Agriculture in Punjab – The Tragic Story

Friday, the 27th of July, 2018. It is Guru Poornima. Today is also the day Fazilka becomes a new district in Punjab. Under cloudy skies we are driving to the Mahavir/Sadqi Pakistan border near Fazilka to witness the Flag unfolding ceremony at sunset. The paddy fields stretch on either side of the road as far as the eye can see. A multitude of bore-wells spew gushing water, onto the lush green rice plants that are just over a month old. The greenery is so rich that one is tempted to burst into the evergreen song ‘ye hariyalee aur ye rasata’. And yet, it is this very same lush greenery and these gushing bore-wells, which camouflage the tragic story of what has been happening here; a tragedy that started about 45 years ago.

Memories come flooding back to the year 1976, when I joined the august brigade of agricultural scientists who ushered the ‘Green Revolution’ in India. We were mentored by the likes of Dr. MS Swaminathan and Dr. MV Rao to create food security in India. As a plant breeder in the prestigious G.B. Pant Agriculture University, I had championed the cause of hybrid seeds. It was our generation of scientists that had encouraged farmers to use chemical fertilizers, pesticides and dig bore-wells. We, in short, heralded the onset of industrial agriculture in India. Little did I realize then, that 42 years later, I would be coming here to try and rectify the wrong we had unknowingly committed back then.

I am in the midst of conducting the Art of Living, Sri Sri Natural farming Agriculture Teachers Training Program in Fazilka, Punjab. It is the land of the infamous ‘Bhatinda Express’, euphemistically called the ‘Cancer Express’. Everyday, a trainload of cancer patients leave from Bhatinda to Bikaner in Rajasthan; a trainload of patients whose cancer result is a direct result of the chemicals used in agriculture. The most remarkable feature of this train is that 60% of its population are cancer patients of all ages who come from all across Punjab. This is no hyperbole or exaggeration with a political agenda. It is a fact that is recorded and whose data is in the public domain. The voice of Sukhbinder Singh, one of the many farmers that that I interacted with, echoes in my ears. “My wife died of cancer four years ago”, he shared, without any emotion. Tears had dried long ago, after two of his sons succumbed to this disease last year. There was stoicism in his narrative that I found heart wrenching. His was not an isolated story. Every person I met in Fazilka had lost more than one friend or family to this scourge. This disease was compounded by the fact that every bore-well there was spewing water that was flushed with toxic heavy metals, including radioactive uranium.

Yes, the green paddy fields and the gurgling bore-wells looked picture perfect under the monsoon skies. But the story they bespoke of was one of a gigantean tragedy; deployment of a scientific technology that has gone horribly wrong. I had read about the downside of industrial agriculture in India from time to time, but nothing prepared me for what I was experiencing here firsthand. The deep green of the paddy in the fields was not natural; it was the result of extensive application of urea. This urea would boost the plants’ growth, and yet at the same time, render them weak and highly susceptible to pests and diseases. This would further unleash extensive spraying of pesticides and fungicides. Plants would require vast amounts of weedicides, as they couldn’t compete with weeds naturally. All these chemicals would spew the spread of cancer in this land. The nearby Malwa region, which is also Punjab’s cotton belt, requires the use of a startling amount of pesticides. Reportedly, farmers in this region use 15 different pesticide sprays and the unregulated and excessive use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides have resulted in farmers and their families living in a cesspool of toxicity. According to several research studies, indiscriminate usage of pesticides in agriculture, and concentration of uranium in water are considered responsible factors for cancer in this region.

The farmers of Punjab, with the advent of the Green Revolution, most readily adopted the technology of industrial agriculture. They were progressive and wanted to contribute to the Food Security of the Nation. They were given free urea and coerced by the government to adopt industrial agriculture. The farmers in my TTP (Teacher Training Program) recall the days when American planes were stationed on their lands to spray pesticides at a highly subsidized price of Rs.18 per acre.
The problem was that, in adopting this technology, they had to completely abandon their traditional methods of farming, which had been practiced sustainably for over 5000 years. This was because these two methods were completely incompatible.
Once the farmers got into chemical farming they could not stop, because the soil demanded more and more agro-chemicals to produce the same yields. This led to the debt spiral where increasing input costs and lower returns, forced farmers to use heavier doses of agrochemicals in an attempt to squeeze more yield from the land. This resulted in the soils getting more and more degraded. The farmers in the course equated this to creating soil addiction for agro-chemicals.
Many of the owners of land in Punjab today have started to lease land to cultivators. Securing a fixed rental income was found more favorable to land owners than addressing the vagaries of chemical agriculture. The downside is that the cultivator is least bothered about the health of the soil he tills. He has to extract the maximum yield and will used agrochemicals indiscriminately. Once the soil turns ‘banjar’ (calcined refractory), he just moves to another piece of land. This has resulted in the indiscriminate usage of chemical and water resources without any regard to sustainability.
Today we are faced with the twin problems of degraded soils and poisonous food, resulting from indiscriminate use chemicals and underground water in agriculture.

