There were unseasonal, unexpected incessant rains on 20th to 22nd September 2022. It rained again, without let-up, between 8th and 10th of October.
Our traditional farm home has two levels of Chajjas all along the length of the walls, which protect the walls from the monsoon rains. Made with stone, brick, cement mortar and mud faska, the mud plaster on the wall above the Chajjas could not withstand the slow and steady rain that came down unceasingly for 72 hours. The walls leaked. Like lizards on walls, rats in the kitchen, mosquitos in the rooms, and ants on the floors this was a message from Nature that we are not the conquistadores we believe we are no matter how much we try insulating ourselves through the means that modernity provides us.
Damp walls were, however, just the tip of the problems that unfolded. My life does not depend on income from farming, but for many of those in Northwest India who live directly off their lands – which is half of the vast population – these untimely rains were nothing short of a disaster. It is a constant wonder the Indian peasant remains phlegmatic and doesn’t rise in revolt against the industrial system that dominates them.
Elsewhere, in adjacent urban Gurgaon, the rains were welcomed as a respite from the heat and a relief from human-created air pollution. Other than the problems of gridlocked roads and traffic snarled by many feet of water, the pleasant weather was a happy topic of discussion. Insulated temporarily from the forces of nature, the issues of food and farming were farthest from our urban minds. Maybe it’s time for us to listen to the gathering voices of Prakriti. As Wendell Berry, the American agrarian philosopher, famously once said – ‘eating is an agricultural act’.
Had these rain spells come in July and August, peasants too would have welcomed them with open arms. But the monsoon this year, like the previous year, was erratic and less than normal. It’s not only the quantum of rain but its spread over three months that matters to agriculture. This year, the monsoon’s onset was delayed after a promising start in July – it then hibernated, before giving us less than normal rain over the coming 2 months. My small farm, situated in village Mangar, district Faridabad in the south of Haryana, had a rainfall deficit till September; as did Northwest India. These few days of rain in September and October, the latter one of the wettest Octobers in the last century, changed the status to excess.
The scientific temper of our peasant ancestors, itself born out of careful and long-term experimentation, has led to a very specific system of cropping in harmony with the seasons. The peasant knew better than to go against Nature. Rains start in Asadh (July), there are downpours in the months of Sawan and Bhadon, with a slow-down and occasional showers in Kwar (October). It’s amazing how the planting of certain crops – bajra, gwar, til, rice to name a few – match with the onset of the monsoon and are harvested not long after its withdrawal. These traditional systems remain ingrained in farmers’ mindsets from time immemorial when crops grown were mostly rainfed and only a privileged few had rivers, canals or surface wells to irrigate their crops. Of course, rains failed and led to droughts, and excess rains often caused floods. But the period of its onset and withdrawal, for hundreds of years if not longer, were pretty much contained within the period of a week. This seems no longer true, in this Anthropocene the ways of nature seem to be overcome by modernity – at least for now.
“Over the last few decades, the arc of the Great Acceleration has been completely in line with the trajectory of modernity: it has led to the destruction of communities, to ever greater individualisation and anomie, to the industrialisation of agriculture and to the centralisation of distribution systems. At the same time it has also reinforced the mind-body dualism to the point to producing the illusion, so powerfully propagated in cyberspace, that human beings have freed themselves from their material circumstances to the point where they’ve become floating personalities ‘decoupled from a body’. The cumulative effects is the extinction of exactly those forms of traditional knowledge material skills, art and ties of community that might provide succour to vast numbers of people around the world – and specially to those who are still bound to the land – as the impacts intensify. The very speed with which the crisis is now unfolding may be the one factor that will preserve some of these resources.”
The Great Derangement. 2016. Amitav Ghosh.
What will do peasants do now if the rains linger 40 days after they were expected to be over? Entire crop plans over these vast land areas and populations cannot be changed, neither can the kind of crops, and their seeds. The crops cannot be planted before the start of the monsoon as it’s simply too hot in the plains of the northwest, they will wither and die if planted too early – unless supported by underground water irrigation. Could we see a rise in early planting and an increase in the exploitation of already rapidly depleting groundwater aquifers? If the rains come down in late September and October, the ripening crops will be decimated again. Will unpredictable and unseasonal rains become a standard feature? Next door to us, Sindh & Baluchistan were devastated by unprecedented rains and floods in June 2022, lives of 33 million have been impacted, livelihoods of 3 million have been destroyed, and the fertility of the soil has been lost for generations. Could this happen elsewhere? I can’t say, but here is what happened at Aman Bagh this season.
Bajra is an amazingly nutrient-dense, energy-rich millet that grows with the onset of the monsoons, in very little water and without fertiliser. Harvested in September, Rotis made in winter months of this tasty grain is a part of rural culture of large swaths of Northwest India. The stalks of the crop are dried standing after harvest; and are fed to the cattle as an adjunct to hay from last year’s wheat crop or often as the primary dry fodder in areas where wheat is limited or not grown. This monsoon, the bajra grain was ripening on the stalks when it rained in September – this excess moisture delayed the maturing process. Later, as the harvest was underway, the October rains came. The bajra grains were partly or fully harvested and were lain on the ground, so were the bajra stalks. Over the coming week, we lost 60% of the grain and the 70% of our stalks to moisture rot.
The other long-standing and silent rural story is that of a desperate shortage of fodder, this year it has got that much worse due these rains. A large number of rural homes keep cattle and sell their milk. Most agricultural homes have insufficient land, many have none at all, thus many buy green fodder and dry hay from the market. Due to the rains and delayed rice harvesting in the Northwest, the Rice parali (straw), a low cost and hence favorite dry fodder, has been late to the market. Some of what is coming is blackened and yet damp. Yet, it is selling for 350 rupees a maund (40 kg), compared to last year this time when it was 130 rupees, as desperate cattle owners scramble for the reduced supply. Wheat hay is 550 rupees a maund, it was 400 rupees a maund. Green Jowar fodder is 400 rupees a maund, last year it was 200 rupees. The price these peasants sold their milk was 50 rupees a kilo, and is now 60 rupees. In short, in economic terms, massive input cost inflation and moderate product price increase.
The Arhar or Toor crop was next. Planted in April, this is a 8-month leguminous crop that flowers in Kwar (September), fruits in Kartik (October) and is harvested in Aghan (November) before the planting of wheat. It is very sensitive to irrigation, like most crops, and inappropriately timed watering induces green shoot growth and flowering is delayed. This time, with two period of unseasonal rains within 16 days of each other, my entire crop shot up in height and the flowering has delayed indefinitely. As we need to plant wheat in early November, for home consumption and for farm animals, the Arhar stands have been cut down and are being fed to the animals. Nothing natural is ever a ‘waste’ at a farm. But certainly no Arhar this year.
Til (sesame) plants are traditionally planted interspersed as a companion crop with bajra, they commence flowering in early Kwar and ripen by the end of Kwar or early Kartik (October). The rains put paid to the ripening of the seed that needs sun, and a dry season. All our Til plantsdied a natural death.
Finally, there was rice! My farm has a small piece of clayey-soil land – about 3,000 square feet – where we planted rice this year hoping to get 15 kg for our consumption. The crop was almost ready with the grains well-formed on all the plants and that wonderful rice smell when the October rains decimated the entire crop. All the grains were shaken to the ground due the incessant rain. As usual, there is no such thing as ‘waste’, so the green rice stalks reached the cattle.
The lives of our rural and agricultural population have always been uncertain with an economic, social and political system stacked against them, geared by modernity in favor of the urban and industrial. This is nothing new, many know this reality. Chaudhary Charan Singh, a pre-eminent agrarian intellectual and public figure in India, wrote extensively and repeatedly against the unfairness of the dominance of urban interests. I manage the Archives in his name and I know his position intimately. People of his generation, especially in India, didn’t see the impact of climate change like we can now after three decades of rapid modernization and wealth creation for some. Climate change in its new intensity and unpredictability – and in our physical proximity – is altogether new to Indians. It is, in fact, just starting with billions of people in Asia, Africa and the Americas in the queue to gain the lifestyles and material benefits you and I possess, which we in turn look to imitate from the fossil-fuel addicted economies of the West.
If indeed Prakriti comes to actively oppose agriculture because of our thoughtless actions, what then is left? Political positions on climate change, ideological arguments for and against industrialism and agrarianism etc. will stand for nothing if there won’t be food to eat. I am overstating the case to make my point, but it’s not that unreal as you may think. If my story from southern Haryana sounds rather benign, do remember Sind.
The English word Agriculture from mid 15th Century CE is rooted in the Late Latin Agricultura comprising ager and cultura. Ager is field and Cultura, cultivation. Agriculture is defined as “The art or science of cultivating the ground, including the harvesting of crops and rearing and management of livestock.” (Wikipedia, National Geographic)
This extractive and utilitarian definition of agriculture as growing food for commerce and human consumption is par for the times we live in. Humans sit outside the land in the modern urban imagination, free from bondage to it, and the real purpose of life is consuming the products of the modern world – of which, one is food. Food, while remaining a necessity of life for billions, is now simply a source of culinary enjoyment for the few. The word ‘agriculture’ in its contemporary Western usage also denotes the one of many hundreds of occupation categories in a post-Industrial world, and a source of livelihood for a minuscule minority in uncharted rural areas that remain in the West. Agriculture is divorced from the way of life it once defined for the vast majority of people in all civilisations.
Looking to pre-industrial, predominantly rural societies in Europe and United Kingdom 200 years back, and in India and similar post-colonial societies 75 years ago, tilling the field and living off the bounty the land produced was the preoccupation of most. Society was tied to the land as a source of physical, social and spiritual sustenance, and it defined certain values and approach to individual and community living. The churchyard in the older sense is ‘God’s acre.’ In medieval Latin, cultura meant adoration or veneration. Culture by 1500 CE was the figurative sense of ‘cultivation through education, systematic improvement and refinement of the mind’. By this time, there came about an association of the finer things in life with the city and the village was left with the rougher elements.
It is a fundamental fallacy of our Western cousins to believe we can live forever off the city, industry, technology and cash after having ‘conquered’ nature; that the cultivation of nutritive food can be left to corporations, machines and someone else other than me; and that all occupations can be dependent on humanmade materials fired by fossil fuels or even natural sources. Agricultural thinking, in its broadest sense of a life lived in harmony with land, forest and nature, must feed the imagination of an alternative lifestyle for a way to co-exist with the modern, post-industrial age. It is not an escape into the past.
If one re-imagines the word ‘agriculture’, could it not mean the cultivation of the mind?
“The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”
The Sanskrit word कृषि (Krishi) is agriculture, tilling the land. कृषक or किसान is farmer, हाली is a ploughman. The Sanskrit root word कृ is ‘to make’. कृषा is to ‘draw, drag along, pull about, carry away’.
Could we be allowed to dream that Krishi has etymological roots in ऋषि (Rishi), the sages of India who lived in and were of the forest hermitages at a time when forests were widespread, and people were few. This give us an opening to explore the proper relationships between humankind, nature and farming.
Rabindranath Tagore (1861-1941) and Masanobu Fukuoka (1913-2008) are illuminating guides from the Asian tradition, both one with nature. Nature pervaded every part of Tagore’s thinking and works and Fukuoka was a farmer living in nature for decades. Their writings support my short 8 years’ experience that practicing agriculture in nature can lead to a cultivation of the mind. I commenced with observing nature as an awkward outsider with many pre-conceived notions, moved to getting rid of these through immersion in the land, and today nature is nearer my inner self that it ever has been. There is now an ‘inter-being’, a closeness, a realisation of unity with nature, instead of the duality of the observer and the observed. I am acutely aware that this is but the start of a lifelong journey. I have come to know intimately each part of the at the land, where water flows and where it stops, where the shade of trees is sufficient or too much for which crop, heard and saw hundreds of species of insects and did not find pests, found new friends in scores of local weeds and trees, saw scores of new bird species, marvelled at the billions of billions of micro-organisms that live in the soil that give it that lovely सौंधा (wet earth) smell, and encouraged hundreds of local saplings to grow wild.
Tagore’s 1922 essay ‘The Religion of the Forest’ shares with us ancient India’s view of nature, a picture that remains embedded in our lives and culture even today when so much of nature has been irretrievably lost.
“This ideal of perfection preached by the forest-dwellers of ancient India runs through the heart of our classical literature and still dominates our mind. The legends related in our epics cluster under the forest shade bearing all through their narrative the message of the forest-dwellers. Our two greatest classical dramas find their background in scenes of the forest hermitage, which are permeated by the association of these sages.”
“When we know this world as alien to us, then its mechanical aspect takes prominence in our mind; and then we set up our machines and our methods to deal with it and make as much profit as our knowledge of its mechanism allows us to do.”
“In the Western dramas, human characters drown our attention in the vortex of their passions. Nature occasionally peeps out, but she is almost always a trespasser, who has to offer excuses, or bow apologetically and depart. But in all our dramas which still retain their fame, such as Mrit-Shakatika, Shakuntala, Uttara-Ramacharita, Nature stands on her own right, proving that she has her great function, to impart the peace of the eternal to human emotions.”
“…the spirit of the forest retreat, which is sharanyam sarva-bhutanam (where all creatures find their protection of love).”
“In the Ramayana, Rama and his companions, in their banishment, had to traverse forest after forest; they had to live in leaf-thatched huts, to sleep on the bare ground. But as their hearts felt their kinship with woodland, hill, and stream, they were not in exile amidst these….. But, in the Ramayana, we are led to realise the greatness of the hero, not in a fierce struggle with Nature, but in sympathy with it, Sita, the daughter-in-law of a great kingly house, goes along the forest paths.”
“I hope it is needless for me to say that these observations are not intended to minimize Shakespeare’s great power as a dramatic poet, but to show in his works the gulf between Nature and human nature owing to the tradition of his race and time. It cannot be said that beauty of nature is ignored in his writings; only he fails to recognize in them the truth of the interpenetration of human life with the cosmic life of the world.”
“In Milton’s Paradise Lost, the very subject – Man dwelling in the garden of Paradise – seems to afford a special opportunity for bringing out the true greatness of man’s relationship with Nature. But though the poet has described to us the beauties of the garden, though he has shown to us the animals living there in amity and peace among themselves, there is no reality of kinship between them and man. They were created for man’s enjoyment; man was their lord and master. ……Not that India denied the superiority of man, but the test of that superiority lay, according to her, in the comprehensiveness of sympathy, not in the aloofness of absolute distinction.”
“India holds sacred, and counts as places of pilgrimage, all spots which display a special beauty or splendour of nature. These had no original attraction on account of any special fitness for cultivation or settlement. Here, man is free, not to look upon Nature as a source of supply of his necessities, but to realise his soul beyond himself. The Himalayas of India are sacred and the Vindhya Hills. Her majestic rivers are sacred. Lake Manasa and the confluence of the Ganges and the Jamuna are sacred.”
“…. we passed by the red and barren rocks of Arabia on our right side and the gleaming sands of Egypt on our left. There was an immense stretch of silence on the left shore as well as on the right, but the two shores spoke to me of the two different historical dramas enacted. The civilisation which found its growth in Egypt was continued across long centuries, elaborately rich with sentiments and expressions of life, with pictures, sculptures, temples, and ceremonials. ….There man never raised the barrier of alienation between himself and the rest of the world.
“On the opposite shore of the Red Sea the civilisation which grew up in the inhospitable soil of Arabia had a contrary character to that of Egypt. There man felt himself isolated in his hostile and bare surroundings. His idea of God became that of a jealous God. His mind naturally dwelt upon the principle of separateness. It roused in him the spirit of fight, and this spirit was a force that drove him far and wide. These two civilisations represented two fundamental divisions of human nature. The one contained in it the spirit of conquest and the other the spirit of harmony. And both of these have their truth and purpose in human existence.” (italics added)
Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka was a peasant who lived in the moment, without bondage to the knowledge of the pasts or of the future. It was enough for him to learn from ‘do nothing’ farming, as he called it. His concise 99 page One Straw Revolution was in my hands in 1982, when my fertile young mind was not at all able to understand Fukuoka’s unified view of life. ‘Natural farming’ seemed fairly obvious then, as agriculture was not the wasteland that it is today, and environmental thinking was yet in the womb of my future. It was Fukuoka’s simple sophistication that attracted my deeply held peasant traditions.
Since I commenced farming in 2012, some of Fukuoka’s natural farming view has become an integral part of my doing, as has Albert Howard’s knowledge of Indian farming and the ways of the local peasants who have worked the soil with me. Over April 2020, I had a wonderful opportunity to slowly unfold the wisdom of Fukuoka’s masterpiece during the times of Corona, while making weekly visits to the farm and seeing the land afresh with this insight. I realised once again how little I know about Krishi, and how I was not really ready for absorbing One Straw Revolution‘s wisdom any time before now. The limits of human knowledge and the impact of sustained human intervention on the natural ways hold new meaning today, when we hide in fear from the results of our own actions.
One Straw Revolution has a lot to share with those willing to listen. Larry Korn lived for 2 years on Fukuoka’s farm in Japan, here he speaks to us in a 2016 documentary. You can also watch him in a series of three YouTube videos posted after his passing in 2019:
“People associate natural farming with a technique.It’s not the technique, it’s the view.Once you have that view … you enter into nature and participate from the inside instead of as a visitor from the outside, then you’ll know exactly what to do … a lot of it depends on trial and error, that you try something and see how nature responds, and that helps you to move along to figure out what to do. …… The idea of observation from the natural farming point of view, is more of an interaction. You are not observing, you are actually living in nature and you are getting to know your place. … you become so intimately connected with a place that it becomes an extension of yourself. Mr. Fukuoka believes that natural farming proceeds from the spiritual health of the individual. He considers the healing of the land and the purification of the human spirit to be one process, and he proposes a way of life and a way of farming in which this process can take place.”
Fukuoka’s thinking on farming was revolutionary. He nevertheless was not only about farming, and lived an integrated life in nature as a beacon to the world. On agriculture, he simultaneously discarded the accumulated debris of farming methods of ancient civilisations based on ploughing and monoculture crops, and Western ‘scientific’ methods of ever increasing production simply for food through the use of a vast range and quantities of humanmade chemicals.
“I was aiming at a pleasant, natural way of farming which results in making the work easier instead of harder. ‘How about not doing this? How about not doing that?’ that was my way of thinking. I ultimately reached the conclusion that there was no need to plough, no need to apply fertiliser, no need to make compost, no need to use insecticide. When you get right down to it, there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary.”
Fukuoka’s thinking aligns with Gandhi’s practice of living a life of subsistence, indeed of self-imposed poverty. He poses the simple question ‘how should we live correctly on this earth?’ His answers aren’t complex either – live a life without wants, live off what your quarter acre of land feeds you.
“On the ridge top of the orchard, overlooking Matsuyama Bay and the broad Dogo Plain, are several small, mud walled huts. There, a handful of people have gathered and are living a simple life together. There are no modern conveniences. Spending peaceful evenings beneath candle and lamplight, they live a life of simple necessities: brown rice, vegetables, a robe and a bowl. They come from somewhere, stay for a while, and then move on.”
“Extravagance of desire is the fundamental cause, which has led the world into its present predicament. Fast rather than slow, more rather than less – this flashy ‘development’ is linked directly to society’s impending collapse. It has only served to separate man from nature. Humanity must stop indulging the desire for material possessions and personal gain and move instead toward spiritual awareness. Agriculture must change from large mechanical operations to small farms attached only to life itself. Material life and diet should be given a simple place. If this is done, work becomes pleasant, and spiritual breathing space becomes plentiful. The more the farmer increases the scale of his operation, the more his body and spirit are dissipated and the further he falls away from a spiritually satisfying life.”
“Why do you have to develop? If economic growth rises from 5% to 10%, is happiness going to double? What’s wrong with a growth rate of 0%? Isn’t this a rather stable kind of economics? Could there be anything better than living simply and taking it easy? …..For human beings, a life of such simplicity would be possible if one worked to produce directly his daily necessities.”
