Interview: Subhash Palekar and the Holy Cows of Natural Farming

In conversation with the Padma Shri awardee and chief proponent of Zero Budget Natural Farming on his methods, the agrarian crisis, cow vigilantism and more.

Subhash Palekar. Credit: Youtube

Subhash Palekar. Credit: Youtube

The farmers’ strikes in Maharashtra and Madhya Pradesh in June drew urban India’s attention once again to the agrarian crisis, which has been decades in the making. Explanations for what sparked it – falling crop prices, rising input costs, shrinking land holdings and declining government investment in agriculture – were as familiar as the policy prescriptions on how to douse the flames – raise crop prices, expand formal credit and create jobs outside agriculture.

Subhash Palekar, a farmer from Vidarbha in Maharashtra has practiced what he calls ‘Zero Budget Natural Farming’ (ZBNF) since 1990. He claims his method is the solution to both world hunger and the cycle of debt that cripples small farmers. Since India adopted a chemical-industrial model of agriculture in the 1960s – what’s known as the Green Revolution – governments and agricultural scientists have largely dismissed the alternate – organic or natural farming – as an unproductive relic or an elitist fantasy.

Last year, the Indian government awarded Palekar the Padma Shri and this June, Chandrababu Naidu appointed him as an adviser, allocating Rs 100 crore to promote ZBNF in Andhra Pradesh. While the results from his biodynamic methods have been hailed by farmers and environmentalists, many are uncomfortable with his quasi-spiritual approach and his ambiguous position on cow vigilantism and Hindutva. Manas Roshan interviewed Palekar at the Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI) in Pusa, where he was to deliver a series of lectures for scientists.

Excerpts from the interview:

You’ve often been very critical of conventional agricultural science and scientists. What is it that you want to tell the scientists of the IARI and ICAR (Indian Council of Agricultural Research), and why should they listen to you now?

I don’t think they have to listen to my lecture. It is the need of the ICAR and IARI to listen to advanced technologies throughout the world, developed or devised not by agricultural universities but by so many farmers and workers. The Green Revolution has created many problems but agricultural universities don’t have any solution. That’s why the problems are becoming more serious day by day. If we count them, the food crisis is the big problem throughout the world. Second, global warming and climate change. Third, farmer suicides. Fourth, the migration of youth from rural to urban areas. And fifth, the destruction of natural resources.

Food crisis is not just a problem in India. The global population is speedily increasing. India needs 50 crore metric tonne of food grain by 2060. Now, India is producing about 25 crore metric tonne. So, [production will need to] double. India has only a fixed amount of land for cultivation – 35 crore acres.

That means in this fixed 35 crore acres, we want to double production. In April, I gave a lecture in Punjab Agricultural University. I had some specific questions for the vice chancellor and director of research: ‘What is the highest production of wheat, paddy and basmati rice?’ They said that by means of the Green Revolution, the highest yield of paddy is 61 quintal per hectare, 56 quintal per hectare wheat and 26 quintal per hectare basmati rice. I asked if they have any technology to increase this yield. They said, ‘No, we have no such technology. We can’t increase production at any cost.’ Then I asked them about Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s two targets for agricultural universities. Number one, double the production. And second, double the income of farmers. Do the universities have any solution? They clearly said no.

Increase in production is on everybody’s mind because no natural or organic farmers have claimed till now that their yields compare to those of chemical farming methods. It is a fact that since the Green Revolution took off in the 1960s, food production has increased dramatically – especially rice and wheat. No natural farmers claim they can match these yields. Do you?

Yes, I claim it openly. The Green Revolution was the need of the time then, because we were importing a lot of grains from the US, Canada and other countries. India accepted the Green Revolution to fulfil our food requirement and to become self-sufficient. Sixty years have passed. If the government is claiming that we are self-sufficient in food production, then I have some questions. Every year, the Indian government imports several lakh tonne of wheat. We import 70-80 lakh tonne of pulses every year, edible palm oil from Southeast Asia, edible soybean oil from the US, Brazil and China. Even in the fruit markets, the apples have stickers saying they are from New Zealand and Australia. We import 100% of potash fertilisers from the international market; 72% of phosphate fertilisers. We also import technology: genetic engineering, for example. How can they then claim that they are self-sufficient? If we continue with these policies, we will never be self-sufficient. How will future generations survive?

In that Punjab University lecture, I asked them what the highest yield of basmati fields is. They said 26 quintals per hectare. I asked if they had taken any trials of organic farms. They said they hadn’t. In Amritsar, there is a 50-acre farm run by the Pingalwara Charitable Society. They practice Zero Budget Natural Farming. From one acre – and the district agricultural officer oversaw the harvest and weighing of the crop – they got 24 quintals. That is 61 quintals per hectare – more than double the production from the hybrid basmati seeds of agricultural universities! That means we are fulfilling the targets set by Narendra Modi for the agricultural universities. And double the income! In chemical farming, cost of production is high; in organic farming it’s four times higher because the inputs are even costlier. I say organic farming is more dangerous, more exploitative than chemical farming.

