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In the name of the Guru

By Anosh Malekar

The Nanak Kheti movement to reclaim the natural method of farming practised in the Punjab of yore, hopes to restore the degraded soil, lower input costs, and return farming to being a sustainable activity for the farmer

Gurmail Singh Dhillon, a middle-aged farmer from Jaitu, a nondescript village in Punjab's Faridkot district, is a man with a mission. He has procured sugarcane seeds exposed to red rot and ratoon stunting and plans to sow this defective stuff in an acre of land destroyed by years of chemical intensive farming.

Gurmail Singh swears by natural farming and is confident that the use of Jeevaamrita (a homegrown cow urine based microbial preparation) will help overcome the defects in the seed and regenerate the soil's productivity to give him a good crop. "I know by past experience that Jeevaamrita takes care of 90% of the defects in the seed, besides restoring soil productivity," he says.

chemical farming

This natural farmer from Jaitu owns only four acres of agriculture land but this does not stop him from taking a risk to set an example for his village. "We are not agricultural experts, or economists or environmentalists. We practise agriculture because this is the only vocation we know and have practised for generations. Farmers are aware of the heavy price of sticking to wheat and paddy and feel there is no practical option to chemical farming," he says.

He recalls the enthusiasm with which his father had adopted the high-yield varieties of seeds along with chemical pesticides in the 1970s. Everything seemed fine with the green revolution till the 1990s after which the input costs began to rise and the yields started to fall gradually.

Punjab consumes the most pesticides in the country. The state uses 7100 MT of pesticides at 923 grammes per hectare. The cotton belt of Malwa comprises just 15% of the area of Punjab, but consumes nearly 70% of the pesticides in the state, according to official sources in the state agriculture ministry.

Studies by the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR) have established that Punjab is faced with a second-generation environmental crisis. The cultivable land is sick and the underground water table is plummeting at a disastrous rate. Excessive use of chemical fertilisers has ensured that organic matter in Punjab's soil is almost close to zero per cent. Much of the fertilisers leach into the groundwater making it not only unfit for irrigation but also for drinking. Excessive withdrawal of nutrients from the soil has resulted in deficiency of micro-nutrients, says the CGIAR study.

In 2002 a government-appointed committee headed by Punjab Planning Board chairman Dr S S Johl had suggested a 'Crop Adjustment Programme' under which paddy and wheat cultivation would be replaced by alternative crops; farmers opting for this scheme would be paid cash compensation. (For more on this see 'Is it diversify or perish for farmers in the Punjab'). Experts picked holes in the scheme insisting that Punjab should improve efficiency and competitive advantage in wheat and rice production, since diversification alternatives are capital intensive, risk prone and sensitive to market fluctuations.

Talk of a second green revolution started after it was discussed at a conference organised by the M S Swaminathan Research Foundation in partnership with the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI) in New Delhi in 2004. Around the same time some lobbies started pushing organic farming as a sustainable alternative.

The Punjab Agro Export Corporation is working with more then 1200 farmers covering nearly 8000 acres of land. The Organic Farmers Council has brought over 2000 hectares in Punjab under organic farming. Some central government institutions like CAPART and NABARD have schemes for supporting projects like vermi-composting, organic farming and marketing. Large numbers of farmers are converting their farms to organic on their own or in collaboration with private companies, charitable or religious institutions, the Punjab agriculture ministry claims.

Gurmail Singh experimented with organic farming but found it "expensive, complicated and time consuming". Says he: "I had been weighing my options for seven or eight years. Initially I felt organic farming was the way out. The results were good too. But there was too much dependence on experts and you needed certified seeds and then certification for your produce to get into the organic food chain. It is still too urban-centric for the comfort of a farmer like me, so I gave it up."

Then, some three years ago, he was introduced to natural farming by the Faridkot-based Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), which promotes what it calls non-violent agriculture or simply Nanak Kheti. "It was like getting reintroduced to something we had lost due to some accident or queer circumstances," says Gurmail Singh.

KVM executive director Umendra Dutt calls Nanak Kheti a farmers' movement for ecology. "Though it is said that natural farming is new to the farmers of Punjab, it is something they have practised since time immemorial. What we are doing now is a rescue mission and an effort to retrieve their lost heritage," he says. He claims that so far 200 villages in 60 blocks across Punjab have adopted natural farming based on Guru Nanak's precept 'Sarbat da bhala' (well being of all).

Dutt says there is a thin line between the methods of organic and natural farming, but the main issues are finance and control. "In natural farming you do not need artificially synthesised microbial culture like vermi-composting. All one needs to prepare Jeevaamrita is gram flour, jaggery, green chillies, garlic and neem leaves. Organic farming, on the other hand, depends on inputs promoted by multinationals, and also requires institutional finance to procure them," he says.

