Soldier of nature

Print edition : January 24, 2014

Govindasamy Nammalvar. Photo: By Special Arrangement

Govindasamy Nammalvar, 1938-2013, carried on a crusade in Tamil Nadu to free agriculture from the use of chemicals and “from the vile grip of corporates”.

“AS I went into my life seeking more and more information on it [organic farming], one disturbing phenomenon loomed large. The land in Tamil Nadu, I realised, was fast becoming barren, alienating the farming community from agriculture, its livelihood vocation. It needs to be reversed. And it is going to be a challenge,” was how Govindasamy Nammalvar viewed his ambitious organic farming mission some three decades back.

He was right and his response to the challenge transformed him into a sort of icon among environmentalists and farmers in Tamil Nadu. The idea he sowed, farming without chemical pesticides and fertilizers, has germinated but is yet to grow into a mass movement.

On December 30, 2013, the nature-lover died at the age of 75 while he was on a padayatra in Pattukottai taluk in Thanjavur district where he was leading a campaign against the methane exploration project for which the State government had granted a licence to an American multinational company. Nammalvar, a vigorous opponent of the project, feared that it would “suck out even the last drop of the groundwater that is available”, thus rendering the land fallow.

Born into an agricultural family at Elankadu village near Pattukottai in 1938, Nammalvar, fondly called the “organic farming scientist”, began his career in 1963 at the Agricultural Regional Research Station in Kovilpatti, Tamil Nadu, after graduating in Agriculture from Annamalai University, Chidambaram.

It was the time of the Green Revolution in India and farmers were supplied liberally with chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Agricultural groups were formed at all subregional levels through which farm scientists and technicians persuaded farmers to shift to modern farming techniques.

Nammalvar, as part of the official team, was assigned the unpleasant job of weaning farmers away from their traditional agricultural practices and of convincing them to adopt new technology. The lanky agronomist, however, was not convinced. He sought information on the use of chemicals on crop and land and was shocked to learn about their indiscriminate use.

He did not want to “misguide” farmers with phoney promises. He believed strongly that he had a pivotal role to play in preserving the traditional methods of farming for the sake of “future generations”. He quit his government job and joined Island Peace, a non-governmental organisation run by the Nobel laureate Dominic Pyre. Here he underwent a total transformation.

The organic turn and Vanagam

Nammalvar bought 22 hectares of land classified as barren near Karur, and named it “Vanagam”, and began organic farming there. He became its managing trustee. He floated the Nammalvar Ecological Foundation, also a non-profit organisation. It supports traditional farming, especially in food crops. Vanagam, having adopted the time-tested methods of self-reliant organic farming, is today a fertile land of delightful greenery.

It has emerged as a place of hectic activity, providing environmental groups a platform to create awareness among the public on traditional farming methods, including the use of organic manure and herbal pest repellents, backyard and terrace gardening, soil preservation, vermiculture and multi-cropping. Now, hardly a day passes without a seminar or workshop on its premises.

Nammalvar did not hesitate to take his campaign outside the Vanagam campus. “My objective is to warn farmers about the use of chemicals in their lands. Hence, I am ever ready to use any platform that is given to me. The time is short and all available avenues need to be used,” he once said at a meeting in Thanjavur.

He undertook padayatras twice before to highlight the importance of organic farming—once in Erode district in 2002 and another in the Cauvery delta in 2003. “My dream is to free agriculture from the grip of corporates and restore it to farmers.” He said this knowing fully well that he would never get the support of the government and the policymakers who backed multinational companies dealing in agricultural produce.

The lack of support did not worry him. He started living with farmers and other common people in remote villages, speaking to them on the ills of irrational use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides and warning them about genetically modified (GM) crops. He was optimistic that the people and the government would listen to him one day.

Not anti-science

He told people repeatedly that he was not against science. “Science for me is for exploration and not for exploitation,” he said. For him, anything against nature was against humankind and biodiversity. Science today, he insisted, should enhance value addition to traditional methods that had withstood the passage of time and should not be allowed to take control of farming in its entirety. “You should not eat poison,” he said.

“If you continue to use chemical pesticides and fertilizers, the soil will be drained of its nutrients and life-sustaining microbes. It will not only kill the harmful pests but also annihilate the beneficial ones. Finally, the soil itself will degrade and die,” he told a group of agriculture scientists while addressing a seminar at the Tamil Nadu Agricultural University in Coimbatore.

He called on academicians to urge the State government to come out with the long-pending draft policy on organic farming. Corporate firms, he appealed to the government, should not be allowed to tinker with the cycle of nature. Agriculture should never be a market-driven exercise. It had to be treated as a livelihood issue, he contended.

Lack of media support

What eluded him for long was media support. L. Engals Raja, a close associate of Nammalvar and a member of the Vanagam Trust, said Nammalvar was opposed to agro-chemical firms which sought to control the farming cycle. They supported the corporate media financially. “Hence, though he had been working in the environmental arena for close to three decades, the mainstream media chose to ignore him,” Raja said.

But that did not bother Nammalvar. He continued his crusade and emerged as a strong campaigner for nature.

In Vanagam’s 2009-10 annual report, he thanked the media for the sporadic coverage he received in the last phase of his life. People in rural areas welcomed him while environmentalists celebrated him. Many had started evincing a keen interest in his campaign for organic farming. “When people started following him, the media too followed. It was just the beginning of a silent revolution. But it took three decades to make people recognise and understand him,” Raja said.

Nammalvar, Raja said, was more than an advocate of organic farming. “He preferred to call himself a ‘human resources development’ crusader who took up issues such as organic farming, naturopathy, and degradation of the environment. His grass-roots-level interaction with farmers was inter-personal. He saw humaneness in everything.”

“The nation is facing a crisis in the farm sector owing to wrong planning and corrupt practices. As a result, millions of people, especially women and children, are suffering from starvation, hunger and malnutrition,” he pointed out in Vanagam’s annual report.

He once told farmers in the drought-prone Ramanathapuram district to shift to traditional crop varieties that were drought-resistant. “Our forefathers preferred multi-crop millets and native paddy varieties that survived drought.” Agriculture, he said, was “location-specific” and meddling with it would lead to soil infertility. Vanagam today stores its own seeds.

Charismatic personality

Nammalvar was marvellously charismatic. He looked dignified in his majestic turban and flowing white beard. Never one to wilt in the face of criticism, he remained serene and strong. He was conferred with the “Beacon of Environment” award by the Tamil Nadu Pollution Control Board, a body with which he differed on many issues. He was awarded an honorary doctorate by the Dindigul-based Gandhigram Rural Institute for his outstanding services to the farming community.

Tamil Nadu Chief Minister Jayalalithaa expressed grief over the passing away of Nammalvar.

The Vanagam Trust has decided to fulfil his dreams. In coordination with the Union government’s National Institute of Open Schooling system, it has decided to run a special school for “alternative education” with a specially chalked-out curriculum. “It was what Ayya [Nammalvar] dreamt of. He wanted a school with no walls and roof. Nature should be the teacher. We will announce this on April 6,” Raja said.

Nammalvar’s persistence with his mission is beginning to pay dividends. The awareness about organic farming and the ills of GM crops has gained momentum in recent times. His dream of chemicals-free agriculture is well on its way to becoming a progressive movement in Tamil Nadu and the rest of the country.

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