On the face of it, it appears that agricultural scientists all over the world are now trying to mend their ways, trying to learn from farmers on the need to conserve natural resources, with a view to improving 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 learned 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. 'Better late than never' you might say.
Hardly so. Conservation Agriculture is all about "sustainable agricultural intensification" - 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 the 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. I've always thought earthworms were nature's tillers, so it's not clear to me exactly what zero tillage would amount to, since the earthworms would go on tilling anyway, unmindful of new agricultural terminology. Bhaskar Save tells us that earthworms turn around 6 tonnes of soil in its short lifespan. Zero tillage sounds unfamiliar in the Indian context!
Zero tillage has brought about its own industry. And that is what primarily interests agricultural scientists. Among the new conservation technologies required are: Laser land levellers, which have thus far been imported, but some of whose parts are now being fabricated locally; Zero till planters, including the second generation 'Happy Seeders' and 'Turbo Seeders;' Rotatory Disc Drills used for intensive soil working; and of course a range of herbicides.
The answer is that they are actually not working for farmers anymore. Farmers just happen to be incidental, coming in handy to promote the machines, chemicals and the hybrid/GM seeds. If only they had listened to farmers, spent more time understanding and then improving sustainable farming systems, the face of Indian agriculture would have been ever-smiling. Farmers have all the answers, and they in fact it is they who need to show us the way towards sustainable agriculture, wherein the natural resource base remains protected and preserved.
We do not need an agriculture which is dependent upon external inputs. We do not need an agriculture that destroys 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, the government is likely to come up with a National Mission on Sustainable Agriculture (NMSA). The Rs.83,000-crores 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 are 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 spelled out has been repeated again and again ever since the subject was accorded top priority in Indira Gandhi's 20-point programme. Rs.54,000 crores is proposed to be allocated for dryland agriculture in NMSA. A careful perusal tells you that the emphasis is on introduction of sophisticated technologies and genetically modified crops. In other words, the mission is merely a facilitating process for the large-scale introduction of genetically modified crops and balanced use of chemical fertilisers. At a time when world over there is an increasing realisation that chemical farming has destroyed soil health and in turn devastated agriculture, I fail to understand how India's planners hope to apply those faulty technologies to resurrect agriculture.
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 portion of the 11th Plan document too has been written by experts who were largely responsible for the agrarian crisis that we witness today. How you can expect people who were responsible for the crisis to provide the right solutions? If they were so good, India wouldn't have been faced with an agrarian crisis of such a grave magnitude.
Why can't we thank these experts once and for all, for what they have done to the country's agriculture? Now don't get me wrong; many of them have already retired, and are unnecessarily being drawn in again and again as chairman or members for consultations for the new programmes and projects. I find them in various committees, commissions and of course they form part of the national consultations that agribusiness companies and foreign institutes/universities are regularly holding to promote their own technologies. This is certainly not what the country needs. What we urgently require is a change in mindset, a change in approach and a willingness to listen to farmers and NGOs who are working to regenerate agriculture.
Without this fundamental shift, the National Mission for Sustainable Agriculture will join the already long line of ideas that have led to the deep crisis.