Improved Irrigation Helps Assam Become Self Sufficient in Rice

March 29, 2011


Moinul Islam is a man with ambition. He is also a man in a hurry. As the early morning mist rises gently over his neatly furrowed fields deep in the interior of Nagaon district, Assam’s most densely populated rural region, this hard-working young farmer recounts how he turned his tiny landholding into a stepping stone to success.

“I used to have only a few bighas1 of land,” recalls Islam. “I grew just enough for my family’s consumption because, after the monsoon, my fields had no water. I had to work on other people’s land to subsist.”

Four years ago, things began to change. With the help of the state government’s Assam Agricultural Competitiveness Project and a small investment of his own, Islam, together with two other farmers, installed a shallow, diesel-powered tube well to tap into the region’s abundant groundwater. Assured of a good crop during the long, dry season that followed the rains, this enterprising young man was able to switch to a more profitable cropping pattern and grow high-value vegetables during the monsoon when local prices are at their highest because of the torrential rains.

Three years ago, Islam modernized his farm further. With the project’s help, he and his group of farmers jointly invested in a power tiller, a multipurpose machine, which helps with the plowing, threshing, and transportation of produce to market. It is also more suitable than a tractor for small holdings and can be hired out to help repay the bank loan.

Islam has spent the extra income he has earned from his land wisely. Within a few years, he has bought adjacent parcels of land, a T.V. and a motorcycle; he soon hopes to convert his airy bamboo-and-mud house into a concrete structure, and perhaps buy a van.

Irrigation, vital for agriculture in monsoon-fed lands

Islam’s success is not alone; it is mirrored across the dense patchwork of villages that dot Assam’s lush countryside, especially in the districts of Nagaon, Morigaon, Barpeta, and Jorhat. Together, these individual initiatives have unleashed a vibrant new energy in one of the country’s most economically lagging states, where average land holdings are the smallest in India, and some 80 percent of the farmers are classified as small and marginal.

For decades, Assam’s remote location and years of insurgency stifled development. The result was that while the state has a wealth of fertile land, the use of high-yielding seeds and chemical fertilizers was low, resulting in yields of rice––the staple crop––that were far below regions that were less well endowed. While groundwater was abundant, with the capacity to support some 8,00,000 tube wells, just one fifth of the land had assured irrigation. The lack of timely water, together with low levels of farm mechanization, hampered the cultivation of crops during the dry season. Although ponds and lakes abounded and demand for fish was high, fish production remained far below potential. And, while Assam occupied a prime location as the downstream hub for the string of north eastern states that rise up into the blue hills around, the lack of connectivity and good roads prevented the state from capitalizing on this unique advantage.

In 2005, with World Bank support, the state government introduced the Assam Agricultural Competitiveness Project (AACP) to help improve the profitability of agriculture – the state’s primary economic activity. Since irrigation is the most important factor for a sustainable increase in productivity, groups of three farmers were helped to install and share a shallow tube well subsidized by the project. Farmers were also trained in the use of better farming techniques, helped to diversify their crops, buy high-yielding seeds, and adopt appropriate forms of mechanization, including tractors.

Now, by being able to irrigate crops in the dry season, the project’s beneficiaries have doubled their paddy yields. While earlier, an individual farmer would have produced about 2000 kg of paddy with most of it being used for his own family’s consumption, his paddy production has now increased to over 4,100 kg, and an additional 700 kg of vegetables are being grown. This has not only improved the nutrition of individual families, but has also resulted in a dramatic eight-fold increase in the volume of crops being brought to market. “With bountiful ground water, shallow tube wells are one of the most efficient and cost-effective sources of assured irrigation in Assam, leading to an increase in cropping intensity and production as well,” said H. C. Baishya, the project’s Agriculture Coordinator.

Assam’s overall increase in paddy production of 350,000 tonnes has enabled the state to become self-sufficient in rice for the first time in decades. Farmers have begun to sell their high-value vegetables in local markets, with the more enterprising taking their produce further afield to the neighboring states of Arunachal and Meghalaya where demand is high.

Interestingly, the program really got going after the project team adopted the innovative practice of community procurement of pump-sets. This allowed farmers to buy the sets they knew and found reliable. Moreover, group negotiations with listed suppliers resulted in cost savings of between 10 and 14 percent. “The community procurement method has ensured farmer satisfaction as they now have the right to select the brand and model of pumpsets they prefer. This has resulted in complete ownership of the asset and farmers have been able to build a relationship with local dealers for efficient after-sales service,” said M. Rahman, the project’s Procurement Engineer. It is a testament to the strategy’s success that the Government of Assam has now adopted community procurement in all its projects and schemes of similar nature.

Fishing, livelihoods for the landless

Although fishing has always been prevalent in Assam, the project’s fish intensification program has led small farmers to view fisheries as a profitable venture for the very first time, especially for the landless poor.

52-year-old Parimal Chandra Das’ only asset was a dry pond. In 2009, the project gave Das – an impoverished member of the scheduled caste community from Nagaon’s Sonaribali village – a one-time 90 percent subsidy for desilting his pond, repairing the bund, manuring and liming the acidic water, and buying fingerlings. Das was also taught to feed the fish inexpensive rice bran and mustard oil cakes. “I used to earn about Rs.15-16,000 a year from my pond,” Das says. “Now, I am expecting to double my income to Rs.30,000.”

The synergies between fisheries and other livestock are also being maximized. With the project’s help, Sadhan Dekaraja, a member of the Lalong tribe from Dighalati village, has added a piggery on the banks of his extensive pond, and now uses the residue of pig-meal to feed his fish. Seeing his profits improve, Dekaraja soon plans to add poultry and ducks to his steadily growing enterprise.

Fish hatcheries are also being promoted to make quality fish seeds and fingerlings available to farmers and reduce the genetic deterioration of fish stocks that tends to occur over time through the natural hybridization of species.

Assam’s unique ‘beels’ hold vast potential for fish production

Assam is part of one of the most biologically diverse regions in South Asia. Its unique ‘beels’ or oxbow lakes were once the mainstay of the state’s fisheries – beels are crescent-shaped lakes that are formed when deposits of silt cut off wide meanders from the main stem of a river. Assam’s beels retain their vast potential for fish production as they cover some 100,000 hectares of the state’s land, mostly in upper and middle Assam, compared to just 35,000 hectares covered by ponds. Over the years, however, these beels have become silted up and choked with water hyacinth, and stocks of fish have fallen after embankments on the river sealed off breeding routes. The project is now encouraging villagers to develop their beel fisheries with the minimum of interventions to conserve biodiversity, keeping in mind that beel fish can flow back into the main river whenever it overflows its banks. Unlike in ponds, therefore, beel fish are not fed by fishermen at all. Instead, species of fish that are appropriate for every niche in the food chain are stocked, sometimes with varieties of carp occupying the water’s upper and middle layers, while giant fresh-water prawns inhabit the bottom. To protect young fish from predators, many beel fisheries have adopted the practice of introducing large fingerlings after rearing them in separate tanks located within the beels themselves; this is a learning from Bangladesh. In addition, fisheries legislation is being drafted to remove impediments to the community management of beel fisheries.

The project’s fish intensification program in ponds, tanks and beels has resulted in a quantum 500 percent jump in fish production. “Fishing is in many ways more profitable than agriculture as a pond of one bigha can bring in as much as Rs.60,000, whereas agriculture, by itself, is not as profitable,” says Bimal Sharma, Fisheries Extension Officer, Nagaon District. The development of fisheries will not only help Assam meet surging local demand but will also enable it to export its produce to other states

Taking the milk to market

Farmers are also earning more from dairy farming. New breeds of cattle have been introduced to replace the tiny local breed of cow. “Our cows used to give 3 liters of milk a day at most,” says Geeta Devi Giri, the owner of 15 large Jersey cows and the vice president of the local milk producers’ organization, the Dairy Cooperative Society of Nepali Basti village. “Our Jerseys now give us 6-12 liters,” she says. Since Geeta Devi, like most others of her community, does not own any land, the cooperative soon plans to undertake the collective procurement of fodder.

But higher yields do not by themselves lead to higher profits. Marketing of this perishable commodity is the key. “Selling milk used to be a problem as it wouldn’t travel very far in the heat. We could only sell the morning’s milking and converted the evening’s milk into cottage cheese to sell to local sweet shops. When there was a ‘bandh’ – or closure – we didn’t earn anything,” Geeta Devi recalls. “Now, with the cooperative, each drop of milk is collected, and we get our money on time.”

