A solution to India's sodic soils?
Wading into his lush plot of rice, farmer Sahdev Baxsingh from Uttar Pradesh brushes the palms of his hands against the maturing grain. "Nothing used to grow on this soil," he says. "Now I harvest 40 quintal (4 tonnes) per hectare Not only is the soil improved but my life is better."
The State of Uttar Pradesh is home to a sixth of the India's population (170 million people) but much of its soil is high in sodium. The condition develops as a result of continuous agriculture and irrigation, which causes naturally-occurring sodium in the sub-soil to be drawn up to the surface. But Baxsingh, from the village of Bhoin, is one of thousands of farmers in northern India who has been involved in the dramatic rehabilitation of 250,000 hectares of damaged, sodic land.
Sodicity on the rise
In northern India, on the plains watered by the Indus and Ganges rivers, which have been cultivated for 2000 years - sodicity can raise soil alkalinity to pH 10. Local soil scientist Dr Alok Mathur, has seen the problem at its worst: "In May and June, when peak temperatures reach up to 47 degrees Celsius, you find the salts on the surface in a thick layer. It feels as though you are walking on a very comfortable soft carpet."
There is nothing comfortable about life on affected land. With desperation, one farmer from Kabulpur village grabs a handful of barren earth. "We worked really hard on this soil," he says, "but crops cannot tolerate the high salt levels and we cannot support ourselves."
The extent of the area affected can be seen on maps at the Remote Sensing Applications Centre in the state capital Lucknow. The Centre director Dr A.N. Singh has overseen the use of satellite imagery, together with the standardised methodology developed for selective ground sampling and chemical analysis, to map degraded land in the state. "We now know there are over a million hectares of severely sodic and saline soil in this part of India," states Singh, "which is ten per cent of the cultivable area."
Reclaiming the soil
Remarkably, such soils can be rehabilitated. In a typically sodic and abandoned roadside plot, Anand Shrivastva of the Uttar Pradesh Sodic Land Reclamation Project (UPSLRP) holds out a bag of gypsum, mined from the northwestern state of Rajasthan. He explains how farmers add gypsum, plough and then irrigate the field to flush the displaced sodium away. However, Shrivastva warns that farmers need to understand that sodicity can return. "They must carefully manage their soil," he says, "and act promptly if the symptoms - like stunted plants or discoloured foliage - reappear."
Reversing damage to soil isn't always easy and encouraging rehabilitation can be complex but the UPSLRP team has developed a model for working alongside communities. Over 50, 000 male and female para-extension workers recruited from target communities and trained in participatory techniques consult with farmers to work out what they can do.
Communities are then mobilised to apply gypsum, improve drainage and dig new wells, as well as establish new farming-related businesses. With guidance from the village government or Panchayat development officers, these local intermediaries train and supervise farmers, helping breathe new life into sick soil. Increased crop production is also encouraged through improved storage and marketing.
The first phase of rehabilitation, part-financed by a World Bank loan, ended in 2007, and helped nearly 100,000 smallscale farmers. Now the second phase aims to rehabilitate 150,000 hectares and transform the lives of another 350,000 families. Farmers contribute labour and 30 per cent of the cost.
Back in Bhoin, where the villagers are now enjoying the benefits of sodic land reclamation, women gather to open out ledgers which tabulate the accumulating funds from the various businesses set up since the problem of land sodicity was resolved.
On asking the young leader whether they believed their soil and lives could change so dramatically, she consults the others before replying with an assertive smile. "When outsiders came telling us 'we can put powder on your sick land and it will become healthy once more' we did not believe them," she said. "We thought it was a politician's trick and we wanted to chase them away. But we were eventually convinced, hoping our lives would improve. As you can see - they have."
Date published: March 2008
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