Back to the Grassroots: An Alternative Model of Rural Development Takes Root in India

May 3, 2012 • Print, The Farm, Theme • Views: 1746

by Dan Gordon:

India has forgotten Gandhi. His face might be on the rupee note in everyone’s pockets, but his philosophy of self-reliant small villages is rarely on anyone’s lips. Gandhi’s once-prominent dream for a nation of agricultural villages is now regarded as nothing more than a pastoral fantasy. Policymakers have instead opted for rural development policies that align with the Green Revolution’s principle of maximizing crop output—which inevitably places less emphasis on improving the small farmer’s situation.

As rural discontent simmers, poverty grows. And as the exodus into the mega-cities continues, there is little doubt that India must find new models for agricultural development. In ram raj, Gandhi’s vision of a prosperous and interconnected village republic, NGOs and activists may have found just that model. But faced with political corruption, poor policy, and the state’s prejudice against traditional farming techniques, it will take a near-miracle to turn Gandhi’s ram raj into a reality.

(Gordon/TYG)

In the 1960s, India’s Green Revolution modernized and mechanized farming practices, and moved India towards food security, even weaning the country off imports and assuaging the once ubiquitous fear of famine. For all its successes, though, the Green Revolution has brought a slew of unintended consequences. Today, its legacy is one of the main roadblocks to creating a Gandhian countryside.

Enter Tushir Gandhi. The great-grandson of the Mahatma, fiery Mr. Gandhi, a crusader against corporate greed and government corruption, is wary of adopting modern technologies associated with the Green Revolution. “We have to be very careful when rushing to newfangled technologies,” he warned, adding that policymakers’ greed for genetically modified (GM) crops and other technological novelties threaten traditional farming techniques.

Bharat Bhosale, who works in the Indian province of Maharashtra for a local NGO, takes issue with GM crops in particular, which were a major innovation of the Green Revolution. “Hybrid seeds—there are some different problems. They are having tasting problem, they require high fertilizers. The nutrient requirement is also more. They degrade the soils,” he explained. Taste aside, the new seeds required a novel, energy-intensive farming technique. Farmers were forced to abandon traditional—and oftentimes more sustainable—agricultural practices.

Compared to heartier local varieties and strains, GM crops could not survive the intense heat and aridity of the dry season without enough water. So farmers, with the help of the government, began building complex irrigation systems that made water scarce and expensive. Chemical pesticides replaced the use of natural pesticides like neem oil, and synthetic fertilizers supplanted intercropping techniques, in which farmers would plant two crops in one field to confuse pests and replenish the soil.

Although irrigation systems, artificial fertilizers, and chemical pesticides can be used responsibly to increase yields, their indiscriminate use in many places has lowered water tables and exhausted the soil. As Mr. Bhosale exclaimed, “Every year we end up planting hybrids in the same soil, and that is dangerous.” Over the years, the Gandhian ideal of environmental trusteeship has fallen victim to increasing crop output. Yesterday’s solution to India’s famine problem—the Green Revolution—has became today’s ecological crisis.

Organic and sustainable projects, like this greenhouse outside of Pune, contribute to less than five percent agricultural output in India. (Gordon/TYG)

Besides spoiling the environment, the Green Revolution has also harmed the livelihoods of farmers, driving them into debt. Disappointing yields, the result of abusing the soil, are not uncommon in India. In recent years, dismal harvests and the debt burden have caused an epidemic of farmer suicides across the country. Gandhi’s rural villages, where they do exist, are crumbling under the weight of environmental and financial troubles.

True to his namesake, Mr. Gandhi finds a solution to these woes in tradition. “Lots of people are working with traditional farming practices and traditional agricultural methods and conservation of traditional seeds. And they shouldn’t be brushed off as madcaps or illusionists.” Fostering sustainable farming methods in the villages and showcasing their successes might be the best way to win over doubtful farmers and push policymakers towards solutions that respect less energy-intensive cultivation techniques.

The Green Revolution was a top-down policy endeavor, but new models of economic development must be participatory, including the small farmer at all stages. When policymakers listen to the farmers’ voice in the planning and implementation process, development tends to be more equitable, helping not only the corporate growers but also the small farmers. Inclusive projects also tend to be more sustainable, since farmers will invest in development schemes that improve their lives and livelihoods, long after the government has left.

BAIF, the Bhartiya Agro-Industry Foundation, offers one model of how to create inclusive agricultural development projects. An offshoot of Nature Cure Ashram, which Mahatma Gandhi established in 1946, BAIF now has a national footprint, working in 15 Indian states. Their track record is internationally lauded. Over 70 percent of the families they worked with have climbed above the poverty line.

