University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru (UAS-B) has had a long journey in agricultural research and education. It has played a crucial role in Green Revolution in 1970s. Dr. H. Shivanna, Vice-Chancellor, UAS-B talks to Mohd Mustaquim about agricultural developments, challenges of climate change, water crisis and other agriculture related issues
What are the biggest challenges agriculture sector is going to see in the next decade, especially in the southern region of India and what are the ways out?
First, we need to recognise that Indian agriculture has truly undergone a revolution and the near self-sufficiency in food, since the 1970s, directly enabled the country to push other sectors of economy without worrying about the arrival of ships carrying wheat from America. India today is the largest producer of many agricultural, horticultural, dairy and poultry products and yet the farm sector continues to be lagging behind other sectors of the economy and here lies a paradox. Tomato, onion, chilli, pulses, milk, eggs, cotton and many other farm produce have witnessed such a boom in production that it has ceased to be a boon and more a curse on the poor toiling farmer. Farmers pouring out milk on roads in Maharashtra or farmers in Karnataka crushing tomatoes on the highway are so reminiscent of American farmers dumping wheat into the sea to get a better price! There is a total disconnect between demand and supply leading to a situation where supply far outstrips demand, both in short and long term depending on the nature of produce. The lack of storage infrastructure makes this even more acute since much of the farm produce is perishable and the glut in production cannot be utilised effectively. This is just one of the major problems we will have to address not only to bring relief to the farmers but also to make our production systems more diversified and efficient. Ensuring timely availability of quality inputs, micro-finance, irrigation, mechanisation for small farms and a mechanism for forecasting demand and a marketing system that does not allow cartelisation are some of the ways in which we can improve the efficiency of the sector, not just in southern region but the entire country.
Monsoon has constantly been erratic last one decade, how has it affected the agriculture sector in the southern plateau of India?
The monsoon has been erratic, particularly on the southern plateau. Although, the rainfall in terms of quantity (annual) has not altered much, the spatial and temporal distribution of rainfall has been quite ‘erratic’ so to speak. If we take Karnataka in the Southern Plateau, 11 years out of 15 (2001 to 2015) were ‘drought’ years. In 2015, ‘mid-season drought’ affected agriculture while ‘end-season drought’ virtually wiped out crops in Karnataka in 2016. The extremes in weather, drought some parts and excess rainfall followed by floods in other parts have seriously undermined farm productivity. Southern Karnataka for instance suffered severe drought during 2016 while, north western Karnataka and Maharashtra reeled under the fury of floods.
If we look Southern plateau as a whole, 2007, 2012 and 2016 were distress years, when agricultural production was reduced by 20-30 percent, but in the rest of the years, despite variations in rainfall, the losses were below 10 percent as the losses associated with drought in one state was compensated with good rains in other states in southern India. The deficit moisture during normal distress years were compensated with irrigation using ground water and other water conservation practices, hence the losses were minimal.
Depleting water table in Karnataka has become a big issue, what measures are being taken and promoted by the University of Agricultural Sciences or what measures should the Government take to overcome the crisis in the state?
The University of Agricultural Sciences, Bengaluru has established a Water technology center at ZARS, VC Farm, Mandya to cater to research needs for irrigated farming systems, while The Dryland Agricultural Research Project (DLAP) is developing climate resilient technologies for the rainfed farming systems. Several water saving technologies have been developed and disseminated through Water technology center and KVKs in irrigated ecosystem besides taking major role in creating awareness about water crisis during distress year of 2016.
An important breakthrough has been in standardising drip irrigation system for rice and sugarcane, two water guzzling crops. The Government of Karnataka is popularising this technology through policy initiatives in command areas to promote water conservation.
The DLAP, Agro-Met division and KVKs are implementing National Innovations on Climate Resilient Agriculture (NICRA) and Oxidation-Reduction Potential (ORP) activities to demonstrate climate smart sustainable dryland technologies to cope with rainfall aberration. A slew of technologies such as in situ rain water management, rain water harvesting, ground water recharge, percolation pond, pond rejuvenation, agro-forestry are being promoted among farmers to ensure conservation of soil, water and agro-biodiversity to ensure sustainability of dryland farming systems.
Climate change is the new change agriculture sector is facing. What is the preparedness in terms of research to overcome the new phenomenon?
Even as we grapple with the challenges mentioned earlier, climate change is going to severely test the farming sector. In this direction the country is prepared to meet the challenges and we have the technology for climate smart agriculture to adapt and mitigate the impacts of climate change to an extent. These technologies need to be effectively implemented across the country and the state. At UAS-B, we have been well prepared in development of technologies particularly for dryland agriculture involving drought tolerant and water-use efficient varieties in several crops, efficient irrigation systems, reducing consumptive use of water, agro-forestry, contingent crop plans, use of renewable energy like biofuel etc. Further, the model of Integrated Farming System developed by the University has been refined and has become popular among farmers. Here again this year I initiated a programme for demonstration of climate resilient technologies through KVKs of the university. However, more needs to be done in terms of reducing carbon and methane emissions from the farming systems.
Many states in India are fighting for water, even after 70 years of independence where we failed to analyse this crucial need? And what could be the future action?
