NEW DELHI - Engineering graduate Mishank Bhatia is turning to farming after failing to find a suitable job – the hours were long and the salary too low. But the 23-year-old wants to tread a different path from his father, who mostly grows wheat and rice. He plans to modernize the family farm by growing vegetables and flowers in a controlled environment in a net house.

Along with Bhatia, a former stockbroker, a retired senior government official and a corporate executive are some of the unlikely candidates learning protected agriculture at the Center of Excellence for Vegetables run in collaboration by the Indian and Israeli government in Gharaunda in Karnal district. 

These men had left their family farms for better opportunities in cities, part of a long tradition in which Indian farming has seen a one-way migration from the countryside for jobs as farmers’ battle low crop prices, water shortages and climate change. But reversing the tide, they are returning to introduce techniques for protected agriculture that they hope will address these challenges and boost rural incomes.

“Temperature will be maintained, air will be filtered, there will be fewer chances of diseases and we will do drip irrigation to conserve water,” explained Bhatia, who wants to set up a net house on his farm.

The center is teaching modern farming practices much needed in a country staring at widespread rural distress. While the use of high yielding varieties of wheat and rice transformed Indian agriculture and made India self sufficient in food in the nineteen seventies and eighties, those benefits have tapered off. Water guzzling crops have led to a drastic fall in ground water levels and soils are degraded with the excessive use of chemical fertilizers. In recent years, extreme weather events due to climate change have left farmers grappling with crop losses.

A worker walks through a farm on a smoggy morning
A worker walks through a farm on a smoggy morning in Mumbai, India, Dec. 11, 2017.

Project Officer at the Indo Israeli Center in Gharaunda, Ramasawaroop Punia, explains how seedlings and plants grown in high technology poly houses that have temperature control and micro irrigation systems can overcome these problems: they save labor costs and water, boost productivity and are environmentally sustainable.

“The biggest benefit of is farmers will not incur losses due to the vagaries of nature, such as storms, heavy rain, extreme heat or cold,” he said. “Insects and pests will not come in controlled conditions. He can grow fruits and vegetables in the offseason for better profit.”

The "indoor farming center" demonstrates how vegetables like cherry tomatoes, broccoli, and capsicums that command good prices, can be grown all year. Such crops which bring higher profits, are specially important as the average size of a farm in India shrinks.

As protected cultivation catches on, the area under greenhouses has grown to about 900 hectares in the northern Haryana state.

It is catching on in other parts of the country also -- the center at Gharaunda was the first among 25 that have come up across the country. The initiative to bring some of Israel’s successful agricultural practices, modified to Indian needs, is one of the centerpieces of the tighter embrace between the two countries.

An Indian farmer on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar,
An Indian farmer on the outskirts of Bhubaneswar, India, Feb. 29, 2016.

Jasbir Singh, 47, is among those turning to protected cultivation after taking early retirement from his senior government job because he was bored with the mundane work. He is confident that the $35,000 investment on his farm will pay off quickly as he moves away from growing wheat and rice -- crops that most farmers cultivate because the government buys them at fixed prices.

“Wheat and rice is only going to give me a specific income and that is in India at present Rs. 50,000 profit per year per acre. Whereas in vegetables, sky is the limit,” said Singh. He pointed out that the government extends as much as a 50 per cent subsidy, making the one-time investment much easier.

Higher incomes are the need of the hour in a country where farming supports nearly half the 1.3 billion people, but where agricultural incomes account for less than 20 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

However, investing in protected cultivation would pose a challenge for smaller farmers, who have tiny incomes. That is why Digvijay Singh Punia, who earned a high salary as a corporate executive, has decided to return to his home in Uttar Pradesh and teach farmers in one of India’s poorer states protected cultivation. 

“Initially I will do it pro bono,” he said. “But since I am from start up world, I am thinking if possible of buying back their produce and selling it to customers.”

The hope is that as protected cultivation gains ground, it will help farmers adopt sustainable practices.

That is why Vikram Bhalla, has given up his life as a New Delhi based stockbroker to build a high technology nursery on a portion of his 121-hectare farm in eastern India. He said he noticed that even in his water abundant area, levels had begun to fall and uncertain weather patterns were affecting productivity.

“Not only will we be sure of our production, which is a very big plus in agriculture, so it will be more like running a factory, where you know you have an input, and if you do all the correct procedures we will have a definite output,” said Bhalla.

Child Marriage