Sundaram Verma is a 69-year-old environmentalist who was awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India last year. With his unique water-saving technique called dryland agroforestry, he has planted 55,000 trees.
According to the latest data from the Central Ground Water Board (2017), as many as 256 of 700 districts in India have reported critical or overexploited groundwater levels. Here is the story of a simple farmer from Rajasthan who found a way to fight both climate crisis and water scarcity in arid regions after laborious and painstaking trial and error in his fields for years. Sundaram Verma is a 69-year old environmentalist who has represented India at various international fora and had been awarded the Padma Shri by the Government of India last year. Verma’s water-saving technique is called dryland agroforestry. He has planted 55,000 trees with this technique.
Tracing his journey
Sundaram’s family had been traditionally into farming. So, while pursuing his Bachelors in Science, he worked at his farm too. He liked to experiment with scientific methods on his farm. He would regularly visit Krishi Vigyan Kendras and agricultural research institutes to get seeds or to get answers for his queries. In 1982, recognising his interest in farming, he was asked to enrol into a National Young farmer training course by IARI, Pusa. Here, he witnessed various farming techniques for the first time. The 2-month-long course significantly enhanced his scientific knowledge base. Later, he kept on experimenting with what he learnt on his farm.
Just a year before the innovation, at the onset of the monsoon, Verma had planted several saplings on the borders of his 17-acre family-owned farm. Despite giving sufficient water to the new plants regularly, they died during the summer season next year. With no other alternative, he again dug holes during the monsoons and planted saplings of neem, chilli and coriander, among others. But this time, for convenience, Verma planted the saplings closer to his home situated right in the middle of his farm that grows rice, pulses, grains, fruits and vegetables. Meanwhile, he got engrossed in levelling his farm and cultivating crops. This time again, he missed watering the crops. But to his utter surprise, the trees survived!
Verma wondered what went right that survived the trees without a single drop of water. He eventually found that it was the simple levelling process that worked like magic. For the next couple of months, he conducted experiments by digging, planting, and levelling the ground. He came to the conclusion that it was the rainwater stored underground which made the trees survive. The moisture brought by rain gets easily lost due to evapotranspiration through weeds or upward movement of water in the soil through capillary action, leaving the sub-surface dry. Verma started thinking about ways to lock in the water so that the roots automatically get the water.
“Experimenting with crops is a painstakingly long process, which requires enormous patience and dedication. What helped me remain motivated over the past 10 years of trial and error was the scientific temper I had imbibed during my youth, the tradition of farming in my family, and encouragement from the scientific community like KVK and IARI. Two agricultural scientists from IARI even completed their PhD experimenting on my farm. Observing their methods and techniques made me learn a lot,” Verma told.
He has framed the following steps to save soil moisture in dry regions:
- Level the farmland to prevent rainwater from draining away.
- For 5-6 days after the first rain, plough the fields till one foot deep to remove the weeds and capillaries so that rainwater can seep into the ground and does not rise to the surface.
- Deep plough for the second time immediately after the rains are over. This will turn the upper soil to a minimum of 10 inches deep in the field locking the water in the soil.
- A few days after the second ploughing, dig pits of one-foot-deep and 4-5 inches wide.
- Plant the saplings in the pits and ensure that the roots are at least 20 cm below the surface. Cover the plant with wet mud to keep the moisture for long.
- Finally pour one litre of water into the pit and allow the plant to grow.
Also, most importantly, Verma recommends removing the weeds from the field every 3 months so that moisture and nutrients are not wasted. He also gives the tip that if the saplings survive the first 2 weeks, they will live forever. “Using the 1-litre technique I have even grown trees like eucalyptus which are water-intensive species in this dry region of Rajasthan,” he added.
Water harvesting technique
Verma recalls how because of the water problem in Rajasthan he would have to buy water, “every time it would burn a hole in my pocket and make farming unprofitable.” To overcome the water problem, Verma dug a huge pit and covered it with a polythene sheet to collect rainwater. The idea is to collect 2 million litres of water, sufficient for one hectare of land.
Awards and Recognition
No wonder that Sundaram Verma’s unique method of growing trees is exactly what we need at a time of increasing climate crisis and desertification. Recognising his fieldwork, he has been bestowed with several national and international awards like the Award for Innovative Farmer at the International Conference on social perspectives in agricultural research and development (2006), the International Award For Agro Biodiversity by (IDRC) International Development Research Center in Canada (2007), National innovation Foundation-India, Award for Scouting (2005 and 2015). Verma also gets invited to international platforms to speak about his technique. In 2007, he delivered the opening speech at the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture in Rome. Verma is very optimistic we can survive the looming water crisis if we revive the traditional techniques of farming along with practising dryland agroforestry and water harvesting.