Through Preservation and Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature (PRAN), Anil is standardizing the technology of System of Root Intensification (SRI) with the aim to strengthen farming systems integrated with climate change adaptation for women and marginal households. By giving farmers control of the technology, Anil’s work has led to year-round food security along with stable income flow and good health in the most marginalized farming communities of India.
The New Idea
In 2012, Anil Verma launched his organization, Preservation and Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature (PRAN), with the mission to enhance food security by using the non-chemical technology of the System of Root Intensification (SRI), a.k.a. System of Crop Intensification. Anil’s fundamental insight was that, in order to address the degrading state of agriculture in India post-green revolution, the food security of the most marginalized farming communities of India needed to be addressed. To do this, crop management practices needed to shift to focus on the roots of the crop, ultimately impacting the roots of the communities themselves, women and farmers. Anil has been able to democratize his unique idea of root intensification for multiple crops, coupled with gender-driven extension services of the cropping pattern where crop output has dramatically increased while minimizing the water footprint, and using zero chemicals. Anil has taken the technology of root intensification to make it adaptable and replicable by small farmers, reversing the harm of access chemicals, to reclaim soil health and food security through dry land agriculture. He is building cadres of individual farmers (99% women) across the country to train other farmers in the use of SRI through government partnerships. SRI, which was initially launched as the System of Rice Intensification in 1996 and made use of few chemicals, has been transformed by Anil into the completely non-chemical technology of root intensification, which makes use of easily available materials like cow dung, cow urine, and eggs to enhance the productivity of a small piece of land by focusing on making the roots of the crop stronger. Along with making it accessible, Anil has also taken the technology to crops other than rice, including sugarcane, wheat, oilseed, and some vegetables as well.
One of the first things, Anil noticed with SRI was where a farmer would traditionally need 20kg seed for 1 acre of land, with SRI he would need only 2kg of the same seed with a 60-70% decrease water usage, leading to a significant increase in productivity with increased income and nutritionally secure food for the household. This approach seeks not just to get more output from a given amount of input, a long-standing and universal goal, but aims to achieve higher output with less use of or less expenditure on land, labor, capital, and water – all by making modifications in crop management practices. Through SRI, farmers have summarized their yield increases as 86% for rice, 72% for wheat, 56% for pulses, 50% for oilseeds, and 20% for vegetables; and the profitability increases for these different crops, respectively, averaging 250%, 86% 67%, 93%, and 47%. Anil has shown this method to bring year-round food security as compared to the 4 to 5 months in modern agriculture, along with improving climate sustainability, especially with increasing climate effects and droughts across the country.
Through extensive collaborations and research, Anil’s work on SRI can already be seen across a range of countries including India, Ethiopia, Nepal, Mali, Cambodia, and Pakistan for a wide variety of crops. The result is that the spread of these innovations is mostly driven by farmers’ interests and initiatives, supported by professionals like Anil from non-governmental organizations, government agencies, research partners, universities, and the private sector.
Moving forward, Anil’s vision is to make sustainable agriculture intensification available to all farmers across the globe with the main focus of improving the nutritional and food security of farmers and their families, while enhancing the agriculture of women and marginal families through the preservation and proliferation of rural resources and nature.
The production of food in India was insufficient in the years 1947 to 1960 due to the growing population and a famine was also anticipated during the time. There was a severe shortage of food crops as well as commercial crops. The green revolution took shape in India around 1960 and helped in increasing food production in India. The main aim was to introduce High Yielding Varieties (HYVs) of cereals to help alleviate poverty and malnutrition. Despite the success of the green revolution, the World Bank noted that health outcomes have not been improved. After a certain period, some unintended but adverse effects were beginning to be noticed not just in India but all over the globe, with harmful consequences on agriculture and human health. From a significant increase in pesticide usage leading to extensive soil degradation and crop failure, India having the highest water usage globally with 91% of the water being used in agriculture, extinction of indigenous variety of crops, to a significant change in the food consumption pattern and high exposure to pesticide content in food intake.
With the population only increasing with each day, the per capita land availability has been decreasing since 1951. From 0.37 ha in 1951 to 0.19 ha in 2001 and estimated to go as low as 0.13ha by 2051, farmers in India are facing dire situations of debt, most of which is to purchase chemical fertilizers and pesticides for their fields, to the adverse effects of climate change on their livelihoods. One of the things the green revolution did was establish that landowners with high purchasing power and capital to invest in agriculture were the only ones who could participate fully and reap the benefits. The livelihoods of rural and marginalized farmers, who constitute 86% of the farming community in India, have been under threat as a result. Along with 70-75% of cultivable land in India being rainfed, it is the small and marginal farmers who are bearing the consequences of climate change.
