Bursting at the seams, choked with traffic, luxury towers under construction advertising helipads — Bengaluru, India’s IT capital, basks in the limelight in the southwestern state of Karnataka. Yet the agricultural sector is also attracting attention for a spurt in productivity following a period of stagnation.
Since 2009, India’s eighth-largest state, with a population of 61 million people, has pursued an agricultural program called “Bhoo Chetana,” or soil rejuvenation, that has seen productivity shoot up by between 20 percent and 50 percent, according to state officials. The gross value of crop production increased by US$130 million in 2011. Its achievements have been recognized by the central government and attracted the interest of the neighboring state of Andhra Pradesh and, further afield, the Philippines.
Such gains are particularly striking as Karnataka’s mostly smallholder farmers — who typically farm 1 to 1.5 hectares — depend heavily on monsoon rains, which have become increasingly erratic due to climate change. Such “marginal” farms in India comprise 62 percent of all holdings and occupy 17 percent of farmed land. Karnataka, where 56 percent of the state’s workforce is in farming, has the second-largest area under rain-fed agriculture after Rajasthan.
Some areas in Karnataka have suffered drought in six of the past 10 years. Growth in the farm sector in the past three years could hold lessons for other dry land areas — 80 percent of the cultivable area in the world depends on rain-fed agriculture.
The name Bhoo Chetana was coined by Suhas Wani, principal scientist at the International Crop Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT) based in Hyderabad. ICRISAT specializes in so-called orphan crops such as chickpeas and pigeon peas for dry regions. His is one of 15 centers under the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research.
Bhoo Chetana’s genesis came through a chance encounter between Wani and Karnataka’s minister of agriculture, Umesh Katti, in 2003. Katti had expressed interest in Wani’s work in water conservation for farming as he was looking for ways to revive Karnataka’s farm sector, which had stagnated after droughts, when he learned of Bhoo Chetana. So, with determination for change at Karnataka’s top political levels, and the scientific knowhow, the program was born.
The rationale is that farmers can increase productivity and income through the judicious use of micronutrients, such as zinc, boron and sulfur, while simultaneously reducing the use of fertilizers, such as nitrogen and potash, that contaminate ground water — one of the unintended consequences of the green revolution in the 1960s and 1970s.
“In the first year we took samples from six districts, by the third year we had samples from all 30 [Karnataka districts],” says Wani, who has spent most of his working life at ICRISAT.
“By the end, we had 95,000 soil samples of about 2kg from selected villages, which were analyzed in our labs. It’s the first time soil sampling has been done on this scale in a developing country,” he adds.
The farmers collected the samples, encouraging grassroots participation from the start. Once the samples were examined, Wani and his colleagues recommended how much fertilizer and micronutrients to use for different areas in different districts.
“If we found the soil in one area has enough potash, there is no need to apply it, as it will end up in the water. The farmer saves money as well, while increasing yield through the use of micronutrients,” Wani says.
Having the information is one thing, getting it to farmers is another. To spread the word, Karnataka hired, on a seasonal basis, “farmer facilitators” from within communities rather than outsiders, on the assumption that villagers were more likely to listen to their peers than strangers.
These 10,000 facilitators, each covering about 500 hectares, are the link between the state authority and its farmers. They are backed up by a logistical effort as the state prepositions seeds of chickpea, finger millet, maize and groundnut ready for planting, as well as fertilizer and micronutrients. Noticeboards have been erected in villages outlining the quantities of fertilizers and micronutrients to use.
Ravi Kakiyayya, who also grows coconut — this part of Karnataka is covered in coconut plantations — did not know about micronutrients until Bhoo Chetana. From the district of Hassan, a three-hour drive from Bengaluru, Kakiyayya was reluctant and it took five meetings with a facilitator before he started using micronutrients on his maize. However, after boosting his yield and making an extra 9,000 rupees (US$166.61) last year, he is a convert.
“It was the information from the facilitator that made me change my mind. I also reduced my spending on fertilizer by 50 percent because prices have doubled,” he says. “Now I want to grow potato and banana.”
The facilitator who persuaded him is Geetha Vasanth Kumar. The mother of two says she made an extra 10,000 rupees using Bhoo Chetana techniques. Of the 500 farmers she talked to, she succeeded in persuading three-quarters of them. For her work, which typically lasts six months, Kumar was paid 150 rupees a day. Facilitators also spread the word on techniques such as vermicompost (made from earthworms feeding on organic matter) as an alternative to chemical fertilizers.
Bhoo Chetana receives support in state subsidies. The farmer pays only half of the price of the micronutrients, with the state government picking up the rest. State officials insist there are no plans to withdraw subsidies, but some question whether smallholder farmers will continue using micronutrients if subsidies are withdrawn. The state spends a fifth of its budget on agriculture.
Some farmers say that although their yields have increased, they remain at the mercy of middlemen who charge high interest rates on fertilizers and micronutrients. Farmers are locked into selling their produce to middlemen in return for loans.
“We are not getting the price that we see advertised on TV or in the newspaper,” says one farmer, who paid 4 percent interest a month for fertilizer loans. He does not want his son to become a farmer but to work for the state’s agricultural department, a reminder that life for smallholder farmers is a grind.
Others say the state government should be pushing for more organic farming. Karnataka has identified 100 hectares for organic villages, but this is a separate program from Bhoo Chetana. For KP Suresha, executive director of the Green Foundation, a group in Karnataka that promotes traditional seed varieties, this is a missed opportunity.
A critic of the green revolution and its reliance on fertilizers, Suresha says: “One hundred hectares set aside for organic farming looks great compared to other states, but it is still not a lot and it is not part of Bhoo Chetana. Still, Bhoo Chetana is a remarkable initiative although it could do with more integration with watershed management and organic farming.”
For SV Ranganath, the top civil servant in Karnataka, Bhoo Chetana has been a “game changer,” transforming what was the state’s Achilles’ heel into a sector growing at a compound rate of between 5 percent and 7.8 percent.
“Sixty percent of our people are in farming. If we can make an impact in agriculture, we can definitely make an impact on inclusive growth,” he says in the legislative building, Vidhana Soudha.
“The challenge is: Can we have this rate of growth over the next 20 years? Can we get to the point where a rural family of five will be able to make 200,000 rupees? Because that is the need of the hour,” he adds.