Mega bucks were chasing Andhra Pradesh’s drive to convert all its 60 lakh farmers to a form of regenerative agriculture that strikes at the root of the country’s agricultural research, education and extension system. N Chandrababu Naidu—who, in his earlier stint as chief minister, was a champion of information technology—wanted to take the rice bowl’s farmers back to the pre-synthetic-urea age. The state was prepared to contract debt supposedly to make its farmers debt-free with Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF). Will the current chief minister YS Jaganmohan Reddy complete what Naidu began?
Andhra’s initiative was perhaps in finance minister Nirmala Sitharaman’s mind when she announced a “back to basics” move to “Zero-Budget Farming.” We need to “replicate this innovative model through which in a few states farmers are being trained in the practice,” she had said during her recent Union Budget speech. But why did she not back it with money? The programmes that ZBNF can draw from—Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY) and Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVK)—have had a modest Rs 200 crore increase in outlay to Rs 4,050 crore.
According to the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), Andhra’s official agency that is driving ZBNF, it will cost Rs 16,452 crore for the state’s 60 lakh farmers to make the switch by 2023-24. The cost of covering each farming household is Rs 25,550, of which Rs 1,000 is for one-time subsidy on inputs. The rest is for skill development, institution building, marketing support and management oversight. Apart from drawing on RKVY and PKVK allocations, Andhra was preparing to borrow from private and multilateral agencies. This was to be facilitated by the Sustainable India Finance Facility (SIFF) put together by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), World Agroforestry Centre and BNP Paribas, the French bank.
There was much celebratory talk in the presence of Naidu at an event in Vijayawada in June last year. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative said upscaling would need “visionary leadership” and “funding agencies.” The FAO would be in the middle, providing knowledge. France, he said, had passed a law for “much more” natural farming. An offer of French experts and expertise was also made. BNP Paribas’s global management committee member said that Andhra would be the first state of its size to have “purely natural agriculture.” The bank was invested in achieving sustainable development goals (SDG); it had projects worth $175 billion. With the “incredible products” and “all those evidences” that ZBNF works in Andhra, “we have the argument to convince” investors like pension funds, he said.
But do India and Andhra Pradesh need to go back to basics and transit beyond France’s “much more” natural farming to “purely natural” farming? Is the Green Revolution broken? Foodgrain production has been rising year after year, except when weather is very unfavourable. The net availability of foodgrains per person has increased from 395 gm per day in 1951 to 494 gm per day, despite the population increasing by 3.5 times during this period. This has been made possible by the extension of irrigation and the use of high-yielding varieties that are responsive to the application of fertilisers.
Andhra Pradesh’s progressive farmers have been quick to adopt new technologies and improved practices. Although foodgrain production has declined from an average of 18.6 million tonnes to 15 million tonnes over the past 10 years, its farmers are moving in sync with changing Indian diets towards value-added fisheries, horticulture and livestock rearing. These have a greater share in its agri-GDP than field crops.
Padma Shri awardee Subhash Palekar’s ZBNF is based on the stimulation of microbial activity in the soil. This is supposedly achieved by applying a bacterial culture made by fermenting cow dung and urine with additives like besan and jaggery. Mulching—spreading straw or crop residues on the soil surface—is meant to conserve moisture and suppress the growth of weeds. Aeration of the root zone area is insisted upon.
These are good agricultural practices. Even Green Revolution farmers are advised to add farmyard manure or vermicompost to enhance soil texture and microbial activity. Under Conservation Agriculture, ploughing is barred. Sowing is to be done with seed drills in fields where the previous crop’s stubble is left to decompose naturally. ZBNF is called “zero-budget” because the income from subsidiary crops planted with the main crop compensates for cash inputs. This is not unique to ZBNF; it is advised for garden crops like coconut. Even aeration or waaphasa happens when drip irrigation is practised.
Palekar draws glares from the agricultural research establishment when he says that “the output of the Green Revolution is only destruction: of the soil, water, environment and human health.” He blames it for cancer, diabetes, and even AIDS. For him, it is a conspiracy to create dependency among farmers for fertilisers, pesticides and hybrid seeds.
Palekar’s science is questionable. According to him, only the dung of Indian cows is effective as a soil inoculant. That of the black-coloured Kapila cow is the best. For fermentation, the dung should be fresh and cow urine as old as possible. Palekar says the dung of one Indian cow can fertilise 30 acres. (Palekar estimates it at 11 kg per day, but how can it be uniform?) Peter Carberry, the director general of ICRISAT, the Hyderabad-based international agricultural research institute, said this was “clearly inadequate.” He made the observation in his lecture to the National Academy of Agricultural Sciences in New Delhi. Carberry said the recommendation of a practice must be based on prior evidence gathered as per scientific protocols.
Carberry was dismayed by NITI Aayog vice-chairman Rajiv Kumar’s effusive endorsement of ZBNF in a two-part article in a financial daily in April. He said it was an innovation that could be readily exported (how, if the dung of indigenous cows is required?) without awaiting certification from ‘respected foreign institutions.’ (His quotes.)
This writer visited Palekar’s village, Bellura, in Amravati district and found none of the farmers practising ZBNF. The caretaker of his farm did not know the recipe of jiwamrita, the soil inoculant, or beejamrita, the anti-fungal coating for seeds. He said he had applied the dung of six cows and six bulls (10 tractor-trolley loads) to the 11-acre farm, when according to Palekar one cow is enough to fertilise 30 acres.
Palekar said there was no need to apply jiwamrita after three years by when the field’s microbial level would have reached saturation point. Does anyone fertilise a forest, he asked. The objective was to make the farm as regenerative as the forest. When Vijay Kumar Thallam, the co-vice-chairman of the RySS, was told about Carberry’s remarks, he said every acre of land had 78,000 tonnes of nitrogen. He was referring to nitrogen in the air, which soil microbes would make available to plants through ZBNF. Were we not feeding ourselves before urea (that is, the process for manufacturing it was invented in 1908), he asked. (Diseases and food inadequacy kept populations in check, actually.)
This writer has met or spoken to four farmers who say ZBNF works for them. Two of them were growing garden crops like coconut, areca, banana and betel leaves. C Sanjeeva Reddy, 66, of Ashok Nagar, Anantapur, said his Sona Masuri rice yields from 33 acres of own and leased fields were slightly less than chemically-grown rice, but he got three times the price. He has his own brand: Prakriti Vyavasayam.
But MVS Nagi Reddy of Vijayawada, who also practised ZBNF for 10 years, had a different story. His rice yields under ZBNF were 20% below the average and he was not able to convince farmers in his village or the block. An MSc in genetics and plant breeding from the University of Allahabad, Reddy has now restricted ZBNF to half an acre of paddy for own consumption. “I need profits for my family,” says the farmer who was an advertisement for ZBNF. Now he rears fish on 80% of his family’s 100-acre farm. On the rest, he grows rice and pulses the conventional way.
“The success of the Green Revolution has enabled us to criticise the Green Revolution,” says agricultural economist and NITI Aayog member Ramesh Chand. The problem with chemical agriculture is injudicious use. He says India will not be able to afford chemical-free agriculture. But it can use less chemicals.
The back-to-basics leap must await the results of ZBNF trials being conducted at four locations under the aegis of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and an investigation by a committee appointed by the NITI Aayog.
The author blogs at www.smartindianagriculture.com