Open Letter – 3

From: Bhaskar Save,
‘Kalpavruksha’, Vill. Dehri, Via Umergam,
Dist Valsad, Gujarat.
(Ph: 0260 – 2563866, 2562126)

To: Shri M.S. Swaminathan,
Chairperson, National Commission on Farmers,
Union Ministry of Agriculture,
New Delhi

October 9, 2006

Dear Shri Swaminathan,

“For the first time in 10,000 years of India’s agricultural history,” as stated by you, a “National Policy for Farmers” is being drafted. This has been assigned to your Commission. I am sure you are deeply conscious of the momentous nature of the task, and its pressing importance for the many millions of distressed chemical farmers of India.

I was encouraged to receive your brief reply to my Open Letter dated July 29, 2006. My second Open Letter dated August 16, 2006 requested you to inform which recommendations of mine you agreed with. I also offered to address any questions, doubts or disagreements regarding my remaining suggestions. I was disappointed not to receive any further reply from you. Nonetheless, I am writing to you again. As we are both in our eighties, and entering the twilight of our lives, the least we can try to do is keep hope alive for others – through continuing communication.

In your article, enclosed with your letter dated July 31, 2006, you have acknowledged the pitfalls of the chemical based ‘green revolution’ technology, and mentioned the need for an ‘evergreen’ revolution. By this, I hope you mean a way of farming, and an ethic of land use, that causes no harm; and thus promises sustained yield of wholesome food that does not just fill the belly, but provides vital nourishment to body, mind and spirit.

You will agree that for 9,950 years of our ten millennium old agricultural history, India actually followed such a cultural ethic and way of farming. Where on earth, in its entire agricultural history, can you find any significantly different way of farming that has a stronger claim to being evergreen?

Of course, we have been – and still are – extremely fortunate to have an abundance of sunshine all round the year, a wealth of biodiversity, and more than adequate rainfall. The luxuriance of our untended natural forests is eloquent testimony to what can be achieved in this country if our numerous  unnatural interventions stop!

In your above-referred article, you have touched on half a dozen pathways which – according to you – may be considered for pursuing an ‘evergreen revolution’. The first one you mention is a hundred percent organic path, where no chemicals whatsoever are used, but which is distinct from pure, ‘do-nothing natural farming’, as it may still entail some seasonal tillage, manual weed control, and perhaps non-chemical ‘pest control’.

The last pathway mentioned in your article is the no-tillage path of natural farming. While the cultivation of seasonal field crops without any tillage whatsoever, is problematic in most parts of India, natural farming is definitely possible to achieve with tree crops.

Once the tree saplings or seeds are planted, and a ground cover of vegetation established, all tillage is totally taken care of by Nature, with no human intervention needed for this. Some other tasks like mulching, manuring, etc. may still be needed in the first few years, which is thus a transitional, organic phase. But by the time the saplings start yielding, almost nothing is required to be done, except perhaps conservative irrigation for some crops like coconut, chikoo, banana. Many food tree species like mango, jambul, ber, cashew, drumstick, awala, custard apple, mahua, etc. do not require even this, particularly after their first year. They are as natural as our old forests.

It is thus necessary to start with 100% organic farming, which would continue for field crops, but which would evolve into a progressively purer form of natural farming for most tree crops. This is the combination of pathways we must follow to regain an evergreen agriculture. While you have also mentioned other ‘pathways’ which combine chemicals with organic inputs, and natural with unnatural, I am afraid they are blind alleys and not true paths to an evergreen future.

I am summarizing below the suggestions and recommendations I can offer with full conviction, based on many decades of intimate personal experience. I do trust these will lead to the revitalization of India’s agriculture and natural wealth, and hope they help you in drafting the proposed national policy for farmers.