His Buddhist faith defined his belief in the interconnectedness of all life, and of living. In addition, his knowledge of the impermanence of life led to his living in the present. I hear him saying we have whatever is required to live a full life within nature. Be still, be in the moment, why run around everywhere seeking and accumulating knowledge.
“‘Right Food, Right Action, Right Awareness.’ The three cannot be separated from one another. If one is missing, none can be realised. If one is realised, all are realised.”
“Similarly, it would be well if people stopped troubling themselves about discovering the ‘true meaning of life’ we can never know the answers to great spiritual questions, it’s all right not to understand. We have been born and are living on the earth to face directly the reality of living. Just to live here and now – this is the true basis of human life.”
“If you expect a bright world on the other side of the tunnel, the darkness of the tunnel lasts all the longer. When you no longer want to eat something tasty, you can taste the real flavour of whatever you are eating.”
Along with simple thinking, he held grounded views on nutrition, commercial farming and consumers. Everyone is confused, so everything is confused.
“In general, commercial agriculture is an unstable proposition. The farmer would do much better by growing the food he needs without thinking about making money. If you plant one grain of rice, it becomes more than one thousand grains. ….If you follow this line of thought, you will have enough to eat, more than enough, without struggling. But if you decide to try to make money instead, you get on board the profit wagon, and it runs away with you.”
“In olden times …..Agriculture was said to be closer to the source of things than trade or manufacturing, and the farmer was said to be ‘the cupbearer of the gods.’ But now there is all this commotion about making money. Ultra-fashionable produce such as grapes, tomatoes, and melons are being grown. Flowers and fruit are being produced out-of-season in hothouses. Fish breeding has been introduced and cattle are raised because profits are high. This pattern shows clearly what happens when farming climbs aboard the economic roller coaster. Fluctuations in prices are violent. There are profits, but there are losses as well. Failure is inevitable. Japanese agriculture has lost sight of its direction ….It has strayed away from the basic principles of agriculture and has become a business.”
“Consumers generally assume that they have nothing to do with causing agricultural pollution. Many of them ask for food that has not been chemically treated. But chemically treated food is marketed mainly in response to the preferences of the consumer. The consumer demands large, shiny, unblemished produce of regular shape. To satisfy these desires, agricultural chemicals that were not used five or six years ago have come rapidly into use. The consumer’s willingness to pay high prices for food produced out of season has also contributed to the increased use of artificial growing methods and chemicals. …. But if you ask how important it is for human beings to have this fruit a month earlier, the truth is that it is not important at all, and money is not the only price paid for such indulgence.”
Fukuoka was an early advocate of plant foods, as he saw the simultaneous destruction of human health and waste of land resources as his predominantly cereal-vegetables eating Japanese society adopted the excessive meat-eating and unseasonable ways of the West. He could see the excesses of modernity in industrialising and globalising Japan in a world where a minority eats all possible kinds of food all year long, and many don’t have any food to eat. He was not an advocate of ideological vegetarianism, and believed all can eat what they want in tune with nature, but not to feed our desires.
“If 1,300 pounds of rice and 1,300 pounds of winter grain are harvested from a quarter acre field such as one of these, then the field will support five to ten people each investing an average of less than one hour of labour per day. But if the field were turned over to pasturage, or if the grain were fed to cattle, only one person could be supported per quarter acre. Meat becomes a luxury food when its production requires land which could provide food directly for human consumption. Meat and other imported foods are luxuries because they require more energy and resources than the traditional vegetables and grains produced locally. It follows that people who limit themselves to a simple local diet need do less work and use less land than those with an appetite for luxury.”
“If we do have a food crisis, it will not be caused by the insufficiency of nature’s productive power, but by the extravagance of human desire.”
Fukuoka foresaw the epidemic of the simultaneous fracture with nature and unrestrained eating and living in rich nations, as well as in elites of poor nations, that today cause most of their lifestyle diseases: speed, stress, obesity, diabetes, heart diseases, cancer. Medical and nutritional ‘science’ look only at health as a combination of individual elements of food – fat, proteins, carbohydrates, other nutrients – known to science even if they are out of step with nature. If a vast majority of humans in wealthy societies no longer grow their own food, or connect with natural life, then unnatural food will give rise to unnatural diseases of lifestyle.
“Sickness comes when people draw apart from nature. The severity of the disease is directly proportional to the degree of separation. If a sick person returns to a healthy environment, often the disease will disappear. When alienation from nature becomes extreme, the number of sick people increases.”
“Not too long ago the daily meal of the farmers in this area consisted of rice and barley with miso and pickled vegetables. This diet gave long life, a strong constitution, and good health. Stewed vegetables and steamed rice with red beans was a once-a-month feast. The farmer’s healthy, robust body was able to nourish itself well on this simple rice diet. The traditional brown rice-and-vegetable diet of the East is very different from that of most Western societies. Western nutritional science believes that unless certain amounts of starch, fat, protein, minerals, and vitamins are eaten each day, a well-balanced diet and good health cannot be preserved.”
“One might suppose that Western dietetics, with its elaborate theories and calculations, could leave no doubts about proper diet. The fact is it creates far more problems than it resolves. One problem is that in Western nutritional science there is no effort to adjust the diet to the natural cycle. The diet that results serves to isolate human beings from nature. A fear of nature and a general sense of insecurity are often the unfortunate results.”
“If the Western scientific diet were put into practice on a wide scale, what sort of practical problems do you suppose would occur? High quality beef, eggs, milk, vegetables, bread, and other foods would have to be readily available all year around. Large-scale production and long-term storage would become necessary. Already in Japan, adoption of this diet has caused farmers to produce summer vegetables such as lettuce, cucumbers, eggplants, and tomatoes in the winter.”
“It is unreasonable to expect that a wholesome, balanced diet can be achieved simply by supplying a great variety of foods regardless of the season. Compared with plants that ripen naturally, vegetables and fruits grown out-of-season under necessarily unnatural conditions contain few vitamins and minerals. It is not surprising that summer vegetables grown in the autumn or winter have none of the flavour and fragrance of those grown beneath the sun by organic and natural methods.”
Organic farming methods and produce are meant to feed the body in a healthy manner, while Fukuoka’s natural farming is living on the land without objective. It just is. Healthy food, health of the human species, of all other living beings and the planet, is a by-product of this living in nature.
“Organic farming … was a system that emphasised the fundamental importance of compost and of recycling human and animal waste. The form of management was intensive and included such practices as crop rotation, companion planting, and the use of green manure. Since space was limited, fields were never left untended and the planting and harvesting schedules proceeded with precision. All organic residues were made into compost and returned to the fields. I went on to say that among natural farming methods two kinds could be distinguished: broad, transcendent natural farming, and the narrow natural farming of the relative world (as understood by the intellect) If I were pressed to talk about it in Buddhist terms, the two could be called … Mahayana and Hinayana natural farming.”
“Broad, Mahayana natural farming arises of itself when a unity exists between man and nature. It conforms to nature as it is, and to the mind as it is. It proceeds from the conviction that if the individual temporarily abandons human will and so allows himself to be guided by nature, nature responds by providing everything. Narrow natural farming, on the other hand, is pursuing the way of nature; it self-consciously attempts, by ‘organic’ or other methods, to follow nature. Farming is used for achieving a given objective. Although sincerely loving nature and earnestly proposing to her, the relationship is still tentative. Modern industrial farming desires heaven’s wisdom, without grasping its meaning, and at the same time wants to make use of nature. Restlessly searching, it is unable to find anyone to propose to.”
“The more people do, the more society develops, and the more problems arise. The increasing desolation of nature, the exhaustion of resources, the uneasiness and disintegration of the human spirit, all have been brought about by humanity’s trying to accomplish something. Originally, there was no reason to progress, and nothing that had to be done. We have come to the point at which there is no other way than to bring about a ‘movement’ not to bring anything about.”
In his prime in 1975 when he wrote One Straw Revolution, with three decades of a natural farming life behind him, Fukuoka was seen even in his country as an eccentric and extinct product of an ancient Japanese sensibility. He is forgotten today in the land of his birth, and Japanese society continues to make the yet-wrenching transition to a West-defined, globalised economy. However, his insights into farming, food, nature and living remain as deep as they were simple. Fukuoka remained sceptical of human intellect, science, and knowledge which is the very basis of modern society.
“People think they understand things because they become familiar with them. This is only superficial knowledge. It is the knowledge of the astronomer who knows the names of the stars, the botanist who knows the classification of the leaves and flowers, the artist who knows the aesthetics of green and red. This is not to know nature itself – the earth and sky, green and red. Astronomer, botanist, and artist have done no more than grasp impressions and interpret them, each within the vault of his own mind. The more involved they become with the activity of the intellect, the more they set themselves apart and the more difficult it becomes to live naturally.”
“People think that life is joy and death is sadness, but the rice seed, lying within the earth and sending out shoots in spring, its leaves and stems withering in the fall, still holds within its tiny core the full joy of life. The joy of life does not depart in death. Death is no more than a momentary passing. Wouldn’t you say that this rice, because it possesses the full joyousness of life, does not know the sorrow of death?”
“In nature, there is life and death, and nature is joyful. In human society, there is life and death, and people live in sorrow.
Fukuoka was not enamoured of environmentalists who he saw as reactionaries, nor was he fond of scientists (of which he was one in his youth) who were too specialised to see the whole.
“To the extent that people separate themselves from nature, they spin out further and further from the center. At the same time, a centripetal effect asserts itself and the desire to return to nature arises. But if people merely become caught up in reacting, moving to the left or to the right, depending on conditions, the result is only more activity. The non-moving point of origin, which lies outside the realm of relativity, is passed over, unnoticed. I believe that even ‘returning-to-nature’ and anti-pollution activities, no matter how commendable, are not moving toward a genuine solution if they are carried out solely in reaction to the over development of the present age.”
” ‘Within one thing lie all things, but if all things are brought together not one thing can arise.’ Western science is unable to grasp this precept of eastern philosophy. A person can analyse and investigate a butterfly as far as he likes, but he cannot make a butterfly.”
“Scientists think they can understand nature. …Because they are convinced that they can understand nature, they are committed to investigating nature and putting it to use. However, I think an understanding of nature lies beyond the reach of human intelligence.”
Fukuoka mused about the need of a coming together of the world to first understand the problem together. His practice blazed a path for all of us to spy the solutions.
“Lately I have been thinking that the point must be reached when scientists, politicians, artists, philosophers, men of religion, and all those who work in the fields should gather here, gaze out over these fields, and talk things over together. I think this is the kind of thing that must happen if people are to see beyond their specialties.”
 See related words Middle EnglishAcre, Aker. Old English æcer a field, land, that which is sown, cultivated land, land which a yoke of oxen could plough in a day. Latin agre, ager field, land countryside. Sanskrit अज्र, ajra. field or plain or open country. Greek agros field. Proto Indo-European root of agro is ag or ‘to drive, draw out or forth, move’. Sanskrit अजति ajati means to drive, propel, throw, cast or impel.
 The destruction Indians have wrought on nature since the writing of this essay in 1922 is extensive and mocks India’s belief in unity with nature. This is entirely due to our adoption of the Western ideal of the superiority of man, and the free expansion of our population, the ‘demographic dividend’..
 All extracts from this point on are taken from Fukuoka’s 1975 book One Straw Revolution, translated to English in 1978 by the efforts of Larry Korn. Here is a video on one of Fukuoka’s many visits to India later in life.
 Fukuoka’s take on Buddh’s Arya Ashtangaika Marg: Proper Vision, Proper Aims or Intention, Proper Speech, Proper Action or Conduct, Proper Livelihood, Proper Thoughts, Proper Awareness or Mindfulness and Proper Meditation.
The Problems of Livelihoods, Inequality and Ecologically Sustainability in India
“The challenge is to imagine a path in which the fruits of technological progress are more widely enjoyed and in which the economy provides remunerative, stable and meaningful work that allows human capacities to flourish. The first five decades of India’s independent existence saw some concerted effort to push such an imaginative transformation…. These policies, however, ran aground and had limited success at best in generating large scale and meaningful growth and employment. Unfortunately, India’s move to a more market-oriented economy, while tremendously successful at generating more sustained growth has not done any better in terms of widespread employment generation.
State of Working India 2018, Centre for Sustainable Employment. Azim Premji University. Page 149.
“IN EARLY 2017, the West Bengal government held an examination for 6,000 jobs in the Class IV or Group D category, the lowest category of permanent employment in government service. 2.5 million appeared for the exam, many of the holders of graduate and postgraduate degrees. In 2015, 2.3 million applied for around 400 Class IV jobs in Uttar Pradesh, of them 150,000 (were) graduates.”
State of Working India 2018. Page 44.
I personally struggle with a definition of growth as ever-increasing wealth and luxury, growth that consumes our natural wealth and gives us rupees and consumer goods in return. Rabindranath Tagore puts this in his inimitable prose in his 1922 talk in Calcutta ‘Robbery of the Soil’ which sounds as valid today as it was then, which says something about his timelessness and the vapidity of our civilisation:
“Most of us who try to deal with the poverty problem think of nothing else but of a greater intensive effort of production, forgetting that this only means a greater exhaustion of materials as well as of humanity, and this means giving a still better opportunity for profit to the few at the cost of the many. But it is food which nourishes and not money. It is fullness of life which makes us happy and not fullness of purse. Multiplying materials intensifies the inequality between those who have and those who have not. This is the worst wound from which the social body can suffer.”
“Civilisation today caters for a whole population of gluttons. An intemperance, which could safely have been tolerated in a few, has spread its contagion to the multitude. ….The city represents energy and materials concentrated for the satisfaction of an exaggerated appetite, and this concentration is considered to be a symptom of civilisation”
Equally, the problem of livelihoods remains as urgent and existentialist for our hundreds of millions as it was then when we were ruled by an uncaring British. Jobs are the most difficult thing to find in independent India, while ecologically sustainable livelihoods are being lost at a frenetic pace in the modern, fossil-fuel, chemical world we are constructing.These dual issues – of nature weighed under by the greed of the human species, and the endemic deprivation of hundreds of millions – are enough to give pause to the bravest of us. This report from Premji University is a timely review of the many aspects of livelihoods, and worth our while to understand the changing face of the universe of jobs in India. Amit Basole teaches at the Azim Premji University in Bangalore, leading the Center of Sustainable Development which commenced publishing an annual 165 page report from this year ‘State of Working India 2018’ (henceforth SWI). An unusual double Ph.D. in Economics from University of Massachusetts and a Ph D in Neurobiology from Duke, Amit worked with the weaving communities of Banaras and understands the value of artisanal knowledge he calls lokavidya.
Like many of us, I face frequent requests for jobs भाई साहब, मेरे बेटे को नौकरी दिला दो in the villages I frequent in Uttar Pradesh and Haryana. The person could be brother, nephew, uncle or husband (rarely a request for helping a woman), and those who ask, believe in my ability to help them navigate the world of the city where the jobs are, though alas! My rehearsed response is मुश्किल है, पर कोशिश करूंगा. Where I can, and when the candidate is motivated, I’ve helped a few obtain apprenticeships that lead to jobs in peri-urban factory settings and in the software services industry. But it’s difficult, very difficult.
The Purpose of Development and Livelihoods
My first thoughts after perusing this report were on the boundary of the discourse economists, our political and bureaucratic leadership, and the media limit our thinking to: ‘development’ as a utilitarian search for GDP growth and employment, and – shorn of its benign word meaning – a race to corner the greatest material benefits for those who already have so much more than they need. We have given up on the environment altogether, do not think about it as an issue, and generating wealth and consuming it in increasing ostentatious ways is all what matters. This lifestyle is within the grasp of a minuscule wealthy minority, and the rest are aspirational for that very lifestyle leading us collectively to the environmental disaster that is unfolding. Most of us don’t know that it is our lifestyles that are causing this destruction, or if we do then we don’t quite know where to turn to for solutions. First, however, we must know the size of the problem and its characteristics and that is where this report is very useful.
In our own times, there are many markers of development gone wild. To pick a singularly gross one randomly – this front-page feature article in the New York Times of 26 November 2018 starkly juxtaposes livelihoods against the environment “Palm Oil Was Supposed to Help Save the Planet, Instead it Unleashed a Catastrophe”.In 2007, USA President George Bush Jr. mandated the use of bio-fuels to reduce the dependence of the US on middle eastern oil and set off the largest ever destruction of the peatland rain forests of Indonesia and Malaysia for growing Palm for oil. Only today do some Americans acknowledge the destructive global impact of this decision that was applauded across political divides in the USA, but it is too late for those 80 million Indonesians who now depend on palm farming for livelihoods and for tens of thousands of hectares of tropical forest burnt down and its peat oxidised. https://www.nytimes.com/2018/11/20/magazine/palm-oil-borneo-climate-catastrophe.html
“NASA researchers say the accelerated destruction of Borneo’s forests contributed to the largest single-year global increase in carbon emissions in two millenniums, an explosion that transformed Indonesia into the world’s fourth-largest source of such emissions. Instead of creating a clever technocratic fix to reduce American’s carbon footprint, lawmakers had lit the fuse on a powerful carbon bomb that, as the forests were cleared and burned, produced more carbon than the entire continent of Europe. The unprecedented palm-oil boom, meanwhile, has enriched and emboldened many of the region’s largest corporations, which have begun using their newfound power and wealth to suppress critics, abuse workers and acquire more land to produce oil.”
India’s Rapidly Urbanising Population: Is This Desirable?
When we lay out the state of livelihoods in India to find work for our species, we forget the other living beings with whom we share physical and spiritual space. We rarely envision the world we will leave behind even 50 years hence. What would be the state of our environment, natural and man-made urban, when over 50% of our population lives in cities in 2050? I was taken up by Aseem Shrivastava’s argument in the Economic & Political Weekly of 16 July 2016. (Also https://www.thehindu.com/opinion/op-ed/facing-the-future-of-development/article23505889.ece)
“To spell it out … not only would poverty have become a thing of the distant past by 2041, and prosperity and well-being the general norm, some 75%–80% of India’s population of 1.6 billion, which is to say some 1.2–1.28 billion people (the entire population of India at the moment) will find itself living in cities. Finance ministers in both Congress-led United Progressive Alliance as well as BJP-led National Democratic Alliance governments have shared this hope. What would this mean in concrete terms? In urban and metropolitan India, it would mean that a miraculous 200 million additional jobs will be created in the next quarter century, at the rate of 25 million new jobs every year. As pointed out earlier, we are already an order of magnitude behind the asking rate of job creation for the rapidly growing workforce since 1991. It would also mean that our cities are suddenly able to provide the enormous infrastructure— of clean air and water, sanitation and power, roads and communication, housing and security—for some 800 million more people!”
Society has no thinking that ties together economic development with the preservation of nature – consume less & responsibly to retain clean air, water, forests and soil. In fact, agriculture in India is in deep ecological distress, having moved as far as possible from a mimicry of natural forests – our soil devastated by chemicals and mono-crops grown repeatedly for cash instead of nurturing food. Instead of moving towards healing foods, we slide towards an even more poisoned, chemical future. India has clearly broken with its organic connections with nature that are, even today, a signal presence in every aspect of our various Hindu and Tribal traditions. A weak social conscience flickers in the fast onto death of sadhus in Haridwar against the damming of the Ganga, but society basks in its ecological destruction.
I thought that we made a grave mistake by a wholesale adoption of materialist Marxist thought and structures after Independence without evaluating their relevance to the agricultural Indian milieu, and now our wholesale capitulation to materialist Capitalist ideology that is also leading us to headlong urbanisation is equally disastrous in a world gone mad with consumerism. Indian society lurches in a drunken stupor from one ideological extreme to another, altogether forgetting Gandhi and the alternative paths he had showed us. My grandfather Charan Singh had developed on elements of Gandhian thinking – the village and crafts – to establish a middle-path economic development framework. It yet remains as valid today as it was in the Seventies and Eighties, but as few are willing to listen now as they were then. I will come back to this part of my argument in the last section on crafts.
