India Agriculture: Better Irrigation Boosts Rice Yields

Once reliant solely on the annual monsoon, farmers in India are conserving water for irrigation and making it available year-round, allowing them to double-crop and improve livelihoods.


By the numbers

50%
increase in rainy season paddy production (projected)
350%
increase in spring paddy production (projected)
120,000
families to benefit (projected)

Source: Report and Recommendation to the President (2005).


Salhe Bhatha, Chhattisgarh State—Harvesting rice and shouldering the heavy sheaves onto bullock carts that transport them for threshing makes for long, hard workdays, but the farmers of Salhe Bhatha are not complaining. This year’s harvest is the biggest they have ever seen.

The dusty village of around 200 scattered mud and stone houses 85 kilometers  east of Raipur, Chhattisgarh State capital, is one of 600 villages that have recently benefitted from renovated irrigation systems while also learning how to boost their rice yields and grow other crops.

The result: higher incomes and easier lives for farmers, their families and others in the communities.

“I’ve bought a motorbike and a tractor, and I’m planning to buy some more land.”

—Vimal Kumar Dhruw, 35, farmer

“I’ve bought a motorbike and a tractor, and I’m planning to buy some more land,” says Vimal Kumar Dhruw, a 35-year-old Salhe Bhatha farmer, with a wide smile on his face.

Dhruw, who supports five other family members, including two children—one in the first year of primary school and the other in a nursery—has just finished bringing in the winter crop from the 8 hectares (ha) of land he owns and an additional 20 ha that he leases. He says his profits have nearly doubled since the water system was improved.

Once the rice is harvested, he will start planting maize. It is only the second time he has planted a December–March, dry-season crop in addition to the traditional wet season crop of rice.

Double-cropping revolution

Watch a video feature on the quiet staple food value chain revolution.

Dhruw and his fellow farmers say double-cropping is now possible because the village has a steady flow of water thanks to the ADB-supported Chhattisgarh Irrigation Development Project. Before, farmers had to rely solely on the heavy—and increasingly uncertain—monsoon rains, which fall in torrents from July to September. However, the dilapidated irrigation system was no longer able to hold water for year-round use.

Small landholders like Dhruw and the rest of his community were particularly disadvantaged because of the distance they lived from the water tanks. Most of the water was used or lost before it reached Salhe Bhatha’s patchwork of paddy fields.

So far under the project, 134 minor and medium irrigation networks covering 151,210 ha of land have been upgraded in the eastern Indian state with the help of a $46.1 million loan from ADB. The Government of India financed $20.98 million of the project, and the United Kingdom, Ireland, and the Water Financing Partnership of ADB cofinanced a $2.7 million technical assistance.

By the time the project is completed later in 2013, 144 systems covering 174,000 ha will have been rehabilitated, improving livelihoods and reducing poverty in one of India’s poorest and most food-insecure states. Around 80% of people in Chhattisgarh live and work on the land, either as small farm owners or workers for hire.

Planting for better yields

When the project was approved in 2005, only 23% of the rice produced in the state was grown on properly irrigated land, because water-supply systems—particularly smaller ones used by farmers in remote parts of the state—had fallen into disrepair. Meanwhile, uncertain supply and poor planting methods meant that even yields from irrigated paddy-fields were only 2.7 tons per ha—much lower than India’s average of 4.0 tons.

As part of the project, the villagers learn to improve yields through new planting techniques. Planting seedlings singly and further apart, for example, allows each seedling to grow bigger and healthier, and ultimately produces more rice. And less water is needed when seedlings are not crowded together.

A steady supply of water and better growing practices mean that wet season rice fields in the project area are now well irrigated, pushing average yields from the low of 2.7 tons per ha to 5.9 tons per ha.

“We are much busier now than we used to be … until the end of the year for the rice, and then for fertilizer, and other things for the farmers.”

—Gopal Sahu, procurement manager, Agriculture Marketing Board

As well as boosting incomes for farmers, increased output and double-cropping has had ripple effects within and beyond the village. Higher yields and second harvests mean more work for landless farmers—up to 40% of some villages—who previously had to leave their homes to search for work elsewhere. Plus, higher rice sales and greater demand for fertilizer and other crucial farm goods has led to more demand for related services.

Rice from villages such as Salhe Bhatha that doesn’t get consumed at home is sold at a standard price—Rs10,000 ($181) per ton this year—to government rice depots that provide rice at deeply discounted prices to the state’s poorest families.

Now that more people are finding work close to home, local rice sales have improved by around 50%, and the neighborhood’s marketing board now employs 56 people—10 more than last year.

“We are much busier now than we used to be … until the end of the year for the rice, and then for fertilizer, and other things for the farmers,” says Gopal Sahu, procurement manager of the Agriculture Marketing Board, as workers haul sacks of rice onto huge weighing scales.