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September 28, 2007


Why Navdanya
Monocultures, distress sales and farmer suicides
What's with biodiverse organic farming?
Green revolution not so green
The 2004 Seed Act
Terminator technology
Bija didi & the seed bank
Panch naja...bara naja
The case of the organic onions
Organic is about building relations - Links between farmers and consumers
Fighting the Neem patent
Uttarakhand is an organic state

Pictures from Navdanya
Navdanya's Website

The 2004 Seed Act

This act is for regulating the quality of seeds that are used in agriculture. However, if it comes into effect (I don't think it is in effect yet), farmers will not be able to breed their own seed or barter. In other words, they will need to purchase certified seeds. The penalty for not obeying this act could be anywhere between Rs 5,000 - Rs 25,000, quite a price for a small farmer.

A majority of the farmers in India use seed that has been bred locally (according to one of Vandana's articles, 80% of all seed in India is saved by farmers). This quality control will result in fewer varieties of grains being grown, indeed a second Green Revolution. Centralized seed production does not work since the seed might not be suited for the local conditions whereas the local seeds have evolved over centuries to soil, climate and pests. Also, this will make the farmer dependent on an external agency for seed.

The Act

A critique

Uttarakhand is an organic state

This was mentioned a few times during our course. It was mentioned by some visiting professors in the same breath as exporting organic. I just looked up their website and it is not clear if the motivation behind this is primarily to export. Nonetheless, it seems great that such an initiative has come from the government. The website talks about the green revolution does not make much sense in the mountains. 500l of water are needed to dissolve 1kg of urea, it says. And follows it up with the following quip: “It is a million dollar question to answer- “what would replace the 1.5 lakh hectare of dry land farm area of finger millet and other course grain in Uttarakhand”.”

The website mentions several crops that have been growing in the region for ages and they seem keen on promoting these which I think is awesome. I have my reservations about an export-driven mentality for that is not ecologically sound, both in times of food miles and because nutrients from a region are just being packed and sent far off. Organic food, I believe is not the prerogative of those who can afford it.

Organic Uttarakhand's website

Fighting the Neem Patent

An American company, W R Grace applied for a patent on the fungicidal product made from the seeds of the Neem tree. The European Patents Office (EPO) granted the patent, which was then contested by three people: Vandana Shiva, Linda Bullard (former president of IFOAM) and Madga Aelvoet (President of Greens in the European Parliament) for biopiracy. Neem leaves, seeds, bark, oil have for centuries been used for their fungicidal properties – the idea about using Neem seeds was based on traditional knowledge and not something the company had come up with. This case was fought for 10 years and the patent was finally revoked.

“W R Grace's patent gives the company exclusive rights to methods of extracting stable chemical compounds for use in pesticides. Yet, Indian villagers have been extracting the tree's chemical for pesticidal uses via similar processes for several centuries. Indian villagers used water and alcohol solvents years ahead of the company's patented processes. Even W R Grace itself acknowledges that India's traditional knowledge inspired the company's patent. This prior use is well documented and should invalidate the patent." Read more

In order to counter such biopiracy, Navdanya has started Jaiv Panchayats (living democracies) that would document community knowledge, in order to have a sort of library of various traditions and practices. Such a resource would not only help share community knowledge, it would also be useful in fighting cases of biopiracy.

More on the Neem biopiracy case here.

The case of the organic onions

How does Navdanya convince farmers to go organic? Organic usually comes up as the natural solution to farmer problems. Farmers in a particular region in Uttarakhand were having problems in storing their onion. The onions would go bad very soon. Negiji from Navdanya was talking to the farmers about this and he told them the onions would stay longer if they were grown organically. A few farmers were willing to try this out and found the onions had a longer shelf life. This kind of proof of principle helped others to adopt organic methods too. The Navdanya farm attempts to do exactly this – to show farmers that crops grow and grow great without the NPK inputs they have been made to believe are essential.

Organic is about building relations - Links between farmers and consumers

Vandana Shiva spoke about the importance of creating linkages between the farmers and the consumers, in a scenario where Reliance is entering retail sector in a major way. It makes a lot of sense, to know where your food is being grown, to have a sense of attachment to the land that is producing your food because somewhere, there is a piece of land that is producing for you. It takes away the facelessness of a huge super market and I think automatically one starts to care. Navdanya currently purchases produce from about 10,000 farmers and sells it to the urban market in mostly around New Delhi. They have a store in Dehradun and are planning to open one in Mumbai.