Suggestions/Recommendations

1)The major thrust of our national policy should be to ensure the water security and food security of India through organically growing mixed, locally suitable crops, plants, and particularly trees, following the laws of Nature.
2)The Government should provide all necessary encouragement and support to the farmers presently using chemicals, for converting at least 20-25% of their land each year to a 100% organic path without any chemicals whatsoever. It is thus possible for India to be wholly (and happily) liberated from the poisonous agro-chemicals in about 4-5 years.
3)We should restore (organically) at least 30% ground cover of mixed, indigenous and locally adapted trees and forests, preferably within the next decade, especially on sloping lands prone to soil erosion. This is the core task of ecological water harvesting – the key to restoring the natural abundance of groundwater. Outstanding benefits can be achieved thereby in the shortest possible time at minimal cost. Such decentralized underground storage is more efficient, as it is protected from the high evaporation of surface storage. The planting of trees will also make available a variety of useful produce to enhance the welfare of a larger number of people. By inter-planting short life-span, medium life-span, and long life-span crops and trees, it is possible to have planned continuity of food yield to sustain a farmer through the transition period till the long-life fruit trees mature and yield. The higher availability of biomass and complete ground cover round the year will also hasten the regeneration of soil fertility.
4)A policy of conservative irrigation must be strictly followed, according highest priority of allocation to nutritious food crops. Indeed, most crops grow best when the soil is just damp, enabling continuity of soil aeration. A high water consumption field crop like rice should be cultivated only in the monsoon, when it is a logical choice for growing in low-lying areas, prone to inundation. The unseasonal cultivation of rice with irrigation in dry months should stop, or at least be phased out within the next five years. Growing sugarcane in water scarcity areas must be banned, as also in poorly drained soils and dry climates with a high rate of evaporation. By this policy, at least 60% of our irrigation waters can be saved for local priority use. The irreversible ruination of fertile agricultural lands through soil salinisation and water-logging will also stop.
5)High priority is needed to conserve in their decentralized natural habitats – and within the control of local farmers – the enormous wealth of our biodiversity, both of crops and uncultivated species.
6)Similarly, we urgently need to document from experienced organic farmers the depth of traditional farming knowledge specific to each bioregion and agro-climatic zone.
7)No unnatural biotechnological interventions whatsoever are needed. These, particularly genetically tampered species, may prove even more dangerous to our food sovereignty than have the chemicals.
8)Soil erosion needs to be checked on a war footing. Official records inform that presently over 350 million acres of land are seriously affected by soil erosion caused by rain and wind. The most effective and productive strategy of checking such erosion is by establishing ground cover vegetation, particularly perennials.
9)All crop residues and ‘bio-wastes’ must go back to the land to replenish its fertility. The drain of organic matter from our soils must stop.
10) Technology can be harnessed to provide farmers with good, manual tools and implements, which can greatly help to increase work efficiency and reduce the toil. Continuous feedback should be obtained from farmers on what they find helpful.
11) Local farmer-level exchanges of experiences, skills and seeds should be encouraged and supported by the government. Again, the farmers themselves are the best judges of what support, if any, they need.
12) Urban areas should be encouraged to vermi-compost their kitchen wastes and grow organic vegetable gardens in rooftops and open spaces. Additionally, urban educational institutes should facilitate practical understanding and work experience related to the regeneration of our natural wealth. For this purpose, academic leave may be granted for spending at least 15 days every year in the countryside. Schools in rural areas should preferably have monsoon vacations for about 45 days, starting a week before the rains – to enable the rural populace to concentrate on farming and planting work, which cannot be undertaken the rest of the year.

You are probably well aware of the huge strides Cuba has made in organic farming, which it was forced into because of the Soviet collapse and the US embargo. You are perhaps conscious too that the fossil-fuel intensive path of chemical farming may be suddenly forced to stop if our fuel supplies (largely imported) are throttled, or if their prices mount sharply. Even if the big crisis does not come in the next 5 years, the degradation of our natural capital – our soils – is already alarming. So too is the depletion of our groundwater. The sooner we adopt the organic path, the better for us, and indeed, for the rest of the world as well.

It is perhaps unrealistic to hope for total, voluntary change in a hurry. But if we can achieve even 50% of the tasks listed above, our farmers have a fighting chance. Compromising for less than that would be a betrayal of the land and her people, and deep violence to our soils and souls.

Bhaskar Save

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