Is the Green Revolution broken to go back to Zero Budget farming? Nirmala Sitharaman should have waited for official panel's study reports

  • There is a need to extend the coverage of irrigation and to make crop insurance more effective

  • Palekar said that jivramita does not need to be applied every year

  • Dahenkar sells his produce under his own brand name and gets a premium

In her maiden Union Budget speech, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman said, “We will go back to the basics on one count: Zero Budget farming.”

At an event in Vijayawada in June last year to mark the scaling up of Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) to cover all 6 million farmers of Andhra Pradesh by 2024, Erik Solheim, Executive Director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) said: “It is ironic that after 100 years of intensive agriculture, we are now looking back to what our ancestors used to do.”

Solheim, a former Norwegian diplomat, resigned last November after a row over his alleged travel expenses.

Why do we need to look back? Is our agriculture broken? Every year in the past 10 years, food grain production has been surpassing that of the previous year, barring years of deficient rainfall. The net annual availability of food grains per person has increased from 145 kilograms in 1951 to nearly 185 kilograms in 2017, though the population has increased 3.56 times during this period. High-yielding varieties, responsive to irrigation and chemical fertilisers have made us food secure.

“The success of the Green Revolution has enabled us to criticise the Green Revolution,” says Ramesh Chand, agricultural economist and member of NITI Aayog.

It is true that the farmers are in distress and agriculture is being done in an unsustainable manner by overdrawing groundwater and over-using urea, a nitrogenous fertiliser. Faulty policies like free electricity and improper pricing are to blame. Agriculture markets are distorted and these need to be fixed. There is a need to extend the coverage of irrigation and to make crop insurance more effective.

The ZBNF is being propounded by Subhash Palekar of Amravati in Maharashtra. He is a Padma Shri awardee. It is based on four ‘wheels’ or ‘chakras,” whose purpose is to increase the count of beneficial microbes in soil; create resilience in plants against pests, diseases and weather shocks; reduce the cost of cultivation with minimal cash inputs; and recover the cost of unavoidable cash expenses with income from secondary crops planted with the main crop.

To increase microbial activity in the soil, a diluted fermentation of cow dung, cow urine, gram flour, jaggery and bund soil is used. This is called jivamrita. Seeds are coated with bijamrita, a fungicide made of cow dung, cow urine, lime and bund soil. Another principle is mulching or covering the soil with straw or crop residues to conserve moisture and prevent the growth of weeds. Intercropping with symbiotic crops is encouraged. Waaphasa is meant to increase aeration of the soil and make oxygen available to microbes and roots.

 Is the Green Revolution broken to go back to Zero Budget farming? Nirmala Sitharaman should have waited for official panels study reports

Subhash Palekar's farm caretaker with son and neighbours at his farm in Bellura. Image couresy: Vivian Fernandes

Palekar believes that plants can produce their own food by drawing nitrogen and water vapour from the air and nutrients from the soil with the help of soil bacteria. But he insists on the dung of desi cows. The dung of the black-coloured Kapila cow is said to be the best. For fermentation, the dung should be as fresh as possible and the urine as old as possible. One desi cow can fertilise 30 acres of land. Palekar regards exotic breeds like Jersey and Holstein as “dangerous.” He also distinguishes his method from organic farming which uses vermicompost. This is produced by exotic earthworms, which according to Palekar, excrete heavy metals.

The Green Revolution in Palekar’s view is a disaster. His website says the land has been laid waste wherever it has been practised. He attributes cancer, diabetes, heart attacks and even AIDS to chemical-based agriculture.

If the benefits of ZBNF are so obvious, has Palekar convinced the farmers of his native village, Bellura? A visit in June revealed that none of them was practising it. Sridhar Palekar, 64, who said he was a cousin, grows soybean, tur and chana in Bellura and Sultanpur villages. He did not practice ZBNF. He uses a lesser quantity of chemicals along with cow dung. He was uncomplimentary about ZBNF.

Liladhar Palekar, 65, grows soybean and tur on five acres. He rotates the crops and uses a mix of fertiliser and farmyard manure.

