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Economy Issue 2019

The Soil Economy

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The Finance Minister says the solution to India’s agricultural system is Zero Budget Natural Farming. Is it possible?

SEVERAL YEARS AGO, WHEN Prasanna Murthy began to approach his 40s, he began to recall a piece of philosophical advice once prescribed by himself. “Education by 20, (social) service from 40, and enjoy from 60,” Murthy laughs as he recounts it today.

Murthy is a slight man in his early 50s. A civil engineer by profession, whose grandparents were once farmers in the then villages around Tumkur in Karnataka, his link to his ancestral agricultural past got severed, he says, when his father moved from the village to Bengaluru sometime around 1947. Tumkur has always held a fascination for Murthy. In the early 2000s, his forties nearly upon him, while he knew where he would like to devote his time to community work there, he did not know what it should be.

Murthy eventually arrived at the idea of a farmland where he would provide employment to locals. In all he purchased 6.5 acres, where he would grow supari or the areca nut, along with other crops. He opted to do this through organic farming instead of what he calls chemical farming. But the experience was somehow underwhelming. “It just didn’t feel right,” he says.

In less than a year’s time, he knew what had been wrong. “The answer lay neither in chemical nor organic farming. But in going natural,” he says. Murthy had come in contact with a charismatic Maharashtrian farmer and agrarian leader, Subhash Palekar. By natural he means the practice developed by Palekar and referred to as Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF).

Palekar gave him not just a new way of practising agriculture, Murthy says, but of looking at life. In the next few years, the popularity of Palekar’s ZBNF began to grow across Karnataka and many other southern states. Murthy became more involved. He was appointed as this farming movement’s Karnataka state coordinator, helping organise workshops, promoting the practice, and in recent times, even using his knowledge as a civil engineer to fashion agricultural tools for ZBNF farmers.

Last week, Murthy was thrilled when Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman announced in the annual Budget that the Government would promote ZBNF across the country. According to Murthy, the agricultural system in India is broken. “The only way to fix it is ZBNF.”

ZBNF, as Sitharaman put it, is a way of going “back to the basics”. Its proponents describe it as a movement and its champion Palekar is often spoken of as a guru.

In this method, farmers forego all that has come to be accepted as the conventional elements of modern agriculture— chemical fertilisers, hybrid seeds, and insecticides and pesticides—to revert farmlands to an older, natural state, where only nature is allowed to nourish the crop. Everything a crop requires, ZBNF advocates argue, is already there in nature.

One of the crucial elements of ZBNF is a concoction they call jivamrita. This is a fermented brew of cow urine and dung, along with other things such as jaggery and pulse flour which, according to its supporters, stimulate microbial activity in the soil.

The stated aims of ZBNF are revolutionary. Because it does not require fertilisers and other agricultural inputs, its advocates say the farmer requires little or no money and whatever is necessary can be raised by growing and selling intercrops in a field with other major crops. It, hence, frees farmers from the cycle of debts they very often fall into. The yields are claimed to be far superior and the crops more nutritious and tastier when compared to other farming methods.

According to Daniel Münster, a social anthropologist at the Heidelberg Centre for Transcultural Studies in Germany, who has looked at the practice closely, ZBNF is a radically new way of thinking and doing agriculture. “Basically it is a horticultural transformation of farming, that means fields become intensively cultivated mixed gardens. Zero Budget in this system is first an ecological budget, and secondly, an economic budget for the farmers. All nutrients should be recycled and generated on the farm and no input in the form of fertilisers or manure should come from outside the farm,” he says. “ZBNF is soil farming. It shifts attention from care for the individual plant to care for the symbiotic and metabolic relations of the multi-species farm. Jivamrita is basically a ferment of cow excrement, sugar and pulses. Like all ferments it has a high count of beneficial microbes. The crucial thing, however, is that jivamrita can only be effective if it is part of the paradigm shift in farming I just sketched. Jivamrita is not a fertiliser and, on its own, not a panacea. It is a microbial tonic for the soil. Soil fertility can only be increased if farmers also practise mulching, mixed symbiotic cropping, no tilling. These and other practices combined will increase the organic matter in the soil and cultivate the concert of microbes, fungi, earthworms and microfauna that provided optimal nutrition for plants.”

According to Münster, there is good reason to be critical of mainstream agronomy in India. It is oriented to quantitative output and to meeting targets for export and grain production. And, as he puts it, “… natural farming principles are not at all at odds with basic research in the fields of soil science, microbiology and ecology. Top researchers across the world are focusing now on the importance of the soil microbiome and of symbiotic relations between species.”

The ZBNF supporters distinguish their practice from organic farming, which they claim robs the soil of fertility. According to Palekar, the farmyard manure or vermicompost used in organic farming consists of an earthworm species (Eisenia fetida) which is a foreign species that reduces Indian soil fertility. He also says the yields from organic farming are far less and the costs more expensive when compared to ZBNF.

The Economic Survey, released a day before the Budget, claims that around 163,000 Indian farmers currently practise ZBNF. According to Murthy, it is difficult to estimate how many farmers in all practise this form because many don’t call it ZBNF and some in fact refer to it as organic. Palekar, when I contact him, claims that the number of farmers following him exceed 5 million.

Palekar is a lean man in his seventies. He is as much a guru as a new type of farming advocate. He speaks slowly and philosophically, often grounding his arguments with aphorisms and an earthy humour.

“Have you ever been to a jungle?” he asks. “Ever needed fertilisers and insecticides there? Doesn’t everything grow there by itself, naturally?”

Born in a village in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region, after his college education in agriculture, Palekar began to help his father at the latter’s farm in 1972. He implemented all that he had learnt in college using all sorts of chemicals on his field. He continued with this practice till 1986. For a long while, his farms threw up great yields. But gradually, these began to dwindle. “The soil was slowly dying,” he says. “After a point, the yields were so poor that there was no way one could make profits.”

“Basically ZBNF is a horticultural transformation of farming, that means fields become intensively cultivated mixed gardens. Zero Budget in this system is first an ecological budget, and secondly, an economic budget for the farmers,” says Daniel Münster social anthropologist

IN THAT PERIOD, he began looking for a solution, observing various types of farming practices in India, reading about others abroad, and experimenting himself, until he arrived at the ZBNF method. He began to promote ZBNF through the ’90s, and with some patronage from farmer groups and occasionally from district administrations and state governments, its practice began to grow.

According to him, NITI Aayog has spent the last few years trying to meet Narendra Modi’s promise of doubling farming incomes by 2022. “They have finally realised only my method can achieve it,” he says. In more recent times, Palekar has also been trying to change the name of his farming method from Zero Budget Natural Farming to Subhash Palekar Natural Farming. “Many people are using my method,” he says. “And they don’t even credit me.”

A large and, to some, an uncomfortable aspect of the ZBNF philosophy is his glorification of a great Indian past. He frames the Green Revolution and current mainstream agricultural practices as part of a Western conspiracy. He also emphasises that only native elements are to be used, from Indian seeds to the urine and dung of native Indian cows, in preparing jivamrita. Vermicomposting is rejected because, as Münster points out, Palekar claims the worms in vermicomposting come from Africa. “In principle, there is a rational core to ask about the role of plants and animals in imperialism and globalisation. The so-called great Columbian exchange dispersed plants and animals across the planet, not always for the good of people and ecosystems. Palekar’s nativist biopolitics has some blind spots: There is not much mention, for example, that tomato, coffee, rubber, tea and even chili are not native to India. The most problematic aspect, however, is the obsession with the native cow, which of course plays into majoritarian cow politics,” Münster says.

There are also other peculiar elements in Palekar’s teachings. Farmers are asked to lead a simple life, give up on consumerism, become vegans, and not ‘exploit’ cows for milk. “This at least is consequential, as it is simply not possible to have a dairy-based diet and not have someone eat beef of the unwanted male offspring. Dairy-based vegetarianism is only viable if bulls are either made to work in the field or killed,” Münster says. They are to give up on tea and coffee, stop seeing allopathic doctors, and many of them also practice auto-urine-therapy.

There are several who are not convinced of the claims of ZBNF. Peter Carberry, the Director-General of ICRISAT, a Hyderabad-based agricultural research institute, was critical of it, according to media reports, in a lecture he delivered at the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences earlier this year. Carberry argued that without any money spent on inputs, the practice would result in yields so low that it would make agriculture unprofitable, the news website The Quint reported. He pointed out, according to the report, that Palekar’s prescription of 10 kg of cow dung (in jivamrita) per acre monthly would result in just about 10 kg of nitrogen for every 2.5 acres yearly, ‘clearly inadequate’ for farming.

Prakash Chand Ghasal is currently part of a team of scientists from the Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research (IIFSR) in Uttar Pradesh’s Modipuram looking at the efficacy of ZBNF. According to him, at this part of the study (the second year is underway), when the yields of wheat and rice crops using the ZBNF method is compared to those using organic farming, the former tends to be about half. When the researchers looked deeper at the soil, they found that the organic carbon content in soil where ZBNF is used tended to be very low (between 0.3 to 0.5 per cent). Ghasal says, “It means soil fertility is extremely low. Half a per cent to 0.7 per cent is considered medium or average. You need a lot more for crops to have a healthy growth.” Ghasal however points out that this is still an early stage of the research and that they will need a few more years to arrive at a conclusive report.