The Changing Structure of Sectoral Employment in India
Labor Force ~
GDP (Rs Crores)
Total Labor Force
*Agriculture, Forestry & Fishing ** Manufacturing, Construction, Mining and quarrying, Gas, Electricity, Water Supply *** Services: Unorganised Services are 55% of all service sector employment, 17% of total employment. Petty retail, Trade, Hotel, Transport, Domestic workers. Organised Services: Big retail, Trade, Transport, Hotels & restaurants, IT/BPO (2.77 million in 2012, too small to matter), Education, Health, Public Administration, Financial services, Post & Telecommunications, Security Services.
47% of India’s population is occupied solely in agricultural and lives off only 14% of the nation’s GDP, while 32% of the population in the newer occupations of Services garners 60% of the GDP. As SWI points out, the mismatch between share of GDP and share of employment is a feature that has become starker every decade since 1950.
Today, the vast difference in the quality of life of a Scheduled Caste woman working as an itinerant agricultural labourer in a village in Bihar earning less than Rs. 2,000 a month and that of the lowest grade of government employee in the city of Delhi earning Rs. 18,000 a month (with benefits) is simply inexcusable. What is perhaps equally unfortunate is endemic poverty and deep inequality that exist in India are not a part of the awareness of our elite.
I believe this is because we did not invest in agriculture nor invest adequate efforts in land reform in the decades immediately after Independence, and we neglected universal primary education and universal primary health care. Collectively, these investments would have reduced the growth of our population, provided purchasing power to the villages that would in turn have generated the demand to develop the secondary (manufacturing) and tertiary (services) sectors. In addition, we missed the equality, employment and environmental bus because we did not invest in village level micro (‘cottage’) industries, including traditional hand-crafted occupations. The elite in India have leapfrogged into the fossil fuel driven economy of Europe and the USA, while the vast majority is forgotten behind. The ‘bullock cart economy’ as a euphemism for rural India is not a pejorative as far as I am concerned, the use of this low energy non-fossil fuel vehicle symbolises an approach that may very well have solved many of our long-term problems.
Increasing GDP growth does not equal a proportionate number of jobs created.
Growth rates in Employment and GDP: Fewer Jobs than Before 
GDP growth %
“The percent change in employment for every percent change in GDP captures the effectiveness of GDP growth in delivering employment growth. … Unfortunately, even as GDP growth rates have risen, the relationship between GDP growth and employment growth has become weaker over time.” As the time series data above makes obvious, the last 15 years have been the worst period for growth in employment even as the national GDP grew the fastest it ever has in the history of British and Independent India. Employment in manufacturing, for example, has stagnated for over the last 25 years between 10-13% of the workforce.
If robust GDP growth creates far fewer jobs than it did earlier, mustn’t we ask who is this GDP growth serving? If the industrial and service sectors of the economy are growing robustly at the gross level, but employment is not, then who is taking home the additional income from greater economic activity and enhanced labor productivity? In short, isn’t GDP growth India leading to increased inequality?
Is GDP growth then – by itself – a relevant measure of a people’s prosperity, in its fullest sense, rather than a measure of the prosperity of the organised private and public sector that constitutes less than 10% of the Indian population?
This is a stunning and simple analysis, and it should change the perspective of those who believe we can follow the China model of the 1980s to become the manufacturing base of this century with an ever-increasing portion of our workforce employed in manufacturing. What these data points say is even if we did get lots more manufacturing to move to India, it would enhance GDP growth and create some new jobs – but it would not increase the proportion contribution of this sector to overall employment, and it would certainly increase income inequality in the bargain.
Organised manufacturing grew its share of total manufacturing from 18% in 2011 to 27.5% in 2015. This, in effect, cannibalised the share of unorganised, smaller-firm manufacturing. Corporate profits have widened as in the 15-year period till 2015, output went up 15 times with [only] a doubling of employment. 
The Kuznets-Lewis transition in economics is understood, as SWI tells us, to be two-fold: from agriculture to more productive manufacturing and services, and from ‘disorganised’ (self-employed, micro enterprise) to the ‘organised’ (corporate, capitalist) sector. This movement has taken place in a few economies in Asia – Japan, Korea, Taiwan, and China – but does not hold for most nations today including India whose movement is lateral or perhaps a few steps backward. In the transition from agriculture, construction has created more jobs than manufacturing and services: this now employs 50 million workers, equal to the entire manufacturing sector. Construction is today the largest rural employer after agriculture. Ironically, this massive increase in this energy and raw material intensive sector is having the most visible and negative ecological impact as our nation pollutes its way to higher income status. Massive quantities of polluting fossil fuels and raw material is unsustainably mined to feed the brick kilns, plastic, cement, glass, aluminium and steel factories whose output goes into constructing the modern homes, offices, highways, airports and seaports that are the mainstays of our modern economy.
“The transition from an agrarian and subsistence-oriented informal economy of self-employed micro-entrepreneurs to a growth-oriented industrial and service economy consisting of large firms and regulated employment has been delayed.” To my mind this transition will never take place fully in India, and we must adapt our strategies to a unique model relevant to Indian conditions rather than one based on others experiences. There simply aren’t enough manufacturing and service jobs in the world to feed our vast army of underemployed and unemployed men and women, even if we could invite them into the country which we cannot. We have witnessed the dramatic curtailing of employment in the IT and BPO sector in India (new employment in this once forever sunrise industry is down from 250,000 a year to 100,000), partly due to protectionist factors in the rich customer nations and partly due to equally dramatic changes in technology where human intervention in commerce and production is being reduced to the very barest minimum. Even though the 3 million IT/BPO employees form a minuscule 0.7 percent of the employment universe in India, the industry is a bellwether for export-oriented service industry and the hope of the Indian middle classes. Here too, as in manufacturing, there is a de-coupling of headcount and productivity due to the heavy application of 4IR technologies and the constant pressure of adequate return on capital to shareholders. In effect, our gifted software engineers are working very hard to automate and eliminate the jobs of their own brethren in the coming decades. This is not, by any means, to belittle the many contributions of the IT/BPO sector to India’s place in the world of technology – it is simply a reality.
SWI asks two critical questions at this stage where it recognises the fracture of this process: the first of social equity, that is, for whom are the Kuznets and Lewis jobs being created? This question has been asked often and disregarded by the elites since 1947 as the Kuznets-Lewis movement served their purpose and that of their children. And second of ecology: what would these jobs and economic activity do to the natural environment we inhabit? 
SWI goes on to state something exceptional, one that I find heartening “Rapid improvement in farm incomes will not only have immediate welfare implications for half the workforce, but it will improve working conditions in the rest of the economy as well.”  Making the village wealthy will create demand for the products of the manufacturing and services sectors, as I have argued elsewhere in this document.
We need to simultaneously reimagine the inevitability of urbanization, the fleeing of rural India, and the re-construction of our villages. In 1928, on the seventh anniversary of Sriniketan, Tagore stated his goal of creating a model for village uplift …
“If we could free even one village from the shackles of helplessness and ignorance, an ideal for the whole of India would be established…Let a few villages be rebuilt in this way, and I shall say they are my India. That is the way to discover the true India.”
Unemployment in increasing, especially in the educated and in the youth, particularly in the Northern states of India.
In India, employment means self-employment – over 90% of all working men and women above the age of 15 people work for themselves and by themselves. ‘Formal’ jobs with job and social security – that is, employment with a written long-term contract providing health care, potential for savings, health and pension benefits – are variously estimated to be between 7 to 9% of the total Indian workforce. Clearly, there is a vast differential between the organised and unorganised sectors, leading to a very skewed urban-rural inequality. The formal jobs are overwhelmingly situated in the urban areas, roughly equally split between the government (the bureaucracy at the state and central, public sector corporations, and massive employers like the armed forces and the railways) and private sector corporations big and smaller. These few wage workers are the most privileged of the Indian people.
Population, Labour Force and Workforce in India
Population >15 years in millions
Labour Force Participation Rate (LFPR) %
Labour Force Millions
Unemployment rate %
The unemployment rate is up from 2.7% in 2011, the highest for the past 20 years. 9 million of the 23.3 million unemployed (those who have not found a job after 6 months of seeking) have a graduate or higher level of education. These graduates are 38% of the unemployed, but only 10% of the working age population.
Unemployment rate in Graduates is three times the national average of 5%
Literate Below Primary
Certificate Course at UG level
Diploma at UG level
Post Graduate and above
India has 55 million people in the labour force with graduate or higher degrees, indicating 16% of this class is unemployed: three times the national unemployment rate of 5%.
Youth, Male & North Indian over-represented in the Unemployed
60% of the 23.3 million unemployed are in the 15-25 years age bracket, though they form only 30% of the total working age population.
60% of all the unemployed are men.
5% of the 15-25 years old are unemployed
Unemployment rate in the 15-25 years old is three times the national average of 5% 
What will happen when those who are currently enrolled in higher education join the labour force? The national education gross enrollment ratio (GER) moved from 12% in 2005 to 24.5% in 2015. Uttar Pradesh, with a population of 220 million, has grown its GER at 7%, almost twice the national average of 3.7% which implies many more poorly educated Graduate youth without anything to do in the most densely populated and communally sensitive state in India. You don’t need much imagination to foretell the potential for social disruption.
Quality and Purpose of Education
The modern school and college system graduates youth singularly unprepared for jobs in the very manufacturing and service sectors of the economy they are ostensibly being educated for. SWI quotes authoritative studies which conclude that only 7% of all engineering and business school graduates are suitable for employment. No one obtains an education and remains in agriculture. So, we educate our rural youth to move away from what they have in whatever small way and move towards a future that rejects them.
Should we really be educating all our youth for jobs in factory manufacturing and other urban services – jobs that are either in scarce supply, and will become even more so because of the ongoing 4th Industrial Revolution and the global trend of the substitution of labour by capital, or jobs which need new skills that the education system does not impart?
What livelihoods should we be preparing our youth for, and how? Are there pointers for us in the apprenticeship-internship model or on-the-job Guru-Shishya model?
On the other hand, should education be focused solely (or mainly) on skills and employability, however relevant and appropriate this may be, or should education have a higher purpose of social cohesion and building questioning boys and girls of character who, if not one with nature, are at least mindful of it in every sense?
SWI and Amit Basole point out the problem of the contemporary ‘unskilled and educated’ workforce in parallel with the older issue of the ‘skilled and uneducated’ workforce. The conundrum in the first case is there are fewer jobs for the higher educated youth than there are educated, and the ones who are formally educated are not adequately skilled to fit the fewer jobs that are becoming available. Additionally, the educated (even the ones poorly educated) are aspirational and look down on traditional occupations that employed a labor-intensive skill and provided the worker a subsistence living. In the second case, instead of providing literacy to skilled artisans and peasants to be more productive and innovative artisans and peasants we are de-skilling these traditional occupations by providing a colonial education that tries to prepare them for jobs that don’t exist.
We need fewer – and more appropriately skilled – higher (college) educated. We also need the vast majority adequately literate, with numeracy and critical thinking, possessing appropriate craft skills needed for livelihoods using their hands and minds. Last, we need to merge this system of education with our myriad traditional systems of knowledge that included a deep respect for nature.
Agriculture, the Largest Employer, remains in Perpetual Crisis
At 47% of the workforce, agriculture remains the largest single employer in India as it has been for millennia. The proportion of people employed in agriculture drops every year, most of them moving to an equally precarious livelihood in construction, and 47% of the people live on 14% of GDP. Never in the history of our nation have so many lived on so little a share of the national pie.
“There has always been lack of equilibrium, rather a sort of antagonism between cities and the countryside. This is particularly so in our land where the gulf of inequality between the capitalist class and the working class pales into insignificance before that which exists between the peasant farmer in our village and the middle-class town dweller. India is really two worlds-rural and urban. The relationship between the countryside and the cities is, therefore, a vital problem to us.”
The neglect of investment in agriculture since the Second Five Year plan in favour of large, Soviet-style industrialisation continues today: “public investment in agriculture was 3.8% in 1992, 2.2% in the late Nineties, to 1.7% in 2005. While the share in GDP has gone up from its 2005 low, it is still well below the level reached in the early 1990s.”  Investing in agriculture – seeds, cattle, manure, irrigation, storage, local markets, extension services – makes selfish sense for the rest of India’s economy and population: enhanced rural prosperity will increase the demand for city manufactured products and services. Enhanced rural income will reduce migration to the city that reflects rural distress and is a burden on our cities. Enhanced agricultural production will also create a deflationary effect on food prices for the city dweller. What is there not to like in this scenario?
None of this investment should take away from the need for spreading natural, agro-ecological farming practices that bring back crop bio-diversity and mimics nature’s rhythm as it did prior to the 1960s when traditional ‘non-scientific’ subsistence farming methods were in use. I do not recommend more chemical fertiliser factories, more pesticides, more high yielding seeds that are water intensive, more cash crop farming, more monoculture cropping. The problems of rice stubble burning in Punjab for example will go away if Punjabis dramatically reduce rice production, and grow diverse crops instead – millets, oilseeds, lentils, corn – as they did till the 1950s. That is a story by itself, one of reimagining agriculture as an uplifting human endeavour that enables us live in harmony with nature and its many living beings. Investment in agriculture must be made for generations to come, but it remains a short-term profitability exercise that extracts ‘production’ and destroys our forests and rivers and returns nothing to the soil.
Why are the Privileged Agricultural Classes Unhappy? Gujars, Jats, Marathas, Patels are relatively well-to-do, socially dominant middle castes in rural Western and Northern India, known for their farming prowess and peasant work ethic. Why have these privileged farming castes agitated violently so often in the past decade not for higher farm prices and lower inputs but instead for reservations in government jobs?
Agriculture entails a life with hard physical work, inter-generationally fragmented land (80% of all farm holdings in India are now less than 1 hectare in size, just 2.5 acres), unremunerative prices, increasing input costs, reducing income and the localised impacts of global warming. Every small to middle peasant farmer, 2.5 to 10 acres, wants out of farming and an entry to a regular wage job. Ideally, he would like both. A government job is security for life with a good wage, without being accountable, access to good education for the children, life-long health benefits, housing, opportunity for annual savings, and a pension. With fewer jobs (government jobs have remained static for decades) the competition is fierce – these farming castes lose out to the higher castes due to their lack of education, and to the lowest castes due to job reservations scheme in force since Independence. Caught in between, they fight for what they can strong arm from the political parties in power. Well-paying jobs in the formal manufacturing and emerging service sectors are even more competitive and need higher education and specific skills which these rural middle castes often do not possess.
Unremunerative agriculture, lack of alternate livelihoods, insufficient higher education (50% of all graduates and post-graduates are upper caste ) as well as fundamental changes in the very nature of work has led these middle castes to agitate for government jobs – to the extent of wanting to be classified as ‘lower’ castes (Other Backward Castes) for the purposes of employment. The poorer castes, not as assertive and with marginal land holdings, vote with their feet and migrate across the country in search for those very hard jobs in construction or petty manufacturing. There is no future in the village, they flee to the city.
Capital and Technology are Transforming Manufacturing. And Why Manufacturing is not the Panacea for Employment
Manufacturing labour is a relatively smaller part of India’s entire labour force (11%) and organised labour is even smaller at 3%.  The share of Manufacturing employment has remained static at between 10-13% due to technological and other reasons. It is important we keep this relative importance of Employment in Manufacturing in India when we look for solutions to enhance overall employment.
Workers per 1 Crore Invested Capital in Manufacturing:Substitution of Labour for Capital 
Own Account Enterprise
Family based Enterprise
In a labour surplus nation – with 33 million unemployed – capital continues to rapidly substitute labour in in both capital and labour intensive sectors of the economy. Rupees 1 Crore of real (2015 rupees) fixed capital supported the creation of 90 jobs in the organized manufacturing (factory) sector in 1983, which fell to 33 in 1994, and to 8 in 2015 – a reduction of 91% in 32 years. This trend is visible across the entire spectrum of manufacturing – new automation technologies enable micro to large manufacturing establishments substitute labour with capital.
“The result is that a labour-abundant economy has diversified into skill-intensive and capital-intensive sectors.” We have truly put Gandhi’s economy of small producers and small consumers in multiple small economies to rest and are on the path of capital-intensive growth that Nehru and his Soviet-inspired Socialist advisors chose for the nation after 1947. Instead of the large public sector firms of that era, it is the large private corporations of today that claim the ‘commanding heights’ of the economy and society.
Labour productivity in both the organised and un-organised sectors has diverged from wage increases. In the organised manufacturing sector, for example, labour productivity has grown 6 times since 1982, but labour wages have grown only 1.5 times. Managerial compensation has grown faster at more than two times, as has company profitability.  As labour productivity has increased over the decades, capital has retaining the largest chunk as profits. This is bad for income equality, and bad for growing employment in manufacturing.
The so-called Fourth Industrial Revolution – artificial intelligence, the internet of things, robotics, bio-technology, genetic engineering – is reducing employment in manufacturing and services across the world. India has the same multinational corporations that produce globally, and they are clearly increasing automation in their businesses and reducing employment. This technological osmosis will increasingly filter to domestic and smaller firms in India, further eliminating the human element in organised work in manufacturing, services and agriculture.
Another way for companies in the formal sector to increase profitability is lower-paid labourcontracting, which also reduces administrative headaches that come with an increasing workforce. Today, 30% of all workers in organised manufacturing are Contract (or apprentice, trainee) labour, and contract labour constituted a huge 44% of all additional employment between 2000 and 2014. As of today, 37% of workers in Chemicals and 47% of workers in Automobiles are on contract. 
Besides the dramatic reduction of labour employment per unit of capital deployed, SWI brings to our attention the decline of wages as a share of manufacturing “Taken together, these trends, namely rising capital intensity and growing divergence between productivity and wages, [as well as contracting, lower paid female workers, and more hours of work per day] are expected to cause a fall in the share of value-added going to workers in the form of wages and emoluments, with the bulk going to owners of capital …. The share of wages in organised manufacturing fell steadily from a high of over 35% in 1983 to a low of just under 10%, a very large drop.” 
Poverty, Inequality and Gender discrimination hits India’s rural population particularly hard.
While India remains an overwhelmingly rural society with 69% of the population residing in the villages, the urban bias of resource allocation is visible in the imbalance of higher-paying occupations in the cities and the lesser-paying and harder manual work in the rural areas.
2% of all Indian households earn more than Rs 50,000 a month. 75% of these households live in the city.
93% of all rural households earn less than Rs 20,000 a month. That is, less than Rs 4,000 monthly per individual on food, clothes, shelter, health, education, marriage and entertainment. These constitute 73% of all households in India.
22% of all of India’s households earn less than Rs 5,000 a month, on or below the poverty line of Rs 30 a day. 86% of India’s population earning less than Rs 1,000 a month per head, or 223 million people, live in the villages.
87% of India’s households are paid less than the minimum salary defined by the Seventh Pay Commission of Rupees 18,000 a month.
Caste Representation in Occupations
Representation Index (% in occupation / % in workforce)
Craft & Trade
Plant & Machine
Personal Services, Sales & Security
Senior Officers & Managers
Technical & Associate Professionals
Average Monthly Income (Rupees)
A value of 0.5 indicates that the percentage of that group is half their representation in the population. SWI 2018, Page 133
The Scheduled Castes and Tribes are heavily represented in the lower paying elementary occupation, while the upper castes are heavily represented at the top end in occupations that pay 5 times as well.
