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Achieving more with less

Agriculture may no longer hold a pre-eminent position in Indias gross domestic product (GDP) calculations, but 60 percent of the population depends on it for employment and subsistence. The sector is one of the biggest laboratories of experiments and innovations, and one such innovator is Sundaram Verma. He belongs to the Danta village, located 50 kms from Sikar district of Rajasthan, India. Born in a family of astute farmers, he was a keen student and devoted his time to learning than sports. When the time came to take up his family profession, he brought with him years of formal knowledge gathered at schools and college, and married it with age-old family wisdom. The results were very encouraging and added to the reputation of the family. However, the innovative miracle he was aiming for happened due to an inadvertent delay. Sundaram was working on various agricultural practices learned over a period of time with the help of Indian Agricultural Research Institute. To keep adding to his knowledge in 1982, he undertook a course in dry land agro forestry techniques. Four years ago he had planted trees on a patch of land, and even after irrigating, he was unable to save more than 15 percent of them. This 85 percent loss of saplings was a huge blow to him, and he was determined to bring this rate of loss down to minimum. During his course, he learnt about the capillary action of water (movement of water from beneath the ground to surface leading to evaporation) and erosion of soil moisture due to the presence of weeds. Armed with new information, he prepared his land for another round of plantation. The idea was to plant the trees during monsoons, but due to some problem, he got delayed and was able to plant tree only in September when the rainfall had stopped. However, the results surprised him as the survival rate of plants was quite high. He analyzed this phenomenon and realized that by preparing the land for plantation, he preserved the moisture content of the soil. This was achieved by breaking the capillary movement of water and checking weed growth. To prove his analysis right, he started conducting systematic experiments.

He chose two sites for different types of soils -- Domat (loamy) and Balu (sandy) -- for experiments. The domat field was levelled and divided into different plots. The plots were ploughed and weed was strictly controlled. In the second plot, no ploughing was done, but weed control was performed and in the third plot no ploughing and no weed control was performed. In the sandy or balu soil, the same process was undertaken, but with a little difference. As the sandy soil was loose as compared to domat, Sundaram was confident that the phenomenon of breaking the capillary movement of water would operate efficiently. The levelled field was divided into three parts, and the dislocated soil part was spread during the levelling was deemed as a ploughed and weed-free plot. The part from where the upper layer of soil was scraped off was considered as un-ploughed and weed-free plot. The third undisturbed patch (without levelling) was considered as control (no ploughing and no weed control). Initial experiments suggested that below a depth of 30cm, the soil had sufficient moisture for plants to survive provided the capillary movement was broken and weeds were removed. Also deeper penetrating roots of transplanted seedlings may facilitate the tapping of sufficient moisture from the deep soil. In 1983 at the end of the monsoon season, Sundaram was ready to put his theory to test and planted about 90 plants of sisam, ber, babul and ardusi. The plot selected for plantation was ploughed twice; once at the onset of monsoon, and again at the end of the season and weeds were constantly removed. Saplings were planted 20-30cm below the surface so that roots penetrate deeper into the soil in search of moisture. The results were stunning. Four years ago while the survival rate was 15 percent, this time it shot up to 90 percent. But Sundaram wasnt convinced and wanted to experiment it in other conditions too. He conducted the same experiments in 8 different forest ranges across his district and found that the success rate was 85-90 percent with half the cost of traditional plantation techniques. After 8 years of constant experimentation, Sundaram Verma finally presented his technique of plantation with just a litre of water to the world. Since last 30 years, he has helped thousands of farmers in greening their land. Ref: