According to a July 2019 report published in Down to Earth, ‘After two consecutive years of weak monsoons, 330 million people — a quarter of the country’s population — are affected by a severe drought. With nearly 50% of India grappling with drought-like conditions, the situation has been particularly grim this year in western and southern states that received below-average rainfall.’ Another report in The Guardian, emphasized that ‘ With 80% of districts in Karnataka and 72% in Maharashtra hit by drought and crop failure, the 8 million farmers in these two states are struggling to survive.’
As evident, the two statistics showcase a harrowing statistic for people of India, but more so for a particularly helpless group – the farmers. Due to the sustained torment, farmers see their lands crumble, their livestock perished, and their families broken; often resorting to the only option that they are left with – committing suicide
21-year-old Ankit Jain, a student of the Maharana Pratap University of Agriculture & Technology, Rajasthan, witnessed the crisis first hand. Hailing from a farming family, he witnessed how the essential struggle of water diseased every farmer, in every corner. The circumstances forced him to confront the fact that water scarcity is widespread, but an innovative solution can help conserve the existing troves of water, and still support effective farming.
This is when Ankit Jain, along with two of his collegemates – Narayan and Shashi, initiated the idea of a polymer made from eco-friendly materials. A polymer that can absorb water for longer periods and dispense water as required by the crop. “Let’s say that a plant needs 10ml of water in a day. More often than not we feed it with excess water, wherein the plant absorbs as much water as it wants, and the rest either evaporates or passes through soil and is wasted. But, our polymer absorbs the excess water and it will provide this extra water at a slow, needed pace. Our research on the field shows that the polymer not only saves the extra water – which would have been wasted – but also increases the productivity of the plant/crop by 1.5 times. This happens primarily because of the eco-friendly raw materials that the polymer uses”, says Ankit.
The polymer is made from materials, often thrown away as waste, like Banana & Orange peels, and barks of Neem and Peepal trees. The research, development, and creation of the product came at a cost of about Rupees 300,000 but the team is selling it a price of Rupees 150 per kg. to the farmers of Rajasthan. This makes the polymer cost-effective, eco-friendly and showcases its multi-purpose capabilities.
“The process of research and development was indeed challenging for us because it needed the money and large scale field testing. But, what came as more challenging was the acceptance by farmers. Due to traditions and the constant scourge of drought, farmers were cynical of any technological intervention. So, we approached the Sarpanch of our village and convinced him to try the polymer, with a promise that if he incurs any loss due to our product, we would bear all expenses. Delightfully, the Sarpanch blessed our product. This opened up forays to other farmers, who started using the polymer.”, says Ankit, a gleeful smile and an outright pride visible on his face.
Currently, they’re testing it in several districts of Rajasthan, Chennai, Nagpur & Pune, working with the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) & have been receiving an immensely positive response, not only from the farmers but also from gardening companies & farms practising hydroponics. Moreover, according to Ankit, the testing of the polymer on a 1 acre land with Maize crops, results were immensely optimistic. Usually, an acre of land with Maize crops needs about 100,000 litres of water and 6 months to fully harvest. With their polymer, the crop only uses 60,000 litres of water-saving 40,000 litres of water – and sees a rise in production 1.5 times, for the same piece of land.
For their work on inventing the Eco-Friendly Polymer, Ankit and his team won the 3M Young Innovators Challenge Award 2019 in the Rural Innovation category. This award came as a much needed public validation, not only for a new product and a young team but also for what can be a new lease of life for the distressed lifeline of our society – our farmers.
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