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Pesticide-free farming ushers change in southern India

Jan 15, 2009

A region where indebtedness was driving farmer suicides, is now witnessing rise in income and better quality of life for its people. Around 3,000 villages in southern India have benefited by giving up the use chemical pesticides and practising organic farming.

Andhra Pradesh, India: Enabavi, a village of 52 families, is abuzz. It is hosting farmers from the nearby Kallem village who have come here for tips on profitable agriculture. Those who missed the excitement of the Green Revolution in the 1960s can get a glimpse of it here—there is the air of collective achievement, and farmers from neighbouring villages are here because they do not want to lose out.

There is one big difference from the 1960s, though: farmers are teaching and learning ways of increasing productivity without applying synthetic chemicals. Agriculture is a happy story in Enabavi.

Ajith Kumar, an Air India executive posted in Hyderabad, does not linger over lunch on weekdays. Instead, he rushes to the agricultural cooperative store next to his office to buy vegetables. These vegetables are farm fresh and free of pesticides.

Fresh stocks brought in every afternoon fly off the shelves within two hours. That is why Kumar and other professionals like him as well as housewives living in nearby residential areas rush to the store as soon as the vegetables arrive.

The customers are happy to pay a small premium. “I don’t mind paying the extra two rupees as these vegetables taste better,” said Altaz Naseer Muniza, another regular at the store.

Kruppakar Reddy, the store in-charge, said the demand for vegetables grown through non-pesticidal management, called NPM vegetables, is on a high. He said only one farmer is supplying NPM vegetables as of now. “We plan to provide him with exclusive space in the building. Refrigerated storage space will be given to other farmers as well,” Reddy said.

Srinivas Reddy, the 25-year-old farmer who supplies the NPM vegetables to the cooperative store comes from Manchal village, 50 km away from Hyderabad. He started supplying pesticide-free tomatoes, okra, brinjals, gooseberries, chillies and leafy vegetables to the store five months ago.

Increase in earnings

Srinivas’ increasing profits reflect the demand for the vegetables. From the initial Rs 1,500 a month, his profits have gone up three times.

Like him, other farmers are discovering that growing pesticide-free vegetables, grains and pulses is profitable. They have been able to cut the cost of cultivation by doing away with chemical pesticides—the costliest input in agriculture here. The yield remains more or less the same and the net profits go up.

In Manchal mandal, a women’s self help group has cultivated a field with 29 varieties of vegetables and pulses. The state government’s Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) and the horticulture department have helped to set up these vegetable farm models in a number of villages.

Farmers are provided seed kits at 90 per cent subsidy. Several earn profits up to Rs 50,000 a year. Farmers have been able to reduce the cost of cultivation by Rs 2,500 to Rs 5,000 per acre (0.4 hectare) by doing away with pesticides.

The trend of NPM farming has grown steadily since 2005 (see ‘Out of the trap’, Down To Earth, May 31, 2006). NPM started as a campaign of non-profits to get farmers to give up pesticides to earn better. The state rural development ministry took it forward through SERP which is currently implementing npm in 3,000 villages across 18 of the 23 districts.

With farmers saying no to pesticides, dealers of pesticides and fertilizers have had to shut shop or switch to alternate vocations. Twenty seven-year-old Krishna Reddy of Todalapalle village in Kadapa district now sells neem powder, seeds and pheromone traps (for luring and trapping pests) among other things to the villagers.

NPM has made entrepreneurs out of some women. K Keija, a 30-year-old mother of two, earns up to Rs 3,000 profit by selling ghanajeevastra, neemastra and brahmastra, which she makes by sourcing raw materials such as cow dung, cow urine, milk, curd, chillies, garlic, neem. She can also afford the treatment for her daughter who has polio. “My husband works as a farm labourer and earns very little. I could not take our daughter to the government hospital in Guntur for treatment earlier, but things have changed,” Keija said.

NPM farming has benefited from the centrally administered National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS) after the state government integrated the latter into NPM. Labourers were paid from funds for rural employment scheme to dig farm ponds, making compost pits, land development and removing silt from dried water tanks and ponds that can be used for improving soil nutrients.

According to D V Raidu, the state project advisor for npm, digging farm ponds helped farmers irrigate their fields and recharge groundwater. “About 400 farm ponds were dug in Nizamabad district and as a result, groundwater levels rose by 4.5 metres in Ellareddy mandal,” Raidu said. He added that work orders to the tune of Rs 6.76 crore had been executed and funds totalling Rs 2.44 crore had been disbursed.

Health benefits

With NPM making agriculture profitable, there is a noticeable decline in suicide deaths in the state. “There were no debt-related suicide deaths in any of the 3,000 NPM villages in 2007,” said G V Ramajaneyulu, executive director of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, a non-profit spearheading the NPM programme.

“Women constantly feared their husbands or sons would consume pesticides. But now, even if they want to, the only immediate choices are bio-pesticides made from cow dung and urine, which they won’t drink,” said Khairunnisa, the NPM shop owner of Vattam village.

The motive for discontinuing the use of pesticides may have been to cut cultivation costs, but farmers are realising that their medical bills have gone down. Most farmers used to complain of giddiness, skin problems, breathlessness and burning sensation in the eyes while spraying pesticides. “Our visits to the hospital have ceased altogether,” said P Lalitha of Chittapur village in Rangareddy district. She no longer worries about the health of her family and has enrolled her children in good schools.

Market for NPM

So far, the NPM programme has focused on making farming sustainable. Of late some attention is being given to marketing NPM produce. Farmers of six villages in Guntur district have been able to tap the market by forming a farmer’s co-operative society with the help of a local non-profit named Rakshana.

Over 300 farmers owning about 240 ha of NPM fields have joined the cooperative that will decide the prices of chillies, process products and sell them for profits. SERP is currently discussing certification of NPM products with the Ghaziabad-based National Centre of Organic Farming under a community participatory guarantee scheme that will help reduce the certification cost per farmer.

“Big Indian companies and multinationals that have entered the food retail market can help market NPM and organic produce of farmers,” said T Sudhakar, assistant general manager of the Hyderabad branch of the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) which is the accrediting agency and secretariat for all organic products.

The fields in the village look unkempt as friendly weeds are allowed to grow. “Now we don’t spray bio-pesticides as there are no pests,” said Ponnam Mallaiah, a 60-year-old farmer.

The villagers ensure seed quality through mutually beneficial arrangements. The farmers who grow good quality grains are offered incentives for preserving their harvest as seed.

Organic farming has helped the villagers repay their debts.Well kept kitchen gardens, pucca houses and washed streets dotted with rangoli patterns greet visitors in Ramachandrapuram.

Enabavi and Ramachandrapuram villages broke away from the pesticide-debt trap. They are now teaching other villages to become debt free and self-reliant

A board with bold letters announces the chemical free and GM free status of Enabavi village in Warangal district. The village stopped using pesticides 10 years ago and adopted organic farming five years later, much before the state rural development ministry decided to officially recognise NPM.

Enabavi, with over 110 ha of farmland managed by 52 families, has now become a learning centre for neighbouring villages. Located 80 km from the state capital, it has become a mandatory stopover for members of non-profits, ministers, planning commission members and international organisations keen to gain firsthand knowledge of how organic farming is changing lives for the better. At the recently held Indian Organic Trade Fair in Delhi, Enabavi rice packets sold like hot cakes.

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