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Another Organics is Possible
A policy in favour of small producers can invigorate Indian farming

By P V Satheesh, Director, Deccan Development Society, Hyderabad, Andhra Pradesh
 
For an arid country like India, there is no escape from organic farming
Dr Dwarakinath, formerly Chairman, Karnataka Agricultural Commission

The winds they are a'changing. Suddenly for some reason, entire India seems to have woken up to Organic Agriculture. The Government has, in a flourish, created a National Organic Logo, and a name called INDIA ORGANIC. The Planning Commission has set up a Working Group on Organic and Biodynamic Agriculture. Department of Commerce has established National Organic Standards. Accreditation agencies have been identified. A kind of gold rush has begun.

Gold rush it indeed is. Apparently spurred by a world market for organic foods which is growing at a frightening pace. From a $17 billion global bazaar in 2000 it is estimated to double within five years reaching a figure of $31 billion in 2005. Inside this market place India's share is a meagre 0.001%. In a survey called Land Area Under Organic Management (SOEL-Survey, February 2003), India takes the 75th place alongside Cameroon with just about 0.03% of its land slated to be under Organic Agriculture. However the same survey puts the number of Organic Farms in the country at 5660, taking India to a healthy 16th position in the global organic map.

Nothing can encapsulate the current national organic mood more powerfully than the statement quoted at the beginning of the article. Dr T. Dwarakinath, one of the pre-eminent India agricultural scientists and administrators who was also the vice chancellor or the University of Agricultural Sciences, Bangalore made this unambiguous statement in Dialogue India. Held in four metros of India, between February 10 and 18 2003, the one week Dialogue engaged over 300 key persons from the government, national and international agricultural institutions, universities and civil society groups in intense discussion with a group of Canadian organic farmers. At the end of the Dialogue, there was an emphatically articulated common concern that Organic Agriculture was a here and now issue for the country.

Why has it acquired such an urgent dimension?

For those who had their ears to the ground, the reasons were not far to search. Alarm bells are ringing for a decade or more. The soils of India are dying, the agriculture is becoming increasingly destabilised and farmers suicides are mounting from the prosperous Punjab to semi arid Warangal in Andhra Pradesh. Increasingly, movement away from organic methods of farming is resulting in the loss of food, nutritional, livelihood and ecological security and at times life itself. Many recent reports in the Indian media have written an epitaph for Indian soils declaring them as dead. Everyone knew it was coming, but no one dared to speak about it.

As the years of droughts stare at us and government after government pleads with farmers to grow crops without irrigation and power, the irony can hardly escape anyone. Millions of Indian farmers spread across the vast dryland stretches, Himalayan heights and North East have continued to grow their nutritionally rich, ecologically safe crops without irrigation or power. But their brilliant examples are lost on the state.

Instead the country's politicians, President downwards dream a quixotic dream of interlinking rivers to provide more irrigation and allow more use of power. They are making the same mistake they did 40 years ago of enslaving Indian farmers to external input dependent Green Revolution from the lethal effect of which small farmers in the country have never really recovered.

India's "organic production" touched a figure of 14,000 tons in 2002. That is for a country that produces over 200 million tons of foodgrains! Of this exports stood at a meagre 11000 tons in 2002. This included seven broad categories like Coffee, Tea, Spices, Rice, Wheat, Pulses, Oilseeds, fruits and vegetables, cashewnut, cotton and herbal extracts. The domestic sales was even bleaker. A miserable 1000 tons. Barely 0.0006% of its total food consumption, for a country that consumes close to 150 million tons of foodgrains.

This is a matter of major concern. Or is it? Is there some kind of optical illusion here? The way organics are understood?

To begin with, let us look at the concept of Organic Farms itself. The data [from a MARG-ORG survey] says that India has about 5500 organic farms. What does this mean? Even if we assume that the entire wheat-rice production area in the country is under chemical agriculture, what happens to about 30 million hectares under the so called coarse cereals? Even if 80% of them are considered as inorganic [a very unacceptable proposition] at least 20% have to be organic. In many parts of Deccan plateau, the Himalayas and the adivasi areas across central India, farmers continue to practice purely organic farming. This highly conservative estimate still indicates that about 7 million hectares are under organic cultivation. This, in turn would mean that about 3-4 million farms are under organic cultivation.

The moment we take this position, our place in world organic map takes a quantum leap. With 7 million hectares under organic farming, we will take the second position in the world, next only to Australia. The 6% of our farmland under organic production, takes us to the eighth position from our current 75th position.

But will we take this stand? Would any of our policy makers, governmental institutions, agricultural scientists and accreditation agencies have the will and courage to argue this position of ours? On behalf of tens of millions of small and marginal farmers, adivasis who have been nurturing the land under organic practices for millennia? Decades before the term organic became fashionable.

There is serious doubt in a million minds that this will happen. On the contrary in the Dialogue India at Bangalore, a current Vice Chancellor of an agricultural university told the assembled organic farmers in an embarassingly patronising assertion: "until now through hit and run methods, you have practised organic farming. Now leave it to us [the agricultural scientists]. We will tell you how to go about(doing organic farming)". It is another matter that Mr P Babu from the Institute for Cultural Research & Action [ICRA], Bangalore challenged him squarely: "Until now, when you did not smell money, you never talked about organic farming. Now why do you want to appropriate something that millions of farmers in this country have been practicing in the face of your onslaught?"