How much do the farmers get paid? The farmers are paid 10% more than the market price. The produce is picked up at their farm, so this saves them another 10% in travel since in the typical scenario, the farmer has to truck all the produce and bear the expenses. So in all they make 20% more than they would have. Navdanya sells the produce at another 20% hike to cover their costs of travel, storage etc.

Is the food organic? The farmer members of Navdanya pledge to cultivate crops in an organic way. So, yes, it is organic. However, to get the organic certification is expensive. Till very recently, the European certification cost about Rs. 20,000 per farm per year. This is very expensive. So Navdanya used to group many farms together and get them a collective organic certificate and pay for it. Recently, the Uttarakhand state has started a certification agency whose certificate is valid in Europe too. This costs a little less: Rs. 2000 per day and the certification requires 2 visits and 1 surprise visit, ie, Rs 6000 per farm. I don’t think all their farmers are certified organic.

You can check here for information about their stores.

Panch Naja ... Bara Naja

This is a traditional method of growing crops wherein 5,7,9 or 12 varieties (I think any number is ok, they somehow mentioned these:)) are planted together. It is a mixture of rice, maize, millets, daals and oil seeds. Apparently people in the mountains have small pieces of land and they grow crops in this fashion since it provides them with the different food items they need. It makes sense in the face of today’s volatile market to diversify. In case, the price of one of the items falls, the farmer does not go broke as he or she would if they were growing a single crop. With this kind of diversity, they also eat well. The plants are not all competing for the same nutrients and they complement each other in what they draw out of the soil. Pests don’t turn into epidemics since they do easily encounter another plant that they are infesting. The harvesting time of each crop is different, though they are sown at the same time. So the harvesting work is sort of spread out. This is good way to improve the fertility of the soil within a year. What would usually take about 3 years can be done in 1 since the plants support each other.

Too many positive aspects. There must be some problem with this set up, no? Well, harvesters will not work in this kind of a set up. And who needs harvesters on a small farm anyway. Small is beautiful, what else can I say! :)

Bija didi & the Seed Bank

Navdanya has a seed bank on the farm. In fact, Navdanya started off as a seed bank. Vandana started Navdanya to conserve indigenous seeds. Today they have 34 seed banks across the country. During my visit to Navdanya, 400 varieties of rice were being grown on about 3m X 3m plots. These will be used to replenish their seed bank. The seed bank provides seeds to farmers free of cost, with the condition that they will employ orgaqnic methods of farming and return 1.25 times the quantity they took from their harvest. They encourage farmers to save seeds from their own harvest as they used to do earlier.

I met Bija did who works in the seed bank and has been with Navdanya for 14 years now. She is an unassuming woman in her 50s who talks with a lot of enthusiasm while she is working. The first time I met her she was removing corn from the cob, both for the next season and to make corn flour. The next time, we removed seeds from Bhindi (okra). She comes from a farming family (though she doesn’t have land anymore) and they always saved seeds for the next sowing season. At Navdanya, she is the seed keeper. She selects the best seeds and keeps them aside for the next crop and to give to farmers. That she is a seed keeper and her name Bija also means seed is one of those coincidences! She told me about different kinds of vegetables and grains, most of which I could not recognize (I would like to think it was because I couldn’t tell from their Hindi name but I am sure I have never seen them…). She told us how today, people don’t want to go through the process of saving seeds, she was talking about vegetables in particular, because you could buy a packet of seeds in the market. No one ever sold seeds when she was growing up. She remembers people coming to their farm to get seeds of a particular variety of rice that they used to grow. That’s how it was done, she said. She has planted different kinds of vegetables in Navdanya, some of which have come up well.

She was very clear on not using chemicals in farming. She said when a mother who is breast-feeding her baby eats spinach; the baby’s poop is green in colour. So what do you think is entering your system when you drink milk from a cow that has been eating fodder sprayed with all kinds of chemicals?!

Bija didi was given the Slow Food Award for her contribution in biodiversity conservation. Read more here.

