It has been a decade since Cyclone Aila ravaged the Bay of Bengal. But paddy farmer Tapan Mondal is wary of growing legumes and watermelon in the still-recovering soil of the Sundarbans, which has been much abused by the overuse of chemical fertilisers.

When Aila raged through Bengal in May 2009, he and others belonging to the agrarian community in the low-lying islands of Sundarbans lost all standing crops, overnight, to the tropical cyclone.

“We used to grow legumes and watermelons, besides paddy, which were a good source of income, but that too was destroyed after Aila because of salinity rise. Legumes (such as moong) and watermelon could not survive the saline ingress,” rued Mondal. “Even four to five years after the storm, there were no crops.”

In the aftermath of Aila, agricultural fields in the Sundarbans lay marooned in salt water as flood waters had gushed in, breaching embankments. For the next few months, water stagnated in the low lying fields, ratcheting up salinity and rendering farms unproductive. Untimely rains in 2012 further played havoc with production.

Much to the consternation of villagers, who had expected these rains to wash the salt out of the soil, the salts that had permeated the soil in fact began seeping up due to capillary action and forming coatings on it, wiping off possibilities of an immediate decent harvest.

Mondal recalled how his lush green paddy fields in Sundarbans’s Satjelia island turned brownish-black as the crops suffered from this change in soil quality. “Agriculture became expensive as more amount of fertilisers was needed to supplement high yielding of rice in the cyclone-damaged soil and hiring farm hands became expensive in the aftermath as labourers migrated in significant numbers to look for temporary jobs in other states in India,” he said.

Now, Mondal primarily continues to grow paddy in his farm plot and admits he is quite successful at it.

“I primarily grow rice and supplement the income by vegetables grown in 16 bigha (4.8 acres) of land. Rice cultivation during the aman season (the main season) yields 180 sacks. We use the majority for sale and a little (15 sacks) for consumption,” Mondal told this visiting Mongabay-India correspondent.

Aman paddy is sown in the rainy season (July-August) and harvested in winter.

Interview with farmer Tapan Mondal. Interview by Sahana Ghosh, edited by Kartik Chandramouli.

Food insecurity

However, Mondal refuses to blame Aila alone for the high input of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The successive influx of chemical fertilisers, much before Aila whipped through the region, has wreaked havoc on soil quality, claimed Mondal.

“We admit that earlier (much before Aila) we used to apply a lesser quantity of fertiliser because we were growing low-yield traditional varieties of rice. But now we need much more fertiliser because we have been growing high-yield varieties year after year.”

“For HYVs [high-yield varieties], the yield is almost three times as much as the indigenous paddy but the downside is the heavy use of chemical fertilisers. So for an investment of an additional Rs 5 in fertiliser costs, we get Rs 1000 more as income from paddy. Who does not want more money,” Mondal asked.

A 2017 report by Visva Bharati University notes that the average productivity of these traditional varieties is significantly less than that of the HYVs [high-yield varieties]. “This is the major reason why these newly introduced varieties could displace the local varieties and are mostly cultivated by the local farmers,” the report said.

Mondal and his neighbours have been reaping the financial benefits of high-yield varieties for over 20 years.

“Farm labourers who visited other West Bengal districts such as Burdwan for work noticed different HYVs [such as the CR Dhan varieties] and they brought it here from time to time. We started preferring those varieties over time.”

According to agronomist Sudhanshu Singh of International Rice Research Institute, perception of a healthy crop also matters for them favouring chemical fertilisers.

Farmers apply only nitrogen fertilisers (mostly urea) as they believe that their crop should look dark green.“The lack of balanced use of nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, organic sources affect the soil fertility,” Singh said.

Ten years after Aila ravaged Bay of Bengal, farmers are still adjusting to the changes in soil quality due to saline-water ingress in the Indian Sundarbans. Photo credit: Kartik Chandramouli/Mongabay

Mondal said, in addition to fertilisers, indiscriminate use of pesticides has also become problematic.

“A good amount of pesticides is also required for the HYVs, which has added to our concerns because gradually pests are acquiring resistance to the chemicals,” said Mondal. “And now without fertiliser, the soil refuses to give in.”

In the post-Aila scenario, however, the absence of legumes (such as moong) and watermelons in his farm has spelt further disaster for soil quality in Mondal’s farm. Legumes and watermelons, once regular occupants of his farm, disappeared after Aila brought in salt water.

“Legumes add nitrogen to the soil because they have nitrogen-fixing bacteria in their root nodules. Since legumes were unable to grow in the saline soil after Aila, the soil quality was further hit,” said Mondal. “In addition, the decomposing leaves of legumes add organic matter to the soil which was highly useful for soil fertility and to counter the effects of high chemical fertiliser use.”

“Even watermelon which required low water input does not grow now. Legumes and watermelon were good sources of income,” Mondal iterated, worry writ large on his face.

Mondal hopes in the next two to five years, if an Aila-like cyclone doesn’t recur, the soil will have revived enough to let him farm legumes and watermelon. “Because of low pressure, there are storms and cyclones. Frequency is more. I won’t say that there were no incidences earlier but it has increased. So anything that supplements paddy cultivation is good for sustainability,” he added.

Severe Cyclonic Storm Aila at peak intensity. Photo credit: NASA/Wikimedia Commons [Licensed under CC By Public Domain

Aila also forced farmers to think of the trade-offs between food security and high productivity. They are now starting to revert to the salt-tolerant local varieties to insure against total loss of crops due to saline water ingress, according to the Visva Bharati study.

Rice for all seasons and stresses

Research by the International Rice Research Institute shows that farmers opt for different rice varieties across wet and dry seasons.

“Originally farmers preferred bold grain tall plant types during the wet season. Tall plant types (140 to 170 cm) are suitable for low-lying land. And they felt that bold grain types of rice satiated longer when cooked and are also more suitable for parboiling,” Sudhanshu Singh explained.

These high yielding varieties take a longer time to mature (160-170 days) and are able to cope in the lowlands where water stagnates in the field for about four months (July to October).

For the dry season, farmers’ went for high yielding, salt tolerant, early maturing (115-130 days) varieties with long slender grains and good quality that fetches a better market price.

“Over time farmers have started growing rice in the dry season with long slender grains mostly for sale because the productivity of rice is higher in the dry season as it can be grown under controlled conditions with better management practices as compared to the wet season,” he said.

Most of the rice produced during the dry season is sold in the market, observed Singh based on participatory varietal selection process that was implemented in 2008–2014 in the Indian Sundarbans region.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.