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Umra takes up 'non-violent' farming

For the last four years, a team from the civil society organisation Ugam Gram Vikas Sanstha in Umra, Hingoli district, Maharashtra, has been successfully propagating the advantages of organic farming in this drought-prone district

Scores of sparrows, some in their distinctive breeding plumage, flit in and out of the trees. It is a scene of rural tranquillity at the campus of Ugam Gram Vikas Sanstha in Umra, Hingoli district. More importantly, as Jayaji Paikrao, founder of this civil society organisation, points out the birds are crucial indicators of the environmentally-friendly agricultural practices being carried out on the premises. 

For the last four years, a team headed by Jayaji’s wife, Sushila Paikrao, comprising agricultural expert Ram Khandare and field workers (paryawaran sevikas) Sunita Kurvade, Rekha Sawant and Swati Jagtap have been practising organic farming and propagating its advantages to others in this drought-prone district. 

Team members explain how they were motivated by the efforts of the late Dr Alexander Daniel, president of the Institute for Integrated Rural Development, Bidkeen, Aurangabad. Daniel spearheaded the move for a shift in policy championing organic farming. He pointed out how the tools used to usher in the Green Revolution had ultimately proved to be disastrous for farmers in the Marathwada and Vidarbha regions. The increasing emphasis on hybrids, indiscriminate usage of chemical fertilisers, and faulty irrigation practices had completely degraded the soil. Input costs for farmers rose steeply, but the price of cotton per bag and other produce did not correspondingly rise. This led to more fertiliser being used, but to no avail as yields that had initially shown an upward curve were now rapidly declining. The resultant indebtedness was the main cause of farmer suicides.  

Daniel also highlighted the insidious poisoning by chemicals, such as residues of DDT found in breast milk. The only answer, he said, was organic farming which is sustainable and environment friendly.  

Sushila Paikrao elaborates on another socio-economic dimension of organic farming. She says it is a means through which women can reclaim their role in agriculture. Women played a major role in traditional Indian farming and therefore were partners in the household wealth. But with the onset of the Green Revolution, male members of the family relied heavily on seed merchants and middlemen who sold them fertilisers and chemicals. Women began to be excluded from the important decisions. Through organic farming, women can contribute as much as 30% to the household income by cultivating agricultural produce like udid, tur (pulses) and sesame seeds. 

The three pillars of organic farming are: use of traditional seeds and the setting up of seed banks, use of bio-insecticides and pesticides, and use of organic fertiliser. 

Preservation of the environment and conservation of India’s biodiversity play a crucial role in organic farming. Soil and water conservation are accorded high value. Traditional methods like intercropping and mixed cropping are employed. There is no dependence on a single crop; at least four or five crops are sown to minimise the risk of crop failure. Mixed cropping helps trap insects in a natural way. Rejuvenation of the soil through years of organic farming encourages more birds that function as insect eliminators.  

This holistic cycle and, what Jayaji Paikrao aptly describes as “non violent” means of farming, reaps rich dividends including lower input costs, improvement in soil quality, and protection of the earth, water and air. 

The soil is improved through various methods of using home-made manure and compost biodiversity. Cow pat pits (CPP) are dug where cowdung is collected and turned into manure along with other natural ingredients. There is also jhatpat khaat (manure in a jiffy) where cowdung is mixed with cow urine, jaggery, cow’s horns, etc. These traditional methods serve to underline the important role of cattle, especially cows, in natural farming as against dependence on technology. 

Bio-insecticides are made by mixing garlic, chillies, curd, cow urine and cowdung in specific proportions, and vermi-washes that are used for spraying. These washes are made by putting worms used in vermiculture into a pot with a hole at the bottom. When hot water is poured in, the worms secrete a substance that is collected through the hole. It is then mixed with water to serve as an excellent insect repellent. 

Care is taken to plant trees, bushes and shrubs that repel insects. These include neem, papaya, custard apple, hibiscus, etc.  

In the dry lands of Hingoli, this return to organic farming also emphasises proper water management. Bunds, or earth barriers, are constructed to conserve water and create buffer zones; environmentally-friendly trees and bushes are planted on top of the bunds. 

Their success in Umra, in 2003-2004, spurred the Ugam team to further propagate organic farming. According to international norms, certification in organic farming is given only after three years, when farms have been inspected and soil quality checked. In Hingoli and other parts of Marathwada, however, a new system of evaluation known as the participatory guarantee system has been set up among organic farmers. They are not allowed to export their produce but they can sell it in the local market under the organic food tag. Under this system, groups of organic farmers are set up and internal inspectors chosen. Reports are taken up at the cluster level, and neighbours can inspect each others’ farms. Around 800 farmers in 24 villages in Hingoli district participate in the system and have devoted 1,500 acres solely to organic farming.  

A number of training programmes for farmers, especially for women, have been conducted; demonstrations in various methods are carried out and each extension worker makes at least 20 field visits per week. An organic bazaar is held in Kalamnuri town, in Hingoli, every Thursday where farmers directly sell produce like fruits, vegetables, chilli powder and turmeric. The bazaar has met with a good response, proving that the demand for organic produce is not just an elitist urban fad. A consumer workshop was also held at Kalamnuri to spread awareness about the importance of consuming organically grown food.

Contact Ugam Gram Vikas Sanstha
              Post Box No 1  
              Kalamnuri taluka 
              Hingoli 431 702  
              Tel: 220600  

-- Freny Manecksha

(Freny Manecksha is an independent journalist based in Mumbai) 

InfoChange News & Features, October 2008