Terminator Technology

The seeds from the green revolution could be used in the next few seasons but the yield would progressively go down. So the farmers had to purchase new seeds every few seasons. The current technology being used is one wherein the seed from a crop cannot be reused again. The seeds are sterile. This is a terminator technology that is being employed to ensure that farmers keep coming back every season to buy seed. Here is an excerpt from Vandana’s writings:

“When we plant a seed there's a very simple prayer that every peasant in India says: "Let the seed be exhaustless, let it never get exhausted, let it bring forth seed next year." Farmers have such pride in saying "this is the tenth generation seeds that I'm planting," "this is the fifth generation seed that I'm planting." Just the other day I had a seed exchange fair in my valley and a farmer brought Basmati aromatic rice seed and he said "this is five generations we've been planting this in our family". So far human beings have treated it as their duty to save seed and ensure its continuity. But that prayer to let the seed be exhaustless seems to be changing into the prayer, "let this seed get terminated so that I can make profits every year" which is the prayer that Monsanto is speaking through the terminator technology -- a technology whose aim is merely to prevent seed from germinating so that they don't have to spend on policing.”

Green Revolution Not So Green

The green revolution in India and other places is hailed as a success story. Vandana Shiva argues that the farmer suicides we are so alarmed by today are but a natural consequence of the green revolution. The green revolution focused on increasing the yield of rice and wheat and in the process created vast monocultures that are not sustainable. The seeds developed during this time and known as the HYVs (High Yielding Varieties) are in actuality, HRVs (High Response Varieties) that perform well when supplied chemicals and water. In the absence of these inputs, these seeds perform much worse than the indigenous ones. Farming was a mixed affair till the monoculture way of thinking gained prominence. This has led to loss of soil fertility, excessive use of water, high input costs and farmer suicides.

The varieties developed were such that most of the energy taken in by the plant was converted into grain. Subsequently the biomass (straw) that is used on the farm for fodder, fuel, compost goes down. Dwarf varieties of rice and wheat are characteristic of the green revolution. Nitrogen from compost and biomass that is used by plants is released slowly whereas when one uses urea, a lot of nitrogen is suddenly available. This leads to plants absorbing high quantities of nutrients. So what happened was plants grew very tall with heavy grain heads. They were unstable since they were tall and had a heavy top – this led to lodging, ie, falling over. To address this problem, dwarf varieties of rice and wheat were created.

With a decrease in the quantity of straw, feeding livestock becomes a challenge. Then land is dedicated to growing fodder. Since the HYV/HRVs were dependent on extensive irrigation, systems had to be put in place to ensure water supply. Today, in many places we find that groundwater has been exploited. Dinesh (from Timbaktu) pointed out how such water thirsty crops have played a big role in the construction of large dams - another externalized cost that we never talk about. Do we really want a second Green Revolution?

Read more here.

Whats with Biodiverse Organic Farming?

Organic has come to mean many things. Whole Foods stocks organic strawberries. Well, they are organic in that they haven’t been sprayed with chemicals. But how have these strawberries been grown? More often than not, on large monoculture farms in California. That’s organic, isn’t it? Yes, in terms of the being synthetic chemical free. But one needs to question where the organic compost, mulch etc is coming from. The minute a farm is huge and mechanized, it becomes difficult to prepare these on the farm. The farm is still dependant on external inputs, which are perhaps being shipped thousands of miles. So is this model really sustainable?

Navdanya argues for biodiverse organic farming. Monocultures extract specific nutrients from the soil whereas if you have a diverse variety of plants, they all complement each other. In case of a pest attack, in a monoculture farm, the pest can easily travel from one plant to the next since they are all of the same type and develop into an epidemic (which is what happened to the monocultures the Green Revolution promoted). On a biodiverse farm, this would not happen easily. The other plants provide a kind of fence.

From the perspective of a small farmer, growing one kind of crop makes her vulnerable to market prices since she might not need all that she has grown. So she tries to sell her grain and buy everything else she needs. In the case of biodiverse farming, a variety of seeds are planted: rice, corn, millets, lentils, and oil seeds. These provide the farmer with their basic requirements and the rest can be sold in the market. A person in the audience asked Vandana if through such a model we would be able to feed everyone in the country. Vandana explained that the notion of yield has come about to mean yield of single crops. Today, post the green revolution, we all eat rice and wheat. Everything else has been wiped off many fields. The above model would ensure we eat a diverse healthy meal, while taking care of the environment and the farmer. In short, the above model does not imply lesser food but a more diverse food basket. Sure, it might mean lesser rice and wheat but for the better!

