Maharashtra, especially the Vidarbha region, is infamous for farmers' suicides due to frequent crop failures as a result of adverse weather and pest attack.
In the last kharif season, too, the weather was unfavourable due to drought, and pest build-up was fairly menacing. But for a change, instead of losing their crops, most farmers bagged relatively bigger harvests of cotton and soyabean, the two predominant crops of the region.
This transformation was the result of meticulous monitoring of the proliferation of pests and crop situation, followed by timely technical advice to the farmers on how to combat the emerging threat.
The use of information technology for quicker communication of advisories to the farmers helped them take timely action to check pest attacks and also mitigate the impact of deficient rainfall on crops.
A path-breaking programme of surveillance and awareness creation was launched for this purpose by the New Delhi-based National Centre for Integrated Pest Management (NCIPM) in 28 districts of Maharashtra where soyabean and cotton crops are predominantly grown.
This centre, along with three other research institutes of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) and three agricultural universities, provided the technical guidance and arranged for training of the personnel of the state agricultural department in integrated pest management (IPM) technology.
The state department carried out the field activities with the help of selected volunteer farmers. Over 270 situation-specific technical advisories were disseminated through SMSs to five elite farmers in each of about 30,000 villages to spread the messages to nearly 2 lakh farmers.
According to NCIPM director O M Bambawale, this massive project succeeded in achieving its objective because of the wholehearted support of the state agriculture department. Technology to cope with the pests and other adverse conditions is available; but the technical advice based on this technology normally does not reach the farmers in time. This programme removed that hurdle.
Faced with repeated crop failures due to the attack of pests like American bollworms (Helicoverpa armigera), tobacco caterpillar (Spodoptera litura), semiloopers, beetles and others, a large number of farmers in Maharashtra, particularly in Vidarbha, had replaced cotton with soyabean in recent years. Consequently, soyabean now occupies almost the same acreage (3 million hectares) as does cotton.
In 2008-09, the Vidarbha region witnessed an epidemic of these pests, causing massive damage to soyabean in an area of about 7.5 lakh hectares. The aggregate monetary loss to the farmers was assessed at over Rs 1,000 crore (Rs 10 billion). The government's compensation package of about Rs 401 crore (Rs 4.01 billion) could only partially offset the farmers' actual losses.
However, this adversity spurred the state agriculture department to gear itself up for averting a repeat of this by involving the research institutes in preparing and implementing suitable crop- and pest-management strategies in 2009-10 kharif season.
The awareness-cum-surveillance project, prepared by the NCIPM, involved regular monitoring of pest build-up in the fields by the trained personnel to identify hotspots of pest infestation and prompt adoption of the remedial management strategies. The available pesticide supplies were diverted to the heavily pest-infested spots.
The net result was a significant 67 per cent decrease in area reporting pest population in excess of the economic threshold limit (ETL) in 2009-10 as compared to 2008-09. Even the areas where the pest population crossed the threshold level, the pests were managed effectively to keep the economic losses to the minimum.
This is claimed to have led to a productivity increase of nearly 19 per cent over the previous year despite a prolonged dry spell of 27 days, between July 24 and August 19, 2009, which affected the flowering and pod formation in the soyabean crop.
The monetary gains to the growers are reckoned by the NCIPM at over Rs 1,047 crore (Rs 10.47 billion).
Encouraged by the outcome of this project, the Maharashtra government, as also the Centre, now wants this model of surveillance-cum-technical advice to be replicated elsewhere as well.
While Maharashtra wants the programme to continue on a regular basis, the Centre is going to launch a similar programme in states like Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Madhya Pradesh and south-western Uttar Pradesh for the two main pulse crops, chick pea (chana) and pigeon pea (tur or arhar).
However, to achieve success, the agriculture departments of the states would have to galvanise their otherwise lethargic field staff for implementing this programme as sincerely as was done in Maharashtra. Otherwise, even this well-conceived scientific strategy would meet its Waterloo.