Not surprisingly, women’s labour at home and in the fields is not counted as ‘work’ which is only measured in economic terms that require wage being exchanged for labour. “These activities and groups are ‘outside the labour force’:  Attended educational institutions, Attended only to domestic duties (NSS Code 92), Attended to domestic duties and was also engaged in free collection of goods (vegetables, roots, firewood, cattle feed etc.) (NSS Code 93), Sewing, tailoring, weaving etc. for household use, Rentiers, Pensioners, Remittance recipients, Others (prostitutes, beggars etc.), Did not work due to sickness, Children 0-4 years.”
On the other hand, those women who do participate in the paid labour economy are discriminated against:
Only a minority of women work for wages: women constitute 22% of manufacturing jobs (both organised and un-organised sector), and an ever smaller 16% of all service sector jobs.
Wage discrimination is rife: women earn ranging between 35% and 85% of men’s earnings; with 65% on average.
There is something very wrong with our ‘work’ measurement system where being paid is core and not looking after the children, the home and many aspects of rural life. I, for example, am not unhappy that women are not uprooted from their rural homes and employed in distant factories, though there is no reason to have them less than 10% in high paying urban jobs in finance, insurance and real estate. Must we look for measures of a women’s self-worth that solely emulate advanced post-industrial societies or is there value in their work that must be acknowledged in the context of the society they live in, and this same work made easier and freed from patriarchy.
Patriarchy in the Western and North-Western states shines through: the participation rate (PR) of women (ratio of female to male participation in the labour force) in the labour force is lowest in the country in Uttar Pradesh, J&K, Punjab at 0.15 and 0.16, In fact, Punjab and UP have only 11% of their women in the labour force. PR in Bihar, Delhi and Haryana is 0.18 to 0.20; while the Southern and NE states range between 0.40 to 0.76.
If household work and unpaid subsistence work in the fields were considered for women, these ratios would come to par or indeed more than men’s contribution. On the other hand, women’s participation rate in the workforce would improve if (a) more time suitable (fitting in with their domestic unpaid responsibilities) and physically proximate paid work were available (b) social restrictions imposed by patriarchy on women were removed, especially in the Western and NW states or (b) they were able to find time from their ‘unpaid’ domestic duties by men helping. 
Another aspect of rural employment in general and women’s work in particular – an aspect few know about – are the multiple occupations a woman might work at to earn a livelihood. These range from daily labour wage work, MNREGA work, animal husbandry, agricultural work, stitching, handloom weaving, sand mining, brick kiln, mid-day meal cooking. While work wages are low and precarious, even this comes after much struggle from multiple itinerant occupations. This is a unique feature of employment for both men and women across our rural areas, with the burden falling disproportionately on women.
Within this generally grim picture, there are some spots of optimism. The female-male ratio in primary teaching rose from 23.5% to 51.3% and from 13.6% to 33.3% in secondary teaching in between 1993 and 2011. This was due mainly to government flagship schemes, but a ‘large number were on contract and not regular employees of the government’. There were large increases in health workers (doubling to 288,000 in 2011) (National Health Mission, ASHA workers) but with far below minimum wages, and all on contract.
Endurance of Caste at Work
Distribution of Indian Households by Social Groups
SC and ST groups are over-represented in low paying jobs, and severely under-represented in the high paying occupations. ”Upper caste groups are over-represented among professionals, managers and clerks …. Occupations requiring higher levels of formal education.” SCs earn slightly more than half (56%) of upper caste wages, OBCs earn 72%.  “In general, these gaps are larger in the self-employed category, for intermediate levels of education, and in the unorganised sector.” 
Upper caste groups are over represented (as compared to their share in the population) in occupations requiring higher education by 25% to 65%: professionals, clerks, technical and associate professionals, senior officials and managers, personal services, sales and security. Lower castes and OBCs are over-represented at the other end of the spectrum: elementary occupations and agriculture. In leather manufacturing, for example, SCs are 240% of their share of the population. SC & ST, as to be expected, are better represented in public administration due to long-standing affirmative action policies.
Hence, the rise in job quota agitations by the middle castes can be seen as an affirmation of the success of affirmative action (reservations) in government jobs and in higher education both of which are positively associated with higher earnings.
SWI does not have religious community-based information as there is none in the voluminous reports put out by government. This is unfortunate, as religion-based differences in employment, industry employed, wages, and status of gender can provide valuable pointers to intervention required by the state and by the community itself.
Crafts at Work
Must all our futures be urban, implying a wrenching migration of hundreds of millions of people from rural India to our less-than-liveable cities? Can our villages not be re-imagined with crafts as local industry for the modern world? Can crafts address some of the problems of rural unemployment, rural migration, sustainable development and gender equity? Ashoke Chatterjee  indicates the possibilities
“ Symbolic of its civilisation, the loom in India represents a heritage unbroken through thousands of years. The loom became Gandhi’s catalyst for freedom, and emerged through six decades of planned development as the nation’s largest source of livelihood after agriculture. Today, the Indian loom in several incarnations—handloom, power loom and mill production— represents a huge industry, within which handlooms provide the most jobs—more than four million by conservative estimates and up to 20 million by others. ……
……Former Microsoft India Chairman Ravi Venkatesan observes that India has prematurely given up on its artisans just as the demand for sustainably produced goods, unique designs, and contemporary handcrafted items is growing rapidly globally. “What this suggests is an urgent need to revive cooperatives and producer organisations, scale up entrepreneurship and innovative ecosystems in which multiple stakeholders can come out of their silos and collaborate toward sustainability and scale.”
These are extracts from Chatterjee’s Fifth Kamaladevi Chattopadhyay Memorial Lecture on October 29, 2014 as he eloquently paints an agenda for change despite the systemic odds. Seemingly insurmountable problems are often more about effective implementation than a lack of ideas.
…… “This crisis demands understanding not merely because millions of Indian lives are at stake. More critical is the crisis of values and of mindsets that is the root cause. How and when did pride and confidence in India’s artisans transform into apathy and contempt, their skills dismissed as obsolescent and their culture as defeated? A nation that lacks basic data for its second largest industry is clearly not committed to it. If even economic potential is ignored or regarded as a threat to modernity and power, what chance is there for those other craft values that are cultural, social, environmental and spiritual? Has an India emerged that no longer values the need for different knowledge systems to coexist and enrich one another? The only constant over these years has been showcasing of crafts and artisans on festive occasions, to the accompaniment of mantras extolling our ancient heritage and cultural superiority. Walking the craft talk has been another matter altogether. ……
……. Almost at the same moment that influential Indian planners were declaring craft a sunset activity, the European Union could be heard proclaiming that the ‘future is handmade’…. The call from Europe is a reminder that creativity and innovation are the only human capacities available to any economy if it is to survive and to flourish in today’s globalised economy……Perhaps a first need is for a respectful acceptance of the marketplace as a space familiar to Indian artisans throughout history, and the only space that can deliver meaningful livelihoods. Today’s challenge is to empower the artisan to negotiate effectively with market forces, rather than to fear them. Gandhi’s respect for the customer, the ultimate user of the handmade, was legendary. ……
……It was the changing market in India and overseas that forged partnerships between craftspersons and designers to develop an idiom of Indian craft that could respond to contemporary need. The challenge therefore is not one of market threat but rather fostering the capacity of artisans to negotiate effectively with the market, and effectively protect their own interests within a situation of constant change and unrelenting competition. ……
….. The need now is for building greater management capacities and services at the grassroots, for entrepreneurship capacities that can negotiate unlimited market opportunities at home and overseas, as well as the range of market threats. Self-reliant entrepreneurship rooted in inherited wisdom and combined with current knowledge is perhaps the most essential prerequisite for sustainable livelihoods from handcraft…
…. Perhaps as no other industry, craft is deeply involved with the most fundamental development agendas of our time: managing threats to the environment, promoting justice and equity and peace by bringing the deprived into the centre of concern, empowering women through recognition of their craft roles and contributions, offering identity and confidence in an era threatened by globalised uniformity, providing sustainable livelihoods to households and communities in their own locations through the use of local resources, protecting them from the miseries of migration, and leaving a light carbon footprint to address the threat of climate change. In other words, an industry that probably reflects as no other, both the issues as well as the opportunities for sustainable development. ……
That is indeed a future that Indian hands can help make — handmade in India for the world.”
 “State of Working India 2018”, Centre for Sustainable Employment. Azim Premji University. Page 58
The Hindu of Saturday 4 November 2017 covered the World Food India conference and exhibition in Delhi with headlines on the Business page that informed me much about the development discourse centered around business, and the continuing neglect of agriculture and rural India.
The first of three headlines is ‘PepsiCo Leads ₹68,000 Crore plans for Food Sector’ with the Akali MP from Punjab and minister for food processing industries quoted ‘we have signed MoUs worth ₹68,000 Cores on the first day…’. $10.2 billion, an impressive amount by any calculation.
From whom has the government obtained this investment? PepsiCo, Coca Cola, ITC and Patanjali. Each one of these worthies vend us products that are known to create diseases ranging from digestive disorders, hypertension, heart disease, diabetes and cancer. Processed foods are shot full of the Great Evils (pesticides, fertilisers) and the Greater Evils (sugar, salt, oil, preservatives). These four companies, and their clones, are the ones to which our lazy government would outsource food distribution fully if they could, instead of creating eco-systems for family farmers to grow and sell food without chemicals, help them diversify their production from wheat and rice to a range of rapidly disappeared traditional foods (like millets), fruits and vegetables, and establish vibrant local fresh produce marketing farmer markets where processing of food simply isn’t needed. But governments are not interested in the genuine health of the population, politicians and bureaucrats live in a rarified world where they are wined and dined by corporate executives influencing them to help them make money, and where they cement privilege and make money for themselves.
FM and PM Chime Together
‘Food processing to be major growth area: consumer choices to fuel change says FM’. Our highly intelligent, knowledgeable, wealthy lawyer turned economics guru Arun Jaitley tells us how “the farm to kitchen chain is going to change in India, with increased agricultural production …. and changing consumer preference”. Who, I wonder, is the consumer he is referring to – the adivasi in the forests, the marginal and small peasant, the landless Dalit, the urban dispossessed? And who is going to change these consumer preferences? The same food processing corporations that most probably paid him to appear in the courts on their behalf all these years? More Coke and Pepsi, more sugared packaged fruit drinks and juices, more potato chips, more chocolates, more fried snacks: these foods are what got him to undergo bariatric surgery in the first place, and he wants to impose that on the rest of wealthy India, forget poor India?
‘Private Sector Must Invest More in Contract Farming: PM’. This headline made me fume as it betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of land-poor India, but it was quite chilling to read Mr. Modi’s entire inaugural speech. Written by a bureaucrat, as there is too much detail in this for him to know himself seeing that he is quite ignorant of the real issues of rural India, agriculture and nutrition for the poor, his recommendation for contract farming was par for the course. The whole approach of a World Food exhibition in Delhi where ‘200 companies from 30 countries, 18 ministerial and business delegations, close to 50 global CEOs’ have gathered to evaluate India as a market for selling their products and as an outsourcing hub is so antithetical to a hungry nation a vast proportion of whose population specially the women and children are malnourished, unhealthy and nutritionally challenged. His speech is targeted to the corporations, to the consuming middle and aspiring classes and holds no hope to the poor. We have overflowing central granaries of wheat and a seriously underfed population; and we also have states like Tamil Nadu and Kerala that have a successful model for a food and nutrition social net for the public and the best health indicators in India (while much needs to be done, including moving away from rice to millets, lentils, fruits and vegetables). And we have a PM who talks blithely of food processing and packaging, food parks, honey, and export of fish.
This is very much a part of chemical farming and consumerist thinking, not an alternative to it. I expect more, much more, from our leader. Alas, there is nothing other than development coming, and we cannot run and hide anywhere from this deluge.
Development for whom and to what purpose is forgotten within the dominant focus on the consuming urban classes, the profits of corporations and the need for the government to showcase investments flocking to India. How much of this will reach the farmer as higher procurement prices? Won’t most of this flow back to the corporations as profits? Is there enhanced livelihood security for the small and marginal farmers (80% of our peasant households) from this investment? And does this in any way enhance nutrition security for the over 300 million who live below the (terribly low) poverty line of Rs 27 a day?
This is not a partisan issue as all political parties are complicit in equating development with ‘GDP growth’ and ‘FDI’ and not in investing in education, health and livelihoods that directly impact the wellbeing of the poor. The World Food Fair, it seems to me, is a bare indictment of our very unequal society where the politician, businessman and bureaucrat work in tandem for the profits of faceless corporations, and is part of the continuing Great Turning Away from the poor across the villages of India.
How many new jobs will be created in heavily automated food processing factories? And how many will go to the youth army of the unskilled unemployed? By their very nature, global corporations will import sophisticated machines and labor eliminating attitudes from their home economies to run these new factories.
How many small farmers will benefit? My estimate is already wealthy larger farmers – a very miniscule number in well-irrigated parts of prosperous regions of India – who contract farm for the corporations will make money from these factories: like the kinnow farmers in Punjab, and potato farmers in Haryana.
How many farmers will, or indeed should, eat this processed and packaged food? Clearly, these foods are targeted at the relatively prosperous urban and rural classes (those earning more than Rs 50,000 a month per household), those who can afford to buy processed and packaged products and those to whom the aspiring lower middle classes (those earning between 20,000 and Rs 50,000 a month per household) look up to help define their eating habits. Witness the wild success of Maggi.
Food security and nutrition – two very different things – is a mirage for most of our population, and none of them will benefit from the poisonous processed foods these companies will retail and none of them will be able to afford these products in terms of the short term (cash) or the long term (health) costs.
What is smothered by the development discourse by liberals and conservatives both is the critical issue of health sovereignty as we increasingly cede our rights to choose healthy, fresh unprocessed foods to corporations. This has already happened in the richer nations (where family farms are almost non-existent) and there is sufficient awareness and scores of scientific studies about the long-term deleterious affect corporate monoculture farming for the consumer economy has on the global environment. Corporations, global and Indian, sell food that panders only to our taste and convenience, brings them profits, and destroys public wellness. Not surprisingly then, the profitable privatization of public health in India – as the government retreats – is in tandem with this increasing corporatization of food.
Why are we silent? We demand that organic producers of food label their food as such and have stringent checks and penalties for misrepresentation (rightly so) while unnaturally grown foods with overdoses of unbalanced chemical fertilisers and pesticides, and preserved with chemicals, sugars, salts and fats have no warning that eating these will surely destroy our health and that of our children?
This is another deeper systemic issue – even the most well-intentioned government, if something like that exists, couldn’t think about public health and wellness in an integrated manner. Like corporations where inter-department conflict is endemic, governments are divided into education, farming, health, food processing, sports as distinct ministries. There is no conversation between these for the collective purpose of defining and working towards true public health: the absence of communicable and lifestyle disease through science and natural agriculture.
What To Do
A healthier citizenry should be a key objective of development, and therefore the government must stop each Ministry from thinking within its own fragment. We must stop moving in the direction of more corporate control of our food and instead increase the availability of wholesome, organically grown foods by our vast numbers of family farms who will thus make a more respectable living. Urban farming must be encouraged, enabling more to engage with growing food (and the transformation that brings) rather then only consume. The foods more people consume need to be diverse – a multitude of locally adapted millets, lentils, fruits and vegetables – and brought to the people by a vast network of efficient small markets and doorstep extension services provided y the government to farmers. The government must simultaneously find ways to support prices for the producer and make it affordable for the consumer.
At a practical level, urban consumers reading this blog must become aware of what they eat – certainly ask tough questions of organic retailers and farmers, but more importantly ask even more difficult questions of the companies who sell you packaged and processed food. This questioning of the new normal of grocery store food and rethinking what is good for your health could be the best thing you ever did for yourself and your family. Perhaps, give up a visit to the malls one weekend and visit an organic farm.
This is not the book of stories of rare men and women of high character, politician or bureaucrat, who arise from the masses and dedicate their lives to understanding and defining the greater and long-term good of society; and then who, selflessly and without personal gain, apply the authority they are given for the sole purpose of making society a better place for the poor in our terribly poor nation.
Perhaps these kinds of people exist today only in our deepest desires, and we are left cold with the reality of Ram Varma’s encounters.
“Life in the IAS” is a strangely honest read as it never masquerades as anything more than it is – the memoirs of a man who enjoyed wielding power and privilege. “I felt like Akbar…” as an entry-level SDM “relaxing on the wide terrace of his palace at Fatehpur Sikri, listening to music and washing down kebabs with draughts of palace wine”. The book shows us up-close the lives of those corrupted by the money and land they stole from the people, lived fearful lives of intrigue, self-preservation, and the promotion of family. The ego of the politician and bureaucrat often clash throughout the book, but are quickly subsumed by the next phase of mutual exploitation. To the cynical reader, there is little to choose between the two.
Written from the vantage point of bureaucrat Ram Varma the book takes us through the political history of Haryana from its founding in 1966, when he joined the IAS, till his retirement as Chief Secretary in 2000. It treats the reader with some juicy reporting on his close encounters with the three famous Lal (and sundry forgettable other) politicians of Haryana, and provides a glimpse into life within the closed club of the powerful India Administrative Service.
Varma has an impressive memory, and his easy ability to rough it out in buses like the common man in his early career is pleasantly fresh. He shares multiple instances of his sense of propriety: ruling against Devi Lal’s relative in 1967 as an SDM, ticking off Rao Birendra Singh’s man, calling the seed farm in Hansi to account, walking out on Bhajan Lal, and in general saying no to various politician demands along the way. By his own account, there was no public scam against his name. He comes across as an efficient man of action, taking decisions on merit and not merely on pressure from others, working long hours when required.
A notable exception is the absence of a discussion of the root causes of state corruption, or examples of the loot of the state by the 3 infamous Lal’s who are known for it across the fair land of Haryana. Varma was there 34 years, so he hides more than he shares for reasons best known to him.
‘Development’ in India today implies the creation of physical assets and rupee wealth (GDP) per person, perhaps that is all it can mean when we are so terribly poor – and without compassion or imagination. Varma writes “although it achieved notoriety in political defections, bungling in public appointments, low girl-child ration and honour killings, yet on the development index Haryana has achieved spectacular success.” How does a Haryanvi reconcile a high growth rate and the highest GDP with the highest female infanticide rate in India? Agricultural output that leads India, but with unsustainable levels of electricity, water, fertiliser and pesticide application? The lowest forest cover in India? Performance in the spread of schools and colleges, but amongst the worst in children’s learning outcomes? And the stifling force of patriarchy and oppressive caste, both in which Haryana leads India.
Then, the multiple instances of special privileges of the IAS and mutual back scratching. Varma is either breathtakingly innocent, or just blasé about this kind of misuse of authority. There is easy access for bureaucrats to luxuries, and the chasm between those serving the common man and the latter becomes deeper and wider: Ahuja, (IAS) Secretary Industries advising Varma ‘… why don’t you buy a car then? I’ll get you a Fiat car from the government quota. Later you can sell it off at a premium.’ (Varma did indeed later purchase a car from the state government quota, we are not informed what he sold it for); the Tehsildar finds land for him to buy and takes him there, his IAS batchmate (the Haryana registrar of Cooperative Societies) advices him to buy the land in his wife’s name and then also proceeds to give the ‘farmer’ wife a loan of Rs. 25,000 to buy the land. In 1975, he accepted a ‘small gold chain with a pendant’ from Bansi Lal’s wife, happy that he ‘received a present instead of giving one’. I don’t recollect some accepting a gift from a politician’s wife without favours in return.
Varma was appointed CMD of Central Warehousing Corporation in Delhi it because of an IAS Joint Secretary, a friend who was ‘mainly instrumental in my selection’: so much for job interviews and ability. He travelled to Seoul heading the Haryana Olympic Association (‘I had never even been a piddling player in my college days’); went Washington DC to attend a meeting of the World Bank for a loan, and where he says he contributed zilch: it was ‘grand holiday at state expense in the beautiful capital of the United States’. Not to forget a visit to Israel for developing Fisheries in the landlocked state of Haryana, and a tourist visit to Egypt as a travel bonus.
