There is an inherent seductive charm to the term zero budget natural farming, for it makes the arduous occupation of agriculture appear beguilingly simple, an economic proposition without any risk or even requirement of capital. Coined by the Vidarbha-based farmer, Subhash Palekar, who was bestowed with the Padma Shri in 2016, zero budget natural farming has acquired the same magical resonance as Skill India did in 2015. The credit for turning zero budget farming into India’s latest mantra for economic uplift goes to Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who touted it as a panacea for resolving India’s agrarian distress and doubling the income of farmers in her budget speech on July 5.
What is zero budget natural farming? Is it any different from organic farming, or traditional farming practises pursued in India decades ago? No, says former MP Raju Shetti, who is Maharashtra’s foremost farmer leader and president of Swabhimani Shetkari Sanghtana. In this interview, Shetti explains why zero budget farming, if implemented on a large-scale, will prove disastrous for India and imperil food security.
Ajaz: What do you think of zero budget natural farming, which has created quite a buzz because of Union Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s focus on it?
Raju: To begin with, my objection is to the term, zero budget farming. Farmers labour on their farm, as do agricultural workers. Doesn’t their labour have a price? Farmers need water, for which they require electricity. Shouldn’t all these be accounted for? No type of farming in India can be called zero budget.
But zero budget natural farming has been defined as engaging in agriculture without taking credit, not using chemical fertiliser, minimising dependence on water, and employing traditional practises.
Zero budget farming is not different from organic farming. I am myself a farmer. I have carried out these agricultural practises in my farm at Kolhapur. Yes, it is possible to do farming with less water and lower input cost than what modern methods of agriculture demand. But you can’t call it zero budget farming, which has very little substance to it. Subhas Palekar, the person who coined the term zero budget, belongs to Vidarbha, which has witnessed the highest number of suicides by farmers in Maharashtra.
Do you have any other objection to zero budget natural farming other than its nomenclature?
My objection is that if you don’t use hybrid seeds, urea, pesticide, and machinery like tractors, agriculture productivity is bound to decrease. There are many who are engaged in organic farming. For organic farming to be economically viable, its produce has to be sold at a higher price than that produced through modern methods of agriculture. The yield from organic farming is just too low.
I suppose the problem is that not everyone is willing to pay a higher price for something available at cheaper rates.
The produce of organic farming is healthier and even tastier than that of modern agriculture. However, in our country, there is a huge mass of people who struggle to overcome their hunger. Their vulnerability has them procure food at as cheap a rate as possible. They don’t eat to keep healthy. They don’t eat to savour the food. They eat to survive. I think they comprise 40% to 45% of India’s population. It is for this section of the population that the government controls food prices or regulates exports and imports of food products. Why, even the middle class does not mind paying a high price for petrol, but it does want rice and wheat to be priced low?
If the country’s mindset is to buy food at as cheap a price as possible, then, tell me, what benefits can accrue from organic or zero budget farming?
Can’t India’s traditional method of farming before the advent of the Green Revolution be classified as organic farming? Isn’t this why the idea of zero budget farming has been sold as “back to basics”?
Until the Green Revolution, people didn’t really use pesticides or fertilisers. That was indeed organic farming. But it is also true that India’s agricultural yield and productivity was very low then. Our population was around 50 crores. Yet, we imported rice, wheat, pulses, etc to tide over food scarcity. It was to achieve self-reliance in food grain production that we opted for the Green Revolution.
Our population today is around 136 crores. Where will you get food grains for them through zero budget farming? This is sheer madness. Zero budget farming is as mad an idea as demonetisation. It will, if implemented, ruin the country as demonetisation did.
Palekar has claimed that none of the farmers who adopted zero budget farming has committed suicide.
[Laughs heartily] You should come to Maharashtra for seven-eight days and I will take you to Amravati. I often go there. You can yourself see Amravati’s reality. I can also show you the economic condition of farmers who engage in organic farming.
