Tamil Nadu is in the southeastern region of India, one of the driest areas in a water-scarce country. In the 1980s, the state government promoted production of sugarcane and cotton, both water intensive crops. This, combined with the area’s long tradition of irrigated rice, led to severe water shortages in the state. The Tamil Nadu Women’s Collective (TNWC) emerged in response to the resulting agrarian crisis.
Founded in 1994, the TNWC is a state-level federation of women’s groups that works to promote local food and water security. One of their key approaches is teaching women to grow rice under the System of Rice Intensification (SRI), a water-saving method of rice cultivation. SRI results in healthy, large and deep root systems that can make plants more resilient to climatic fluctuations while also increasing yields.
In conventional rice cultivation, seedlings are submerged in several inches of standing water to help control weeds — but this practice also restricts root growth. Under SRI, seedlings are kept under minimal irrigation with the soil just at or below saturation, promoting root growth by encouraging plants to seek water and nutrients.
In many places, SRI is used as a water saving technique with chemically-dependent, high yielding varieties. But TNWC has found that using SRI in combination with other agroecological techniques, like natural fertilizers and pest controls, allows women to save water while cultivating traditional paddy varieties without the use of chemicals, nearly quadrupling their profits.
As Sheelu Francis, General Coordinator of the TNWC, notes: “Agroecology means that we are free from chemical fertilizers and pesticides […] using maximum input from the land within the farm in order to produce.”