According to Münster, it is difficult to compare and evaluate the produce from ZBNF with those of other types of farming methods. Agricultural statistics tend to focus on single crops and record, for instance, the yield of coffee per hectare. In ZBNF, farmers need to grow many crops in the same fields, and hence the yield per hectare of a single plant is reduced. Also, he says, a tonne of chemically grown hybrid rice will not be of the same quality as a tonne of heirloom rice grown with natural farming methods. “And finally we should take the subjective changes for farmers into account,” he says. “Farmers can regain hope that life without debt is possible and they derive pleasure from farming without chemicals.”

Ghasal’s study is part of a larger chain of studies examining ZBNF, currently being conducted at several agricultural institutes in India, under the aegis of a committee of experts appointed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR). According to a source who requested anonymity, the committee originally consisted of 12 members. But upon the insistence of Acharya Devvrat, the governor of Himachal Pradesh and patron of Gurukul Kurukshetra, the Haryana-based school which maintains a large farm where ZBNF is practised and whose soil samples are being studied, the committee was expanded to include four more experts who are advocates of ZBNF.

Münster first came upon groups of farmers who called themselves natural farmers in Kerala’s Wayanad district. Münster has been conducting several field studies in Wayanad since 2008, focusing on manifestations of the agricultural crisis, including suicides. Interacting with farmers in this region, he had learned that the agricultural crisis in this area was the result of a destructive style of farming where, supported by scientists and the government, far too many chemicals are used to cultivate crops for export that promised high prices but fluctuated heavily in price and productivity.

THESE “NATURAL” FARMERS Münster encountered had been engaged with a great variety of alternative agricultures from across the world, but ZBNF was what excited them most. It soon became clear why.

Palekar had begun to hold his workshops in the area around the same time Münster first began to work there. Münster signed himself up for one such workshop, conducted for five straight days, in a large multipurpose auditorium in Nilambur, a small town at the foothills of the Western Ghats. There were hundreds, he remembers, including a large number of women, and many of the farmers spent the nights at the auditorium. Speaking in English on stage, with a translator next to him, the lectures only interrupted by meals, tea breaks (where no tea was served since Palekar’s followers are expected to give up on tea and coffee), and the occasional testimony of a successful farmer, Palekar went on for five days about the trouble with chemical and organic farming and the promise of his brand of natural farming. “After some time, Palekar urged his audience to convert to natural farming, to raise their right hand in oath and swear to abolish chemicals and become a protector of nature... Palekar painted the results of Zero Budget farming as a rural utopia of healthy and prosperous farming families. But I also paid attention to Palekar’s attack on mainstream agricultural sciences, his glorification of the Indian cow and of Vedic science, and his rhetoric of foreign conspiracies at work in the crisis of Indian agriculture,” he says. “The farmers I met during the long breaks were busy networking, energised and full of hope that if they managed to redefine the work of farming according to ZBNF, they might have a future on their land.”

After the programme ended on the second day, Münster was invited to join Palekar on stage, where he was sitting in a circle of chairs, surrounded by natural farmers anxiously waiting their turn to show Palekar mobile-phone pictures of their fields and seek his advice on specific matters. “My overall impression of Palekar and this meeting was ambivalent. On one, I have become quite enthused about the agro-ecological potential of this radically new style of farming. On the other hand, I have become deeply concerned about the nativist biopolitics of ZBNF. The absolutely central position of the native Indian cow in the system invites an embrace by Hindu nationalist forces. And this is exactly what happened,” he says. According to him, ZBNF can benefit immensely if its advocates collaborated more with the natural and social sciences. “This nationalist position on science prevents Palekar from seeing that agrarian ferments have also been used in Japan for centuries (there known as bokashi) and that cropping pattern he recommends shares many commonalities with permaculture principles,” he says.

To Münster, ZBNF is not for every farmer. It requires a shift from quick profits to long-term care for plants and soil, he says. “Not everyone can afford to drop out of the cash flow of commercial crops, especially if they are in debt. On degraded soil, ZBNF also requires patience. Not everyone has time to wait for good results. And finally, ZBNF requires for farmers to care as intensively for their field as a gardener would. That’s also not possible for everyone,” he says. “Quite honestly, I am sceptical of this move (to promote ZBNF across India)... the success of any kind of natural farming for feeding the entire nation would require a transformation of the entire system. Farmers would need a debt relieve, support prices during the transformation phase. Food habits would have to change, too. ZBNF is an agrarian utopia, to make it a reality will require a rethinking on the part of middle-class consumers too.”

Prasanna Murthy harbours no such doubts around ZBNF. To him, this is the only way agriculture can be improved. I ask him of his earlier philosophy—of education by 20, community work from 40 and “fun” from 60—if its still stands. Murthy is 53 now. And in a few years, a new landmark will approach. “Oh, it has got mixed up,” he says. “With ZBNF, I’m already having fun.”

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