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Do we need an agriculture that destroys and contaminates the environment?

by Devinder Sharma, 11 March 2009

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Deccan Herald, 11 March 2009

Agricultural Reforms: On the wrong track

In the garb of ’conservation agriculture’, costly technology and imported concepts of sustainability are being introduced.

On the face of it, it looks like agricultural scientists all over the world are now trying to mend ways, trying to learn from the farmers on the need to conserve natural resources with a view to improve efficiency, equity and environment. The unprecedented global food crisis in the first half of 2008, and the continuing agrarian crisis in India, I thought had brought about this change in their thinking and approach.

It didn’t take me long to realise that I was wrong. They haven’t learnt anything from the agriculture debacle, nor are they serious in tackling the fundamental crisis of sustainability that agriculture is faced with. Using the right vocabulary, and ensuring it is politically correct they have now come up with another buzzword — ‘Conservation Agriculture’. It looks so appropriate and timely, that for once you feel like patting agriculture scientists.

Intensive farming

It isn’t so. Conservation Agriculture is all about ‘sustainable agricultural intensification,’ and I wonder how intensive farming practices can be termed sustainable? At this rate, I wouldn’t be surprised if they start promoting chemical pesticides under the garb of ‘sustainable pesticides use.’ Bringing in new machinery to improve cropping intensity, that wouldn’t help either. Coming back, wasn’t Green Revolution all about intensive farming, wasn’t it aimed at increasing cropping intensity, increasing per unit productivity? So what’s the difference between Conservation Agriculture and Green Revolution technology?

Conservation Agriculture is about no tillage. It is based on minimal soil disturbance, organic residue retention and crop rotations. It is believed that the shift to zero tillage or minimal tillage will not disturb the soil and therefore help in conserving natural resources. In a country where earthworms are integral to the soils, I thought earthworms were natural tillers. Bhaskar Save tells us that one earthworm turns around six tonnes of soil in its short lifespan. Zero tillage — doesn’t it therefore sound unfamiliar in the Indian context?

Zero tillage has brought about its own set of industry. And that is what primarily interests agricultural scientists. Among the new conservation technologies required are: laser land leveller, which is so far being imported but some of its parts are now being fabricated locally; zero till planters, including the second generation ‘happy seeders’ and ‘turbo seeders’; rotatory disc drill used for intensive soil working; and of course a range of herbicides.

These equipment have been suitably modified and redesigned. Before you try to understand its multifunctional operations, you realise there are 150 fabricators and entrepreneurs breathing down your neck. And that makes me wonder why agriculture scientists do not think beyond costly equipment and chemicals? Why do they have to rely on imported concepts of sustainability and the technology options? Why can’t they look inwards, search for the wonderful low external input technologies that you have perfected over the years?

The answer is that they are actually not working for farmers. Farmers just happen to be incidental, come in handy to promote the machines, chemicals and the hybrid/GM seeds. If only they had listened to farmers, spent more time to understand and then improving the sustainable farming systems that they have evolved, the face of Indian agriculture would have been ever-smiling. Farmers have all the answers, and they in fact need to show us the way towards sustainable agriculture, wherein the natural resource base remains protected and preserved.

Economically viable

We do not need an agriculture which is dependent upon external inputs. We do not need an agriculture that destroys the soil health, mines the groundwater and contaminates the environment. We don’t need an agriculture where farmers are pauperised and the service providers rake in money. We need a sustainable farming system which is economically viable, where money flows into the pockets of the tillers. We need agriculture where farmers don’t think of quitting farming. Only then can agriculture become truly sustainable.

In a few weeks time, the government is likely to come up with a National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture. The Rs 83,000-crore project is to be introduced in 100 districts across the country, and will operate for five years. Read the document carefully and you find that it follows the same beaten track.

It uses the right kind of language, and under the garb of sustainable agriculture new technologies and machinery is getting ready to be introduced. Take dryland farming, which constitutes more than 60 per cent of the country’s cultivable lands, the strategy that has been spelt out has been repeated again and again ever since the subject was accorded top priority in Mrs Indira Gandhi’s 20-point programme.

The sub-committee that has prepared the approach paper for the National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture is dominated by people who were actually part of the system that turned agriculture completely unsustainable in the past 40 years of Green Revolution.

The agriculture part of the 11th Plan document too has been written by experts who were largely responsible for the agrarian crisis that we witness today. Karnataka’s Agricultural Mission too is headed by a person who was part of the same faulty system. I fail to understand how you can expect people who were responsible for the crisis to provide the solutions.