What is the politics underlying the idea of zero budget farming?
Palekar’s idea is a reflection of the worldview of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), which believes rishis and munis had great insights into everything. The RSS wants to return to the kind of farming that was done centuries ago. It believes farmers should labour just the way animals did in the past.
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But this government also promotes technology. For instance, it has formulated the concept of smart cities.
They want the people in rural India to remain as they are. There are two countries – India [urban] and Bharat [rural]. The people of India are in dire need of slaves, the cost of hiring whom has risen. They want India to hire slaves from Bharat at a cheap rate. They want as many people in villages to remain uneducated as possible. They don’t want them to develop so that Bharat will produce slaves in even higher numbers.
Can zero budget farming help double the income of farmers, as is being claimed?
[Laughs] How can it double the income? Rainfall has become deficient and erratic because of global warming. Zero budget farming will want farmers to remain dependent on rains. This was the case in the past as well. But farmers can no longer just depend on rains. They need a bore well to irrigate their land if it doesn’t rain. Palekar speaks of mulching, but…
What is mulching?
Mulching involves spreading leaves around plants to retain the moisture in soil. If it doesn’t rain for three months, what can mulching achieve? I am not opposed to organic farming. Excessive use of fertiliser and pesticide has thrown up a lot of problems. These could well be the cause of the spurt in cancer cases in Punjab and Maharashtra. Our rivers have become arsenic.
However, you can’t adopt organic farming on an all-India scale. There has to be a middle path. As I told you, I am also carrying out experiments in organic farming in Kolhapur. The yield is half of what is achieved through modern methods of farming.
So if the yield is half of what is achieved through modern methods of farming, it implies that farmers can’t double their income through zero budget farming.
Yes. On the one hand, there is talk of turning India into a $5-trillion economy. On the other hand, it seems they want to make farmers poorer. It is with great responsibility I say – if they persist with the madness of zero budget farming, India will face an acute food security crisis.
Is zero budget or organic farming possible to adopt for large landholdings?
It makes sense for those who have 1.5 or 2 acres of farm. They can experiment with organic farming to satisfy the needs of their families. But the mad idea of zero budget farming can’t satisfy the demand for food of 136 crore Indians. That is why you have to adopt technology in agriculture. Because of the depletion of carbon in soil, you can rejuvenate it through organic farming. But complete dependence on organic farming will dramatically reduce productivity. Farmers can’t use local variety seeds because the yields from them are low. That is why we have to use hybrid seeds. But their resistance to pests is low. That is why we have to use pesticides.
It is claimed that Palekar worked with the Rajya Raitha Sangha and made zero budget farming a success in Karnataka.
The tendency is to cite examples of those who undertook organic farming in their 1.5- or 2-acre farms and sold the produce at a high price in the market. Assume there are 1,000 farmers in a village and all of them take to organic farming. Do you think they will get buyers? They won’t. What is true of cricket is also true of organic farming. You have one Sachin Tendulkar in a nation of 136 crores. Not everyone becomes a Tendulkar.
Your party had an alliance with the BJP in 2014. Why did you walk out of the alliance?
I just didn’t like the Bharatiya Janata Party’s attitude to agriculture. For one, they wanted to amend the Land Acquisition Act, 2013. It was a conspiracy to usurp the land of farmers in the name of development. I was also opposed to their export-import policy. In his Mann Ki Baat programme, Modi said farmers should sow edible oil seeds in higher quantity than before to make India self-reliant. He said he would increase the minimum support price for it. Yet, he granted permission to import edible oil from Mozambique. He also got palm oil imported from Malaysia. The price of sugar has been low over the last two years because of imports. The government’s faulty import policy is at the root of the huge outstanding sugarcane dues. The problems that farmers have been facing are not because of natural causes, but because of government policies. The BJP’s faulty agriculture policies compelled me to break the alliance with it.
The writer is an independent journalist based in Delhi.
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