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Rural and densely populated, Bihar is one of India's poorest states. Smallholder agriculture is still the backbone of the economy. Raising the productivity of dryland cereals and pulses through better access to improved seeds and better understanding of village poverty dynamics are some of ICRISAT's research priorities in Bihar. 

11.3% - Population living in cities in Bihar

1,106 people per sq km - Bihar's Human population density

85.73% - Cereal share in total crop area sown in Bihar

0.39 ha - Average size of holding (2011 census)


General context

Bihar, India's most densely populated state (12th largest state but 3rd in terms of population) is the least urbanized. In 2000, southern Bihar was separated from Bihar to form the new state of Jharkhand.

Bihar remains one of the country's poorest and slowest developing states alongside Odisha, despite recent progress in local governance and economic growth (poverty rate decreased from 54.4% in 2004-05 to 33.7% in 2011-12). Agriculture remains an important economic sector, producing about 22% of the state's GDP, mainly from very small holdings. Nine out of 10 farms are of less than 1 hectare, and farm fragmentation has accelerated in recent years.  

Underdevelopment and widespread poverty, especially in remote rural areas is due to marginalization of smallholder agriculture, poor governance and infrastructure, lack of incentives for industrial development (for instance, the freight equalization policy did not encourage private investors to set up manufacturing in this mineral-rich state). Average incomes are low compared to the national average with great disparity between districts. The average per capita income is as low as ₹ 6,209 in Sheohar district.

Despite fertile alluvial soils from the Indo-Gangetic Plain and adequate average rainfall, a majority of Bihar farmers are not climate resilient. About half of them depend on the highly variable Southwest monsoon, leaving them vulnerable to drought or flood every year. With varied soil categories associated with different agro-climatic zones, the farmers grow a variety of crops: cereals (over 85% of sown area) and pulses, oilseeds, sugar, fruits and vegetables, and flowers.

Agricultural productivity has increased in recent years, especially in rice production reaching 2,240 kg/ha paddy, particularly through the SRI technique. Migration of the male labour force in Bihar villages has accelerated in the past two decades and is a major driver of social and economic changes in these villages, such as women's empowerment to better family budget thanks to remittances. The government is investing in promoting sustainable intensification practices like conservation agriculture for marginal and small farmers. For details on Bihar's agricultural development policy, see Agricultural Road map 2012-17.

ICRISAT research in Bihar

Most districts in Bihar do not have high agricultural productivity and inter-district inequalities have increased over time. Just a few farmers have more than 2 hectares (96% of farms are considered marginal or small holdings). Improving farmers' climate resilience and access to modern technology and markets, in particular for major staple crops like millets or pulses and small-scale husbandry, would help lift them out of subsistence farming.

The Tropical Legumes II initiative aims at boosting chickpea, pigeonpea and groundnut yields by identifying suitable improved varieties (including hybrid pigeonpea) and increasing the production of quality seed via formal and informal seed systems. Farmer-participatory varietal selection trials with the assistance of the Bihar Agricultural University showed that heat-tolerant chickpea variety JG 14 and the drought-tolerant groundnut variety ICGV 91114  were preferred by farmers, who benefited from a 30 to 40% increase in net income. Crop intensity can also be improved by encouraging chickpea rotation in rice fallow lands during the rabi (postrainy) season, as this pulse could use the remaining soil moisture in paddy fields after harvest. 

Under the HOPE project, ICRISAT and partners in Bihar work on sorghum crop improvement, testing and demonstration of improved varieties of dryland cereals as well as on exploring market opportunities.  

Women's empowerment is encouraged but remains problematic; in families with migrated male labour force, women face an extra workload and they need better knowledge of financial, technological and marketing management.

Understanding poverty dynamics is indeed a research priority that can provide the right policy advice to improve Bihar's human development index. Under the Village Dynamics in South Asia project, extensive social studies on the drivers of change in family economics have been carried out in 4 villages since 2010, in Patna and Darbhanga districts. Farmers' organizations like dairy co-operatives, play an important role in disseminating innovations.

Heat-tolerant chickpea variety JG 14 is one of the improved varieties promoted in Bihar (Tropical Legumes II).
Dual-purpose, drought-tolerant groundnut variety ICGV 91114 tested by farmers in Puri district, provides good yields and fodder for small ruminants and dairy cattle.