The densely populated Eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains of South Asia is highly dependent on agriculture and extremely poor, but significant tracts of agricultural land is under-used. Can it be made productive?
In the Eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains, more than 300 million people live on less than 35 million hectares. They depend on that land for food, employment, and income. Most farm households produce rice in rotation with wheat, but to reduce the risk of losses in a region where the climate can seesaw from extreme drought to heavy flooding in the same year, they also plant a variety of other crops. A lack of tillage options and appropriate planting techniques has been a major obstacle for these under-used but potentially productive lands.
Farmer management practices and environmental and social conditions all contribute to land under-use and low productivity. Heavy rains, residual moisture from the last crop, poor drainage systems, insufficient irrigation water, alkaline or saline soils, and a lack of alternative cropping practices often make it challenging for farmers to plant winter season crops on time or plant any crops at all.. Some conditions simply exacerbate the problem. For example, in Uttar Pradesh, an estimated 1.2 million hectares are not used because of a high buildup of salts.
In India, the impoverished Ballia District in Uttar Pradesh is representative of conditions throughout the Eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains. Most land is used for the main economic activity: agriculture. The farming community comprises small-scale and marginal agricultural enterprises that support a large number of landless laborers. Ninety percent of the population lives in rural areas. Cropping systems anchored by rice and wheat occupy most arable land.
Mapping and Understanding Land Use Patterns
A recently completed study by Parvesh Chandna and colleagues used remote sensing and GIS methodology to estimate and map the area of under-used land in Ballia District. The study, “Increasing the Productivity of Underutilized Lands by Targeting Resource Conserving Technologies – a GIS / Remote Sensing Approach,” was sponsored by the Asian Development Bank as one component of the project on “Sustaining the Rice Wheat Production Systems of Asia.” It is a collaboration between CIMMYT and the Rice-Wheat Consortium.
Chandra and his colleagues incorporated satellite images from four different dates that showed land-use patterns in farmers’ fields over time. The time-series satellite data helped to identify areas sown to wheat / barley and rice and to distinguish land in different ways, such as land that was planted late, left fallow, was waterlogged, or was saline. Using GIS tools, researchers aligned the images within the same geographic coordinates to accurately overlay spatial layers such as administrative boundaries. They also looked at in situ field observations and soil samples to ensure that satellite-derived information was accurate.
Chandna and his colleagues estimated that the area of under-used land during 2001-02 was about 76,000 hectares, or 27% of the cultivable area. Late planting was a big problem, particularly with wheat. Experiments have shown that timely wheat planting could increase production by up to one ton per hectare on average, with no additional inputs or changes. In Ballia, this practice could potentially increase wheat production by as much as 75,000 tons. Using these methods, researchers accurately and cost-effectively characterized five major land types that are not reaching their full potential.
More Appropriate Practices
More efficient use of land and other resources could turn one of the poorest regions of South Asia into a granary and help meet future requirements for food and income, but only if researchers know which farmers need which kinds of technology. Information from the Ballia study will allow researchers to match land-use characteristics with agricultural technologies and make land more productive.
Traditional tillage practices often delay planting in excessively wet or waterlogged soils, and sub-optimal management practices often fail to capitalize on limited water resources. Resource-conserving technologies such as zero tillage, surface seeding, and bed planting could help increase production and reduce costs on under-used land throughout the Eastern Indo-Gangetic Plains.
Zero or reduced tillage for growing wheat after rice has been catching on fast in the region and is helping farmers increase productivity and reduce fallow land area. This crop planting system causes minimal soil disturbance by eliminating preparatory tillage such as plowing or harrowing. The reduction in land preparation time permits timely sowing of winter season crops, plus it allows optimal use of available soil moisture. There are also significant cost reductions and environmental benefits through reduced diesel consumption.
Furrow-irrigated raised bed planting technology allows farmers to intensify crops and saves costs on irrigation water. Farmers use the raised beds to grow crops and the furrows, where they sometimes plant an intercrop, for irrigation. In addition to being highly water-efficient, research has shown that bed systems offer major advantages for saline or sodic soils.
The simplest zero tillage option is surface seeding. Farmers just spread seed on excessively wet soil, on top of crop residues and without any land preparation. The practice is especially suitable for areas that have fine soils and poor drainage or where land preparation is difficult. An evaluation of soil moisture and seeding at the correct time is critical to its success. Surface seeding allows timely sowing in areas where planting machinery is not available, and it saves costs on labor, fuel, and tillage. Even the poorest farmers can adopt this practice.
These technologies could raise productivity in a sustainable manner and improve livelihoods for resource-poor farmers. However, effective promotion requires a well-organized database with information about the distribution of land types and problematic areas. Thanks to this study, scientists have a clearer picture of the problems, their location, and their relative importance. They have a much better idea of where technologies should be targeted to improve land use in a sustainable way for poor communities in the Eastern Indo Gangetic Plains. There are currently plans to scale-up the methodologies developed in this pilot study to cover an expanded area.
For information: Parvesh Chandna