Although varying terminologies are being used by different organizations, there is considerable agreement that agricultural sectors around the world need to pursue modified strategies for ‘sustainable agriculture intensification’ if global food security requirements are to be met throughout this century. A common denominator for these recommendations is their divergence from the kinds of agricultural intensification that has been prevalent over the past 50 years. Technologies for modern agriculture particularly associated with the Green Revolution have enabled farmers with access to sufficient land, machinery, and purchased inputs to cultivate ever-larger areas, raising production by relying on improved crop varieties and utilizing more water, capital investment, fossil-fuel energy, and agrochemicals. Employing more inputs to obtain greater output has improved upon the previous more extensive strategies of production that were characterized by both low inputs and low outputs. However, it is also directly associated with rising economic and environmental costs for both farmers and ecosystems.
Starting in 2007, while with PRADAN (Professional Assistance for Development Action), an organization founded by Ashoka Fellow Vijay Mahajan, Anil led the pilot project on System of Root Intensification (SRI), a sectoral project at the time in collaboration with Bihar Rural Livelihoods Promotion Society (BRLPS), NABARD, and Sri Dorabji Tata Trust. Initially, the challenge was to get the farmers’ attention on this new methodology which was counterintuitive to everything modern agriculture asked of them in terms of quantity of input and crop management practices, but once they saw the benefits and flourishing fields using SRI, they immediately wanted to be part of the project. Starting with 200 farmers in 2007 to then 30,000 farmers by 2011 in Bihar, in this time Anil was able to pilot SRI to crops other than paddy including wheat and rapeseed, and also developed scaling up prototypes for the technology. Anil was one of the founding members of the National Consortium on SRI (NCS), where he demonstrated the intensification method for wheat at the ICAR - Indian Agricultural Research Institute, Delhi, and successfully advocated to push for SRI to be included in state agricultural universities.
By 2009, Anil had piloted and demonstrated the SRI method of crop cultivation in vegetables, oilseeds, sugarcane, and tuber crops. To work on the scaling prototype, Anil began to develop cadres of farmers, mostly women, by collaborating with women's farm schools and farmers' clubs across Bihar. By 2011, Anil had developed manuals for SRI in wheat and rapeseed, along with a package on practices for SRI with various crops, which was made accessible to farmers in the form of manuals throughout Bihar and disseminated through partnerships with multiple CSOs across India. With SRI, farmers have reported increased yields in the range of 80% to 200% across different crops, with a 50% to 90% reduction in seeds and a profitability increase between 50% to 200%.
The ideas and practices that have given birth to SRI are derived from farmers’ and other’s experiences with the system of ‘rice’ intensification, and can be summarized in 4 key principles of crop management - Establishment of healthy plants both early and attentively, taking care to conserve and nurture their potential for root system growth and for associated shoot growth; significant reductions in crop density, transplanting or sowing individual plants with wider spacing between them, giving each plant more room to grow both above and below ground; Enrichment of the soil with organic matter, and keeping the soil well-aerated to support the better growth of roots and of beneficial soil biota; Application of water in ways that favor plant-root and soil-microbial growth, avoiding hypoxic soil conditions that adversely affect both roots and aerobic soil organisms.
It was in early 2012, when Anil saw that he was unable to give 100 percent of his focus to addressing food insecurity by changing crop management practices while with PRADAN, and went on to establish his organization, Preservation and Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature (PRAN). With an established base of farmers in the districts of Bihar, and through NCS with various government and non-government organizations, Anil went on to devise agricultural implements for SRI, including a 3 in 1 weeder for SRI paddy, wheat, and vegetables, along with a wheat seed drill which he had been working on for 6 years in partnership with a private company, Agro Vision. Along with this, Anil also trained local blacksmiths to develop equipment for SRI crop, not just in Bihar, but across India, and also helped these blacksmiths to obtain legal documents like manufacturing licenses, and Permanent Account Numbers, to enable them to sell to other agencies promoting the SRI method of crop cultivation. These blacksmiths are supplying the Sri Vidhi Weeder to the Government of Madhya Pradesh and several CSOs.
