Not many takers yet for Nirmala Sithraman’s push for ‘natural farming’

Union Finance Minister’s Budget speech called for ‘Back to Basics’ and ‘zero budget farming’, benefits of which are still unclear and uncertain

Representative Image (Social media)
Representative Image (Social media)

Vivian Fernandes

Was Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman trying to appease her saffron constituents by announcing in her Budget speech a “back to basics” switch to Zero Budget Farming?

It was not an isolated remark. The Economic Survey has commended it. Rajeev Kumar, Vice-Chairman of NITI Aayog said the climate-resilient and eco-friendly technology was a product of Indian genius. It was ready for export and did not need certification from so-called ‘respected foreign institutions.’

Is Sitharaman earnest? The budget allocation for Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana and Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana – the two heads from which money could be drawn for Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF), as it is properly called, has been raised by just Rs 200 crore, which won’t be sufficient for a national rollout.

Agricultural economist and NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand has said that ZBNF will be pushed only if studies which the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) is doing at four locations validate the claims made for it. For the Union Finance Minister to announce an initiative whose effectiveness has not yet been established is curious indeed.

Why go back to basics? Has the Green Revolution failed?

Food grain production is continuously rising. The net annual availability of food grains per person has increased from 145 kg in 1951 to nearly 185 kg in 2017 though India’s population has increased 3.56 times during this period.

It is the cultivation of high-yielding varieties, responsive to chemical fertilisers, that has done the trick. It is true that farmers are in debt. For that agricultural markets need to be opened up, small uneconomical holdings consolidated and gaps in insurance and irrigation coverage fixed.

Yes, there is depletion of ground water. Sitharaman said 1,592 blocks spread over 256 districts are in the danger zone. Faulty policies should be blamed for this situation. Free electricity in Punjab encourages farmers to draw groundwater and grow rice for which it is not ecologically suited (unless sustainable techniques like direct-seeding are adopted).

Sugarcane is being grown unsustainably in parts of Maharashtra because sugar mills are under an obligation to buy cane at prices fixed by the government. There is over-use of urea, which is subsidised, in states where wheat and rice are assuredly procured at minimum support prices. Skewed pricing has led to imbalanced use of nitrogenous, potassic and phosphatic fertilisers.

ZBNF is a system of agriculture devised and popularised by Subhash Palekar of Bellora village in Maharashtra’s Amravati. For his labour, the Modi government gave him the Padma Shri in 2016. Palekar believes that the dung and urine of Indian cows (not exotic breeds like Jersey and Holstein) have beneficial microbes which grow manifold when fermented with jaggery, besan and virgin soil.

This bio-inoculant, called jiwamrita, makes nutrients in the root zone available to plants by activating soil bacteria. According to Palekar, the dung of one Indian cow is enough to fertilise 30 acres. There are other potions like bijamrita, neemastra and brahmastra which act as fungicides and pesticides. Their common base is cow dung and urine. ZBNF is strictly against the use of chemicals in agriculture. ZBNF has attracted the attention of Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) and World Agroforestry Centre (or ICRAF).

According to FAO, the word ‘budget’ refers to credit and expenses. The phrase ‘zero budget’ means without using any credit and without spending any money on purchased inputs. ‘Natural farming’ means farming with nature and without chemicals.

Is ZBNF actually zero-budget? A farmer may have to buy dung and urine if they don’t own a cow, pay wages for hired hands and buy inputs like besan and jaggery. Palekar says zero-budget refers to the income from subsidiary crops paying for all cash inputs including that of the main crop.

For instance, if pigeon pea (tur) is grown with cotton as an inter-crop, the income from tur takes care of all cash expenses. At a brainstorming session at Tamil Nadu Agricultural University (TNAU), Coimbatore, it was pointed out to Palekar that this is not unique to ZBNF. He has therefore renamed ZBNF as Subhash Palekar’s Spiritual Farming.

Other techniques like mulching and aeration of the root zone are also not specific to ZBNF. The use of crop residues to cover the soil for conservation of moisture, prevent the growth of weeds and to increase organic carbon content is practised in conservation agriculture too. One of the benefits of drip irrigation is aeration of the root zone.