“Bansi Lal allotted me a plot at a prime location in Gurgaon which came handy for meeting the expenses of her (daughter’s) two years stay in London”; another plot in a housing society for IAS officers in Sector 42 Chandigarh, sold for another daughters ostentatious wedding; and at the end of his career he gets another bonanza – Varma is elected President of a new co-operative society for bureaucrats where he is not a member, and is sent the papers for his membership – backdated! “it came my way unasked”.
Politicians, representatives of the People
Bansi Lal comes out best, Devi Lal next, and Bhajan Lal is not even a footnote. Varma remains in awe of Bansi Lal, and his penchant for getting things done rubbed off on the young IAS. “For Rao Birendra Singh and Devi Lal power was an end in itself, for Bansi Lal it was a means to an end. He appeared haunted by a vision … to transform his arid native landscape into irrigated fields and pastures”. Bhajan Lal was best at ‘MLA management’ and all that means, and as CM recommended to Varma reinstatement of 100 suspended State Transport Corporation bus conductors on valid grounds of embezzling bus fares from customers. These conductors had bribed to obtain jobs and postings on prime routes, they had to find ways to pay for the bribes. Devi Lal was committed to his rural constituency implementing populist measures of old age pension and farm loan waivers, and actively spreading patronage to his family. The worst he did was give birth to Om Prakash, the one politician who indicated his potential when he was caught at Delhi’s international airport smuggling in wrist watches in 1978. Those of us who live in Gurgaon know how the residential plots along MG Road all converted to malls during his reign. He was caught red-handed in the teacher recruitment scandal and (at 78) is currently undergoing 10 years imprisonment, a first for an Indian politician.
There are contradictions in the book for the discerning mind: the upper caste and urban bias in the officer base even 70 years after independence; posts for the IAS that are ‘punishment’ and leave with pay (Secretary, Printing and Stationary); and the IAS looking on itself as ‘man management and overseeing target achievement’.
Varma, almost 80 today, writes a book that is worth a read for those seeking in its pages the hidden world of power, exploitation, false prestige and genteel corruption, or just a voyeuristic walk through the tribulations forced on the people of Haryana by politicians who they repeatedly elected and bureaucrats who they did not. You choose the book you want to read.
Uzramma, President, Federation of All India Handloom Organisations
Shyam Benegal, Film Maker
Leo Saldana, Environmental Activist
Suresh JK, Lok Vidya Jan Andolan
Chockalingam M, Industrialist
Ajay Kumar Singh, Retd Dir.General Police of Karnataka
P V Rajgopal, Founder Ekta Parishad
Dr. Rajendra Singh, The Waterman of India
Macherla Mohan Rao, Founder of Rastra Chenetha Jana Samakhya
Shivakumar P, Cost Accountant
Dr.A.R.Vasavi, Punarchith Foundation, Ex Dean NASI
Dr. Chandrashekar Pran, President, Vardan Foundation Allahabad
In the past, all human production was made by the hand. Now, most production happens through the machine. Hand production, like wildlife, is facing extinction. What that means is the extinction of the human race itself. For, machine production is highly carbon intensive, environmentally and even morally degrading. The machine culture has brought serious disruption into our social and cultural life. The machine has made millions of people jobless. It has made the majority poor and a minuscule minority vulgarly rich. The machine culture has made the human being a slave of the marketplace and set in a new disease called consumerism.
The great Indian tradition
Indians have always been great handcrafters. For example, we were once a rich nation through the export of our cotton handlooms. We made the handmade product a symbol of our protest against the colonial rule. We had declared the principles of Swadeshi and Gramswaraj as our tool to build a modern democratic India. Our national flag, even today, is made by the hand.
Machine culture is a world phenomenon
Machine production and consequent degradation of human civilization is a worldwide phenomenon. We in India had tried to control this phenomenon by adopting the principle of positive discrimination for the handmade. This principle maintained a balance between the manmade and machine-made, rural and urban, rich and poor, tradition and modernity.
The anti-Rural stance of GST
For the first time since independence, a tax has been imposed on all handmade products. Khadi, handloom, handicrafts, all are taxed under the new Goods and Services tax (GST) regime. Rural sector, already distressed, will take a turn for the worse. It is a topsy-turvy regime. Luxury products have become cheaper, while handmade products have become expensive. Cars and cigarettes cost less, while a Khadi saree, a handloom kurta, a mat, pot and plough shall cost more from now on.
A handmade product is naturally expensive
Handmade products are “naturally” expensive. A Khadi saree, for example, costs more than a synthetic saree from Surat. It is going to become even more expensive now. And lose even more market share. You could say, “So what? Let it lose. That which cannot survive in the marketplace need not survive.” No, you cannot say that!
Even for our own survival, we need to protect the rural enterprise. Handmade is environment-friendly. Handmade is, almost entirely, carbon neutral. If we want global warming to be reversed, if we want environmental degradation to be halted, and more importantly, if we do not want hordes of displaced villagers to descend on the “smart city”, we must support handmade products.
Gram Seva Sangh is leading a ‘TAX DENIAL’ satyagraha against the imposition of GST on handmade products. This we believe is the second tax denial satyagraha. The first was in 1930, when we had fought the British against an inhuman tax on salt. Nearly a century later, we are compelled to launch a second tax denial satyagraha against our own government for levying an inhuman tax on rural products.
Saint Tradition and Handcrafting
To protect handmade is to protect the moral fiber of this country. For, there is a profound relationship between handcrafting and morality in the Sant Parampara, the saint tradition of India. Sant Ravidas, SantKabir, Sant Kanakadasa and Vachanakara Sants were all handcrafting people. The frugal economics of handcrafting, social equity and the virtues of simple living are the three fundamental tenets of the Sant Parampara of India. Today, that Parampara is in danger.
Politics of the market
Britain had enslaved India as much through the gun as through the capitalist industry; as much through politics as through commerce. They came as merchants, became our rulers, plundered our natural resources, brought machine made products, and forcibly sold them to us.
They did so through tax manipulations. Handmade was taxed heavily while the British machine was given huge concessions. It was a standard trick. The same trick is being played by our governments now.
GST, created jointly by all state governments and the central government is both disruptive and wrong. It only serves automation that is spreading death across the globe by destroying the nature, the environment and the hand skill.
Handmade Was Profitable
There was a time when we obtained everything, clothing transport food utensils everything, handmade. These products were exported. They earned gold. We were not poor then. The British came to India not seeking poverty, but gold.
What is Swarajya, What is Swadeshi?
Swarajya is not mere border counting. Swarajya is not Hinduism, nor is it Islamism,nor it is Patriotism. Swarajya means governing the self. Uniting all the self-governed is true Swarajya. But, Swarajya and Swadeshi got distorted somewhere on the way. The distortion began with partition. Politicians who partitioned this country, on the basis of religion, were responsible for this distortion. Let us not forget that the poor Hindu and the poor Muslim are both, predominantly, farmers and craftsperson’s. They built Swadeshi through hand production.
We have all failed!
We, the Hindus, the Muslims, the Christians, all jointly became slaves of automation. We all became irreligious in the process. Congress committed this mistake. BJP is now committing the same mistake. There is no point in blaming each other. Let us join hands and correct the mistake.
This Satyagraha is a consumer atonement movement. We the consumers shall protest, by selling handmade products publicly, without either paying or collecting tax. This is civil disobedience as well. We are willing to face the law, but shall not give up the Satyagraha until the tax is rescinded.
Definition of handmade
“Any product that uses not less than two thirds hand process including operated instruments (such as a loom, a plough) and not more than one third machine processed can be considered as handmade”.
The turnover limit for Individuals and Self Help Groups (SHGs) producing handmade products need to be increased to INR 50 Lakhs from the present limit of INR 20 Lakhs (subject to periodic review).
All handmade products produced and marketed by their Co-operative Societies and Federations should be subject to Zero Tax with no limit of turnover under the current GST regime.
It shall give an impetus to the rural economy to be competitive in the market.
It shall encourage self-employment in rural India.
It shall in turn add fuel to ‘Make in India’ movement.
It shall help in reviving and stabilizing the lost/fast vanishing Indian heritage artistic products
Government to form “Handmade Board” (similar to Khadi & Village Industries Board), build in governance framework and regulate the rural industry through registered Co-operative Societies and Federations.
All Input Purchases made through such registered Co-operative Societies and Federations should be subjected to Zero Tax. Similarly, all Sales made by the these organisations should also be at Zero Tax to consumers
Handmade Impregnated, coated, covered or laminated textile fabrics; textile articles of a kind suitable for industrial use
Handmade Knitted or crocheted fabrics
Handmade Articles of apparel and clothing accessories, knitted or crocheted or otherwise
Handmade Other made up textile articles, sets, worn clothing and worn textile articles; rags
Handmade Metal Crafts
Handmade Wood Crafts
Handmade Leather Crafts
Handmade Glass & Ceramics
Natural Fibre Crafts
Handmade Stone Craft
Handmade Terracotta (Pottery)
Handmade Dolls, Toys & Other Crafts
Hand block Printing
Handmade Printing Embroidery Craft
Handmade Musical Instruments
Hanmade Bamboo Crafts
Handmade safety matches
Handmade Agarbatti & other Odoriferous
Handmade Essential oils and resinoids
Handmade toilet & washing preparations
Handmade Candles and similar articles
Handmade Tableware, kitchenware, other household articles and Hygiene or toilet articles
Manufactures of straw, Basket-ware and wickerwork
Handmade Paper Crafts
Handmade Carton boxes
Handmade Boxes, pouches, wallets
Handmade Exercise book, graph book, & laboratory note book
Handmade Envelopes, letter cards, plain postcards
Handmade Registers, account books, note books, order books, receipt books, letter pads, memorandum pads, diaries and similar articles,
Handmade Umbrellas, sun umbrellas, walking-sticks, seat-sticks, whips, riding- crops and parts thereof
Handmade Prepared feathers and down and articles made of feather or of down – artificial flowers; articles of human hair
Handmade Hand tools, such as spades, shovels, mattocks, picks, hoes, forks and rakes; axes, bill hooks and similar hewing tools; secateurs and pruners of any kind; scythes, sickles, hay knives, hedge shears, timber wedges and other tools of a kind used in agriculture, horticulture or forestry
Handmade Broomsticks and Muddhas made of sarkanda, phool bahari jhadoo
Handmade Pencils, crayons, pastels, drawing charcoals, writing or drawing chalks and tailor’s chalk
Handmade Footwear gaiters and the like; parts of such articles
Services by way of job work in relation to; Printing of newspapers; Textile yarns (other than of man-made bres) and textile fabrics; Cut and polished diamonds; precious and semi-precious stones; or plain and studded jewellery of gold and other precious metals, falling under Chapter of HSN; Printing of books (including Braille books), journals and periodicals; Processing of hides, skins and leather falling under Chapter 41 of HSN
Services by way of admission to exhibition of cinematograph films where price of admission ticket is one hundred rupees or less.
Job work in relation to manufacture of umbrella
Job work in relation to manufacture of clay bricks falling under CTH 69010010
Construction of a complex, building, civil structure or a part thereof, intended for sale to a buyer, wholly or partly
Supply of Food/drinks in restaurant not having facility of air-conditioning or central heating at any time during the year and not having licence to serve liquor.
Composite supply of Works contract as defined in clause 119 of section 2 of CGST Act
Cultural Performance Sector
Services by way of admission or access to circus, Indian classical dance including folk dance, theatrical performance, drama
Services by an artist by way of a performance in folk or classical art forms of- (a) music, or (b) dance, or (c) theatre, if the consideration charged for such performance is not more than one lakh and fifty thousand rupees: Provided that the exemption shall not apply to service provided by such artist as a brand ambassador.
Our intensive farm operations continued, alongside a growing understanding of strategic issues. I started to understand the core message from Albert Howard and other natural farming pioneers: the forest is nature’s farm. No one waters the forest, no one manures or fertilises it, no one ploughs it and it is yet such a vibrant natural environment for microorganisms, animals, birds and all kind of plants and trees that co-exist for thousands of years in that forest as long as man does not intervene. What did natural farmers have to learn from nature’s farm? That ploughing, irrigation, manuring, mono-cropping, and annual plants are over-rated. That the trees are wonders of nature, and we should embrace them more than we do in agriculture.
“Agricultural science has been misused to make the farmer, not a better producer of food, but a more expert bandit. He has been taught how to profiteer at the expense of posterity – how to transfer capital in the shape of soil fertility and the reserves of his livestock to his profit and loss account. In business such practices end in bankruptcy; in agricultural research they lead to temporary success. All goes well as long as the soil can be made to yield a crop. But soil fertility does not last forever; eventually the land is worn out; real farming dies.”
Howard, Albert. An Agricultural Testament. 1940
I heard Elaine Ingham, and American microbiologist and soil biology researcher: “Build the biology” she said, “the chemistry will take care of itself”. I started to read up on soil biology (fungi, bacteria, nematodes, arthropods, protozoa) and the symbiosis of plants with these living organisms in the root zones that provide nutrition to each other and food for humans. Building life in the soil meant the availability of organic matter to provide a welcoming home and food for this biology. It was quite that simple.
The Soil Food Web Courtesy of NRCS, USDA
Building Soil Health
Building soil health through the continuous addition of organic matter became my core preoccupation. We started to add copious amounts from multiple sources, making sure it was chemical free. In 2016, for example, we added perhaps 100 tonnes of diverse biomass to feed the soil. None of this was visible to the naked eye, though, as the soil swallowed all like it was never applied. I realised the enormous appetite of the soil due to the cycle of continuous oxidation of soil carbon in our hot and arid ecology, and the depletion of nutrients from the soil taken up by crops and fruit trees. We applied 20 tonnes of our own cattle FYM on the fruit orchards and vegetable plots; purchased 40 tonnes of FYM twice a year for the tilled crop land; 10 tonnes of leaves and branches from trees growing in Aman Bagh; lugged 0.5 tonne of leaf waste from Gurgaon public parks; 0.5 tonne of vegetable and fruit waste from organic wholesaler Isayorganic; 5 tonnes of sawdust from the village carpenter for deep mulch in all fruit tree basins once a year after the monsoon, and covered the entire floor of all our fruit orchards with 5 tonnes of local Sarkanda grass from the village commons in the winter; the many tonnes of the roots remnants of harvested crops ploughed into the soil and left to decompose; and finally the many tonnes of ‘green manure’ crops.
Fruit Orchard Floor Mulched
Through the addition of biomass, manure and compost we have commenced establishing islands of intense soil nutrition in the basins of all our perennial fruit trees, mirroring the primeval forest floor where leaves, trees and animal remains decompose by the action of the microbes and form food for the trees. The tree basins will be expanded as the trees grow, and 10 years from today we would have built extraordinary fertility in the soil of all the ‘no-till’ fruit groves. Our sandy soil would become a marvel of nutrition, exhibiting attributes of alluvial loamy soil.
For our tilled and seasonally cropped land, we ‘green manure’ annually by ploughing in a nutrition-rich, bio-diverse cocktail of grasses and legumes into the soil before they flower, when they are grown to 3-4 feet. This means ploughing in the green manure crops 45 days after sowing and 15 days before planting the main food crop, depending on how much fallow time we have available. This nutrition – Nitrogen, along with micro-nutrients – makes a stunning difference to the growth of the main crop.
The 1,200 litres of microbiology-rich concoction Jeevamrit (applied alternatively every 15 days in fruit tree basins, in the vegetable beds, and in all cropped land) now has a perennial source of biomass, without the sun and wind desiccating them. The application and making of Jeevamrit has become an operational discipline.
We now follow a thumb rule of keeping 1 animal per acre of land, thus we have a ceiling of three cows, their progeny and our two bullocks – these will provide me 4 tonnes of cattle manure each year. We carefully plan the acreage sown under wheat, Bajra (pearl millet) and Jowar (sorghum) so we have sufficient hay for the full year. This is in addition to the green Jowar fodder during summer, and the green fodder cocktail of Berseem (clover), Rijka and more. The hay is stored for the year in bonga huts sustainably constructed with dried Arhar (pigeon pea) stalks, Khatta (local mulberry) branches and a waterproof roof of tightly woven dried Sarkanda grass (saccharum bengalense). The bonga is but one example of sustainable, local craft and ingenuity.
Bonga for storing hay
Think Village Economy
A learning that reached critical mass in 2016 was to think like a resource-starved peasant in a poor rural economy, which automatically implies low external input and low-cost farming. Till now, I had been thinking like the urban middle class, for whom 500 rupees was as important as 50 rupees to the peasant and no wonder my costs were out of reach of the farms ability to earn. Rather than spin my wheels on increasing production through ways that would increase painful operational effort, I focused on reducing excess and waste in expenses. I have understood that poverty forces environmentally positive decisions, and establishes a live-with-less attitude, a simplicity that is worth emulating. As for revenue, it should come on my terms or not at all. If the produce is good, people should beat their way to my door.
“The maintenance of the fertility of the soil is the first condition of any permanent system of agriculture. In the ordinary processes of crop production fertility is steadily lost: its continuous restoration by means of manuring and soil management is therefore imperative.”
Albert, Howard. An Agricultural Testament. 1940
My self-education continued apace via YouTube videos through books and articles from a variety of global sources on organic farming – Ernst Gotsch in Brazil, Bill Mollison and Toby Hemenway on permaculture, organic farming e-channels; material on natural farming in Indian conditions by Bhaskar Save, Subhash Sharma and Subhash Palekar; and my first structured engagement with permaculture in November 2016 through Aranya in Hyderabad. Permaculture concepts, which had been only of great interest till now, became a reality through experimentation.
Fruit Trees Stabilising
We started to get comfortable with fruit tree manuring and watering requirements, their crop patterns, and managing fruit pests specially the pesky fruit fly attracted to Aman Bagh by the nearby urban waste landfill of Bandhwari. All the trees were fruiting happily – guava, Kinnow, citrus, mango – and we just had to ensure the harvesting; a harbinger of yet-to-come ‘do-little’ farming. For example, we earned 40,000 rupees from a quarter acre of land of Kagzi Nimbu (lemons), far more than any other cash or food crop could give us. We also planted 100 lemons and 50 Kinnow saplings along an extremely sandy soil patch of 15 feet wide along the periphery of Aman Bagh as a source ‘do-little’ farming from 2019, and a 30-tree mango orchard in another ¾th acre that will be the fifth ‘fruit-forest’ within Aman Bagh to go till-free and make over 50% of our farm free from the plough. The mango saplings of Dasehri, Langda and Chausa are two years old now, doing wonderfully well as I write in September 2017, purchased in Shahjahanpur Kithore in Meerut district from master mango breeder Hafiz Nafees Khan.
The Beej Bhandar (Seed Bank) was implemented as a formal initiative in late 2016, a responsibility that has been pushed onto the shoulders of a rather reluctant Abdul Sattar. He is not a structured thinker, and he yet keeps seeds in all parts of the farm where I least expect to find them: gourd seeds in their shells hanging on some random tree, or in a corner of the dairy. We have started storing seeds, carefully sun dried, at one location demarcated by season, kind (fruit, vegetable, cereal, lentil, flowering), and clearly labelled in clean glass bottles. Besides local seeds doing well, we have also seen that saplings grown from seed for perennial trees at our nursery at Aman Bagh do better than those brought from a commercial nursery, and in fact trees grown from seeds planted directly in the Aman Bagh soil are even healthier.
We started to conserve rainwater in 2016 with advice from publications from the Center of Science and Environment in Delhi, and started to direct water collected in the monsoon from the roof-top to a reverse bore-well drilled to 70 feet into the underground aquifer. We learnt to build swales along the contour, and bunds to stop the rainwater and enable it percolate into the soil.
