Dr. Gitanjali Yadav leads a field trip to Haryana to interact with local farmers.
Text and Photography by Toby Smith
Speeding through Gurgaon on a fresh, smooth highway we are vividly reminded of India’s aggressive development and path to progress. Gargantuan, monochromatic glazed concrete towers shoot vertically into the sky – still surrounded by the pastureland they have sprouted from.
The wider skyline contrasts starkly with a bright saffron procession of Shiva devotees marching along the highway fringe. 1000’s of young men, referred to as ‘Kavadiya’, are walking hundreds of miles across India completing a traditional and sacred pilgrimage – carrying water from the Ganges river confluence to their home towns.
After 2 hours of navigating the ever shrinking roads – eventually the kerbside settlements dissolve to reveal an infinite vista of lush green farmland stretching towards a hazy horizon. By 10am the intensity of the sun has already combined oppressively with a humid. tropical breeze and the team stoop down to touch the warm, rich, free flowing alluvial soil of sand, clay and calcium deposits.
Haryana is one of India’s most important agricultural and grain-intensive states and is already contributing to almost 8% food production with only of 1.3% land area. If the availability of water is not a limiting factor this climate and rich soil can often produce upto 3 cereal or 5 vegetative crops per annum.
Our first stop is the Yadav ancestral home where Gita promotes a friendly but analytic conversation with two broad shouldered millet farmers, Naresh and Baldev., who freely share their extensive experience and challenges of working in the area. 6 millet sub-species are discussed with colloquial names reflecting their different physical characteristics, advantages and disadvantages – which are rotated annually based on market needs and weather.
Seed choice, inputs, irrigation and machinery are a farmer’s principle investment and partner in crop production. However, it is the climate and the unpredictable nature of precipitation over the last decade that decides the overall success or failure of any given crop. Here on the front line of India’s food security, farmers are in no-doubt about the reality or existence of climate change and are truly concerned with furthering their knowledge and countering its negative effects on their livelihoods.
Gita’s ears prick as a Naresh recalls how a nameless agro company donated millet seed to a community promising a growth rapid enough to allow a triple harvest. The engineered crop germinated and developed at record speed but with thinly structured stems that promptly snapped on the windy exposed plains. The result was a disastrous crop for every farmer that accepted the trial, leaving them bitter as to having been lured in by a false promise of free seed and higher yields.
During a delicious lunch of bitter gourd curry, strained curd and roti, Rao SheoPal Singh (Gita’s maternal grandfather, whom she addresses as NanaJi) comes alive with almost a century of wisdom and agricultural anecdotes. Born in 1921, already a young man during partition, he remembers how their first diesel tractor brought incredible advances to the speed of crop rotation. Mechanisation promoted a faster ground clearance after harvest, efficient ploughing and re-seeding – replacing many of the traditional labour intensive processes. The Western and Eastern canals have long supplied water from the mighty Yamuna river and raised the water table of the state. Rao Sheo Pal Singh’s family has since invested in deep wells, pumping stations and irrigation pipework which makes this precious resource available to his crops for extended seasons.
Forgetting my position as a documentary observer I reach for the pencil and pad to communicate past Nana Ji’s hearing aids. The 97 year old farmer and ex-Sarpanch of Dahina, is very fluent in English, having been the first graduate of this village from the Hindu College, Delhi, and a collector of more than half a century of Reader’s Digests. My question asks “What advice do you have from your years for the next generation of farmers?”. Nana Ji pauses momentarily before whispering his response directly into my ear. “You must wait for the rains and plant the right seed. Then you must pray the weather is kind for 5 days to allow germination – then you will find success.” Even though he does not go to the farms himself any more, his active and insistent guidance to Naresh, Baldev and many others, provides vigor and hope to the farming community.
We clamber aboard a modern but modest Massey Ferguson tractor and bounce along a dusty track towards the millet fields, driven by Baldev, enjoying the movement of air and briefest respite from the now fierce heat. In the shade of a Neem tree, Gita and both farmers come alive, charging into an animated dialogue regarding the millet life-cycle, the different varieties planted and their development. Surprisingly, the threat of insect pests here is low but the millet is easily swamped out by cryptic vegetative weeds. Gita suspects these to be invasive alien species and gathers whole plant samples for the taxonomy department at NIPGR to understand more about their competitive traits.
We find millet crop at all stages of development, some irrigated, some rain-fed, some freshly drilled and rapidly germinating. A long slender 7 foot tall stem is bent within reach so we can observe the flower head of a 3 month old Sorghum Millet. It will soon swell with kernels yielding a carbohydrate rich crop destined for cattle feed. Back in NIPGR, it is the complex internal processes and protein associations of the photosynthetic enzyme Rubisco that Citu will be investigating and performing comparative analysis with. Other projects in Tigr2ess will also consider the cultural changes that signpost different crops for human or animal consumption.
Both energised and frazzled by the afternoon field visit we make tracks back to the villages of Dahina and Jainabad for a whirlwind science engagement tour of 3 local schools.