Farm Solutions, Direct from the Potter’s Wheel

By Jayanta Bhattacharya

A young research scholar at Indian Institute of Technology-Jodhpur’s department of mechanical engineering has been seeking solutions to farming through affordable means. In the process, 33-year-old Pankaj Jhakhar has been creating a farmer-potter bond.

He found that traditional potter ‘kumhars’ were running out of business due to decreasing demand for earthen pots. Refrigerators and water coolers were more popular and were fast getting more-and-more affordable. The potters were fast losing buyers – affecting their art.

The innovator in Pankaj decided to address the issue and – in the process – bring together famers and the potters to find some kind of a solution to their individual issues. In this effort, Jhakhar has successfully used clay pipes – hand-made by potters – in a pilot project in sub surface pipe drainage (SSD) technology.

Typical drainage in Kerala

Incidentally, salinisation of farmlands is a threat faced across as many as 16 states in India. Saline soil – characterised by high concentration of soluble neutral salts in the root zone – is adversely affecting crop productivity, and thus, food security.

Salinity can reduce crop yield by up to half in such lands. Thus, to reclaim waterlogged saline lands and ensure crop productivity in different climatic regions In India, SSD technology is being used.

The technology uses perforated or slotted pipes placed underground, usually covered with geotextile material to stop soil entering it. However, several projects in India face challenges in the form of delivery of pump sets, fuel, construction of pump houses, etc.

Clay is permeable. So, water can flow either way. We conducted a field project in Kerala’s Alleppey in May this year ahead of the monsoons,” explained Jhakhar. The area is on the coast situated on the Lakshadweep Sea.

SSPV technology where pitchers are covered in shade

This is not the first time that this young engineer has tried integrating potters’ skills with farming. Seeing the farmers struggle, it occurred to Jhakhar perhaps a simple technology for homestead-based gardening is missing in rural villages.

Before experimenting with clay pipes in SSD, he introduced a micro-irrigation system last year. It proved sustainable and economical when compared to alternative methods.

Small farmers in the dry areas of the country face difficulties in obtaining adequate water for agriculture. Parts of Rajasthan, Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, etc., are facing water shortage, increased soil salinity, low organic carbon, plastic pollution of soil, etc.

I found farmers facing issues like low productivity due to water sources literally running dry. Available solutions are both energy-intensive and expensive,” observed Jakhar, pursuing a PhD at IIT – Jodhpur’s department of mechanical engineering.

Solutions like drip-irrigation and micro-irrigation need considerable investment. Then here are recurring expenses like electricity charges. Moreover, plastic pipes used in such systems are damaged every year,” he added.

Pankaj and his Innovation

He introduced the humble potter’s pot as the alternative for farmers in arid and semi-arid regions. Called Sub-Surface Porous Vessel (SSPV) technology, it is an innovative product delivered through a RuTAG IIT-Delhi-funded project at IIT-Jodhpur. Apart from Jhakhar, Lovelesh Dave, Hanwant Rathore and Nirmal Gehlot were the young minds behind the execution of the project.

With the help of IIT-Kanpur, we have floated a start-up, named Unnada Private Limited. We have named the product ‘Sub Surface Porous Vessel’. We are trying to introduce SSPV technology in the market through our start-up,” said Jhakhar.

SSPV is said to be useful for drainage management, water conservation, root medication, landscaping, low energy irrigation, afforestation, and enables remediation of contaminated or saline soils.

The group is working with non-governmental organisations (NGOs) like Rupayan Santhan, Jodhpur, and Arpan Sewa Santhan, Udaipur, to create public awareness about this product. They intend to take the technology to marginal farmers and also train local potters to make the pitcher.

According to reports, approximately 30 per cent reduction in the consumption of water for irrigation has been observed after implementing it. Overall benefits included, apart from water conservation, better nutrition for fruits, root medication and improved fertility – all at comparatively lower costs.

The technology can also be used in terrace gardens or at collectives where food for own consumption can be grown on a plot of land – like the backyard. The innovation may be perfect for those pursuing fresh, healthy eating habits.

SSPV technology can thus be used in setting up organic kitchen gardens to increase food self-sufficiency amongst people. It is especially beneficial in situations like the recent Covid pandemic.

While pursuing the idea, Jhakhar found a mentor in IIT-Jodhpur’s mechanical engineering faculty member, Associate Professor Anand Krishnan Plappally. The professor’s team works with a focus in areas of water-energy nexus, water filtration, wetland hydrodynamics, rural technologies, micro-turbo designs, irrigation and horticulture, materials, and probabilistic modelling in engineering design.

The young innovator was granted a scholarship from the India Agritech Innovation Network (IAIN). Launched in 2019, IAIN is an initiative by Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and Social Alpha. It envisions creating an enabling ecosystem for innovators and entrepreneurs developing solutions for smallholder farmers to help them become more productive, profitable, and empowered.

He also found support from IIT-Kanpur. Jhakhar then developed a “frustum-shaped ceramic pitcher” with the help of Rural Technology Action Group (RuTAG) at IIT-D.

Each of these nine-litre pitchers can irrigate about 10 square feet of land, slowly releasing water over 10 hours. Thus, 2,000 pitchers would be enough for an acre of land. If manufactured locally, the cost would come to less than Rs. 4 lakhs. And this will not need replacement for at least four years.

These pitchers are buried a short distance from each other. The gaps allow easy access to the grower in his field. The form takes the shape of an embankment or a berm. These look like small, raised mounds or banks of earth – rising about 40 cm above the ground.

The berms need a shade if exposed to direct sunlight and in hot climatic conditions. The shade can be a simple piece of cloth. “Such a pitcher can last up to six-seven seasons. Each would cost around Rs. 300. It is an excellent product for use in horticulture,” Jhakhar added.

Alternative methods available for irrigation are energy-based and comprise several components. SSPV is considered unique since it does not need energy supply and is biodegradable. Among other advantages are its product life, promotes polyculture of vegetables and fruits, improves soils with carbon content enabling good soil character.

After the satisfactory results, Pankaj now is looking for support in effective marketing to reach the products to farmers and potters alike.

Author Jayanta Bhattacharya is a Senior Journalist based out of New Delhi.