Back to the Basics

Organic farming is not the only solution to the problems contributing to the farm crisis. However, it is the only one within the farmer’s control.


in Wardha, Maharashtra

 WITHIN THEIR CONTROL: Farmers can get the same or a better yield without spending on pesticide and fertilizer. Photo: Dionne Bunsha

While hordes of media swamped Vidarbha just before the PM’s visit, I was there with two agricultural scientists Vipin and Devang on a different trip.

Vipin and Devang are from Sristi, an organisation that works to develop eco-friendly solutions to local problems. They have a long-term remedy to the farm crisis, one that will go beyond the temporary relief that the PM has doled out. Yes, immediate action is important. It may prevent several suicides. The PM’s interest waiver and re-scheduling of bank loans will give people much-needed loans to sow their next crop of cotton and soyabean. But then what? What happens at the end of the season when they can’t pay off their loans once again?

Crux of the crisis
They will be in the same dilemma simply because the cost of farming is higher than the pathetic price they receive for their inputs. That is the crux of the farm crisis — spiralling costs, miserable prices. In the last 10 years, the cost of living has risen dramatically, but the price of cotton has fallen. That’s why the rural economy is collapsing. All the other symptoms — inadequate bank credit, exploitative moneylenders, the unscrupulous input traders, illness, school dropouts — are aggravated by this basic problem.

There is not much farmers can do to change government policy that determines output prices, trade tariffs, social security and subsidies. That is beyond their control. But the one thing farmers can do is to try and reduce costs of cultivation.

That’s where Sristi has a plan. They have developed and verified several indigenous, organic farming practices that have worked. Farmers can get the same or a better output without spending a penny on pesticides and fertilizers. All they have to do is prepare organic pesticide, fertilizer and growth promoters from plants and other material available in their own environment. There’s no need for them to depend on a shop owner and get entangled in a web of exploitation and debt.

“In fact, the solution is simple,” says Prof. Anil Gupta, founder of Sristi. “Why spend so much resources on pesticides? Go along with animal rearers in your area and look for plants that animals do not eat. These plants are the potential source of pesticides, because animals do not eat them; the toxicity inherent in them.” Sristi tries to document, develop and share local solutions, ones that farmers have invented.

Several tried and tested organic techniques may save farmers from the clutches of trader-moneylenders. For instance, farmers can use the whey from buttermilk as a growth promoter. You don’t need Bt seeds to ward off the bollworm; you can use whey or lantana extract. This is a two-in-one solution — you control lantana weed and at the same time get a local cheap pesticide. Calotripis or many other such plants found abundantly around the field, uneaten by animals, can be sprayed or even mixed with irrigation water. Farmers in different parts of Gujarat and other states have developed these techniques.

Contrary to popular misconceptions, organic farming doesn’t mean low productivity. The output is the same or sometimes more than that of others who use chemical inputs. Sristi makes sure each method they advocate has first been tested scientifically by an independent research organisation before it suggests that farmers adopt the technique.

We met a bunch of farmers in Wardha who have switched to organic cultivation. They are not as anxious as most other farmers here who illogically douse their fields with pesticide and fertilizer. They don’t have to worry about how they will get a loan, or how much pesticide to buy in the coming season. Most farmers dread the end of the season — it’s payback time. But organic farmers look forward to a good crop that they can sell at the price they choose, not that dictated by exploitative moneylenders.

Pramod Kadam, a farmer and agricultural consultant from Wardha, is still paying off a huge debt he accumulated while using chemical inputs on his 15-acre field. “Now that I have switched to organic cotton cultivation, my costs have reduced from Rs. 5,000-8,000 an acre to around Rs. 3,000 an acre (for seeds, hiring bullock carts and wages for labourers). My yield is higher. The average here is around 2.5 quintals per acre, but I get four.” So, he has saved on costs and gained in productivity.

Switch to organic
Many small farmers are apprehensive about the switch to organic. They feel it is too much of a risk, an experiment that can only be tried by big farmers or those who have irrigated land. But many of the organic farmers we met had small holdings. “Small farmers gain the most because we can’t afford the high costs of cultivation. Big farmers can afford chemical cultivation,” explained Sanjay Tigaonkar, an organic farmer from Wardha.

Organic farming is not the only solution to the problems contributing to the farm crisis. But it is the only one within the farmer’s control. All other factors like prices, credit or irrigation are decided by a government that is more concerned about the Sensex than suicides. The farm crisis will continue until the Government decides to protect our farmers like the U.S. and EU protect theirs. Farmers in the EU are paid one dollar a day for every cow they rear — more than the daily wage of agricultural labourers in India. Until we protect our farmers, they will remain on the edge. Organic farming will definitely ease the burden of costs. But if that is not a viable route, will the government spend a fraction of the money it spends on promoting non-sustainable technologies on promotion of non-chemical alternatives?

Technical inputs
Besides monetary inputs, Vidarbha also needs technical inputs. If there were better agricultural advice, there may not have been such a dire demand for credit. There has been no competent agricultural guidance for decades. Few have thought of creative solutions. Even simple things like finding other sources of income like planting trees or rainwater harvesting in a region where only 11 per cent of farms are irrigated.

Until now the only technical advice has been from agriculture minister Sharad Pawar and film star Nana Patekar peddling Monsanto’s Bt cottonseeds. Most people can’t remember the last time they met an agricultural extension officer. So it’s left to the input shop dealer to give advice, pushing the most expensive products to increase his sales.

Despite the massive failure of the Bt cotton crop last year (after which the Government had to compensate farmers), most people still opt for the seeds this year. Why? Simply because the company has lowered the price from Rs. 1,800 to Rs. 750. Now, it’s only Rs. 200 cheaper than the hybrid variety. Might as well try it again. Though proven to be more effective, organic methods will never get the kind of hype that surrounds Bt cotton, simply because there is no money to be made from promoting self-reliance.

Vidarbha’s crisis shows that we have gone full circle and it is time to go back to the basics. “India aspires to be a knowledge society but in agriculture, there is hardly any effort to draw upon our rich data base of agricultural practices (many of which have been compiled by Sristi for dissemination). How many sites exist where scientists are working with farmers’ on their fields? We have to promote farmers’ experimentation and innovations to generate sustainable solutions,” says Prof. Gupta.

Sometimes the answers are right in front of us, but we can’t see them because they are too simple.

For more information: Sristi

The Hindu Sunday Magazine July 16, 2006 Also available here

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