Resource Center: Providing a space for communities to experiment with alternative organic low cost farming techniques and an alternate school for sustainable development.
We have been following the agrarian crisis in different parts of the country with dismay: the situation in Vidarbha, Wayanad and Andhra being covered in detail in various articles by P.Sainath. The message is simple: farming is not a viable option for many farmers, not just those who are subsistence farmers but also those who can be called medium sized farmers. Agriculture has become a high investment, high-risk affair with genetically modified seeds that could potentially give high yield, if they are supported with specific pesticides and fertilizers, and if the weather is favorable. Further, these seeds are bio-engineered to be purchased every year as they only last one harvest i.e. they cannot be reused the next year.
Farmers are enticed into the high yield varieties not only by companies directly, but also through the policies of the state. One example is the case of cotton farmers in Vidarbha who while trying to compete with the deregulated cotton market were encouraged by the state to go for higher-yield cotton. While it is not clear if the yield actually increased, the farmers spent much more on irrigation and pesticides and fertilizer. Contrary to the claim of pest resistance of some of the seeds they actually required pesticides. With increasing input costs and irregular yields, many farmers are finding themselves under huge debt driving a number of farmers towards suicide.
While the solution to this problem is nontrivial, it is important to address it. Bharathi Trust, a grassroots organization based in Thiruvallur, Tamil Nadu, is working on creating a resource center for the farmers in the area. We visited the resource center in January and were greeted by lush green fields of Toor Dal and little Ragi saplings, apart from the hundreds of trees planted by volunteers from Belgium who have been very supportive towards the creation of this resource center. While the agrarian crisis in this region is not yet as bad as that in Vidarbha or Wayanad, it is a real problem, growing everyday. Ironically, the 12 acres that constitute the resource center were purchased from a farmer who had a agriculture related debt of around Rs. 8 lakhs. A chat with him and his family was an eye opener for us about the extent of this problem in this region.
In Tamil Nadu the cash crop promoted is sugarcane. There is only one sugarcane company that the region has access to and last year the company had bought sugarcane from him for almost 2 lakhs, however, this year they had not come to harvest his crop yet. As sugarcane stays on the fields the sugar content remains the same, but the water starts drying up. This makes the sugarcane light and since they are paid by weight they would be receiving less than 50,000 and would actually be loosing money this year.
Subsistence farmers in this region typically own less than two acres of land and experimenting alternative methods of farming on their land is not an option. One of the goals of the resource center is to provide the farmers with a place where they can experiment and learn from agricultural techniques that are financially viable and ecologically friendly at the same time. Over the last few months, the personnel at the resource center have managed to grow a healthy crop of Toor Dal without the use of any pesticides and this has created a buzz among the farmers. Bharathi Trust is in consultation with Namalwar, an agricultural scientist who has devoted a good number of years towards research on organic farming and has been very successful in practicing these methods of farming.
We have been working with education for many years and the resource center will also attempt to answer the most basic question Ð What should we teach our children? The education system as we know it is not meant to cater to all. While it provides opportunities to a few who can afford to be in it long enough, most of the children are filtered out by X grade. Siddamma, the founder of Bharathi Trust, also plans to start a school in the resource center that will provide an avenue for holistic education for children who have dropped out from the mainstream.
The children will not only be learning through joy of learning techniques used by Bharathi Trust in their motivational centers, but also organic farming methods and other vocational training. They will also be exposed to how to handle risk, e.g. of growing crops that can first sustain them, rather than investing solely in the highly volatile market of cash crops.
While agriculture is what the resource center is concentrating on right now, the people there also plan to expand into village occupations including pottery and weaving.
Sanjeev Ranganathan and Anita Komanduri
Asha for Education - Austin