Dyandeo Kadam, 55, does not own land. He leases about 10 acres. He had worked on Palekar’s farm when Palekar resided in the village. He said a leasehold farmer cannot practice ZBNF, because it takes three years for the results to set in. Leases are usually rotated every year, he said.

Palekar’s caretaker, Gajanan Shamrao Kalmegh, 60, also did not know about bijamrita and jivamrita. The mixing tanks in the farm had caved into a collapsed well. Kalmegh said he had applied 10 tractor-trolley loads of cow dung to the field in the days preceding our meeting.

Palekar said telephonically that jivramita does not need to be applied every year. After a field reaches microbial saturation, it is self-sustaining like the forest. When visited at his house, Palekar was at the Gurukul in Kurukshetra, whose patron is Acharya Devvrat, a practitioner of ZBNF. His son suggested a visit to the farm of Nilesh Dahenkar in Akola.

Dahenkar says he has been practising ZBNF for 19 years. He grows pomegranate, amla and drumstick on 21 acres, adjacent to Panjabrao Deshmukh agricultural university. Dahenkar says he applies 10-15 litres of jivamrita to adult trees every 15 days and a litre to infant trees, thorugh drip irrigation pipes. The soil was rocky, Dahenkar said, when he started; one found it friable.

Dahenkar sells his produce under his own brand name and gets a premium because of their organic nature.

C Sanjeeva Reddy, 66, of Ashok Nagar in Anantpur, Andhra Pradesh, also lauded ZBNF. He is mentioned on Palekar’s website. Reddy has been practising ZBNF since 2006. He grows a variety of field crops including sona masuri rice which he sells for Rs 100-120 a kg against Rs 40-45 that the chemically-grown variety fetches. Reddy is president of the natural agriculture farmers association and has his own brand: Prakriti Vyavasayam. The yield, he says, is slightly less. He also sells millet seeds, organically produced.

But Nagi Reddy, 59, of Vijayawada said his rice yields under ZBNF were always 20 percent less than the average for fertiliser-based ones. Last year, due to bad weather it had dropped by 40 percent. From one acre of naturally-farmed rice, he had expanded to five acres. Now, he has reduced it to half an acre, just enough for own consumption. An M.Sc in genetics and plant breeding from Allahabad University, Reddy says he was an advertisement for ZBNF, which he practised for 10 years. He was on the board of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) as a farmers’ representative and had dignitaries visiting his field. But he was unable to convince farmers in the village or in the mandalam (block). He has thrown in the towel.

“Technologically, it is okay to practice natural farming but I need profits for my family.” Reddy’s family farm off the Gudivada-Hanuman Junction Road in Krishna district is of 100 acres. On 80 acres, he rears fish and on the rest, he grows paddy and pulses using fertilisers.

In June, Peter Carberry, the Director-General of ICRISAT, a Hyderabad-based international crop research institute, said in a lecture in Delhi that the dung of one cow per 30 acres, which Palekar prescribed, was “clearly inadequate.” He said before a recommendation is made, there must be evidence to back it and the evidence, based on scientific protocols, must precede the recommendation. He was drawn to making the remarks because of the effusive endorsement of ZBNF by Rajiv Kumar, the Vice-Chairman of NITI Aayog in the Business Standard.

ICAR is studying the impact of ZBNF on the basmati cropping system at Pantnagar University, Punjab Agriculture University, Indian Institute of Farming Systems Research in Modipuram and at Gurukul in Kurukshetra. NITI Aayog has also set up a committee for the empirical validation of ZBNF (now renamed Subhash Palekar’s Natural Farming after a quibble over whether it is truly zero budget). The Finance Minister should have waited for these official committees to pronounce on Zero Budget farming before making her announcement.

Green Revolution practices require the use of farmyard manure to improve soil texture, raised organic carbon content and promote the growth of beneficial microbes. In conservation agriculture, there is no ploughing; seeds are sown among crop stubble. And as a previous Economic Survey said, genetic engineering technology allows us to practice more-from-less agriculture. We need to look forward not look back.

Updated Date: Jul 09, 2019 08:04:02 IST