Traditional methods of irrigation use up an average of 2,700 litres of water to produce 1 kilogram of a vegetable. Sprinklers bring it down to around 1,700 litres. Drip-irrigation reduces this further to around 1,000 litres, and with hydroponics technology, you only need 100-125 litres.

In late Nineties, agricultural engineer Mukesh Gupta thought about bringing the water requirement further down — to maybe 50 litres or less. His experiments began in 1995-96 and continued until 2001, when he succeeded in achieving that feat — with a new technique to cultivate vegetables in plastic trays.

But saving water was only one of the triggers for development of tray cultivation. Gupta was also worried about disappearance of kitchen gardens from urban houses and chemical contamination of vegetables.

He had maintained a garden at his Udaipur house since his school days, and he began to see how when houses shrank in space, kitchen garden was the first casualty. “In my childhood days, we grew so much that we gave away more than a thousand kilograms of vegetables,” he recalls. “The average production was three kilograms a day.”

In the College of Technology and Agriculture Engineering (CTAE), where Gupta went as an undergraduate, there was a learn-and-earn scheme under which a group of students could take a part of the college farm on lease, sow, irrigate and harvest, and get 50 per cent of the harvest value. “I was a member of four-five groups,” he says, “and would earn Rs1,000, which in 1972-73 was a big amount [Dh66 today].”

When vegetables were no longer grown in home gardens, farmers went in for mass production, and this increased the use of pesticides. Vegetables that were eaten for nutrients and minerals became a source of incurable diseases due to harmful levels of chemicals in them.

Gupta had good observational skills and a keen interest in farming, and by 1997, he had the qualifications to begin looking for ways to revive the kitchen garden.

Gupta realised tray-cultivation technology was a good way to promote the concept of kitchen garden in urban areas where people don’t have farmland but are interested in organic cultivation of vegetables. The concept would also help people in the cities understand the life cycle and production value of vegetables.

Along with his team at M.R. Morarka-GDC Rural Research Foundation, Gupta has now mastered the technique to grow all kinds of vegetables in 40cm x 20cm x 15cm perforated plastic trays, and is taking it to farmers in Nawalgarh, a small town located on the edge of the Thar Desert in Jhunjhunu district. The foundation is also holding camps in schools in Jaipur to acquaint schoolchildren with tray cultivation.

Some Jaipur families have already started growing vegetables in trays placed in their apartment balconies.

Shubhendu Dash has pigeonholed six trays in a balcony in his Jagatpura flat. A former employee of the Morarka Foundation, 37-year-old Dash took to tray cultivation in October 2010 and has been growing ladies’ finger, tomato, spinach and coriander in his backyard.

“Most vegetables that you get in Jaipur have been irrigated with nullah water. Most people don’t have an option to not consume it, but at Morarka, I became aware of this technology and decided to grow some vegetables in my balcony,” Dash says. “I also wanted my daughter to observe the life cycle of plants.”

But there was resistance at home. His wife, Saswati, didn’t approve of dirtying the balcony with vermicompost and soil. “But as the seeds germinated and sprouts came out, both my wife and daughter developed an interest,” he says. “As a matter of fact, they look after them since I am mostly travelling.”

Dash’s daughter Allyona often has friends from school to see the trays, and Saswati gets regular requests from her flatmates for vegetables, especially coriander.

When Gupta, the executive director of Morarka Foundation, began the experiments in 1995, the biggest challenge was to develop a soil medium for tray cultivation and find the depth of soil that would work for all vegetables.

“We started with 15 inches [38 centimetres] and got to 4 inches [10 centimetres] in two years,” Gupta says. “But it took us another two years to reduce this depth to 3 inches [8 centimtres].” By 2001, he had developed the technology to grow almost all leafy vegetables in trays. The foundation got a national award that from the Department of Science and Technology for technology development and participated at the India International Trade Fair in New Delhi.

For next ten years, from 2001 to 2011, he fine-tuned the technology with more research, experiments and trials. “Today I have developed the technology to the extent that I can even grow mustard on your palm in half an inch soil medium if you are willing to hold your palm straight for 55 days,” he boasts, referring to the Hindi saying, “hatheli par sarso nahi ugati” (mustard doesn’t grow on palms).

In 2011, the foundation introduced the technology to the farmers of Nawalgarh to see how they respond to it. “Fifty trays were distributed to farmers to grow vegetables under our guidance,” says Anand Shukla, a project officer in the biotech division of the foundation. “Only 20 farmers have stuck with it.”

Gupta then took the technique — he now calls it “simple science, a thumb-rule technology” — to schoolchildren: “We thought, ‘Let’s take it to schools; those interested will adopt it, experiment with it.’ We have been holding camps in schools in collaboration with their nature clubs. We teach them vermicomposting [breaking down of organic matter by some species of earthworm to produce a nutrient-rich, organic fertiliser and soil conditioner], and show them how we prepare the soil media for tray cultivation.”

The Morarka Foundation now has a business model. Some entrepreneurs from Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Dubai have got in touch with the foundation but Gupta is not willing work with someone who wants less than 100,000 trays.

“We are looking for someone who is willing to invest Rs 100-150 million and has about an acre of land so that at least 100,000 trays can be put to use. Anything less will not give me the cost benefit that I am looking for,” he explains.

Whether such an investor comes forward soon or some entrepreneurs will pool funds, is not clear yet, but Gupta is not bogged down; he is only developing it further. “Now I can even grow plants on a vertical surface,” he tells me.

Rakesh Kumar is a writer based in Jaipur, India.