By Amba Mukherjee*
India has always been known as a country of farmers, and it is true as presently more than half the population depends directly or indirectly on agriculture i.e. agriculture contributed 23% of GDP and employed 59% of the country’s total workforce in 2016. There is undoubtedly a wide gap between population dependency and revenue generation from agriculture.
Bihar ranks third in population dependency on agriculture, engaging three-fourth of its population.[i] The agriculture sector contributes around 19% of the state GDP and generates approximately 75% of the gross employment.[ii] About 91% of farmers are marginal , with less than one hectare and the majority of them are engaged in subsistence farming.[iii]
India has a high share of labor (55%) and a lesser share of farm mechanization (40%), which makes farming less remunerative.[iv] Considering the engagement of people in agriculture, farm mechanization would be an appropriate way to address this problem. Unfortunately, farm mechanization in India stands at about 40–45%, which is low compared to countries such as the US (95%), Brazil (75%), and China (57%).[v]
Farm mechanization would help to enhance overall productivity and lower the cost of production. Farm mechanization can help save 15–20% in seeds, 15–20% percent in fertilizers, 20–30% in time, 20–30% in manual labor; and increase crop intensity by 5–20% and overall farm productivity by 10–15%.[vi] The percentage of technology adoption in India shows enormous disparities across the states, which depends on various factors.
The purchase of tractors highly dominates the percentage of farm mechanization—mostly the Green Revolution states like Punjab, Uttar Pradesh, and Haryana, which have a higher percentage of tractors. The level of mechanization of agriculture is low in Bihar. Available tractors per hectare in Punjab is sixty-eight vs seventeen in Bihar.
The adoption of farm machination in states like Bihar would be extremely beneficial as it would help reduce the drudgery in farm operations. In addition, the adoption of technology would lead to more sustainable and higher cropping patterns. But again, farm mechanization is slow in Bihar mainly due to the majority being small and marginal farmers.
After understanding the situation of agriculture and adoption of technology, S M Sehgal Foundation (Sehgal Foundation) initiated an integrated agricultural project in 2016, implemented in twenty-five villages of three blocks in East Champaran. Components of the project included solar irrigation, farm mechanization, crop demonstrations, new crop intervention, hi-tech nurseries, kitchen gardening, etc. Zero tillage machines were also distributed in the villages.
Agriculture scenario in the project area
In general, people in the project area depend on agriculture for their livelihood, and agriculture in this area is only partially mechanized. The land is prepared/cultivated by cultivators and tractors. Cultivators are used primarily for land preparation. The other activities such as sowing, weeding, application of fertilizers and pesticides, and harvesting are manual. Labor engagement is very high, but the agricultural yield is low.
The small and marginal farmers barely earn a livelihood through their land. Therefore, many sharecrop for their livelihood. There are two types of sharecropping; one by the partnership and second by lease. In both ways, farmers pay seasonally. In the case of taking land on lease, farmers have to pay a rate of 400 kg of crop/acre equivalent in cash. The farmers who sharecrop are always under pressure to return the money or crops to landholders. Thus in such situations, it is not easy to adopt new technologies.
Certain factors act as a barrier to the adoption of zero tillage machines in these villages. One significant factor was the lack of awareness about the zero tillage machines. Many farmers had not seen zero tillage machines before. A few farmers saw the machines before but confused them with seed drill machines. The machines were not available in these villages or the nearby area. The majority of farmers were not able to afford the cost of a zero tillage machine.
Availability of institutional credit is also limited in rural areas. The few farmers who could purchase the machines didn’t come forward because they were not aware of the functionality and technical aspects of the machines. They had never been exposed to the benefits of the machines. Also, the unavailability of ready cash plays a significant role in the non-adoption of technology in the area.
Why zero tillage is boon for the project area
According to the Malthusian Theory, population growth occurs exponentially, whereas food production increases arithmetically. The theory (given in 1978) applies in the present context too. The land productivity is finite. But several measures are required to enhance the land productivity to fulfil the need of the massive population. To gain maximum productivity, the land has gone through lots of exploitation.
Therefore, the time has come to adopt or promote to conservation agriculture is now. Conservation agriculture is a farming system that maintains a permanent soil cover to assure its protection, avoids soil tillage, and cultivates a diverse range of plant species to improve soil conditions, reduce land degradation, and increase water and nutrient use efficiency.
It enhances biodiversity and natural biological processes above and below the ground surface for improved and sustained crop productivity. With this backdrop, Sehgal Foundation decided to promote zero tillage machines in the intervention area. Zero tillage means planting seeds directly on no-tilled soil after the harvest of the previous crop. This integrated approach tackles the problem of wheat yield stagnation in the rice-wheat zone by improving plantation time, reduces weed infestation, and enhances fertilizer and water-use efficiency.[vii] Studies have established that the use of zero tillage in wheat reduces the production cost by 20% per hectare and saves 15–20% of water for irrigation.[viii]
Zero tillage seeding is a one-pass operation which places seed and fertilizer into an undisturbed seed bed, packs the furrow, and retains adequate surface residues to prevent soil erosion. The potential benefits of zero tillage are early planting, higher efficiency, fewer maintenance costs of machinery, more time for management decisions and technical upgrading, less dusty and muddy work environment, more time for family, less stress, and greater satisfaction derived from caring for the environment.