Darshan Singh

Darshan Singh, a 50-year-old farmer from Dabrikhana village in Faridkot district, says: "There was a time when people had little money but good health. Now people have lots of money but their health problems are many. How long can we sustain ourselves by spoiling the earth? This realisation led me to adopt Nanak Kheti. There is no violence against living beings and mother earth in this type of natural farming."

Fellow farmers called Darshan Singh foolish when he turned to natural farming this season. "Their argument was that the use of chemicals ensures 18-20 quintals of wheat an acre while natural farming yields only 10-12 quintals. My response is I am saving on fertilisers and pesticides. And once I start getting a surplus crop, I will be able to sell it for a higher price because it is good for health," he says.

Darshan Singh has set aside one acre of his 18 acres for natural farming this year, but is already convinced about increasing the coverage in the coming years. His childhood friend and neighbour, Labh Singh, though, is not yet convinced of the benefits of Nanak Kheti. "The yield is so-so, just enough for my household consumption," he says.

Labh Singh

Labh Singh also knows that 'chemical farming' is increasingly becoming economically unviable due to rising input costs and falling yields. He has his statistics ready and estimates that he earns Rs 10 per acre daily from the 10 acres he tills. When he started farming in the 1960s, a tractor cost Rs 14,600 where now it costs Rs 4,75,000, and while diesel prices have skyrocketed, wheat prices rose from Rs 76 per quintal in 1963 to just about Rs 750 in 2007.

Amarjeet Sharma from Chaina in Faridkot, who turned his entire five acres into a natural farm three years ago, says the near zero input cost is what makes Nanak Kheti economically viable because "money saved is money earned". His input cost per acre is a mere Rs 400 in natural farming as against the Rs 3000-5000 he would be spending on chemical inputs. But natural farming is labour intensive as it discourages the use of machinery, and this is proving difficult for Punjab's farmers who had got used to mechanised farming, he adds.

Amarjeet is an active advocate of natural farming. He heads the village level Vatavaran Panchayat, the local-level community institutions promoted by KVM, working as decentralised participatory civil society initiatives with around 100 formal and 800 informal members across the state, a majority of them farmers.

The members fan out across districts raising awareness about the destruction of the environment and particularly soil ecology in the last few decades as a consequence of chemical intensive farming. Amarjeet says: "Natural farming restores the soil quality within a year or two, making it rich in micro-organisms, full of natural essence and ample quantities of moisture. The natural aroma of the soil is enough for any farmer to know that this soil will give healthy crops, with very little water and no additional inputs."

In the past seven years, farmers in Faridkot, Bhatinda and Ferozepur districts have been waking up to the benefits of natural farming -- not having to buy seeds, fertilisers and pesticides from the market. They are also experimenting with a variety of crops - cotton, legumes, sugarcane and vegetables - alongside wheat. "Some try maize with cotton since it attracts birds which will feed on the pests attacking the cotton, while others have grown vegetables on the same farm on which they grew cotton," says Amarjeet.

KVM activist and trainer Gurupreet Singh seeks to highlight another aspect of Nanak Kheti: "Sunlight is essential for photosynthesis, yet it is also a threat to the soil bacteria. Hence, mulching is an essential part of natural farming. Farmers are using inter crops, plant residue, fallen leaves, bushes, weeds and sometimes even the wheat straw or the paddy straw cuttings spread in the fields to cover the naked soil. Besides protecting the bacteria and retaining the moisture, this also keeps the temperature of the soil low and it never goes beyond 40 degrees Celsius, which is the upper limit for the survival of microbes."

KVM associate director Ajay Tripathi says they are also working to set up a weekly green market and formulate a participatory guarantee scheme called Kudrati Ahar Parivaar, which will have consumers and producers as members. "Even before such a system is put in place, our farmers are selling naturally grown wheat at Rs 20-30 per kg this year against the government rate of Rs 8.5."

The KVM has a bigger agenda and sees this as a silent revolution to save Punjab's environment. But experts at the Punjab Agriculture University (PAU) are apprehensive about the potential of organic and natural farming, especially in terms of productivity. Even in their official presentation on organic farming, they continue to feed the Punjab farmer's notion that he has to grow more and more to feed the country.

Dutt feels that there is need to decolonise Indian agriculture and to liberate the Indian farmer from the clutches of westernised agricultural and developmental paradigm being propagated by the Indian Council for Agricultural Research and state agriculture universities. "You cannot issue a death warrant to the Indian farmer to fulfil some official agenda," he says.

Beginning April 2007, KVM adopted five villages in Bhatinda and Faridkot districts where it sought to change the mindset of the farmers. "To begin with, we want to dismantle the aura surrounding the PAU and let every farmer know that he is the expert. He should take pride in himself and only he can save himself and his land from further damage," says Dutt.

In the current wheat season, KVM activists have reached out to some 60 blocks of the state. And their message to the Punjab farmer is the well-known verse from Guru Granth Sahib: "Pavnu Guru, Panni Pita, Matta Dharat Mahat" (Air is Guru, Water is father and Earth is mother).

InfoChange News & Features, April 2008