In 1947, the population of India was 36 crores and has almost quadrupled to 126 crores in 70 years and we are poised to overtake China in population in the next 20 years. Undoubtedly, this increase in population, coupled with development of other sectors of the economy, has stretched our natural resources leading to severe erosion of soil, water and biodiversity. The situation is quite serious not just in India but globally too, so much so that Prof. Stephen Hawking is convinced that we have to abandon the planet to survive! That should be warning enough to protect every inch of forest, every drop of water and conserve every living form that is left. The question is, are we up to the challenge? The answer lies in the choices we make and the road we take to feed and create employment for the burgeoning population.
There is an urgent need for a comprehensive National Water Policy which makes water conservation and non-consumptive use of water mandatory. Incentivising water saving technologies, more efficient crop varieties, recycling of water in urban and peri-urban areas and mandatory cropping systems for specific agro-ecological zones may be some steps to combat severe water crunch. This is something that governments alone cannot achieve but requires community participation. Such participation has been pioneered in Rajasthan by Rajendra Singh and others. In this direction the University is working with farmers to combine traditional practices with technology to promote conservation of soil, water and agro-biodiversity.
Many technological disruptions are coming into agriculture sector, particularly remote sensing and application of ICT, ITeS and Internet of Things. What are those specific technological disruptions, do you envisage, are going to change the agricultural practices in the next 10 years?
Agriculture has rather been slow in adopting the full potential of ICT and GIS-RS. However, as information technologists seek new pastures, I foresee intensive application of ICT, GIS-RS and other technologies. If these technologies operate keeping in view the socio-economic context of Indian agriculture, they are going to be more constructive and productive. ICT can be leveraged to successfully tackle challenges of input supplies, crop planning, medium range weather forecasting, pest and disease forewarning, water management, yield and price forecasting among others. Coupled with GIS-RS, ICT is going to bring in a huge revolution in the next ten years by reaching the unreached such as the small and marginal farmers and provide them necessary technical and knowledge support. UAS-B has taken first steps in this direction and implemented precision farming technologies based these tools. Currently UAS-B is also providing back-end support for adoption of ICT by the Department of Horticulture in providing pest and disease management information to farmers across the Karnataka. Another important application of ICT pioneered by UAS-B has been in the area of providing accurate price forecast of agri-commodities on internet. If properly designed and managed, application of these tools can be used to create employment for many farm youth, from rural areas, who may have familiarity with farming but may not be full time farmers.
What are the areas of agricultural research UAS-Bengaluru is focusing on and how many students are currently studying in the varsity?
The major areas of research in the university are in developing strategies for tackling biotic and abiotic stress faced by crops by both genomic approaches and agronomic approaches. Enhancing efficiency of irrigation is another major area where the university is investing its time and resources. There is a major programme on millets, aims to promote them as climate resilient crops. Biodiversity conservation, biofuels and organic farming are some of the important areas of research in the university. Currently, 2,775 students, with almost equal number of boys and girls, are on roll in the University in Diploma, Undergraduate and Postgraduate programmes in four constituent colleges of the university.
How has the journey of UAS-B been in agricultural research and education and how has the varsity changed the farming landscape in Karnataka?
UAS-B is among the few universities in the country which has a history of over one hundred years; UAS-B had its origins in 1899 as a small research farm. This research farm at Hebbal, was upgraded to a school in 1913 and finally graduated to a ‘university’ in 1963. In this sense therefore, the university has been developing farm technology for the state for a very long time. With the establishment of the university, the academic activities were streamlined into teaching, research and outreach or extension. It is important to note here that unlike other universities in the country State Agricultural Universities (SAUs) are not just teaching universities. The SAUs played a major role in developing and disseminating modern farming techniques that led to the Green Revolution in the early 70s.
Specifically, UAS-B in its early years designed the cropping systems for the state by delineating the state into different agro-climatic zones and recommended crops suitable for each zone. The major contribution to farming has been by way of improved varieties in several crops, technologies for dryland agriculture, watershed development, farm mechanisation and standardisation of production practices for crops in each zone. The huge jump in farm production in the state since 1970’s has undoubtedly been driven by the research at UAS-B and the trained manpower it provided for the state’s agriculture sector.
To date UAS-B has released close to 180 varieties in cereal, pulses, oilseed, horticultural crops, cardamom, cashew and other commercial crops of the state. It is a matter of great pride that UAS-B is a pioneer in developing sunflower hybrids. The large number of varieties from UAS-B have transformed the cultivation of finger millet. The finger millet variety GPU-28 which is resistant to neck-blast disease has crossed the state and grown all over India wherever finger millet is cultivated. The rice hybrids KRH-2 and KRH-4, again a first in India, are also popular in Orissa, West Bengal, Bihar and have reached even Bangladesh and Myanmar.
What makes UAS-B different from other agricultural universities?
In one word UAS-B stands for Uniqueness! The university, as I have already mentioned, has earned its reputation through hard work. It has been a pioneer in both translational and basic research that drives development of technology in agriculture. It derives its strength from this cross-talk and has been able to forge collaborations with several premier research institutions in Bengaluru, both in public and private sector. These collaborations not only help the university to stay ahead in research but also provide excellent opportunities for students to interact with academia outside the university.
In the area of genomics and their applications, UAS-B has been a pioneer among the SAUs. The university is a leader in prospecting drought tolerant traits and genes in crops and it has been recognised as a Niche Area of Excellence by ICAR. Similarly, the university has a DST-GOI-National Facility for Isotope Discrimination in plants for phenotyping drought tolerance using physiological approach. The other flagship programmes of the university include Centres-for-Excellence in Millets, Natural Resource Economics, Organic Farming, Biofuels, Insect Taxonomy and Dryland Agriculture.