Navdanya also believes that farmers should be able to generate all the inputs they need on their land. The seeds that were encouraged during the green revolution and the GE seeds now, all require many inputs in terms of water, pesticide, fertilizer etc. This has led to an increased cost for the farmer with the promised yields not always materializing or with a loss in a volatile market. Hence they focus on being self-reliant wrt the inputs. They encourage farmers to generate the biomass needed for their plants on their farms, grow plants and trees (like neem, vitex, onion, garlic, turmeric) that can be used in case of an attack by pests and breed their own seeds since this reduces their dependency on external sources. They make compost using a few different methods: vermicompost, pit method, heap method and another method, I forget its name. The important thing for all this is to have livestock on the farm (So much for bullshit…).

Monocultures, Distress Sales and Farmer Suicides

The farmer suicides that have sadly become commonplace in our villages have been documented in some regions by journalists, P. Sainath and Jaideep Hardikar. Everywhere, farmers have been adversely affected by the increasing costs of inputs, fluctuating crop prices and everywhere, we find monocultures. What can a farmer do when the only thing growing on hes or his land is cotton? The farmer is pretty much at the mercy of the market leading to distress sales of crop. The buffer that biodiversity provides is lost in this culture of monocultures. Navdanya champions for biodiverse organic farming for many reasons: it is ecologically sound, a good economic model for the farmer and brings diverse nutrients into our diet that has been reduced in most part to wheat and rice.

Read more about farmer suicides in India:

Why Navdanya

I had heard of Vandana Shiva before I heard of Navdanya. I was watching the movie ‘The Corporation’ and it had some snippets of an interview with her. She put across her point about empowering communities very powerfully, about farmers saving their own seeds and thus breaking a cycle of exploitative dependence on corporations. Later, I read many of her essays on the importance of biodiversity, the current dominant paradigm in our society of a monoculture of the mind while working on a paper on sustainable development. Her writings on seed sovereignty, biodiversity, monocultures, and empowerment of communities made a lot of sense to me. I watched another video of hers wherein the interviewer asked her if she supported communism since she so strongly criticized capitalism, corporations etc. To which she responded saying one needs to look beyond capitalism and communism since both are heavily centralized systems. The corporations call the shots in one instance and the state in the other. I am talking about the participation of communities and their empowerment. Very interesting….

A few months back, I was looking through Navdanya’s website when I found a link to courses they offer. I decided to attend the one that talks about what organic is, the importance of biodiversity. So there I was, on the Jan Shatabdi (the cheaper, faster train) to Dehradun...

September 03, 2007

Articles on this blog:
Travelogue Running Rambling
In search of home-base
The Thulir Experience
Timbaktu Collective
Sita School, Vishram
50k in Sunmart - Ani
My first Ultra-Marathon - Sanjeev
Trail Running
Warda: My second marathon in back-to-back weekends - Sanjeev
Bandera and the 43 mile weekend - Sanjeev
Reminiscences of Chicago Training - Ani
Rabindra Sangeet

Education at Timbaktu

Timbaktu is currently running two schools in CK Palli – Prakruti Badi (Nature School) in the village and Timbaktu Badi in Timbaktu. Both schools employ child-centric learning methods. Academics are part of the morning routine. Afternoons are devoted to arts and crafts. Across the road from Prakruti Badi is the Child Resource Center. The resource center has among other things a library, computers, carpentry equipment, and equipment for science experiments.

I first visited Timbaktu in May. The children had summer holidays and the teachers from both schools were undergoing a sort of teacher training. They were planning curriculum, exchanging ideas. I sat through one session that Bablu was moderating on the teacher-student relationship.

Timbaktu Badi (Timbaktu School)

Timbaktu Badi is a residential school in Timbaktu. There are about 60 children; the youngest ones aged about 7 years (Since they want children to be able to do all their chores themselves). The school teaches children upto Std 7. After that they can attend the Prakruti Badi that goes on till Std 10, while staying at Timbaktu if needed.