Farmers in Punjab are desperately looking for alternative methods of sustainable farming. They do not know how to get out of the tenacious grip that chemical farming has caught them in. They are well aware of all the downsides of industrial agriculture, but are unable to get out of it. Some have tried Organic Farming based on composting and application of Farm Yard Manure (FYM). This technology was doomed from the very beginning and is not suited to our conditions. The sheer cost of Organic Farming is prohibitive and the yields do not commensurate with the costs and effort. The normal time for converting chemically farmed land to organic is stipulated by the government as 3 years. Most farmers become disheartened and revert to chemical agriculture long before the end of 3 years.
There is an urgent demand among the farmers of Punjab for a farming technique that is sustainable and chemical free.

Sri Sri Natural Farming (SSNF) is a sustainable chemical free technology that is based on very sound scientific principles. Rather than looking at yield alone, SSNF looks at the net profit a farmer makes from unit area. Using low cost inputs like bio-fertilizers and bio-pesticides that can be made by the farmers themselves, SSNF promises yields that are equal to or even higher than chemical agriculture. The seeds used are native heirloom varieties that can be saved by the farmers themselves at the end of the season, eliminating the need for costly seed inputs. Multiple cropping techniques result in higher utilization of incident solar energy and maximizes the returns per unit area. Mulching techniques cut water requirements by over 50%. SSNF is a climate resilient technology that is sustainable.

On the last day of the TTP, my farmers pledged to use the knowledge of SSNF to stop the Cancer Express. It was an emotional session. I realized that these farmers were just waiting for a sustainable alternative to industrial agriculture. The core of SSNF was so simple that it resonated completely with their hearts. I silently thanked the Divine Grace for providing me a chance to right a wrong that was unintentionally committed by me 42 years ago.

Jai Guru Dev!!!!

 

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The Author Prabhakar Rao

Prabhakar Rao has been a SEED KEEPER for over 25 years, collecting indigenous native vegetable seeds that are on the brink of extinction. His travels have taking him to remote parts of the world where his interactions with the older generation of farmers has allowed him access to these forgotten varieties.
Returning to India in 2011, he conducted extensive testing of over 500 such varieties in his farm in Bengaluru, for genetic stability and environmental suitability. He has now successfully stabilized around 140 rare indigenous vegetable varieties, collected from both within the country and abroad. From his farm Hariyalee Seeds, he now reaches out to other passionate Seed Keepers, Farmers and Urban Gardeners, and collectively works towards the preservation and propagation of these rare vegetable varieties that are on the brink of extinction.
When while studying for his Ph.D in Agriculture, a little over 30 years ago, Prabhakar Rao instinctively knew, that there was something amiss in what he was propagating. He belonged to the generation of scientists from the lineage of Dr. Norman Borlaugh and Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, who created the Green Revolution, and who pushed farmers to use hybrid seeds, fertilizers and pesticides for industrial agriculture. But deep inside he was not sure if industrial agriculture was a sustainable model.
He then changed his field of study to Architecture and set up practice in Dubai specializing in Landscape Architecture for over 20 years. He designed several iconic projects all over the world, including the Palm Island, Waterfronts in Kazan, and several sustainable architectural projects in the Far East, Africa and the Americas. He returned to India in 2011 and returned to his passion of saving seeds. Presently he consults for several iconic projects in India including the Sardar Vallabhai Bhai Patel statue in Gujarat, the Green project for the New capital city Amaravati, Waterfront township in Bhutan, etc.
As a Trustee, in the Agriculture Trust of The Art of Living, he now promotes sustainable Chemical Free Natural Farming technologies across the country. He specially trains farmers on Climate Resilient Agriculture. He mentors youngsters on start-ups in the field of sustainable agriculture.