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The new green revolution

April 7, 2009

An hour’s drive west of Hyderabad is the village of Kothapally. Like its many neighbours, this typical rural Andhra Pradesh village would be bone dry after December, sending its women on 5-kilometre daily treks to the nearest drinking water source. Migration from this village robbed it of its young and older men, who left to on foot to seek their fortunes in the shanty outskirts of the city. Flinty scraps of leftover money would be sent back to Kothapally to see the villagers through till the rains, but it was never enough and the people endured terrible poverty.

Then, in 1999, a small miracle occurred.

The Kothapally I visit is a very different place (not dissimilar to Rajsamadhiliya). It is a prosperous bustling village, rich enough to keep 40 autorickshaw vehicles – which are necessary to transport the villagers’ produce to market and to bring in supplies for the new village shop. There is no migration – instead, Kothapally has become an important employer in the area, recruiting labourers from its poor neighbours to work its bountiful fields. And they are truly bountiful. Visiting in April, the most desperate month, when all around are finger-crossed for the monsoon to start, the fields in Kothapally are waist-high with maize. Cotton covers other fields, vegetables another, and a further is given over to pongamia, a biofuel plant that the full-bellied villagers grow for profit (they also grow jatropa for the same purpose). These are the third plantings of the growing year. The village has already harvested acres of sorghum, maize, pigeon pea, cotton and so on.

Lakshmi, who runs the village shop, has plenty to smile about. A former basket weaver whose ends did not meet, she now also coordinates the women’s microfinance initiative and runs the nursery for the biofuel seedlings. Other women earn in the composting and natural pesticides cooperatives.

And the villagers’ livelihoods have expanded into cattle breeding – more specifically, artificial insemination of cows and buffalo to produce better milk yielders for extra income. I was shown a brimming container of bull’s sperm kept in liquid nitrogen. Nice.

So how did it all happen? In a very abridged form: the magic fairies from ICRISAT descended on the village one day and taught them how to store the heavy monsoon rains that fall (around 800 mm per square metre), and prevent it from running off the land and taking the precious soil with it. The fairies, led by Dr Wani, also provided seed varieties that were specific for the conditions (thirsty rice cultivation was halted), and important crop management advice, including how to till the land and use less-harmful fertilisers and pesticides.

Satellite images from the National Remote Sensing Agency in Hyderabad were used to locate ancient water courses and wells, and then the ICRISAT scientists talked to the older villagers about the historical use of some of the disused wells. With geological survey information to hand, a large watershed catchment was dug with check dams to slow run-off, and water courses to channel the precious flow. Water is held long enough to allow it to percolate through to the aquifer where it fills the cleared-out wells to the brim during the monsoon. And when I visit, there is still water in the wells, which is used to irrigate the fields.

This is the new green revolution. The previous one involved channelling and pumping vast amounts of water (and chemicals) onto as many fields as possible. But India has almost reached its capacity for irrigated agriculture. The new green revolution will involve making the remaining 60% of rainfed agriculture sustainable. And this means watersheds and other conservation measures, and growing less-thirsty crops. Currently, rice is so heavily subsidised by the government that even the poorest driest land is given over to a tiny paddy field because the farmer can be assured a good price for his meagre grains. But nutritious and less thirsty crops must be supported if India has any hope of feeding itself. Rainfed agriculture is inherently risky, but the way to minimise the risk for the poor farmer is not by guaranteeing high prices for rice, but by supporting their transition to drought-tolerant, heat-tolerant crops and assisting them to capture and manage their water effectively.

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