Agriculture’. I was impressed by him then and it is time to check out the person on his own turf; his farm.

Vikas is just 34 years of age, married with two children. He has been blessed with a baby boy just last month. Like me, he farms not only for himself but also his father’s and brothers’ shares of the land. He lives with his extended family under the same roof; the last of the dying breed of joint families. I had already developed an affinity towards him; we have so much in common.

His brother works for a bank to supplement the family’s agriculture income. This is an increasingly common practice and is changing the socio-occupational character of villages across rural India. This trend will also impact voting pattern in villages that is changing from the set paradigms. Thanks to the opportunity to cultivate for his whole family, Vikas is a large farmer by Indian standards (10 acres to be a large farmer). It obviously helps optimize resources for better profitability and financial risk mitigation.

I arrive after a mild freak October storm has just retreated, leaving the Basmati and other paddy fields flattened. The yield from fallen paddy decreases by up to 20 per cent. I am not a rice farmer and Vikas explains that he uses ‘Direct Seeding Rice’ (DSR) technique for sowing. While conventional paddy cultivation using transplantation has fallen flat on the ground due to high speed of winds, the paddy sown with DSR has not.

DSR, however, has not caught on because many who adopted DSR suffered losses in the first year, thanks to inadequate knowledge, and went back to conventional methods of sowing. Farmers not being well versed with timing vis-à-vis practices to control weeds has been a typical shortcoming Things improve in the later years and less herbicide is needed. Meanwhile, Vikas has achieved a more than 20 per cent saving in labour costs and 30 per cent on water consumption.

Curiously, water seminars typically choose aerated drinks manufacturers as sponsors and rarely invite farmers even though, as the largest consumers of fresh water (80 per cent), farms have the greatest potential to save water. Vikas’ fields in the village also get irregular supply of canal water. In summers, comes the rain-fed surplus of the Tajewala barrage.

As the ground water is sweet, the non-stop drawing of water from the wells has led to the falling of the water table from 17 ft in 2007 to 40 ft. Electricity costs just 25 paise per unit and is available only for eight hours at night. That is enough to cultivate rice on two acres or wheat over 2.5 acres. Unfortunately, there is no advance notice of power cuts or when exactly electricity will be available. Electricity time management and advance intimation would make things so much easier.

Vikas tells me the electricity charges have been reduced in the election year. Again such largesse comes from the warped thinking of an older generation of politicians. Such poll time generosity no longer sways the voters. It failed in Rajasthan last year. It is high time that elected representatives gave more credit to voters’ intelligence than to expect them to be swayed by last minute dole outs.

The Rabi season has been receiving more rain and the Kharif season less for the past three years. It has been raining in February for the last three years. This year it was different because of lower seasonal rain that led to higher cost of diesel that has increased by `5,000 per acre. Re-boring expenses have to be incurred too, at `4,500 for every 10 ft of depth. Some 80 per cent of the farmers have to deepen the tube wells to extract water.

Basmati had fetched a high price last year and farmers, expecting a repeat performance this year too, had contracted land at higher rents. Rentals went up from `30,000 per acre to `45,000 but the selling price of paddy and Basmati dropped by 25 per cent this year. Additionally, those with rented land suffered a loss on account of extra cost of inputs including diesel, electricity and re-boring charges. Surprisingly, there is no agro-forestry or orchards in the area.

Vikas rues that cost of labour has doubled in the last five years. Earlier people would come to find work but post Food Security Act people opt for other occupations. When paddy transplanting begins on June 15, the cost of labour for an acre increases from `1,700 to `2,300 per acre for the month. The MGNREGA has impacted farmland profitability.

As a farmer’s organization, Bharat Krishak Samaj had advocated to the UPA government that jobs be restricted under the MGNREGA to seasons other than those for harvesting and sowing. Alas, it was too disconnected to read the signals from the ground and lost the parliament elections. The new government has gone further and restricted MGNREGA to only 200 backward districts of the country. One wrong cannot be set right by another.

Vikas continues with other issues confronting Indian agriculture. Knowledge transfer remains the basic problem for most farmers, who do not listen to scientists and agriculture development officers; they prefer to listen to the pesticide shop owners. Shopkeepers push farmers to buy inferior pesticides from local companies offering higher commissions and lower MRP of pesticides.

Vikas’ farm is on the main road, the weather is warm and it is pleasant under the shade of the trees. Other farmers drop in chat and exchange gossip. The hot topic is the election because everyone wants a change. I ask if there has been development and the answer is yes but this is not enough to satisfy the farming community. There are many complaints; the agriculture development officer is inaccessible, amongst others.

He works for five days in a week; Saturday and Sunday are holidays. On Tuesday, he goes for the block level meeting to Neelo-Kheri and on Friday he goes to Karnal for a district level officers meeting. On the other two days he is busy attending to paper work and that leaves no time for him to interact with the farmers. Another farmer complained that if the electricity transformer breaks down, it takes 10 days to replace it and that too after greasing palms. They will not vote back the incumbent government to power. Change is in the offing; one signified by Prime Minister Modi. There is hope and optimism for something better, which is difficult to specify though.

Vikas is a very resourceful farmer, a goldmine of information and is participating in a International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (commonly called by its Spanish acronym CIMMYT for Centro Internacional de ejoramiento de Maíz y Trigo) led project on the “Effect of tillage, cultivars, nitrogen, and residue management on crop performance and carbon sequestration in rice-wheat cropping system”. He was initiated into the experiment and demonstration in the Hybrid cereal system initiative for South-East Asia (CSIS) by Dr M. L. Jat. The conservation agriculture experiment and demonstration started in 2010. More than 2,000 farmers have visited the site. The results are visible; crop residues are used in the soil itself and more earthworms are visible.

The average farmer spends `3,500 to sow paddy with conventional methods. While Vikas uses a happy-seeder that costs only `1,400 per acre. He also has bought a happy-seeder and now leases it to other farmers, who are most impressed with it. His yield has gone up from 18-19 quintals to 21-22 quintals. His herbicide requirement has dropped, as has his water requirement. Preparing the land takes a few hours instead of a few days. In the maize-wheat cycle, there is saving of 70 per cent, compared to the rice-wheat cycle.

Crops have suffered because of excess, unseasonal rains though. Excess rain in a short period of time is becoming more common, leaving standing water for a few days in fields prepared by conventional tillage. Water seeps faster into the ground when a happy-seeder is used.

Vikas is not just a farmer; he has become a trainer. That is what Indian farming is in dire need of. Farmers like him should be the fulcrum for reviving extension services in the country.