Organic farming brings hope to stressed Indian farmers

Posted: 12 February 2009

Author: Bharat Dogra

An organic farming initiative has brought hope to villagers in a drought-prone area in India commonly known for farmer suicides due to debts from high-cost modern agriculture.

Low-cost, sustainable and environment-friendly farm technologies are helping boost the confidence and self-reliance of farmers in the drought-prone Vidarbha region of Maharashtra in India. The Integrated Natural Sustainable Agriculture Programme (INSAP) was initiated by the voluntary organisation YUVA (Youth for Unity and Voluntary Action)-Rural. The project is being implemented in five districts in Vidarbha - Buldhana, Washim, Akola, Amravati (all in western Vidarbha) and Wardha (in central Vidarbha). It is based on low-cost, sustainable and environment-friendly farm technologies which, in the process, help boost the confidence and self-reliance of farmers.

Organic farmer, India
Organic farmer, India
Organic farmer in India ploughing green manure into his fields. Photo © Organic India
INSAP minimises farmers' dependence on expensive technologies and inputs (chemical fertilisers and pesticides, expensive seeds, including genetically modified ones). Instead, they are encouraged to work hard to make the best possible use of local resources like leaves, crop residue, cowdung and cow urine to provide nourishment to their crops and to protect them from pests and diseases.

'Friends of farmers'

A lot of attention is paid to recognising and protecting "friends of farmers" - helpful insects, birds, earthworms and micro-organisms in the soil. At every stage, soil and water conservation is emphasised. Soil erosion caused by water and wind is checked; collection and growth of traditional seeds is stressed.

As a result, input costs dramatically decreased. In fact, farmers reported that their costs had dropped to negligible levels. At the same time, thanks to better nourishment and protection of the soil, yield levels have been maintained, leading to healthier net incomes. Farmers now do not need to borrow at high rates of interest to buy expensive inputs.

Also, farmers have become better organised making it easier for them to resist exploitation and corruption and to mobilise for better marketing efforts that help them obtain better prices for their organic produce. They have set up self-help groups, started a mill to process pulses, and have diversified into other livelihood activities such as horticulture and goat-rearing.Sanjay Bhagat, a farmer from Washim district and coordinator of INSAP and a local farmers' organisation, says that before he came in contact with the project he had given up all hope in life. In fact, he even contemplated suicide, he said, as his family was heavily in debt.

During his father's days, farming was economically viable as his father took care to keep costs low. But when he and his brothers inherited the land, excessive claims for new expensive seeds were being made all the time, as dealers tried to sell them all kinds of dubious expensive pesticides. Sanjay recalls that several farmers like him fell into this trap and invested heavily in expensive seeds and inputs that turned out to be useless. Their costs spiralled but their yields did not increase proportionately, forcing them into debt.

Sanjay's first experiments with the new technology proved so successful that he became an enthusiastic exponent of the technique. Now his wife Sindhu complains smilingly that he comes home only to eat, he's so busy spreading the message of INSAP.

Improved viability

In villages in Washim and Akola that I visited, farmers talked animatedly about the improved viability of their farms; that too in sustainable environment-friendly ways. They also said giving up indiscriminate use of chemical fertilisers and pesticides and replacing them with compost and tree-leaf-based pest control had proved helpful in protecting insects and birds that are known to be friends of farmers.

A recent study by Raghav Narsalay, using a sample of 90 farmers, found that irrespective of farm size, INSAP technology has proved highly cost-effective compared to earlier technologies being used in the region. As much as 88 per cent of respondent farmers who have adopted sustainable farming techniques said they had regained their confidence and wanted to continue farming. On the other hand, 67 per cent of farmers practising the earlier techniques said they would opt out if given an alternative.

Respondents who had taken up sustainable farming said that, besides eating healthier, there was growing cooperation among the villagers to implement new ideas. There was also greater self-reliance.

Of course, the crisis in Vidarbha is many-sided and complex. As Suresh Lule says: "While earlier, cheap imports of cotton from the West depressed prices, now cheap imports of cotton from China are a big problem. Government policies have been unhelpful and the WTO rules are unjust."

Nitin Mate, senior coordinator with YUVA-Rural, adds: "In these times of climate change, adverse weather conditions are becoming a serious problem for farmers."

Clearly, much bigger interventions are needed. But within the limits of a single project, INSAP has been able to show the way to a significant number of farmers. - Third World Network Features