What remains crucial is the fact that the neo-organic people in this country, the business houses, farm scientists, accreditation agencies and government institutions do not once again short change small farmers, especially in the rainfed and hill regions of this country with a new money-driven organic system. A system which arrogates to itself the power to accredit an organic farm.

The Certification System is central to world organic trade. Every farmer who wishes to sell her/his produce in the organic market must have the produce certified as organic by an approved accreditation agency. The certification is a cumbersome, time consuming process which subjects farmers to endless record keeping, filling in reams of forms and endless wait for the inspectors to visit their farms and issue certificates. All this at exorbitant fees. The current expenses for getting an Organic Certificate in India work out to a whopping Rs.22,000 for a small farmer [this includes Travel and inspection:
12000/day; Report preparation : 5000 flat fee; Certification: 5000/certificate]. This would virtually mean that a small farmer would have to completely invest twice her/his annual earnings just to get a certificate that she/he is an organic farmer. This control of the new middlemen is the surest way of eliminating the real farmers from the list of Organic Farmers and reserves the space for Sunday farmers and industrial houses.

On the other hand, millions of India small and marginal farmers who have been nourishing their lands organically for millennia need a different kind of support. Until now they were disparagingly called subsistence farmers who were organic by default, without realising that subsistence perspective is the best perspective for sustainable husbandry of natural resources and that these farmers were organic by design and not by default. They have established a deeper relationship with Mother Earth, a relationship which forbids them from poisoning their soils with chemicals. This spiritual vision of agriculture has been beyond the comprehension of agricultural scientists and economists for whom farms were for mining. That is why when a Bir Singh from Jhardar in Tehri Garhwal or Madho Gond from Chattisgarh or Anjamma from Medak in AP espouse a philosophy of organics no one listens to them. If the same philosophy appears in Orient Longman print from Masanabu Fukuoka, India farm scientists wow with wonder.

Apart from this familiar view of colonised minds, what indeed bothers one is the oppressive institutional policies that have constantly undermined the efforts of these farmers. For eg. while perithroid poisoned grape gardening which is the biggest pollutor of prime soils and water attracts bank loans upto Rs 110,000 per acre, a millet farmer who constantly grows her soil cannot get a single paise of crop loan. That too if s/he is a biodiverse farmer. All bank loans are for pure crop farmers, in other words, monoculturists. A floriculturist who pumps in tonnes of chemicals into the soil is a preferred farmer for state subsidies while a millet farmer who nourishes her/his soil with completed recycled organic wastes is not even eligible for insurance, let alone state subsidies. Such determined unlevelling of playing fields by the state institutions has constantly demoralised the organic family farmers all over the country. Add to this the middle class ignorance of the prime foodstuff. You have a picture of monumental national neglect of our traditional organic farmers.

What needs to done is to support and show our gratefulness to the millions of women and men farmers across the Indian landscape with an unequivocal assertion that they are organic farmers. And to see that the small surpluses that they produce is recognised as premium food.

Outside the governmental notice many hopeful developments are taking place in the country. Informal consumer-farmer networks in organic food production and consumption is visible in many places like Bangalore, Mumbai, Pune, Delhi etc. Even a small town like Zaheerabad in Medak District of Andhra Pradesh proudly sports an organic network called Zaheerabad Consumer Action Group that buys directly from small organic farmers. In the same place dalit women in fifty villages have organised themselves as Alternative PDS groups ensuring local production, local storage and local distribution. These women's sanghams by growing food organically, distributing them locally have ensured for their communities food, nutritional, livelihood and ecological security.

The National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan, a monumental planning process that has just now produced a massive national plan for biodiversity lays enormous stress on organic biodiverse farming and food production as the way out for the ecological and livelihood security of millions of small farmers in the country

If all these positive examples and the new found governmental passion for organic farming should be translated into an enabling policy for small farmers, the repressive certification system must be redesigned in India. This can happen only through a Community Certification process.

Even IFOAM, the International Forum for Organic Agricultural Movements, a still collared rigid body which adopted text book standards for organic certification has today become sensitised to focus on issues like equity and social justice. Last years World Organic Congress hosted by IFOAM in Victoria, Canada had the remarkable theme : Cultivating Communities. The major item of discussion was Community Certification. A concept which has grown worldwide and supported by farming communities which have grown sick and tired of the tyranny of accreditation agencies.

The Community Certification involves the communities taking charge of the certification processes themselves and working on a non-profit basis. Such certification processes look at the farmers commitment to the stewardship of soil, growing food in an environmentally sensitive way rather than a set of technical standards like whether a certain kind of bone meal was added to the soil or not.

It may be a sobering thought if we wonder why are the farmers producing the best and cleanest food the ones who must pay extra to certify? In a sane world, the food that is grown in dead soil needing regular chemical fertilisers, help to withstand insect and weed pests since the plants are weak, is the food which should be certified as potentially bad for our health. But probably since we live in a skewed world we have to work the other way round.

If only we can ensure that our policies are not skewed, and we insist on local farming communities' right to administer the certification process, we will have taken the first right and just agricultural step , in forty years of recent history. That will help us transcend the sanitised technical definition of organic agriculture and stand by millions of our small farmers who have valiantly stood for the stewardship of soil and nature.