Can a small village in Bihar show us the way in preventing farmer suicides?
In 1960’s the Green Revolution took India by surprise; the size of seeds increased, the yield per acre increased geometrically, the plants became pest resistant and shorter plants meant lesser damage by winds.
But once the sheen settled, the reality came at the forefront. States that had adopted Green Revolution were left with destructed soils, parched fields, deteriorated water-tables, dead agro-diversity and a skewed ecological balance.
The increase in farmer’s income was eroded by ever increasing costs on high yielding varieties of seeds, fertilisers, equipment and machinery.
Yesterday’s solution became today’s problem.
Then, a few years ago, the government proposed a new plan: Bringing Green Revolution to Eastern India (BGREI). This drew criticism from the environmentalists who opposed this plan. They argued that BGREI will have the same impact on Eastern India as it had on the states that had adopted the first Green Revolution.
But mere criticism would not have been enough. So to counter the plan, Greenpeace planned to develop a functional example of a village that does not use chemical fertilisers, is not dependent on HYV seeds, has a balanced ecology and a successful and balanced agriculture: The Real Green Revolution.
To execute the project, Greenpeace researched various states of Eastern India before finalising on Bihar.
Ishteyaque Ahmad, Campaign Manager of Project Kedia says, “In terms of agriculture, Bihar government turned out to be the most progressive one. Among various other pros, it had a detailed agricultural road map with preset ten-year targets.”
In Bihar, Greenpeace finalised three agro-ecological areas: Samatsipur in North Bihar – a flood prone region, Nalanda in southern Bihar – a pro-organic agricultural region with well developed irrigational facilities, and Jamui – a semi-arid & rain fed area.
“The administration was supportive in all the three areas, but it was Jamui from where we received the warmest response from farmers,” says Ahmad.
Among the 20 villages of Jamui that Greenpeace surveyed, the farmers of Kedia, a village with a population of 625 people, were most interested in taking their farming to an organic level.
Ahmad says, “The decision to choose Kedia was based on other reasons as well. Kedia is a completely rain-fed area and thus represents 60 per cent of the country’s farmers. In Kedia, of the total hundred families, except just one, all others are small or marginalised farmers. So in terms of landholding, it represents 80 per cent of the country’s farmers. So you can say that in agricultural terms, Kedia is very much a representative of the country.”
The shift from chemical to organic farming was not a one day process because it involved much more than just giving up chemicals and pesticides. Greenpeace helped the farmers in preparing the land, trained them on new farming methods and installed the necessary equipment required for a holistic change.
What helped the project in its initial stages were Bihar government’s subsidies. But once established, the project will be self-sustainable. The subsidies were used to develop the infrastructure for the project including vermicomposting units, biogas plants, etc. The infrastructure, though already functional, will be completely ready by 2017. With that, the project will be free from any dependency on government subsidies.
(Image credit: Shiv Kumar Singh/Greenpeace)
Ahmad says, “They won’t need fertliser subsidies as they will be making, in fact are making, their own fertiliser. They won’t need fuel subsidies (to run pumps for irrigation) because they are developing their own rain water harvesting system and a system for watershed management.”
Going a step ahead, Greenpeace has developed a crowd funding platform to raise money for Bihar’s first solar-powered cold storage that will be used to store farm products.
The cold storage costs Rs. 12 lakh and the installation costs are Rs. 3 lakh. Of the Rs. 12 lakh machinery costs, the government gives a subsidy of 30 per cent once the system is in place & operational.
The cold storage, has been developed at the Science and Technology Entrepreneurship Park (STEP) of IIT-Kharagpur. The machinery has zero running cost as it uses solar power. The annual maintenance cost of Rs. 30,000 will be borne by Jeevit Mati Kisan Samiti, the co-operative society of Kedia’s farmers. The society will bear this cost from its profits along with other expenses such as salaries of the care taker, accountant etc.
Once the system is in place and Greenpeace receives the 30 per cent subsidy (Rs. 4 lakh) from the government, that money will be used to strengthen the rain water harvesting and watershed management system in Kedia.
Talking about the financial sustainability of the project, Ahmad said, “The farmers of Kedia have already started generating income from this. While earlier, they used to focus only on grains, now they have started growing vegetables at a commercial level as well.”
“This was the first year of proper vegetable production. About 7 to 8 families have started this properly. There are families whose daily income in off–season was about Rs. 1500 just by selling vegetables. People know that Kedia uses organic materials, fertlisers, so the demand for Kedia’s products has increased,” Ahmad added.
(Image credit: Greenpeace)
Though this increase in demand has not yet had much impact on the price. But to help the farmers earn from their farm produce, Ahmad is teaching them about value addition.
“Value addition is another way to boost the income of our farmers. For example, chickpeas sell for about Rs. 60 per kg, however powdered chickpeas sell for about Rs. 200 a kg. This is value addition. It needs marketing as well but this will certainly boost their income,” says Ahmad.
Add to this the cold storage. The cold storage will enable the farmers to hold their products when the demand is low and then sell them when the demand increases. This will take off the pressure of selling their products as soon as they are harvested.
“This will enable the farmers to sell the products as per the demand thus giving them more negotiation powers in the market,” says Ahmad.
Then comes the shelf-life. The shelf-life of organic products is naturally higher than the non-organic ones. They also weigh more as compared to inorganic ones even though the inorganic ones are bigger in size.
“When we started in Kedia, the farmers were worried about their onion production. The organic onions were comparatively smaller in size. So from the organic and inorganic lots, we gathered 20 average sized onions each. And we weighed them together. The onions that were made organically were heavier even though the ones made with chemicals were bigger in size,” says Ahmad.
Kedia could be the solution to farmer suicides. The Kedia project has the ability to survive in areas that have been affected by drought. Jamui district is a drought-prone area. In 2015-16 season, Kedia had a drought of the same magnitude as that of Maharshtra. To a certain extent, it impacted the rabbi crops of the region. But since the soil had developed water retention abilities, the drought had no impact on the kharif crops.
“The pace might seem slow but you have to understand that for us it’s a project, but for the farmers, it’s an unknown journey concerning their livelihood. We are working on the farmer’s pace,” says Ahmad.
So in terms of price, will the organic products be able to compete with the inorganic ones? Ahmad acknowledges that currently the organic products are expensive than inorganic ones but he dismisses these fears by saying that the pricing of the organic products is a scam in itself. He adds, “If we go the Kedia way, the farmers produce fertilisers on their own, they don’t use pesticides, there is no fuel cost or EMI of machines, the amount of production is not less as well, then how can the end products be expensive?”
Ahmad says that the price is high because there is not enough supply in the market yet. And not everybody has the required certification to sell the organic products under ‘organic’ labels.
“A lot of people in our village do not have the certification so we cannot sell our produce under the certified organic label. The ones that have the certification have created a market hegemony, a monopoly and have thus been able to manufacture the scarcity,” says Ahmad.
What after Kedia?
Greenpeace will continue to monitor the project after its completion. It is also planning to launch a campaign demanding that, on a pilot basis, Bihar government implement such projects in at least one village of each district.
Ahmad says, “The target of the campaign will be that in the coming budget of 2017, there should be an allocation for this project. After all, we are a civil society, we cannot replace the government. We act as a watchdog, a facilitator, a solution provider, but not as a replacement to the government.”