We have also ingrained a cultural practice of watering (mostly through our extensive drip and sprinkler irrigation system) only at twilight, and only through the state electricity system never the backup generator. We measured the water released into the soil after 1 hour and 2 hours of use of the drip-and-sprinkler system, and our irrigation experts Sattar and Nooruddin were shown the depth of the percolation by digging into the soil: they now use it wisely. They understand the need for ‘wetness’ (nami), and why plant roots don’t need to be drenched in 2 feet of water. A water conservation mentality is a difficult one to give birth to, but when you start the journey it gets better every year.
A key water conservation strategy is to plant ecology-appropriate crops, we thus don’t plant maize, sugarcane, or rice; and none of the Green Revolution water guzzler seed varieties – says, Haryana 711 wheat. We only use desi (local) seeds, for example wheat, pearl millet and sorghum which use much less water compared to Green Revolution seeds. Four fruit orchards are no-till, with a biodiversity of perennial grasses, other plants, bushes and trees which have established cooler micro-environments that reduce water evaporation and the frequency for watering. Finally, fruit tree basin mulching using biomass from flowering trees and sawdust absorbs and retains water for much longer periods and reduces the need and frequency of irrigation by half.
If we plant the crops at the right time, and in synchronicity with other farms, then pests are spread out over a larger land area and don’t damage our crop appreciably. But when we plant too early or too late, when there are no other fields of that crop for them to feed on, then we face the music as all the birds and insects in our village flock to the picnic!
Our pest management policy has, in general, moved from preventive and scheduled spraying with fermented organic concoctions (cattle urine, chili, garlic, neem leaves etc.) to reactive spraying on specific visual incidence of pests. This organic concoction is simply a repellant, not a destroyer of insects like chemical-based pesticides are. As our soil (and therefore our plants) grows healthier, we expect the incidence of pest damage will reduce. The enhanced plant biodiversity should also give rise to a happy balance of pests and predators. I think I see this already. In some instances, like the fruit fly which is devastating to fruits in the monsoon months and is unaffected by sprays of all kinds in all intensities, we were forced to physically bag the individual Guava and Kinnow fruits with netting bags made at home. It is a lot of labor, which we have in abundance at that time as there is no sowing or harvesting work, but works well. And whatever little pests do eat, we let them after all they too must eat.
Revenues and Expenses
The end of the rainbow holds little comfort for the soul, as I comprehend the terrible situation of the rural poor, landless and small or marginal peasant families alike. India is, after all, a very poor nation outside the middle-class world the English-speaking elite inhabits in our cities. With 17.5% of the world’s population, and 2.5% of its land, there is (at one level) no solution that can get us out of our nightmare. The reality is that 67% of Indian farming households (of 5) earned less than 20,000 rupees a month in 2016. And with this money they can do little more than survive at the margins of civilization. These families somehow get by, their own-farm work interspersed with paid labor (like the five peasants at Aman Bagh); with large families where everybody who can must earn. Where is the money for education, health, entertainment, marriage and death?
This brutal reality of daily survival for over 800 million across India people runs through like a diffused documentary across my mind often, especially as I return home each day to my comfortable urban life in Gurgaon. It is a constant surprise to see cheerful faces of peasants, struggling as they are with the challenges of daily survival.
Aman Bagh does not earn anywhere near what we spend, and that is not (entirely) by design. It is adequately clear that revenues (even our much higher ’organic’ price realization) from only 6 acres cannot enable us break-even if we continue to farm experimentally (as we will for quite some time), seeking a stable revenue model; and employ 5 people. In a steady state, maybe in 3 years, when the soil has been enriched and the fruit orchards are fully on stream for easily marketable food, we could reduce wage costs to 2 full time people and recruit ‘labor’ seasonally as the cycle requires. It is possible.
However, I cannot bring myself apply a cost-based approach to people wages today – the Aman Bagh Five are part of an intimate community we have built so painstakingly over five years. I know their lives, their families, their fears, their poverty and their stoic spirit. I cannot ‘let them go’, because the place they will go to will be significantly worse.
A peasant and his family of 5 could possibly make 10,000 rupees a month from a 6-acre farm – without returning him wages for his labor – if all the trees were stripped away, if cash crops were planted on the entire 6 acres, if he lived in a one room hut on the land, and ate sparingly. A peasant’s life on 6 acres today is as difficult as mine is easy.
What we have done is stripped all non-wage expenses to the minimum, and that is a lesson well learnt. A small farmer would never have let his expenses get ahead of his revenues ever, it would have been impossible. Aman Bagh earns 40% of its expenses, up from 20% 2 years ago. As we strip away our excesses, and build the soil, there is hope. But it is yet very, very complex. Aman Bagh will have to afford to run as it is, and I leave it at that for now.
5 Experiential Principles of Natural Farming at Aman Bagh
learned from Albert Howard
1. Interdependence of all living things. Work with nature, do not try to dominate it. Apply traditional knowledge and science to maintain the unity of growth and decay. “The forest manures itself”
2. Biodiversity of plant (perennial and annual) and animal life is required for the soil food web to thrive. No monocultures. “Mixed crops are the rule”
3. Self-sufficiency, with minimal external inputs to the farm. No food, seeds, fertilisers, pesticides, fossil fuels from outside the farm. “Crops and ….[domestic animals] look after themselves.”
4. Sustainability. Take only that much out of the soil as one puts back in, make the land and the processes it viable for generations.“The soil is always protected from the direct action of the sun, rain and wind.”
5. Local knowledge of soil, crops, seeds, weather, cattle and the people is key
Nature’s Farming in 2017
This year has decisively enabled me move beyond farming operations, as the Aman Bagh systems work smoothly for the execution of our established best practices.
Building the soil has become the fundamental farm strategy and defines our package of practices. Our farm operations are constantly working to protect and grow the soil biology in plant root zones, and we no longer worry about the chemistry (N, P, K and micronutrients) which we are confident will happen in natural course. Scientists say there are enough nutrients locked in all soils for generations, the question is to have enough animal life in there to help release them in a form that is bio-available for the plants. I have started to recognize life as active below the soil as I see it above: the extensive roots talking to each other, the microscopic bacteria, fungi and protozoa that life within these roots in symbiosis, the mites, earthworms, termites, ants, rats and more.
Another key strategy is building plantbiodiversity that feeds directly into microbe and plant health. We have added biodiversity in each fruit orchard by adding 100 Papaya, 200 Moringa, 50 Sharifa (Custard Apple), and a sprinkling of Chiku, Shahtoot (Mulberry), Phalsa (Indian Currant), and hundreds of slips of Khas (Vetiver) grass as ground cover in the fruit orchards. On our cropped land, we are intensifying schemes for multi-cropping, crop rotation, companion cropping, and growing bio-diverse perennial plant life we are seeing healthier plant life.
Our multi-layered fruit groves have tall trees at the periphery as windbreaks and as biomass for mulching, we have planted a next level of Moringa that when grown to 20 feet will protect the fruit trees below by allowing the sun to filter through their small leaves while its fruit and leaves provide revenue; fruit trees of Amrood and Kinnow; tall bushes of perennial Arhar, interspersed with Papaya; understory of vetiver, Kans, lemongrass, herbs; and a ground cover of doob grass. No soil is seen in my orchards today, no rain or wind or sun to disturb the army of different battalions from the animal kingdom that eat the vegetation and feed the soil in the cycle of life.
Our ‘No-Till’ perennial fruit orchards are today 40% of all our land, these will move to 50% by 2019 as our new 3/4th acre mango orchard comes on stream: we will further reduce the intensive cycle of till-sow-de-weed-harvest that disturbs soil, oxidises tied-in Carbon, and yokes the peasant to high-intensity labour and Aman Bagh to low revenue annual crops. The biodiverse fruit groves are slowly and visibly enabling the building of orchard soil; and as the fruits are higher priced produce we are moving to a portfolio the generates higher revenue throughout the year.
Agroforestry (a system combining agricultural crops and forest ecosystems) within Aman Bagh is a source of water conservation, provides us cooler and gentler microenvironments, and valuable biomass for mulching. We now allow flowering, evergreen and medicinal trees to grow all over the farm on mends and bunds, their seeds carried and planted by birds, animals and the wind. We have also embraced the practice of pollarding trees (cutting the main trunk at 6-7 feet from ground) as a way to gain mulch. We continue to grow many more evergreen and flowering trees so that no bio-mass needs to come from outside the farm.
Past in the Future
The challenges that remain are substantial and long-term, the first being how to break even. The second is water sustainability in our arid land, where I pump out more water from the aquifers then I put back in. And finally, energy sustainability perhaps by going off the grid.
The outcomes are many, and few are answers.
Aman Bagh started with a desire to be in the village and grow local food for myself and my family. That is more than achieved, and I continue to evolve in my understanding of personal health through food as nutrition. I eat as if I were rural west UP in 1959 (the year I was born) with the critical exceptions of milk – unthinkable for my country cousins, indeed most Indians. The modern consumer economy of supermarket, packaged plenty – overseas or Indian – simply does not exist for me. My diet is mostly ‘whole plant food’ while means exactly that: no animal products including milk or its extracts, (almost) no oils, no juices, no smoothies. My meals comprise local cereals wheat, barley, oats, sorghum and millets, a range of lentils, some nuts, and a profusion of vegetables and fruits. This was not always so, but it was headed in this direction over the decades and Aman Bagh brought me closer to the truth of a whole plant, vegetarian diet. I’m not at all sure if this is right for everyone, but it works for my well-being.
What has been completely unexpected is the deepening of an organic understanding of rural north India, its poverty, contradictions, challenges, and a realisation of opportunities to contribute stuffing my finger in a dike. This engagement with rural life brought me an understanding of traditional livelihoods in the villages, the once dominant handlooms and handicrafts, their decimation by the colonial British and by us brown sahibs who construct taxes to take away even their shrunken present. Understanding the farm and the village, I also see that the state of our environment is deeply connected to livelihoods in inverse ratio as we follow the destructive ways of Rich nation consumerism and the market. I see little hope in a nation with 17.5% of the world’s population and 2.5% of its land, the corporation and the market it sets up even more ubiquitous and all powerful than it ever was, and the single story of urbanisation playing out as the false redemption of mankind. But I am yet driven to look for and create alternative stories, such that the ultimate resting place of our civilisation is not in the city but in another kind of village. Perhaps Aman Bagh has a bit of that magic.
Over these years, I have become part of a community of the most unexpected companions unlike any I have known my entire life of an urban, English educated, globally travelled, arrogant, self-obsessed lout. My early life provided me an identification with the villager and my wife Rabab prised open my closed mind; ‘Insaniyat, Na Jati, Na Dharm’ was my expectation from Aman Bagh in 2012. My Muslim and Dalit fellow travellers have given me glimpses into worlds that have opened that third eye. Yes, we can co-exist, we can transform and no longer look at the other telling us a ‘single story’.
No Single Story
We were given denuded land, sandy and completely open to the deadly sun, wind and rain; with 100 trees. We have planted 1,400 more trees, and our soil is protected and covered with plants of all kinds and sizes. We have added 250 tonnes of organic matter to our soil, more than we have taken out of it. This enabled us organic certification for our processes, which matters but not that much.
My anxiety of not knowing enough and making mistakes has greatly reduced, not because I know much but because I see Aman Bagh’s ‘green carpet’ more in harmony with the cycle of nature. There is much to be done, but I have witnessed an explosion of insect, bird and animal life of all kinds, proof how our diverse environment has brought a new reality to the land.
I didn’t realise formal education was so very overrated till I entered Aman Bagh to learn about nature’s rhythm, and till today I don’t know a tenth as much as an ‘illiterate’. I have come to a new awareness of enormous traditional knowledge residing in people without letters, undocumented in a nation that has only an experiential and oral tradition of documenting peoples’ experiences. How can an encyclopaedic knowledge of local plants and their use, for example, co-exist with illiteracy? Education has meant the city, and a breaking of the bond with nature. While we cannot give the peasant and the landless poor what they need, should we strip him of his self-respect by calling him ‘illiterate’ ‘uneducated’ and reducing him to a labourer constructing the roads our cars can speed by on? How divorced can modern subject based classroom education get from knowledge and sustainable livelihoods?
I see many thousands of well-meaning people – consumers, farmers, activists – across India who believe in the redemptive nature of organic food and organic farming, people worried about chemical poisons in all our foods, and how these are connected to the state of our environment. This is an increasing tribe, and a very welcome trend. On the other hand, the new ‘organic food’ segment (of the 2% of Indian households who earn more than 50,000 rupees a month) belongs to the same powerful market that works to degrade the land and the environment by selling us jet planes, cars, two-wheelers, oil refineries, tractors, pesticides, fertilisers, hybrid and GM seeds, packaged foods that the better-off classes consume. There are people in the cities who view organic food as a personal health choice in a very limited sense: they want the chemical-free food, but they don’t want to recognise that our unsustainable consumptive lifestyles are leading to these poisoned foods in the first place. Can we be happy with organic cookies delivered to us by Amazon in plastic bags when our air is not breathable, our forests are being decimated, our wildlife is down to a fraction of what it was just 25 years back, our cities are unliveable, and the village soil poisoned? Then, there are 60% of India’s peasants and rural labour who farm on rain-fed land, without access to year-round irrigation, and they are ‘organic-by-default’ as indeed all our peasant ancestors where in 1960 before the Green Revolution. The rural poor certainly grow organic food, but they themselves live on the fringes of survival. Finally, there are the 40% irrigated land farmers who have a better life than their rain-fed cousins – but these are fully invested in chemical farming, lifestyle diseases, and the aspirational consumerist lifestyle. How do we reconcile these four very different groups?
Some Answers Too
Questions around complex and seemingly unsolvable problems need simple answers to let us slip out from under the overwhelming weight of the present. We should all worry about these problems, but we must also do – for one, start growing our own food without chemicals, or seek out and actively support those who do so locally.
And when you visit a farm, which you really must, look look long and hard at the sun-beaten face of the slim peasant and realise he and his ancestors have fed us for generations. She might very well yet be uneducated in letters, but carries the enormous weight of knowledge of growing food for all of us who simply consume it. They deserve your respect, your compassion, and yes your money.
I had to absorb generations of knowledge while on the job, in addition to reviving forgotten traditional practices lost to ‘lazy’ chemical farming, for a natural farm to start to take shape on the sandy, degraded, low organic matter land in the Mangar valley. This ‘Bhur’ (sandy) soil was quite unlike the alluvial, silty soil of my village in Bulandshahr next to the Ganges.
Aman Bagh 2012
Aman Bagh is in the hot & arid south-west region of Haryana, receiving 300-500 mm rain a year; 80% of this in the months of July and August. Strong NW winds blow in May, when the sun can take the temperature in the soil to 50 degrees Centigrade. Our soil is ‘coarse sand’, very low (<0.2%) in organic matter. We are located in the Mangar valley where the surrounding Aravalli hill range radiates heat in the summer and traps cold in the winter thereby creating a challenging microclimate for most of the year. We experience extreme temperatures, from a low of 5 degrees C in January to 47 degrees C in May, and high humidity in the 3 monsoon months.
Haryana is an ‘intensively cultivated’ state, and only 3.5% of our state’s land is forests – mostly unregulated, and degraded land planted with the invasive Prosopis Juliflora. There has been a drastic reduction in area under coarse cereals and lentils since 1950, and farmers grow rice, wheat, fruits & vegetables, cotton, sugarcane. Haryana applies the second highest amount of fertilisers & pesticides in India after Punjab. 53% of state uses groundwater irrigation, a limited resource that reduces each year. Haryana exhibits all the ills of market and industrial agriculture as well as unregulated urbanisation: air, water, and soil pollution.
The People Challenge
Finding the right people to run the farm was a foundational decision, I learnt this lesson in the corporate world where our 5,000-strong global software services company ran only as well as the character and abilities of the leadership at multiple levels. I was in an alien village, an outsider to the ecosystem already hostile and suspicious of the urban investor since Delhi’s growth overflowed into Haryana in the early 2000s. I also knew that the peasant is a transformed man when he works his own land, and is a much lazier one working on someone else’s. I needed to find men and women with a strong work and moral ethic who I could convince, through good wages, caring and compassion, to treat Aman Bagh as their own. I needed to get lucky here, and I did.
I was able to call upon two young peasants from Bihar possessing a rudimentary understanding of farming, and soon five peasants from nearby villages who worked as casual labor cleaning up the land in the first few weeks in May 2012. I quickly realized the locals possessed ethics and knowledge closer to what I thought were ideal. Seven were too many hands for our limited land, but I had no idea then what it would take to sow, till, irrigate and harvest, look after the cattle and all the other farm work; I took refuge in numbers. The two Bihari men, by serendipity, could not handle the separation from their families and left that year itself after serving their useful pioneering purpose.
We retain our original five local peasants, and have since built a camaraderie based on mutual interests and respect. Four of them are from Dhauj, a majority Muslim village close to Mangar, and share with the locally dominant Hindu Gujjar peasants’ the language and all aspects of an agrarian way of life. They have little in common with their urban co-religionists, but preachers live to extract a commonality of ideology. Rajan, our cook with magic in her hands, is a landless Dalit from the Chamar (once the leather skinning) community. She works as hard as any of the men, all seven days of the week. They get time off when they need, and I’ve realised they enjoy the discipline of work and would rather be here than at home or elsewhere.
The Aman Bagh Five Kallu, Sattar, Momi, Nooru and Rajan
There is a powerful localization lesson in this: all the 5 are local marginal or landless peasants, they understand the local cropping patterns, the weather, the seeds, the soil, the cattle, the food; and they are embedded in a local, community network that is immensely helpful in all kinds of situations. Abdul Sattar, the supervisor, is a walking encyclopedia of local farming and ecological knowledge and has been my teacher in the ways of traditional farming. It is a tragedy of contemporary civilization that a peasant can be labeled unskilled and uneducated simply because he hasn’t studied in the formal school system. In his environment, he is one of the most intelligent and certainly the most knowledgeable man I have come across: if he had not been with Aman Bagh, my journey would have been extremely painful and indeed would likely not have taken the positive path that it has. My Master’s degree in business and three decades of corporate work experience was of no use in front of the generations of knowledge he is able to apply: I am the unskilled one, and have no hesitation in accepting this. Should education and literacy be separated from experiential and traditional oral forms of transmitting inter-generational knowledge? Children in the village school are taught English, Hindi, math, science – and nothing about agriculture or the pastoral way of life, the primary way of their people for many generations. They grow up believing the break between what they learn at school and live at home is because of the superiority of classroom learning from books written by urban ideologues. The stripping of the rural of his self-respect is obvious; as someone said “if we start the story with the city as the ultimate resting place, then the village is the place to flee”. India must find a way to reconcile the two, to understand the village way of life as it was and integrate it with what ‘could be’. Modernity comes at such a frightening pace, though, that we’ve lost the plot even before we comprehend where we are.
Peasants in India are conservative and generally slow to change. They are risk averse due to their life of subsistence, they know life in nature is unpredictable and always balanced on a thin knife-edge, and implementing anything unproven can possibly bring their brittle world crashing down. Sattar too was slow and cautious, skeptical, and opposed reviving the old ways of his grandfather as he clung to the security of chemical farming. This needed initial firmness on the key boundary condition of farming at Aman Bagh: no chemicals, no matter what the urgency. The real work could begin only once this became established, which took years. I must confess there are times where he secretly hopes we could use some pesticide, some urea.
Manure, Irrigation and Seeds
The two key operational issues I grappled with first were organic fertilization of the sandy, low-carbon soil and the need for responsible irrigation. Cattle were the essential solution for natural farming, important for their dung rather than their milk as an agriculturist scientist from PUSA in Delhi shared with me; perhaps the only good thing that came out of that bureaucratic symbol of a closed scientific mind. Indian traditions integrated cattle and farming in a manner unprecedented in world agriculture, and this is one of the secrets of the fertility of our soil. This came as a startling revelation, and I started to understand the reverence the cow has in the eyes of the villager: its dung formed the foundation of soil fertility over millennia of intensive farming, its milk the basis of family nutrition, and bullocks the only source of energy till the 1960s.