During a visit to Bellora, this correspondent did not find any of Palekar’s erstwhile neighbours practising ZBNF. They used a mix of chemicals and farmyard manure. The caretaker of Palekar’s farm did not know the recipe of bijamrita and jiwamrita. He said he had applied 10 tractor-trolley loads of dung to the 11-acre farm (from six bulls and six cows) which was excessive by ZBNF norms (dung of one cow for 30 acres).

Palekar said jivamrita does not have to be applied after three years, by when the microbial count in soil would have reached saturation point. Does anyone fertilise the forest he asked? The farm must become as naturally regenerative as the forest.

A farmer in Akola, who has a 21-acre farm adjacent to Panjabrao Deshmukh agricultural university, said he was practising ZBNF for 19 years. He grows pomegranate, drumstick and amla. He said he was giving 10 litres of jivamrita to adult trees every 10 days, through drip irrigation pipes. The soil in his farm looked healthy.

ZBNF may work for perennials like fruit trees but not necessarily for field crops like paddy. A farmer in Anantpur in Andhra Pradesh said he has been practising ZBNF since 2006. He grows paddy on 33 acres of own and leased land.

He said his yield was slightly less than that of paddy grown with fertilisers but he got two to three times the price.

A farmer from Vijayawada doubted the claim. A post-graduate in genetics and plant breeding from Allahabad University, this farmer said he practised ZBNF for 10 years. But his paddy yields were consistently below average. “I have to make profits for my family,” he said. He was unable to convince other farmers in the village or his block. Currently, he grows rice with ZBNF only for own consumption on half an acre. On the rest of his family farm of 100 acres, he breeds fish and grows rice conventionally.

In April, NITI Aayog set up a committee to verify the claims made for ZBNF. It is headed by the Vice-Chancellor of Telangana Agricultural University. In May, the committee’s size was expanded to 16 at the urging of Acharya Devvrat, the Governor of Himachal Pradesh.

ZBNF sympathisers were added to the committee. Devvrat is the patron of Gurukul in Kurukshetra where ZBNF is being practised. The committee will do lab tests and also make field visits. ICAR is also doing trials with basmati cropping systems using ZBNF at Ludhiana, Pantnagar, Kurukshetra and Modinagagar.

Sitharaman said in her Budget speech that some states had taken the lead. She was referring to Andhra Pradesh. In June 2016, it decided to convert all its six million farmers to ZBNF.

At an event in Vijayawada, then Chief Minister Chandrababu Nadu was lauded by representatives from the FAO, UNEP and ICRAF. The state has set up an agency called RySS to drive the initiative. According to its website, the cost of converting one farmer-household to ZBNF is Rs 25,000 of which Rs 1,000 is for subsidised inputs. The rest is for training, capacity building and marketing and management support.

The total cost to the state would be Rs 16,000 crore by 2023-24. Much of the money is to be borrowed through the Sustainable India Finance Facility. A representative of the French bank, BNP Paribas, was also present at the Vijayawada event. He said there was a lot of pension money sloshing around the world awaiting investment in commercially-viable Sustainable Development Goal projects and his bank could help tap those funds.

Vijay Kumar Thallam, an IAS officer, who is the Co-Vice-Chairman of RySS said the state had spent Rs 334 crore so far. Half a million farmers in the state were practising ZBNF, he claimed, and the target was to double that number this year.

When it was pointed out that Peter Carberry, the Director-General of the Hyderabad-based international agricultural institute, ICRISAT, had said in an address to agricultural scientists in Delhi, that the dung of one cow for 30 acres was “clearly inadequate,” Thallam said there was 78,000 tonnes of nitrogen in every acre.

He was referring to nitrogen in the air, which soil microbes would make available to plants through the practice of ZBNF. Was India not practising agriculture before (synthetic) urea (was commercially produced in 1908), he asked. He seems to forget that before the 1960s, India was not producing enough to feed its population.

“The success of the Green Revolution has enabled us to criticise the Green Revolution,” Chand says. The problem with chemical agriculture is injudicious use. India cannot afford chemical-free agriculture, he says, but it can reduce the use.

If Palekar’s natural farming method makes crops climate-resilient, resistant to pests and diseases and high-yielding without requiring costly chemical inputs, farmers would believe their eyes and ears and adopt it.

Would it need marketing, megabucks and official push?

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