A green alternative

Published : Jul 29, 2005 00:00 IST

The movement for sustainable agriculture is gaining momentum in Maharashtra with many farmers making the difficult but beneficial choice as it promises them self-reliance and self-sufficiency.

IN 1995, a non-governmental organisation (NGO) called Prakruti broke a long-established myth and brought into the public domain the fact that sustainable farming practices were as effective as modern farming methods. When Kisan Mehta of Prakruti first suggested that cotton, the biggest user of chemical pesticides, could be grown organically, the then Director of the Central Institute for Cotton Research, Nagpur, famously remarked, "Do you want India to go naked?" The anecdote is recalled by the octogenarian Kisan Mehta with great delight, less for its imagery and more for an important reason. As many as 130 farmers committed 1,200 hectares of land to grow cotton organically on the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements standards. The produce was later tested by the German Accredited Agency, AGRECO, and found to be of high quality. The success was all the more sweeter since it was achieved without official support.

The movement for sustainable agriculture is gradually gaining momentum in Maharashtra. Many farmers are making the choice between modern agricultural practices and sustainable agriculture. It is a difficult choice, but those who opted for sustainable practices say the benefits are so great that they wish they had started early.

Modern farming involves the use of heavy machinery and synthetic agro-chemicals and is dependent completely on electricity. It is also water- and fuel-intensive. On the other hand, sustainable farming calls for a closer involvement between man and land and a deeper understanding of the natural processes.

Although there is a drop in yield in the first year, the soil rapidly heals itself of the ill-effects of agro-chemicals and after three years the yield actually begins to exceed that from modern farming practices. With no need to purchase agrochemicals or seeds, farmers experience self-sufficiency, which is the ultimate promise and lure of sustainable agriculture. The basis of this practice is that growth need not be promoted, it happens on its own.

Prahlad Khadangale, who grows grapes on 40 acres (16 hectares) in Nashik and is the chairman of Sankalp Winery, became interested in Prakruti's idea of establishing an environmentally viable society through sustainable agriculture and natural living. Along with 50-odd small and medium farmers in the district, he formed a group to adopt organic farming methods. But these farmers are still apprehensive about converting to sustainable methods although they are concerned about the degradation of soil wrought by the application of agrochemicals. Prakruti plans to work with the group to make their farming totally organic. The coming season will see it supporting and monitoring its campaign, between December and February.

Nivrutti Pawar, another small farmer who cultivates grapes, explains the predicament of the farmers: "We have this fear that organic manure will not be as reliable as chemicals. We have not tried it. Although we have seen examples of it in practice, we consider them as isolated experiments conducted by people who are dependent on farming. I know we are tightening the noose around our own necks by the application of chemical on the soil but we live from season to season and the very thought of a loss, even for only one season, is frightening."

Damodar Khadangale, another small farmer who has implemented organic practices, says: "The idea is good but it is tedious, a long process that needs constant inputs and monitoring."

DESPITE being fully aware of the long-term problems of modern farming, there is a resistance to change. Consider the case of the Konkan region. This area receives 80-100 inches (2,000-2,500 mm) of rainfall annually. Yet there is water scarcity in the area in the summer months. The reason is obvious. Water is not stored and groundwater is not replenished because the hillsides have been shorn of trees thereby preventing the seepage of water underground.

In Devrukh village in Ratnagiri district, Matrumandir, an organisation devoted to creating employment, uses agrochemicals on its farmland. But Bhau Narkar, one of its trustees, said that now it was beginning to look at organic systems. Vermiculture is already in operation. The problem of water is being tackled by the large percolation tank that stores rainwater and restores the water table to its naturally high levels for use in summer. And experiments are to begin on the use of kumbhe fruit, which is supposed to double the yield of mangoes when cut and mixed with the soil.

The Matrumandir farm still makes its profits from chemical-based practices such as injecting growth hormones into mango trees to prevent a decline in the yield from mature trees. According to Priya Salvi, honorary project coordinator of Prakruti, the additive lessens the life of the tree and affects the quality of the fruit. Matrumandir justifies its practice by saying that it gives the maximum potential to the tree. The sustainable answer to such a situation is to constantly renew orchards. Thus, one orchard will have trees of varying ages, thereby ensuring constant yield over the years.

Profits play a decisive role in the adoption a particular farming method. The prevailing belief is that modern farming practices offer a greater chance of commercial viability. Kisan Mehta explains: "With modern farming techniques you will earn Rs.100 but you will spend Rs.80 on labour, buying chemicals and fuel, among other things. In sustainable farming, you will earn Rs.80 but that entire amount will be yours and you can put it back into the farm."

This element of self-reliance and self-sufficiency is what attracts a lot of farmers to sustainable farming. Also, the debts incurred because of the demands of modern farming create desperate circumstances. Damodar Khadangale says he is attracted to sustainable farming because it sets no debt traps.

The criticism against sustainable farming is that it is not viable for large-scale farming. But considering that 78 per cent of the farmers in the country have marginal holdings of less than 0.8 ha, this argument does not hold good. Kisan Mehta says sustainable farming practices are ideal for such farmers because they cannot afford the costs of fertilizers and pesticides.

A variety of options for sustainable farming have come up in the last two decades. An ashramshala near Kolhapur runs the school's kitchen on gobar gas. The school's cold room has a three-foot-high gravel-filled double wall that is kept moist at all times. The wall surrounds a pit in which vegetables are strewn. The coolness - which is at least 12o less than the outside temperature - keeps the produce fresh.

More than five lakh hectares of agricultural land in the State is under organic cultivation with over three lakh farmers practising the method. While there is an agreement over the need for a total withdrawal of agrochemicals and modern farming practices, not all farmers can switch over to organic practices immediately.

They incorporate some aspects of sustainable practices such as vermiculture or use intermediate technologies such as those invented by Chandrakant Pathak, the creator of the Modern Energy Park in Pune (see box).

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