Around the same time, various international agricultural scientists and practitioners began reaching out to Anil and visited his research plot in Gaya, Bihar. Anil has been a key resource person for governmental agencies and CSOs, like the World Bank, and Ethiopia’s Agriculture Transformation Agency, in taking SRI and his learnings to Ethiopia, Mali, Cambodia, Nepal, Philippines, Austria, China and Pakistan. Along with rigorously publishing articles and principles of SRI in agro journals nationally and internationally, Anil has continuously worked on innovative and sustainable agriculture to address global food insecurity.
In 2014, PRAN became the national resource organization for Bharat Rural Livelihoods Foundation (BRLF) in non-pesticide management and SRI. Through this partnership, PRAN is running a residential training program for rural tribal youth in non-pesticide management and SRI practices, with the Indian Institute of Health Management Research (IIHMR), Jaipur. In another partnership with the BRLPS, Patna, PRAN is providing training at the Cluster Level Forums on flood and drought prone agriculture. Apart from these partnerships, PRAN has trained over 20 grassroots organizations on the method of SRI and presented the methodology in state forums across the country including Bihar, Chhattisgarh, and Uttarakhand.
To scale and democratize this technology at the grassroots, Anil has worked extensively on training farmers as Village Resource Persons (VRP) and Skilled Extension Workers in villages, who take responsibility of the methodology and go on to train farmers across the country. Anil has done this to ensure that the farmers are not dependent on him or PRAN to practice the technology of SRI and can sustain this technology through their own interests and initiatives. By identifying the best practitioners of SRI and making them the VRPs with training provided in 4 to 6 phases over one-year, weekly monitoring of progress, and records on each farmer's transactions, Anil’s strategy includes handholding the farming community for 3 to 5 years. The basic training on SRI is also integrated with transformational inputs pertaining to the method and poverty eradication. With 1 training and research center established in Bihar, Anil is currently in the process of setting up another center with an increased training and research capacity. The VRPs are also provided with a monetary incentive of $130 – 200, depending on the size of the village and number of farmers under the care of each VRP. The funds for these incentives are provided through partnerships with the state governments. Anil’s contribution in the empowerment of women farmers has resulted in the Government of Bihar calling upon the women VRPs to provide training to landless and other poor women in the state, with a budget of $2.6 million.
Anil has directly worked with 200,000 farmers in Bihar and trained over 10,000 cadres of individual women farmers across the country. With the Indian government shifting focus to more natural methods of agriculture in 2015, Anil and his cadres have since worked with the state governments of Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Rajasthan, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Chhattisgarh, and Odisha, enabling 5 million farmers in the method of SRI. Additionally, through SRI, Bihar’s paddy production increased from 4 million tons in 2006 to 11 million tons in 2008, which has remained stable if not more since the introduction of SRI.
Having worked on SRI with various stakeholders in the agriculture system and making this technology available to farmers across the world, Anil has begun to see the multitudes of impact of his work on the education, health, and rural entrepreneurship in rural communities, with one of the bigger impacts being the upliftment of women in rural communities. With increased income, nutritional security, and women becoming leaders in their farms, health problems have decreased, and the youth are now more inclined towards taking up farming; which has been a huge win for the migration problems in Bihar and other poor states. Along with focusing on making SRI accessible to every farmer, Anil is also addressing the water security of rural and marginalized communities, with the National Institute of Disaster Management under the Ministry of Home Affairs. Focusing on collaborations and partnerships, Anil’s vision is to enhance the agriculture of rural communities to ultimately lift livelihoods and health with food security.
Born and brought up in Bihar, Anil comes from a typical middle-class family. His father was in the postal service and mother was a housewife. He witnessed social injustice during his school days in the form of caste bullying, where he always stood his ground in favor of the lower castes who were being bullied. During graduation and postgraduation at the Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University, Bihar, Anil was a part of various social groups and sat alone in a hunger strike for 7 students who were rusticated from the university for unknown reasons.
It was in his time at the University that he met his seniors working at PRADAN and knew this was the path for him to take. He joined PRADAN in 1995 and went on to work on multiple projects on rainfed and irrigated agriculture-based livelihood programs. Through PRADAN, Anil worked intensively with grassroots rural and tribal communities in Jharkhand and Madhya Pradesh, before moving back to his home state, Bihar, in 2007 to enhance the agriculture livelihoods of some of the poorest farmers in India. Anil continued working with PRADAN to pilot and develop SRI, before moving on to establish his organization, Preservation and Proliferation of Rural Resources and Nature (PRAN).