High salt content of the soil is a major problem that confronts farmers in several parts of the country. Commonly referred to as soil salinity, this malady impairs soil health, resulting in poor crop yields. In extreme cases, it renders the land unfit for cultivation.
Data collected by the scientists of Karnal-based Central Soil Salinity Research Institute (CSSRI) with the help of satellite “Landsat” have indicated that nearly 6.73 million hectares of land suffers from various kinds of salt-related afflictions. The scientists have identified some 15 categories of soil salinity, depending on the nature of the salts, their pH value (measure of soil acidity or alkalinity) and other relevant factors. But, for practical purposes, the land affected by such salinity has broadly been categorised as either sodic (alkaline) or saline (acidic). Both are bad for crop cultivation.
Such lands are located in the Gangetic plain of Uttar Pradesh and adjoining states, the arid and semi-arid regions of Gujarat and the peninsular plain of Maharashtra. Several areas close to the seashore in the seven coastal states are also beset with this menace.
Over 2.1 million hectares of salt-affected land is located in the country’s key bread basket in the North. Uttar Pradesh alone has about 1.37 million hectares of sodic and saline soils. Besides, Rajasthan has 3.75 lakh hectares, Haryana 2.32 lakh hectares and Punjab 1.5 lakh hectares of land affected by salt accumulation.
What’s even worse is that this menace is projected to exacerbate in the coming years. While in canal-irrigated areas, salinity is on the rise due to overuse of water which brings sub-surface salts to the surface layers, in other areas it is growing due to rampant use of poor quality, salt-rich groundwater for irrigation. This will put more arable land out of cultivation or lower its fertility, adversely affecting the overall farm production. Measures are, therefore, needed to deal with soil salinity by adopting management strategies that can help improve crop yields there.
Of course, CSSRI has developed technologies for reclamation of saline lands by neutralising the salts present in them. It has simultaneously strived to genetically re-tailor the crops to enable them withstand soil salinity so that those farmers who cannot afford to invest in soil reclamation measures could grow salt tolerant varieties of crops for reaping good harvests.
According to CSSRI’s crop improvement division head S K Sharma, 14 salt tolerant varieties of crops like rice and wheat (staple cereals), mustard (oilseed) and gram (pulse) have been developed and passed on to the farmers for cultivation. These have spread fast and contributed immensely to increase crop yields and farm incomes.
Significantly, CSSRI has also succeeded in developing the first ever salt-tolerant variety of the scented basmati rice. Called CSR 30 or Yamini, this variety has proved to be a boon for the farmers in the basmati-growing tracts of Uttar Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab. Basmati has traditionally been grown in these states even on moderately salt affected lands with poor-quality water for irrigation.
The yield of conventional basmati varieties in such areas is generally quite meagre, though the higher price that basmati rice fetches partly offsets that disadvantage. But, with the availability of CSR 30 basmati, the farmers are now bagging rich harvests of basmati and getting high returns too. Indeed, many basmati farmers in non-saline tracts are also opting for this variety due to its various attributes such as high yield, resilience to stresses posed by climatic and other factors, capacity to resist several plant diseases, superior grain quality and pleasant aroma.
Little wonder then that the seeds of this salinity-protected basmati are in great demand. “Despite our best efforts, we are not able to fully meet the demand for seeds of CSR 30 basmati,” Sharma conceded even as he pointed out that efforts were afoot to raise seed production. The Haryana State Seed Committee, which met early this month, has decided to take steps to augment seed supplies of this basmati variety by about 2,000 quintals annually by promoting seed multiplication through public-private partnership.
The CSSRI scientists seem confident that an increased availability of salt-tolerant seeds of rice and other crops will benefit more farmers. Since, after the adoption of this method, these farmers are likely to persist with their cultivation in the subsequent years, the cost-benefit ratio of adoption of such varieties will continue to grow progressively.