On a small hill in a village outside Jawhar, Maharashtra, an unassuming building contains a seed bank that BAIF established. Hot and dusty inside, it houses around 230 strains of local crops in plastic bags and large bins. The seed bank employees educate farmers and conserve seeds that might otherwise disappear. A scientist affiliated with the seed bank also works to identify the characteristics of each strain, discovering which varieties work best in which soils in order to sustainably increase yields. At the end of the harvest, farmers supply the bank with their seeds. Several months later, at the beginning of planting, the seed bank redistributes the seeds to farmers, and the cycle continues. “This is not like a university or government center, but it is a participatory center for farmers,” noted Bhosale, an employee of BAIF. The local seeds might not provide the highest yields, but they do produce reliable yields, since they require lower energy inputs than GM seeds and preserve the soil quality for future years.

Off a nearby dirt road, under the shadow of parched hills, sits a rural village that is home to another one of BAIF’s projects. Over the course of several years, BAIF has transformed this once subsistent village into a surplus economy, moving India one step closer to Gandhi’s vision of a thriving village republic. Along the hills, mango and cashew trees spring up, which receive better prices at market than traditional crops. Below the terraces, small greenhouses hold mango saplings while jasmine flowers, soon to be gathered up and sold in city markets, grow on more level stretches. Nearer to their homes, farmers grow vegetables for their own consumption.

BAIF has also provided infrastructural solutions for the village. Up the steep hills lie a labyrinthine series of micro-dams, channels, drip-irrigation hoses, and terraces that supply water for the crops, improving water conservation. Closer to the village, value-added processing sites provide another source of income for farmers, allowing them to make liquor from cashew flowers, for instance. Although the village is poorly connected with other population centers, a small financial cooperative even enables farmers to transport and sell their goods in Mumbai a few hours away.

Kashinga, a middle-aged farmer in the village, used to go to Mumbai as a sand dredger, until BAIF gave him land and helped him build his farm. “I used to go out to work for other people. Now other people work for me,” he said with a large smile. Kashinga’s success is not an isolated incident. Most land laborers in Maharashtra make at most 100 rupees per day, about two dollars. Over the course of a few years, many of the farmers benefiting from the BAIF scheme make more than three times that amount—and are more sure of a stable future income.

BAIF has been successful in this village and in the seed bank experiment because it has provided technical expertise that is congruent with the farmers’ cultural and traditional practices, unlike Green Revolution policies.

However, most farmers in Maharashtra do not receive such generous assistance. A policy bias towards top-down decision making, increased mechanization, and corporate farming prevent the BAIF model of tailored participatory development from being implemented on a larger scale. “Opportunistic politicians are the biggest hindrance to farm liberalization because they pander to the rural rich, the big farmers with large holdings,” Mr. Ghandi said. In this political climate, national policies usually promote corporate farming and perpetuate the failures of the Green Revolution.

At the same time, “overhead” problems such as a lack of transportation linking rural and urban areas, the isolation of farmers from markets, the shortage of market information, the absence of cold storage facilities to prevent spoilage, and the distance between farms and processing facilities all hinder the ability of farmers to raise their standards of living.

Mr. Gandhi, at least, believes that new and better policies can create solutions. “I think what we require is some out-of-the-box thinking as far as policymaking for the agricultural sector goes. And I think that will be in tune with the Gandhian philosophy of mixing tradition with modernization, whenever necessary.”

Distancing the government from development projects might work best. The success of NGOs like BAIF, along with the government’s failures to help small farmers and its collusion with industrialists and corporate farmers, all point to the need for a decentralized development plan. Without inclusive and steady development, rural discontent could turn violent—as is already happening. As recently as March 27, a roadside bomb, the work of Maoist Naxalites, claimed the lives of 12 central reserve police force troopers in eastern Maharashtra. India is no stranger to rural reactionaries.

Change will not come quickly to India. Corporate farming will grow larger. Corruption will go on. Environmental abuses will remain the norm. In short, the Green Revolution, which has only lived up to half its name, will tow the country down the dangerous path of higher yields at any cost.

For the much-needed Gandhian rural revitalization to work, it must proceed as Gandhi did: through crisis. Gandhi manufactured his own crises by undertaking voluntary fasts to mobilize the country. Rural India may have found its own emergency in the countryside’s suicide epidemic, environmental troubles, and violent protests.

When disaster, in whatever form it takes, does strike India’s hinterland, the children of the Green Revolution, politicians and farmers alike, will awaken to announce a counterrevolution, one green not in name only, but in deed. For now, though, India will continue to await a Greener Revolution.

Dan Gordon ’14 is a History major in Davenport College. Contact him at daniel.p.gordon@ yale.edu.

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