Gentil (1995) reported reductions in diesel fuel of 50–70% or more and proportional reductions in greenhouse gas emissions. Zero tillage machines have a significant impact in reducing carbon dioxide emissions, when compared to conventional tillage, by immobilizing carbon in incremental soil organic matter and surface residues.[ix]
Mode of operation in East Champaran for the adoption of zero tillage machines
Bihar has rich fertile soil, good rainfall, plenty of water resources, and agro-climatic conditions that are suitable for growing three crops a year and almost all types of crops. Knowing that the adoption of zero tillage in the project area would lead to a transformation in the life of farmers, it was still not easy to execute the plan on the field. The Sehgal Foundation approach is unique and innovative to resolve some of the problems that act as a barrier to the adoption of zero tillage machines. Sehgal Foundation hired local people for community mobilization with two objectives; the community could more easily trust a local person, and this would help mobilize the community.
Awareness generation was the first step in the process adopted by Sehgal Foundation for introducing the adoption of zero tillage. A series of community meetings were conducted by community mobilizers to generate awareness about the zero tillage machines. In these meetings, detailed information about the functionality, benefits, cost, and how Sehgal Foundation would implement zero tillage use on the village level was discussed.
Having the community mobilizer be from the project area was an important and crucial step that was ensured by the foundation. That helped in a better understanding of the community about the meeting. After generating adequate information and knowledge about zero tillage machines, community mobilizers approached the community to find out who might want to buy the machine.
The organization was already aware of the unaffordability of actual cost of zero tillage machine (which costs around INR 30,000–40,000) among the community; therefore, zero tillage machines were made available at a subsided rate of INR 10,000 to selected eligible farmers. In the initial months of the project only a few farmers came forward to adopt the machines.
Afterward, community mobilizers conducted a few more exposure visits at an agriculture fair where farmers could see and get technical knowledge about the machines. These exposure visits showed farmer groups how zero tillage machines look and how they work. Many farmers saw the machine for the first time. The second step was worked out well among the farmers.
After that, a few eligible farmers came forward to purchase the machines at INR 10,000. These farmers were direct beneficiaries of the intervention. To spread the usage of these machines, the direct beneficiaries were instructed to rent the machine at a rate of INR 600/hour along with a tractor to other farmers within the village or nearby area. The rate was fixed after the discussion with the community. On average, two zero tillage machines were distributed in three villages.
Now that the zero tillage machines were readily available at the village level, community mobilizers closely worked with the community to maximize the adoption of zero tillage. Direct and indirect beneficiaries could easily approach the community mobilizer for any issues and problems since the mobilizer was from the community. The adoption rate of the zero tillage machines was not high in the first year 2016, only 10–20% of farmers adopted it.
The reason for this was the long tradition of ploughing. Farmers had always observed that everyone did ploughing. The deep ploughing was a traditional method from generation to generation. Therefore, to break this preconception, firm conviction was required along with results. A series of the field days were also conducted for the farmers, which included visits to the field of the farmer who used zero tillage machines and took better yield and saved money in rounds of ploughing.
Those farmers who did one round of tilling and then did zero tillage shared their own experiences among the non-user farmers. This exercise had a positive impact, and in 2017, the level of adoption increased by 40–60%. By conducting field days for farmer, they saw the proven benefits of zero tillage machines, which helped them to adopt the zero tillage machines.
During the interactions, user-group farmers shared that it was not easy to adopt the new technology because, if the results went wrong, their one cycle of the harvest would be ruined. This implied a lot of additional burdens as they are mostly dependent on agriculture. So they experimented with zero tillage along with one round of ploughing to minimize the loss in case it didn’t work out. The significant changes experienced by them were money-saving for ploughing.
Earlier, they did three rounds of ploughing, which cost around INR 2,000, but this time they spent only INR 1,200. There has been a net saving of approximately INR 800 per acre. There was also a noticeable reduction in irrigation hours of two-three per irrigation, which saved approximately INR 170–230.
The reason shared by them was a slow water absorption rate due to shallow ploughing. One significant change shared was an increase in yield of wheat by 5-6 quintal per acre. According to farmers, zero tillage machines planted seed and DAP at the same time, which led to around 100% germination.
In the initial year of the project, 2016, the adoption of zero tillage machines in these villages was very less. To scale up the adoption of farm mechanization requires continuously community engagement, which leads to generated awareness toward the techniques. The fear of using new technologies and their consequences is hugely high among rural farmers.
Therefore, the time needed to break the fear includes demonstrating the uses of farm mechanization and its benefits. The engagement of farmers does not instantly lead to adaptation of farm mechanization, but it helps them to clear their doubts and queries overtime. After observation of all the cons and pros, farmers adopted it on a large scale.
Zero tillage has proved to be a useful tool to address yield stagnation, especially for wheat through early planting of wheat, reducing the sowing and irrigation cost. Findings confirmed that zero tillage increases productivity and farmers are keen to adopt it in the future. Over time, the coverage of zero tillage has also risen. However, villagers still use the traditional cultivator for one-time tilling. Maybe it is too early for the villagers to rely entirely on no-tilling.
 Locally known as Hunda Btai: Sharing of crops 50:50 among the owner and sharecroppers without sharing any expenses by the owner. Locally known as Patta: Lease out the farm for one season in exchange of money/crops.
[i] Dasmasela, M. A. (2019). International Journal of Humanities and Social Science Invention (IJHSSI).
[iii] Chandramouli, C., & General, R. (2011). Census of India 2011. Provisional Population Totals. New Delhi: Government of India.
[vii] Malik, Ram K., & Samunder Singh. Littleseed canarygrass (Phalaris minor) resistance to isoproturon in India. Weed Technology, 9.3 (1995): 419-425.
[viii] Kumar, P. (2014). Technologies to boost Agriculture Production. Kurukshetra, Vol.62 No.8, p.16.
[ix] Singh, R., A. Kumar, & R. Chand. Accelerating adoption of zero tillage technology. Age, 19, 22.
*Senior Research Associate, Research, Monitoring and Evaluation, SM Sehgal Foundation