The children in Timbaktu Badi mostly come from financially poor families, or have no parents or have parents are not in a position to take care of them. Children of people who live in Timbaktu or work in Timbaktu also go to school there. The families are charged a nominal fee of Rs. 20 (if I remember right) per month. This money is placed in an account for the child and will be given to him/her upon their completion of Std 10 to help them with their future plans.

The children live in a dorm, with 2 large rooms for the girls and 2 for the boys. The building has a nice corridor running inside where children read etc. One of the outer walls of the dorm was painted by the kids – its just amazing to see all that vibrant colour. Their classrooms are thatched structures that are pretty much open on all sides, except for the wall with the blackboard and the parapet wall that runs around – very pleasant due to the cross ventilation. There was also a nice, tiny room that the children said was for a little class or when someone wants to read. We later found out that this room was built when Anu, an architect who now has a resource center for children, Thulir, in Sittilingi had visited Timbaktu. The children wanted to learn some construction and they all built this! As Ramudu, one of the senior children there said, we learn something from everyone who visits us or we teach them something! :)

I spoke to some of the teachers about how they like it here. A few of them had taught elsewhere before and love it at Timbaktu. A lot of formalities are done away with and teachers are also learning with the kids. The children share a wonderful rapport with their teachers. I could not find the fear of school or teachers in any of them. I was chatting with Subba, who coordinates the education program there, and he narrated an incident about how the children are confident about getting along in life. Some students (I forget from where) were trying to gauge the impact of the education on the Timbaktu kids. Their concerns about future careers etc. Apparently they found some children saying not only would they have their own endeavor going, they would also provide employment to others! And they have some wonderful examples in the older children. One of the boys is really good with electrical circuitry, setting up solar panels etc and has been doing this kind of work for a few people while pursuing his own studies. Another, studying for his Bachelors degree, was training the younger children in making pen stands out of bamboo. He also talked about doing a course on screen printing. Another is currently working as a systems engineer in Bangalore. Their optimism was very infectious.

The children tend to the kitchen garden, and the chickens and goats that are reared in Timbaktu. The vegetables are used in the kitchen and a corresponding amount is added to the children’s accounts. I think it is awesome that such activities of primary production are part of their daily lives. That way one does not grow up alienated from these activities, that are not only important but also very much a part of village life.

Every Sunday evening the children have some cultural programs. Since Sanjeev, Krishna and I would be leaving by Sunday evening, they had it on Saturday. They had recently put up a cultural show at Timbaktu’s Annual Paryavarana Parasa (on June 5, World Environment Day) and did a nice chakka bhajana and sang many songs. I specifically remember two songs: Rela rela rela and Timbaktu Badi Pillalam (we are kids from Timbaktu badi) that they sang over and over again! :) It was very nice.

Prakruti Badi (Nature School)

I spent a day at Prakruti Badi, the Telugu-medium school Timbaktu runs in CK Palli. I got to the school with Kalyani, one of the teachers there and her son Prithvi, who studies there. The day started with an assembly. The children sang some songs and then moved to their classrooms. I sat with the young ones first. Kalyani was taking the class and we all sat in a circle and the children were asked to introduce themselves. Most of them were in this school the previous year and happily chattered away. A couple of new students simply refused to talk initially and they warmed up in a few minutes.

The next class I sat in was an English class for 7-9 year olds. There were 6 children and they were learning some new words. After that class, I just sat on there and the next teacher saw me with the kids and assuming I could handle them, went to run an errand (school had just started and he had to get some admin task done). The kids were initially very excited about singing and dancing. They did all that and soon lost interest. I tried to teach them “If you are happy and you know it, clap your hands”. Two minutes and they said this is boring, something in Telugu please. A window of opportunity of about a minute for me to come up with something fun and then they went on with their stuff. One of them was swinging from the roof, two were busy in a fight and two more were singing I think. The last one was quizzing me about my short haircut despite being a girl! I was quit lost, didn’t know what to do with the kids and was hoping none of the teachers would pop in now. It was quite an experience and I think I am more appreciative about what a teacher has to deal with! I decided that in the future, I would go with something interesting for the kids. It was time for the next class – Telugu. I sat for sometime. They wrote down some words, then read a story from their book. Some of the kids seemed to have read it already and were very keen to do that again. The teacher made sure everyone got their chance.

