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Climate-smart, Drought-tolerant rice varieties for improved crop outputs for West Bengal farmers

Drought is one of the most widespread and damaging of all environmental stresses, affecting 23 million hectares of rainfed rice in South and Southeast Asia alone. Rice is normally grown during periods of high rainfall, the time of year commonly referred to as the rainy season. However, rice is often subjected to periods of severe moisture stress because of the marked variation in time and intensity of rainfall in India. Thus the ability of the crop to withstand drought is essential in most tropical rice-growing areas.

In a recent farmers’ sensitization program jointly organized by IRRI and the Zonal Drought Resistance Paddy Research Station (ZDRPRS) in Purulia district of West Bengal in Eastern India, ZDRPRS informed farmers of the newly available Drought Tolerant Rice Varieties (DTRVs). The program entitled ‘‘Enhancing Productivity through DTRVs with Improved Crop and Weed Management Options in Rice-based Cropping Systems’ organized in the last week of January 2020 elaborated on relevant crop management practices like crop establishment, seed priming, water management, nursery and main field management, and weed management; and discussed possibilities for post-rice cropping in rainfed and undulated uplands.

In spite of getting an average annual rainfall of 1100 mm, Purulia has a cropping intensity of 110 percent, which is the lowest in the state of West Bengal. In the wet season, Purulia receives more than average rain, but due to the undulated land type, this rainwater does not get uniformly used-up. In this scenario, short-duration DTRVs are a blessing for poor marginal farmers for harnessing the full productivity potential.

Although drought-resistant rice varieties are needed most by dryland rice farmers, the ‘drought-resistance’ characteristic is very important also for rainfed wetland rice, as rice yields from rainfed areas are limited by unseasonal drought. Due to less initial rains, farmers fail to accumulate enough water in the fields early in the season, to prepare the lands and ready them for transplanting. Resultantly, large areas in shallow rainfed ecosystems are left untransplanted in the years with less initial rainfall.

Speaking at the farmers’ sensitization program in Purulia, with over 70 progressive farmers and senior officials from the state and district agricultural department attending, Mr. M.C. Dhara, Joint Director Agriculture (Rice Division), Purulia districts, emphasized on the importance of DTRVs in raising productivity of rainfed upland environments and shared experiences of farmers benefiting from modern management practices with DTRVs and traditional rice varieties.

“The emergence of hi-tech and precision agriculture technologies that are available at subsidized prices to cultivate vegetables, oilseeds, and pulses means that even after the wet season, the fields can be optimally utilized for other crops. Sowing time and the proper pairing of post-wet season crops can further enhance productivity. Several technology interventions are already being made to complement the Central Government’s ‘Doubling the Farmers’ Income’ program,” he said.

During the interactive session, speaking on improved rice varieties and the latest farming technologies, Dr. Ashish Kumar Srivastava, from IRRI SARC also provided an overview of agronomic management practices for the newly-released DTRVs. “Matching management practices can produce 0.5 to 1.0 t/ha additional yield of DTRVs when they are cultivated by using the right crop management practices”, he said.

Dr. Bhowmick, Assistant Agronomist at Rice Research Station (Chinsurah, West Bengal) and Mr. Anadi Bhanja, Assistant Director of Agriculture (Farm) for Purulia district, commented on the many ways in which the West Bengal Government is working with the Government of India, in close association with IRRI, for undertaking initiatives to improve productivity potential of rain-deficit areas. “Short duration crops need less water for cultivation and can withstand short to medium spells of soil water scarcity. Utera or Paira cropping systems are important in this case to maximize use of residual moisture for germination of rabi crops, like chickpea, linseed, lentil, and lathyrus,” Dr. Bhowmick said.

IRRI has developed and released several drought-tolerant rice varieties like Sahbhagi dhan, and DRR dhan 42, 43 and 44 in India, wherein field trials suggest that the average yield advantage of drought-tolerant varieties over drought-susceptible ones is 1.0–1.5 tons per hectare under drought conditions. Disseminating seeds of stress-tolerant rice varieties, focusing on women farmers’ empowerment and ensuring gender equity in rice farming, are some of the key initiatives in the area, through which hundreds of progressive farmers have already benefited.