About 30% of the 40 million ha area under rice production during the kharif (rainy) season in India remains fallow in the subsequent rabi (postrainy) season due to a number of biotic, abiotic, and socioeconomic constraints. As high as 82% of fallow lies in the states of Assam, Bihar, Chhatisgarh, Jharkhand, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, and West Bengal, which is equivalent to the net sown area of Punjab, Haryana, and western Uttar Pradesh - the sheet of green revolution in the country. Introduction of rabi crops in this area may bring green revolution in this backward, poverty-ridden, and deprived region of the country. This would benefit millions of poor small landholders solely dependent on agriculture for their livelihood. This study has identified major limiting factors to the cultivation of rabi crops under rainfed conditions, and explored opportunities for their sustained production.
Lack of irrigation infrastructure is the main limiting factor for non-utilization of the rabi fallow lands. The focus of this study, however, is on rainfed cropping because an overwhelming majority of farmers in the region are poor small landholders and lack capacity to invest in creating the irrigation infrastructure. A number of crops including pulses and oilseeds can be successfully grown under rainfed conditions on fallow lands given the appropriate technology and needed technical and market related information. The major constraints to rainfed rabi cropping are: (i) faster receding residual moisture in fields after rice harvest; (ii) soil hardiness in the puddled rice fields; (iii) lack of shortduration varieties of rice that could facilitate timely sowing of rabi crops; (iv) lack of short-duration drought escaping varieties of rabi crops; and (v) uncertain rabi rainfall. To utilize residual moisture rabi crops need to be sown immediately after rice harvesting. During that short period, labor shortage too poses a limitation to cultivation of rabi crops.
Farmers lack information on soil moisture conservation technologies and sowing technologies that help germinate the seed in low moisture regime. Farmers are poor. They lack sufficient capital to purchase critical inputs such as seed, fertilizers, and pesticides. Access to institutional credit is limited. Non-availability of these inputs particularly seed also restricts growing of rabi crops. Public extension system is weak to effectively deliver the technology, inputs, and information to the farmers. Farmers also perceive that in case the crop is sown and establishes well it is often prone to various insect pests and diseases. Grazing of crops by stray animals of the thinly distributed crop is a major limitation to cultivation of rabi crops. Low volume of produce and lack of markets may deprive the small and marginal producers to get the market prices.
Some of these constraints were quoted as the main limiting factors to soybean cultivation in the erstwhile kharif fallow areas in Madhya Pradesh. With gradual increase in area under soybean, most of these disappeared and large-scale cultivation of soybean transformed subsistence agriculture to commercial one.
Despite these constraints there is a possibility of growing rabi crops under rainfed conditions in the region. On-farm participatory research by the International Crops Research Institute for the Semi-Arid Tropics (ICRISAT), Patancheru, India and the Department for International Development/Plant Sciences Research Programme (DFIDPSP), UK has proven the technical and economic feasibility of growing chickpea in the rice fallow areas. Large number of farmers were sensitized and were willing to undertake cultivation of chickpea during rabi season, given appropriate technologies, critical inputs and information. Ex-ante estimates suggest that utilization of even a small portion of rabi fallows is likely to generate substantial income and employment for the rural population.
There are enough opportunities to absorb the increased production provided appropriate marketing infrastructure is developed in the region. Pulses are the cheapest source of protein, and unfortunately their per capita availability has been declining due to supply-side constraints. Domestic supply of pulses is grossly inadequate to meet the rising demand, and often huge quantities of pulses are imported to meet the demand. This offers an opportunity to substitute imports of pulses by utilizing rabi fallows. Further, higher than national average yield of pulses in the rice fallow systems is an added advantage, though for certain pulses lack of local demand may be a disincentive to their production.
The rice fallow systems have been bypassed in the research and development efforts. To promote rabi cropping in these systems the options lie in technology development and its effective transfer to the farmers. Research should focus on evolving of short-duration drought escaping varieties of rabi crops, short-duration varieties of rice to facilitate timely sowing of rabi crops on the residual moisture, technologies that help seed germination in the low moisture regime, and moisture conservation technologies. Another option is to effect agronomic manipulations like early sowing of rice, if possible. Simultaneously the extension system needs to be strengthened to sensitize the farming community through demonstrations and other means of technology transfer. The seed sector should be strengthened to ensure timely supply of quality seeds to the farmers. These efforts need to be backed by institutional support such as provision of credit, crop insurance, and agricultural markets as to improve farmers' investment capacity and risk bearing ability.