Old adversaries join hands to protect India’s forests

Joint Forest Management

Zulekha Begum has lived near a forest all her life. But, she couldn’t tell one tree from the next. Now, she is an expert, pointing out teak, maha neem, arjuna, and amla trees with ease. The men in her village too have changed. They used to sneak into the forest at night to clandestinely cut firewood or smuggle out valuable logs of teak. Now, they guard the trees willingly, often at risk to themselves.

This radical change came about after the concept of Joint Forest Management (JFM) was introduced in the forest-rich Hojai region of Assam’s Nagaon district. JFM converted the old adversaries – villagers living on the forest’s fringes and the Forest Department – into allies, each with a stake in protecting the priceless natural heritage around them.

“We were like cops and robbers,” says Mr. Rehman, the Range Forest Officer, Hojai. “But, now we treat them like brothers.” The villagers are paid by the Forest Department to guard the forests, prepare plant nurseries, grow seedlings, and clear the beds of weeds. They are also allowed to collect firewood, earn from sales of quick-growing plants such as jatropha and citronella, and are entitled to a 40 percent share in future revenues from long-gestation hardwood trees such as teak.

Both forests and communities have benefited. “Illegal logging and elephant poaching are now almost non-existent,” points out Rehman. “With few staff, we could never prevent smuggling over such a vast area, not even with guns. But now, the villagers help us in every way.” The local people feel far more secure earning a legal income. “While smuggling, we were always afraid,” says Mohammad, a long time resident. “But now I have no fear of the police, and can hold my head high.”

All village children now go to school as they are no longer needed to supplement paltry incomes. Zulekha Begum, has transformed from being the penniless wife of an impoverished farmer who never ventured outside her home, to earning a respectable income of her own.
The community is also cashing in on the forest’s tourism potential; they cleared a picnic spot by a fast-flowing stream, and charge Rs.50 from each busload of visiting tourists. The Rs. 4,500 they earned last year has been placed in a common fund to develop other income generating activities.

India started experimenting with JFM about 30 years ago, and the model was formally adopted about a decade ago. JFM now covers almost one-third of India’s national forest area, stretching across 27 states.

The project has provided the cooperative with bulk milk coolers that have built-in smokeless generators, to be independent of the erratic power supply. With refrigeration and better transportation, milk from the village will soon be able to travel the 120 km to Guwahati, where it will fetch a better price. Geeta Devi too has plans. She wants to expand her herd to 40-50 cows, build a concrete house, and see her 12 year old daughter become a doctor.

Connecting the dense network of villages

To help farmers take their produce to market, the project has improved rural roads in many parts of the state. Prefabricated bridges have been constructed, phasing out the old wooden structures which needed frequent and expensive repairs after the monsoons. Makeshift roadside haats – or markets – are being modernized so that vegetables can be stored overnight, putting an end to the practice of selling produce at throwaway prices at the end of each day. The project soon plans to send SMS messages to farmers informing them about prices prevailing in markets further afield. Agriculture-based businesses are also being promoted to add value to the state’s primary produce.

Explaining the project’s impact, Niraj Verma, Project Director says, “Assam’s agriculture budget was never enough to exploit the state’s vast agrarian potential. The AACP has provided the critical catalyst. Last year, the Food Corporation of India procured foodgrains from Assam’s Nagaon District for the very first time.”

“The AACP addresses a complex challenge in a holistic way,” says Grahame Dixie, the World Bank’s team leader for the project. “It coordinates the work of various line departments including agriculture, livestock, fisheries, forestry, irrigation, as well as markets and roads, and is initiating substantial reform of the extension system. In the last two years, the project has been transformed into one of the acknowledged successes in the World Bank’s India portfolio.”

Citing a major reason for the project’s success, Manivannan Pathy, the World Bank’s joint team leader for the project adds, “Support from senior officials from the Government of Assam, especially during the project’s difficult periods, was critical in the project’s transformation.”

Summing up, Verma says “With Assam’s huge agricultural potential, the AACP can be a precursor for ushering in the next ‘Green Revolution’. Clearly, Assam’s farmers will no longer need to rely solely on their “Borun Devata”, or weather god, to earn a good living.