For irrigation, we sunk a bore-well to 100 feet (sweet water was struck at 50 feet) and invested in a comprehensive drip and sprinkler system that grids the entire farm to minimise both water use and irrigation effort. Little did I realise in 2012 that underground aquifer water is a limited resource under severe stress as we extract more than we put back. This is especially true for Aman Bagh where a once large, natural perennial pond that abuts our land is now a dry bed and encroached agricultural land. It can be revived, I am sure, but the energy required will be enormous. Who knows, one day.
I started to understand seeds in 2013: the differences between open pollinated (or heirloom), hybrid and GMO; and the need to save my own seeds as part of sustainability (‘Seed Swarajya’) and controlling input costs. The traditional village system of exchanging seeds with neighboring farmers is non-existent today, and I had to seek out desi (local) seeds from others that I could save and re-use. For example, I bought indigenous tall wheat variety MP306 from the wonderful seed-saving NGO Navdanya, and we use these as seeds till date. Sattar buys open-pollinated seeds that are yet available at the village seed store for common crops like mustard, millet, sorghum, oats, clover and many vegetables. Local seeds are genetically suited to our soil, moisture and ecology; they often thrive when seeds from outside fail.
We implemented the cycle of traditional cropping on all the land: ploughing, sowing, watering, de-weeding and reaping; and again. This wasn’t stressful on my men and woman, as they knew this life and it gave them plenty of down time between cycles – why we see farmers lounging around in the village. I knew nothing about growing food without ploughing.
For the first year, we used a hired tractor (though we were advised a small tractor was an absolute necessity), in the next year we hired a set of bullocks with a peasant hali (plough-man) from Dhauj village (he has since retired himself and sold his bullocks), and in 2013 we purchased our own pair of breed bullocks for the princely sum of rupees 14,000 from the neighboring village of Bandhwari. Momi was appointed our resident expert hali, and he is absolutely brilliant as he navigates them with expertise and ease. Dalsher and Shamsher, our bullocks, cost us a fraction of a tractor, live off the hay and green-feed from our land, give us valuable dung that we use as manure, haven’t once fallen sick, and retain employment within the community. The tractor is expensive, replaces labour in a country whose biggest problem is creating employment for the rural poor, uses expensive imported diesel and all that entails, voids polluting diesel fumes, costs an enormous amount to maintain, and makes Mahindra & Mahindra richer. (A tractor replaces 12 bullocks, and while working emits 1 ton of noxious fumes a year; and uses 3 tons of imported diesel annually). For Indian small farms, 80% of all farming households, shared bullock services supported by government loans would be an ideal solution if we weren’t blinkered by the ideology of modernity.
I knew nothing yet of the violence ploughing does to the soil (especially deep tractor ploughing, with all its fancy iron attachments) in India’s arid or tropical environments: the breaking of the soil structure, the compacting of soil, exposure of soil to the elements where precious carbon escapes to the atmosphere as CO2, and the loss of moisture. “No Till” farming, as practiced by the Japanese sage-farmer Masanobu Fukuoka was yet in the womb of the future. I had read his ‘One Straw Revolution’ in my youth, without understanding it one bit; I went through it again. How could one grow food without tilling, it was unthinkable. Actually, what I had to do was redefine food and nutrition in my head as fruits and harvests from perennial trees and not just annual cereals and lentil, but that thinking was a distance away.
I had now to learn how to grow a range of food. While Sattar understood the lifecycle of cereals, oilseeds, cattle fodder and other very local crops like Til (Sesame), Guar (Cluster Beans) and Sunn (Sunn Hemp) extremely well but he had only a faint idea how to grow fruits and vegetables.
We had to learn through doing, painful as it was, but our mistakes taught us each season. It also taught me patience, as the learning from the current season in one fruit orchard could only be implemented after 12 months. I researched which trees would do well in our ecology, with least water, and citrus, guava and mango were the choices that stand validated today. Four groves were planted with fruit saplings in the monsoons of 2012 and 2013, each then a monoculture of one kind of fruit tree, and planting saplings was an art we learnt and got better at each year. We continued to plough the orchards and plant inter-crops of one kind or another, mainly low-rise lentils that didn’t interfere with the fruit saplings and indeed helped by adding nitrogen to the fruit orchard soil. Fruit trees need caring for the first 3-4 years of their life, and then depending on which variety, the tree lasts from 15 to 50 years. Besides being a stable source of produce, fruit trees are perennial and eliminate the physically demanding cycle of ploughing-sowing-harvesting. Fruit replacing cereal as food is a novel concept without much traction in society, but at a farm replacing cereals with fruits does away with the repetitive cycle of drudgery for the peasant. We were moving towards a via media, one that allowed us to do both.
Cattle: why Indian Could have been Better than European
Another key expertise required was cattle, of which I knew nothing. Sattar and the others on the other hand were well versed in cattle rearing, and each of them has a buffalo or more for nutrition at home and for selling milk for additional income. Few kept cows in 2012, as they give less milk with a lower fat content, and today the cow is on the way to extinction due to the extreme rules for the protection of all cattle from slaughter. If a domesticated animal outlives its economic utility, it will go extinct no matter what organized religion says. We had to buy them, and we went to the cattle markets of Muzaffarnagar and Karnal, at a time when gau rakshaks (religious goons) did not patrol the roads. I had a production mindset of keeping ‘high-yielding’ Sahiwal cows (from Sahiwal district, now in Pakistan Punjab) that promise 12-15 kg of milk. I knew vaguely that the mixed breeds – Indian breeds fathered by Jersey and Friesian bulls from Europe – would not be able to handle our ecology, but little did I know that the cows we bought as Sahiwal from cattle fairs were actually significantly mixed breeds. We were stumped for pure Sahiwal semen, and were forced to depend on artificial insemination that simply didn’t work. It cost rupees 500 each time whether it worked or not, there was no guarantee that the semen was actually Sahiwal (one of the offspring looked quite like a buffalo): the government compounder made money for sure. We even reared a Sahiwal bull for 3 years, but this was too much too late as and we lost two of our three gentle Sahiwal cows within the year to unknown diseases before he came of age. That hurt terribly, and we ultimately gave him away too.
It was an expensive experiment. I learnt that local, hardy Hariana cattle – with genes that protect them from the heat, cold, winds and diseases of our area – from within a few miles of Aman Bagh provide the best life-cycle investment. Indian farmers have learnt this lesson: the mixed breed cows may give more milk (European cows give upwards of 30 kg a day versus 2-15 kg from Indian breeds) but their progeny are so poorly adapted to our hot and humid environment that they either die or live on antibiotics. Instead of improving our own breeds using local bulls and European and American scientific methods, some dolt took the easy way out and imported pure-bred Jersey and Friesian bulls from cold, temperate lands to mate with Indian cows – and forever killed the Indian breed and its possible revival.
I also learnt that the local government veterinary extension services are quite useless in Haryana: the government doctor is never to be seen, and the government compounder goes home to home in the village making money for himself by the thoughtless administration of antibiotics and other powerful allopathic medicines of which he has little knowledge. If only they were taught a first line of defense of time tested local, herbal remedies; then homeopathic and finally allopathic as the last line of defense in extreme or life-threatening conditions. But this succession of medication doesn’t work for human health in India with our long traditional of herbal and natural medicine, what are cattle.
Aman Bagh has moved, over these years, to an equilibrium of three desi cows and our pair of bullocks that can be sustained by the green fodder and hay off a portion of our land, and all of these are the Hariana breed that gives less milk (5-6 kg a day in milking period) but rarely fall sick and don’t need the visits of the moneymaking compounder. Instead of focusing on high-input, high-yield revenue, we moved to low-input, low-maintenance. Local won yet again. Thanks to Sagari Ramdas, a veterinary doctor in faraway Andhra Pradesh with a big heart and even deeper knowledge who helped us numerous times, and her book on treating cattle we learnt that balanced nutrition was crucial to cattle health (as indeed for the soil and for ourselves), and we learnt herbal medical solutions (feeding all the cattle neem leaves every Friday, neem juice to the new born as de-wormer) as well as cattle homeopathy, and they have responded by not falling sick.
Manuring was super critical, and while we spread the dung from our own cattle first, but it was inadequate quantity to build the fertility of our dry, sandy soil. Every family in the villages around have many heads of cattle and buffalo, primarily as the cattle rearing Gujjar and Meo communities are dominant, and I thought it would be a once in a while operation to truck in dung from the villagers who had more than they needed. Not surprisingly, I need to buy and apply dung twice a year.
In 2013 we obtained the service of an old hand at making “Bio Gas” plants, Ramesh Saxena. This 10-cubic-meter floating iron tank ‘Gobar Gas’ plant works flawlessly till today, giving us methane gas to cook food, and slurry that is instantly usable as manure as harmful bacteria have died in the anaerobic heat of the biogas tank.
Finally, we Reach the Soil
I read in one thoughtful essay that healthy soil gave birth to healthy plants and trees, and thus no diseases would strike healthy plants if the soil were full of nutrients; quite like humans eating a balanced, healthy, vegetarian diet. This was useful book knowledge, but I didn’t really know how to build soil health as well as I knew to build mine. Neither did I know our sandy soil was so denuded of organic matter that it gave little nutrition to the plant to withstand pest attacks. On testing the soil much later in 2016, when testing at government laboratories was made free, I saw to my horror that our soil organic matter was a pitiable 0.2%. The gold standard in temperate ecologies is 5-10% organic matter, while tropical and arid soils are in the range of 1-2% – our soil organic matter was really not that out of whack. But I was no longer surprised that our plants were not as healthy, it was clear that the soil did not support them adequately with nutrition. I had to make the manuring of the land as an ongoing project, after each crop. This was done with renewed vigor, but from 2016.
Neither was there a diversity of plants such that natural predators, like the ladybird, would be there to prey on pests. Our less-till, bio-diverse plant environment was yet a few years away. Instead, we made our own organic pest repellants (fermented garlic, chili, cow urine etc.) and micro-biotic soil amendments (fermented dung, urine, lentil powder etc.) learnt from organic farmers from South and West India. We applied these mechanically, and I gradually realised there was no benefit to applying teeming microorganisms on bare soil as the hot sun at 40 plus degrees Celsius kills these microbes immediately. The soil needs to be covered first with protection for the microbes – a layer of biomass to allow the microbes and other flora and fauna to work on eating the biomass and feed the roots of the trees and the crops. This knowledge, too, was a distance away.
However, unprecedented learning was part of the first intense ‘operational’ phase that lasted 2 years, till mid-2014. The daily tasks of setting up the farm, building a culture of trust and a work ethic with my men and woman, understanding the ecology, learning which crops and trees prospered were occupying. Many seeds had been sown in my fertile mind that now possessed a superficial understanding of the basic elements of conventional organic farming.
Intellectual change does not have a sequence, it happens when the time is right. The cumulative impacts of my experiences and the full weight of knowledge from others were settling in. Some change was instantaneous, like a revelation, but this too had an incremental gradualism that brought about the change. I had to embrace change, for that I needed an open mind willing to accept all possibilities; specially the humility that what I knew could be all wrong.
Natural farming has been a journey of self-discovery and transformation since I first applied the sustainable ways of my peasant ancestors in early 2012 on 6 acres at Aman Bagh in south Haryana. My journey commenced with a simple story of ‘No chemicals!’ and has taken me to places I could not then imagine. I have moved from tractor tilling, to bullock ploughing, to partly no-till; from mono-cropping to crop rotation, multi-cropping and green manuring; from annual food crops and the plough-violence that entails on the soil to 50% perennial bio-diverse fruit ‘forests’; from focusing on above-the-soil production to understanding the world of life below the soil; and building the biology in the soil by adding quantities of biomass.
In return for engaging mindfully with the earth, she transmitted to me a heightened awareness of rural India where land is scarce and people many times more than can gainfully live off it; and the reality that the marginal and small peasants, the landless and sundry small artisans and vast army of rural underemployed are yet 65% of our vast population. We will have over 800 million people in the villages even in 2030, when a much greater percentage of us will be in the cities than today. The village is not going away anytime soon in India.
I also learnt of the interconnectedness of our terrible inequality with the enormous power of the urban, high-caste elite, as well as the modern corporations managed by this elite, in our consumer market driven economy. I understood the ongoing devastation of handloom and craft livelihoods, the terrifying state of and prognosis for our environment, the intensive overuse of chemicals in growing food in what was so recently an organic-by-default nation, our unhealthy individual food choices in what is the world’s only vegetarian-cuisine nation, and the ongoing destruction of individual health.
I have moved in these 5 years from growing food for my body, to feeding my soul.
It Started Here
While At Aman Bagh: 2012-2017
I have learnt farming by absorbing much of what my peasant farmhands have taught me and by integrating forgotten traditions as well as new practices from across the world. My focus is to continue building a community in Aman Bagh that provides a compassionate and supportive work environment for the marginal peasants who work with me, to establish a low-input, bio-diverse, perennial and fossil-fuel phobic farming ecosystem environmentally sustainable in as many ways as possible; a farming system suited to the ecology of my area and to the genius of the food-cropping systems that have been established here for millennia. To paraphrase Gandhi, I have opened the windows of my mind wide to allow in the waft of new ideas on farming, nutrition and food, but I remain rooted in my traditions and will not be blown off my feet.
I also find no possibility for the individual awakened to the multiple challenges of agriculture in India to look on farming solely or even primarily as a question of healthy food choices. It is all interconnected. Natural farming has necessarily to be a vigorous political statement opposing the dominance of the market by which the rural (peasant and landless alike) are effectively shut out of an urban-biased system. Michael Lipton stated pithily ‘the village gets the lip service and sympathy, while the city gets the capital’. I address some of these thoughts in another essay ‘Why Do Farmers Protest’.
Nothing I write on natural farming approaches and methods in this essay is revolutionary or original; I only document what I have learnt from the peasants who work with me, other natural farmers, from natural systems discovered by reading the pioneers of natural farming, and from my short five years of experiences and mistakes. Gershuny & Smillie state “There are as many different concepts of farming as there are farmers” – these are given multiple names: Jaivic, organic, Rishi Kheti, permaculture, sustainable, biological, and agro-ecology. These all include a wide range of similar methods that enable humans engage with nature to grow food in a mindful, ecologically sustainable manner. ‘Ecological’ is used here in its broadest sense, including within its fold the entire scope of interrelationships – political, economical and social – of all living things with the environment.
All the packages of natural practices I mention here are well documented and are being practiced by millions of farmers across the world, including in India. I hope my experiences and practices can serve as a helpful guide to others experimenting or struggling with natural farming methods in a similar ecology. I plan to have a Hindi version of this essay available soon.
At the mechanical or operational level, there is no end of the challenges of nature in traditional organic or indeed in contemporary conventional chemical farming. Nature is always unpredictable with water, wind, sun, crop pests, weeds; the work is physically demanding and lonely; farming is not remunerative for any of the hundreds of millions of small-holding farmers across our nation who live a life of subsistence; the markets fail and so does the government in supporting the farmer when he needs it the most; and inputs are increasingly expensive in chemical and fossil-fuel based farming. Every player across the input chain – seed, fertiliser, pesticide, machinery, trader – makes money, and the consumer keeps the price of food down by his clout in the system. Only the farmer loses.
My Rural Heritage
My peasant ancestors were hardy farmers over millennia in what was once undivided Punjab and today is Haryana, before they migrated to Bulandshahr & Meerut districts in Uttar Pradesh over the past few centuries as pressure on land in their villages increased. They were the salt of the earth, mostly small or marginal tenants before the abolition of Zamindari post-independence in the early 1950s. Even after that they remained small farmers, only a few owning land more than 5 acres. (Since then, farms have fragmented with each generation and farms in India are on average slightly more than 1 acre). All of them were ‘organic-by-default’ peasants till the late 1960s, and the long-established traditions of tilling the soil enabled them retain the fertility of their land over millennia of intensive farming. After the chemical-led Green Revolution in the 1970s that accelerated over the coming decades they became slaves to the ‘market’, lost their organic connect to the land and have become addicts to chemical poisons from distant factories. The local cycle of environmental sustainability – of growth and decay, as Albert Howard reminds us – was broken and fertiliser, pesticides, seeds, electricity and tractors were supplied to them as resources to exploit the land for production; and the farm became just another factory.
I spent multiple long annual vacations in my father’s ancestral village just 100 kilometers from Delhi, though light years away from urban India, till I started to rebel in my teens on leaving friends and city comforts behind. My country cousins remain farmers today, though sadly they no longer follow the sustainable ways of our peasant ancestors. I gained so much from Kartari Devi, my farmer grandmother (her husband died at 50, leaving her 5 acres and little else) a powerful work ethic of incessant work from dawn to dusk, a desire to fight the odds, an independence of spirit, and compassion for the underprivileged.
My father Dr. Jai Pal Singh was an academically brilliant man who migrated from the village to become a government surgeon in Delhi. Villagers from scores of miles around Delhi flocked to him knowing they now had one of their own in the unwelcoming city. He never let them down; they were provided priority in his hospitals in every way he could provide it. When he did briefly practice privately after retirement, he operated for free on villagers. We had a constant stream of village relatives and community (of all castes) needing medical assistance, he undertook the marriage of many rural cousins, and in general was the pillar of strength in that family. Hence, the rough-hewn peasant, in his white simple Khadi (handspun and hand-woven) clothes, with his colloquial language and laconic sense of humor, is diffused sympathetically in my imagination. A peasant was always family, a hero who stoically battled the elements to feed the world with little returns for himself, and not an unshaven ‘ganwar’ (village buffoon) as city friends generally believed.
My maternal grandfather was Charan Singh, the pre-eminent peasant leader and rural intellectual of independent India, and the deep imprint of his simplicity, exemplary personal character, personality and thoughts will need a separate essay. His father was a 4 acre tenant farmer for a local landlord-Raja in 1902, which explains Charan Singh’s understanding of the life of a self-cultivating peasant. I was 27 when he passed in 1987, after I had spent the last decade of his life spent in Delhi basking in his vast, loving and motivating presence. He influences me now at another level as I comprehend and protect for posterity his vast intellectual heritage (over 10 books, and numerous other writings for example) on the imbalance between rural and urban India, of the meaning and methods of Indian development, his prescription of agriculture first and last in India, handloom-handicrafts and other village and small industry as the solution for rural livelihoods, and appropriate large industry and technology (in that sequence) as a sustainable and equitable path for India’s masses. He wanted people to move off agriculture as soon as society could afford this, but they had to have something productive to do while they were in the village (hence agriculture for the peasant, and non-farm employment for the landless) and something to do when they reached the city (he predicted India would always have large numbers in the village as there just weren’t enough urban jobs for our multitudes). He stood for small peasants, organic farming methods, small irrigation projects, small industry; green before his time. He understood India like few did, in its vast diversity within the unity of agrarian life.
This connect with rural life in my younger years, and my involvement with political thinking as a way of life, established a life-long intellectual engagement with the central idea of widespread inequality and the rural-urban conflict. While I hold a visceral and emotional connect to the sounds, smells and the language of the village, I realised early on in my youth that the village was a den of inequality and exploitation through the multiple uniquely Indian divisive and controlling forces of caste, patriarchy and religion. I transcended the deep divide of religion for myself when I married a Muslim girl in 1985, through whom my mind was opened to transcending the insidious ‘single story’ of the Muslim as a Muslim. I was slowly able to construct my own stories of the many identities that Muslims inhabit, and nothing I see there today convinces me any religion including of course Islam has the better solution. In India though, we have to engage with religion if only to know how to deal with it. The futility of the ideology of religion, and their unique rituals, gods, prophets, superstitions is yet another essay.
When I decided to break decisively from corporate life in the information technology industry in 2011 – I was 51 – farming was a natural destination. I thought farming would be occupying, keep me in natural and healthy surroundings and I would grow clean food for the family. These were all relatively simple expectations, and all came true.