It was soon time for lunch. We all sat down and some of the kids were serving us. The food was wholesome – rice, sambar, buttermilk and rasam. That day there was also payasam since one of the teachers had just become a parent.

Afternoon time was arts time. One group had been taught cartooning by a student who interned at Timbaktu for about a month. They spent the afternoon finishing up their cartoon stories. The group I was with was creating 1 cm square grids on paper that would later be used to make maps. That afternoon, children took some time to draw the grids, ie, mark the paper with a ruler etc. They then started created patterns of the squares, coloring them.

They spent about 2 hours doing these activities and then it was play time. All kinds of games were being played. I then spent some time in the teachers’ room in the afternoon. A couple of new students were to be admitted and their parents / guardians had come. The children were given some questions in Telugu and Math (I don’t remember if other subjects were also part of the questions). While they were working on the questions, Kalyani, who has been teaching at Timbaktu for over 10 years now was interviewing the parents / guardians. The details of both parents were taken: name, occupation, whether they were members of Timbaktu (for the women specifically since Timbaktu has a women’s collective). Kalyani enquired about the childrens’ interests and what, if any, kind of work they (the children) did at home. The parents/guardians were informed that they were expected to participate in the progress of their child/ward (I think they are expected to meet the teachers once a month). They were informed that Prakruti Badi is not a government recognized school, so they will not be able to provide a TC if the child wants to transfer. The children however take the state board exams for Classes VII and X, so those are results they can use to gain entrance to schools/colleges. Kalyani looked at how the children had tackled the questions to gauge their understanding. She explained to their parents/guardians what areas needed more work etc. They were charged a nominal fee (I think Rs.20 a month or in that range) that is put aside for the children. They get the entire sum back once they write their Class X exams.

The interviews took about 30-40 minutes and then I headed to Timbaktu with some others.

Children's Resource Center

Timbaktu's Children's Resource Center (CRC) is in CK Palli, across the road from Prakruti Badi. It has two high-roofed, well-ventilated rooms and a verandah. One of the rooms is a library. It is very well equipped with different kinds of books in Telugu and English. There are a few desks and chairs and the few times I was there, there were about 5-6 kids reading. Many of these books belong to Subba, who decided to put them there since he believes they would be best used in a library. He suggested I read Totto-Chan and it is an amazing book (More about it here). Children can borrow books – they need to enter it in the register and a lady who works at the CRC keeps track of the books.

The other room has a few computers, material for arts and crafts and science experiments. The verandah is the base for activities like carpentry and sewing, both of which were going on then. The carpentry unit is pretty cool. They were, at that time, making pen stands for an order they had received. About 5 children, Ramudu and two others were involved in the process. The bamboo was first cut, then scraped clean with sandpaper, then burnt to get the darkish shade in, then painted on, and finally varnished. The kids with more experience were patiently explaining what needed to be done to the ones new to this. And all the new ones, myself included, started off with scraping the bamboo. I had a lot of fun with the children, scraping the bamboo clean and then painting on it. They also make these neat chairs with bamboo (Ive also seen them with regular wood). It is a very low chair, essentially just two planes made from bamboo that are connected at a point and the chair has no legs, it rests on the ends of these planes. Well, I sure this is not a great description but the chairs are pretty cool. Some of the older children from Thulir, a resource center for children in Sittilingi, had spent time at Timbaktu to learn carpentry. The chair was a hit in Sittilingi :).

Back to Timbaktu…sewing classes were being held in the summer. There were about 10 – 12 children learning. There was one boy and the rest were girls. In carpentry, all were boys. I asked Ramudu about the gendered interest in arts and crafts. He said all the children are exposed to all kinds of arts and crafts. No one is forced to take up something based on his or her sex. Children are free to work on what interests them. He mentioned some girls were really good at carpentry and they were not around now since it was summer holidays. Fair enough though I think the conditioning that goes on at home and in the community does influence what kinds of activities children choose to work on. If people want such a change, I think it will happen slowly and organically :).

They do some clay work as well. I was shown some artwork of the children. Some of the younger ones who showed up at the resource center were working with clay. Ramudu showed them how to sieve sand and add it to the clay and they started making beads.

The CRC is a great place for children to come and learn something, read books and just have a nice time – its their space. This is the basis for the WAH proposal from Timbaktu to create resource centers in some of the villages they work in.