But nothing could have prepared me for the complete change in worldview that this reconnect with the ways of my ancestors has wrought.
Something Is Cooking
“There has always been lack of equilibrium, rather a sort of antagonism between cities and the countryside. This is particularly so in our land where the gulf of inequality between the capitalist class and the working-class pales into insignificance before that which exists between the peasant farmer in our village and the middle-class town dweller. India is really two worlds-rural and urban. The relationship between the countryside and the cities is, therefore, a vital problem to us.”
I read Mihir Shah, agriculturist, in The Best of Times The Worst of Times in the Hindu newspaper (13 June 2017) on the agrarian unrest in parts of India earlier this year; and listened to P. Sainath, the face of investigative rural journalism in India, in Nero’s Friends (2011) and in a 11 June 2017 video Why Are Our Farmers Angry. These two catalysed the consolidation of the many bits and pieces of thoughts and data whirling with an increasing intensity through my head these past few years. Some resurfaced from my personal experience of a very political youth opposing urban domination and caste, participation in peasant movements, and a rural life in a Western Uttar Pradesh village in the 1970s and 1980s, some came to me from of my contemporary 5 years experience as an organic farmer of 6 acres in Mangar village in Haryana since 2012, others from my becoming vegan (‘no milk products’) from a lifelong vegetarian in 2015 and the huge benefits to my health, some from experiencing the dramatic destruction of traditional livelihoods and ecology in the parts of India that I travel to once very few months. The state of civilisation across the globe consolidated my confusion and sense of despair, and validated my worst fears for the future. This desperation, perhaps not so paradoxically, provides me determination to make a difference in the ways I can.
It is indeed emotionally overwhelming to navigate the complex and inter-linked contemporary markers of inequality: the global landscape of markets, industrialisation, impact of modernity and technology, the status of agriculture and peasant life, rural and urban contradictions, and then the differences of caste, religion and region in India. As it came together, very slowly, my understanding grew and my anger rose. I realised that none of these markers of inequality are purely domestic issues, which they are, but to comprehend them fully requires one to possess a global perspective. Like minded people in the Rich post-industrial and Poor agrarian nations alike must come together in solidarity and resistance to make a difference at whatever level we aspire to.
Farming in India is enmeshed in multiple existentialist crises, though it is but one fly in the spider’s global web of the ‘market’. The problems of Indian farming are a proximate result of the long-standing extraction of surplus from agriculture and starving rural India of capital investment by the ruling urban elites since 1947. While the colonial British extracted wealth for the mother country, the post-independence leadership (with noble exceptions) extracted it for their interest. Till today, the higher castes in India overwhelmingly constitute the urban, educated elites running the bureaucracy, corporations and all private and public institutions; with a minority of aspiring middling rural castes co-opted into this closed club. However, the crisis today – since the 1991 victory of the markets, of consumption, of technology and private public capital that supports global markets – is more than the domestic causes of inequality in India, it is global superimposed on local. Humans have mastered the deepening and widening of an unsustainable and exploitative civilisation that treats people, all other living species, and planet Earth as comprising ‘resources’ to be made productive for consumption no matter the impact on human civilisation itself.
A Civilisational Crisis
This crisis has been building for over two hundred years in the now Rich post-industrial nations, and it has rippled across the world in the past 50 years to engulf the Poor agrarian nations. What is development, how does a nation measure the wealth, prosperity of its people, and progress of its civilisation? How much of it is material, and what else is there? What will remain if there is enormous paper wealth, but no Earth as we know it? The dominance of our species over all others is causing irreversible harm to the environment, and while we can claim with confidence that we dominate all other species this dominance has not increased the ability of humans to live in peace with each other. There is, in fact, is no change for the better in Psychological Man despite this visible progress.
Development has established a fossil-fuel dependant, energy-intensive and inorganic waste-producing system that burns unsustainable amounts of raw materials torn and sucked out from the bowels of the earth. While mostly true of most urban settlements worldwide, Indian cities are specially unlivable and amongst the most polluted on this planet with dangerous levels of air and water pollution, overflowing and untreated sewage, terribly polluted rivers, inadequate and expensive public transport, and waste on the clogged streets. And this acute crisis of urbanisation when only 33% of India’s population is urban or peri-urban, what will happen in the next 100 years when this percentage reaches Rich country levels of 90% + urbanisation? Does anyone who advocates a model based solely on urban living as a higher method, divorced from nature in every possible way, think of the implications to Earth?
Capital to finance a consumption-driven model is firmly in the hands of a few faceless oligopolic (if not monopolistic cartels) mega-corporations, and they pretty much do as they like across national boundaries in their quest for maximising financial returns. It is a massive global enterprise. The lives of people across the globe are ruled by consumption of what they don’t need and didn’t know they wanted, and the globalised production machine we live in spews out uniform goods (food, clothes, shelter, luxury et al) without regard to either traditions or to the cost to the environment. Borders have hardened for people movement due to strident nationalism that excludes all the people-not-like-us, while consumption goods flow across effortlessly. A globalised consumption world is at hand, the local no longer holds sway. The livelihood of the hand weaver in Assam or Kutch is devastated by products from power-looms in Ichalkaranji, and global industrialism works hand in glove with a globalised domestic business class. Witness the ‘jobless growth’ in the formal sector during the past two decades in India, as capital intensive industrial machinery at from the Rich nations is deployed to meet the consumption needs of the well-off in India; and in turn the services sector ‘de-industrialises’ India. The distance between the displaced weaver / landless laborer and the urban middle class is an insurmountable chasm that grows deeper and wider every day. A recent study by Chancel & Piketty, in July 2017, states inequality in India is at its worst level since the government started collecting income tax data in 1922.
The visible result of development is inequality within Rich and Poor countries, and between Rich and Poor nations. Only 0.2% of India’s households earn more than Rupees 100,000 a month – 2.4 million households, in a nation of over 1.2 billion people. One can overlook the economic forces of post-industrialisation only if one is ideologically committed, but can even one such disregard such massive and growing inequality? There simply aren’t enough jobs around in the traditional industry and service sectors, and the ones in the hinterland are being destroyed at a fast rate. In addition, the learning – language, technology, educational institutions – to master the modern levers of production is increasingly held with a handful of elite disproportionately living in Rich nations and in the cities of the Poor nations; this establishes systemic and unsurmountable barriers for the poor. The microscopic number of the brightest from the urban and rural poor who graduate to the urban elite don’t – cannot – look back.
It Started Here
An irreversible crisis envelops rural India, home today to 67% of India’s population. 58.5% of India’s households (5 people each) are agriculturists who live on only 14% of the nation’s GDP; 92.9% of rural households live on less than Rs. 20,000 a month; 85% of landholding households own less than 5 acres; farming input costs have trebled and more since liberalisation in 1991 while farmer produce prices remain dependent on the vagaries of increasingly erratic weather, the ‘free’ market and exploitative middlemen; cash crops have taken over our 160 million hectares, and traditional food crops like millets and lentils have been crowded out with a terrible cost on nutrition security for the farmer families and on the environment. The intensive farming techniques of the green revolution of the 1960s have led to a sickness of the soil that has created this unfolding ecological crisis.
Thus, millions of family-farmers with small and marginal land holdings, millions of landless laborers dependant on the farm economy, and millions of rural artisans whose traditional livelihoods have been destroyed by modernity are in an existentialist crisis. Notwithstanding the visibility of large agricultural corporations, 70% of the food eaten in the world is yet produced on the farms of these very smallholders.
The current agrarian crisis – we have been in almost continuous crisis in agriculture, so each time the crisis levels reach a peak it is almost as if it were a new crisis – has deep roots in the attitude of India’s urban elites of politicians, bureaucracy and middle class towards agriculture and their rural brethren. Villagers were lesser children of India in British times, and also in the post-Independence decades when Nehruvian thought was enamoured of the politically sexy Soviet-style Socialism without regard to the geological, geographic, social and economic conditions of our vastly diverse subcontinent. The post-independence ‘brown sahibs’ were even more dismissive, if it were possible, of the villagers than the British. This attitude led to ‘priority’ being given to villages and agriculture, while resources were overwhelming extracted from the rural areas and allocated to cities and to industrialisation. This attitude dominates today, even as the contemporary ‘brown sahibs’ coat themselves in the saffron of a non-existent, monolithic Hindu religion.
This prioritisation of the city – where industrialisation and services predominate as livelihoods – dramatically accelerated since 1991 when economic liberalisation provided a lesser role for the government in production as well as marked a withdrawal of oversight of the private sector and the ‘market’ – exactly when it was needed the most. This liberalisation was itself was a product of the Urban Bias in Indian, and global, re-structuring of society where post-industrialisation and consumerism was seen as the panacea to all ills. For those impatient with the number of people dependant on agriculture and who want these villagers to either disappear and die, or move to ‘modern’ occupations, I am sorry to say even in 2050 AD rural India will be home to over 800 million Indians. The village will not die.
Peasant Agitations & Suicides are the most heart-rendering manifestations of the Agrarian Crisis; these are the ones city dwellers hear about the most and hence feel is the Agrarian Crisis itself. More indebted, desperate farmers will join the 300,000 farmers who have taken their own lives over the last two decades before any solution – even if sincere and immediate – can have an impact. More likely, the terrible conditions in Chattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh and Maharashtra (where 65% of all suicides take place) will continue to claim lives. These deaths, as terrible as they are, are just a manifestation of the two core issues that are at the root of the agrarian crisis: the capital and social starvation of agriculture and a turning away from creating rural non-farm livelihoods.
The interactions of humans with animal and plant life and the environment is one of dominance, violence and extermination. In the same vein, human civilisations across the globe work to ‘master’ nature with extreme exploitation of the soil, air and water without a thought to sustainability. The establishment of the extensive market economy has forever changed the human-nature relationship from growing food to growing for the market. The state we are in today is a natural progression for humans, and there is little to look back with nostalgia as our ancestors too pushed for Man’s dominance of the natural world and conflict with fellow humans. Man, in this analysis, remains unchanged – exploitative and totalitarian.
For thousands of years before the advent of water and steam power in the 18th century, humans lived in a kind of forced harmony with nature and other species because Man had not yet discovered the means or built the hubris to ‘conquer’ nature – they did not have an alternative, as they did not possess the modern tools we hold today that can extract ‘resources’ to mould into ‘products’ that people can ‘consume’ in an ‘efficient market economy’. The acceleration of urban settlements and industrial civilisation in the Rich nations from the 1600s is well documented; we have by now reached in fact exceeded the limits of growth, but we carry on nonetheless.
We continue to poison the soil, the environment and ourselves with chemicals manufactured with high-energy intensity using fossil fuels. Since the 1880s, when fertilisers first made their debut, we have dramatically increased the use of chemical fertilisers specially after the First World War. Today we apply 200 million tonnes a year of chemical urea, phosphorous, potassium to the soil worth $130 billion annually. Pesticides first started being manufactured in 1946 by the suddenly silent factories of the Second World War, and we will apply 4 million tonnes of pesticides in 2017 worth a $81 billion. Not surprisingly, 98.9% of all agricultural land on Earth uses these chemicals and only 1.1% of all agricultural land on earth is farmed without chemicals. (Ironically, 65% of this ‘organic farming’ is in Australian pastures that feed industrial beef farms.) South Asia is the biggest growth market for the global chemicals industries, with India applying 30 million tonnes of fertilisers a year in 2017 from 141 fertiliser plants i.e. over 100 kg a year on every hectare of arable land; a far cry from 50,000 tonnes in the entire country in 1950.
Large corporations in Rich nations apply these chemicals and other unsustainable, industrial farming methods on large (thousands of hectares) corporate owned farms – hybrid and genetically modified seeds, monoculture crops, fossil fuel based large sowing and reaping machines. In Poor countries like India, tractors have replaced bullocks, and expensive machines continue to replace abundant labour which is good for Mahindra but not for the landless peasant whose livelihood is eliminated. Traditional, sustainable methods that should have been updated using contemporary technology and tools have instead been long forgotten. Input-heavy farming of cash crops for the market (cotton, sugarcane, oilseeds), food crops for the market (wheat, rice), instead of food crops for consumption (millets, lentils) now are the cause of farmers to fail on repayments of risky loans taken for applying expensive chemical-heavy and hybrid and GMO seed inputs.
Why, when there are tens of thousands (FAO says 7,000) of crops that are known to be cultivated by man, are only 30 odd grown widely? Of these, why do only 3 – wheat, rice and maize – constitute 50% of all food crops grown on the planet? Farmers across India too have reduced cultivation of ‘coarse cereals’ from 28% of total cropped area in 1970 to 15% in 2009, wheat moved from 10% to 15%; oilseeds increased from 10% to 14%, sugarcane doubled from 1.6% to 2.5%, fruits and vegetables also doubled from 2.5% to 5% in the same period. Fruits and vegetables (cash crops, for the urban population) were in fact 25% in terms of value of all crops, second only to Cereals. These significant changes in cropping patterns have changed eating habits that are democratically impacting the health of all classes of the Indian population. The Indian medical fraternity and policy makers are running scared with the epidemics of heart disease, diabetes and cancer that are already upon us, and they say the worst is yet to come in the next 30 years.
Seed Sovereignty Three massive corporations with a collective market capitalisation of over $250 billion – ChemChina+Syngenta (China), Bayer+Monsanto (Germany), and Dow-Dupont (USA) – own over 75% of the world seed market. These same 3 corporations are also the largest pesticide corporations in the world, with global revenues of over $30 billion a year. And these same corporations are the ones most heavily invested in genetically modified (GM) seed research, the next frontier that they hope will give them absolute control over the production of food in the coming century.
WaterCrisis. We are pumping out more water from the earth’s underground rivers than we are able and willing to replenish and, in our mindlessness, we are poisoning the overground rivers, ponds and lakes with industrial and urban waste. Two thirds of the pumped-out aquifer water is used by agriculture in India, 28% by industry an only 10% by households. Tens of millions of farmers use submersible pumps to feed their post-Green Revolution water-inappropriate crops of sugarcane and rice in North-West India. Wheat, the high yielding Green Revolution variety, needs twice as much water as traditional tall wheat varieties like the MP306 that I grow at Aman Bagh. In Maharashtra, 3% farmers on 6-8% of the agricultural land use 65% of the water to grow sugarcane; encouraged by political leadership who looks away from this race to the bottom. Punjab has no ecological reason to grow rice in a water deficient area, but it remains the largest producer of rice in India – our Malayali brethren in Kerala (rice growers once and rice eaters all) all eat rice grown in Punjab (wheat eaters all), if you can believe it. Basmati exporters export the rice, along with it they export our precious water: in the name of prosperity of the farmer and agriculture the companies that make tractors, pumps, fertilisers, pesticides all make money hand over fist; th trader, the middleman, the politician and the consumer all gain. The farmer gets impoverished in direct proportion to the growth of wealth of the rest of society.
Combine this voracious farmland appetite for water in India with climate change and erratic rain, and cities that wastefully use water as well as poison the water bodies with sewage and industrial waste – we have a massive crisis building. Cities are unique as their concretised roads and buildings stop water acquirer recharge from rains. Society has to revive old methods of water availability and establish new systems to stop the agricultural, industrial and urban poisoning of water, instead we have hugely expensive, grandiose and environmentally disastrous plans approved by politicians to link rivers.
1 kg of potatoes takes 100 liters of water, wheat 1,000 liters, rice 1,400 liters, and 1 kg of beef takes 8,000 to 13,000 liters of water to produce. The world eats more and more rice and beef every year, each person in some Rich nations eats 150 kilograms of beef each year: thereby drinking 1.5 million liters of water a year.
A case in point is an urbanised village of Saligao in Goa: a resident (also the Sarpanch, or the democratically elected village head) extracts many tankers of water every day from land he owns and sells them all over the state to the many tourist hotels and homes. Business is good as he buys new tankers every year to add to his fleet as the demand in water stressed Goa explodes every tourist-overrun summer. There is no legal definition of the rights he enjoys to the underground water aquifers which flow to his land from the surrounding hills, there is no method to control how much water he can withdraw, and for what purpose. The state is unable to provide water for the uncontrolled and environmentally disastrous growth of the tourist and construction industry, and closes its eyes when a private entrepreneur fills that gap for personal gain. This story of water stress and underground water extraction is repeated across millions of locations across rural and urban areas.
Cropping patterns in Indian agriculture changed from more coarse millets and lentils in the 1970s to favour wheat and rice since the 1990s. India has witnessed an exponential increase in food processing and packaging technology – with artificial colouring, preservatives and added hydrogenated fatty acids to enhance product shelf life – for the increasingly numbers of urban consumers with little time to cook fresh food in their busy lives.
Cooking oil use increased exponentially as India prospered and trade in agricultural commodities increased with the onset of the WTO in 1995, and palm oil is now the largest commercially used cooking medium in India; imported from Malaysia and Indonesia where tropical forests have been cleared to make room for this profitable cash crop. This toxic oil, considered terrible for the heart, now runs through the arteries of a majority of Indians; in addition to vegetable oils that are being overused in our predominantly vegetarian nation. Land under Sugarcane and its output has multiplied, and consumption of sugar has gone through the roof especially in newly urbanised India – we are today the largest consumer of sugar in the world though per capita only in the median at 20 kilograms. The corporations salivate, there is so much more sugar to be sold to the hundreds of millions.
We have witnessed an exponential increase since the Seventies in the use of food preservation chemicals; a change from hand processed multiplicity of cereals to machine processed and de-nutrified wheat and white rice; increase in the usage of oil by more and more people; massive increases in sugar consumption and equally huge increases in consumption of animal fats in the form of meat, milk, ghee, cream, paneer and yogurt. To top all these dietary changes, the urbanising populace is increasingly employed in sedentary service jobs, and they have no culture of physical exercise as they age.
Is it any surprise that the Indian population is at the cusp of the worst multiple health epidemics of diabetes, heart disease and cancer that we have ever seen?
The civilizational break where food is grown in the village and consumption takes place in the rapidly expanding cities is one of the causes of the terrible state of urban life. The organic cycle of growth and decay has been rent asunder and the city has no knowledge of how to absorb the organic and inorganic waste it generates. This waste simply piles up in tens of thousands of waste dumps spread around our cities, and poisons the environment.
In India, home to many of the most-polluted and chaotic cities on Earth, the urbanisation project has either already collapsed or is constantly on the verge of collapse. The speed of consumerism and the inorganic waste it generates, rural poverty that attracts vast numbers of the dispossessed to the cities, and the widespread corruption and sloth in our urban administration makes for a perfect urban storm. Indian cities are simply unliveable, not only for some time in the year as they once were, but all the time.
Cities built without the human at heart. Cities without effective and affordable public transport, cities with scores of vast malls but without public libraries, good public schools and universities, roads without rain water drainage, concrete and glass buildings without sensitivity for the local weather, cities with condominiums but without water or sewage systems, administration without service. Imitative cities, exploitative cities, cities that leave us empty.
This isn’t what we expected when we set out to replace the casteist, patriarchal, exploitative village society while retaining its precious proximity to nature, the life of freedom of the self-cultivating peasant, its quiet solitude and its sense of shared agrarian community.
I see these multiple crises of human civilisation clearly today, bringing acceptance, anger, and a renewed desire for action. The ideal solution – if there is one – is for regular people like me to influence public policy actions required to address each of the crises, actions that influences the courts, governments, and corporations. Influencing consumers is useful, but that diffused path to systemic change is slow and time, as always, is short. However, not all of us can be a Sunita Narain – most of us walk our own lonely paths.
I write to share perspectives so these may take me further along the path to collaboration with others. I farm naturally, without inflicting pain on the earth. Aman Bagh provides employment to 5 marginal peasant and landless households. I support handloom and handicraft communities, and I increasingly consume mindfully and consume less. I can and will resist, it is never to late for that.