In ZBNF, cost of production is nothing: we use only local seeds and produce our own seeds; no cultivation is required at all; there is no application of insecticides; only 10% of water [used in conventional farming] is needed. You only have to sow the seeds, irrigate using much less water and then harvest the crop. So, labour use is reduced.

Most importantly, there is no need to apply fertiliser. In ZBNF, there is no FYM [Farm Yard Manure – a mixture of cow dung and urine, and straw]. Orchard growers and sugarcane growers, for example, purchase truck-loads of FYM. In my technology, not a single gram of manure is utilised. No vermicompost, no chemical fertiliser.

Palekar on his fields. Courtesy: Subhash Palekar

Palekar on his fields. Courtesy: Subhash Palekar

To clarify, isn’t your own jiwamrita – a compound of water, cow dung and urine, jaggery, legume flour and local soil – a form of manure? These are enriching the soil, aren’t they?

Jiwamrita is not manure. It is a culture of micro-organism. All nutrients required for the development of a plant is taken from the soil. That means soil is annapurna, an ocean of nutrients. But these nutrients are not in an available form for the roots. The conversion of these nutrients into an available form for plant roots is done by the micro-organisms. So it is a completely wrong theory that we need manure or chemical fertilisers. We only want a culture of micro-organisms. And jiwamrita is the best culture of micro-organisms.

So you’re saying that all nitrogen, potassium, phosphate compound mixtures are unnecessary? But these did lead to significant yield increases, not discounting the damage they also do to the environment.

Nothing, none of it is necessary. For thousands of years, our land had fertility, maintained by traditional farming. During the Green Revolution, the yield was increasing with the support of this very fertility. When the fertility was finished, the yield started to decline. That is what is happening now. ZBNF increases the humus content in the soil. We are increasing the fertility and productivity of the soil, so we are getting a bumper crop.

What, according to you, are the reasons for the latest farmers’ unrest? The chief demands of the farmers were loan waivers and remunerative prices for their crops. Do you think this will solve it?

Look, loans are not the solution. Governments of Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Karnataka have announced waivers. But then again, the banks know they will have to issue new loans the next year. Loan-free farming: that is what we are working for.

You finally have the recognition and some support from the government. Chandrababu Naidu appointed you as his advisor and also allocated Rs 100 crore to promote ZBNF. Yet, he has pushed for Chinese fertiliser companies to set up plants in Andhra Pradesh; now he is linking the Godavari and Yeleru rivers and has just launched a Rs 1,600-crore irrigation scheme. Don’t these decisions go against all your principles: rain-fed farming, avoiding fertilisers, etc.? Then is the state’s support for your method just symbolic, even hypocritical?

Conversion of the system is not possible immediately. I am not in any hurry. No government will change immediately. And we don’t claim that we will pressure them. We are establishing our own parallel system. The decision will be taken by the farmers. Everything will take its own time. At ICAR and IARI, nobody thought that they will be willing to accept alternate technologies. Now, they are willing to listen. Meghalaya Agricultural University is organising a workshop by me in August. Scientists, heads of departments and activists from all over the Northeast will be participating. They have changed their mentality. Punjab University, where I gave my lecture, was the nodal agency to spread chemical farming throughout India. We can’t say they are not changing. They are, because it is now time.

The cow is central to your system of farming. You even call it Zero Budget Spiritual Farming. As we speak, cow-related lynchings and vigilantism are on the rise in the country. What is your position on cattle slaughter and cow vigilantes?

In India, for about 10,000 years, cow-based farming has been practiced. When farming started there were no Hindus, no Muslims, no Christians, no Jains; no religion. But agriculture was cow-based. How can you say that the cow is related to any specific religion? They [gau rakshaks] only want to save the cow. But I’m totally against the violence.

So you condemn the violence? And have you pointed out to the government and these groups-

Not necessary. We have given the solution. Before listening to my lecture, farmers were selling their cows. But now, after participating in the workshop, they are searching for cows.

But farmers are selling old cows and bulls once they no longer have any use for them. Many communities in India – Christians, Muslims and many Hindus – have been consuming beef for thousands of years. Your argument – that the cow is essential for agriculture – is being used by these cow terrorists to say that the bovine population has declined, that milk production has reduced and make other spurious claims: that cow milk contains gold, for example. Cow numbers have actually risen and milk production is higher than it has ever been.

It is wrong. You have the wrong information. You have no information about the actual figures of local Indian cows. It is actually declining. The reason is slaughter and not utilising the animals in farming because of chemical farming. Now, I ask you what the alternative is for chemical farming. If we want to double the production and income, cow-based natural farming is the only alternative.

Slaughter and chemical farming are completely different points.

It is not different. It is because farmers don’t know the importance of the local cow.

The cow has always been important to farmers, even in conventional farming: for milk, for tilling the land. These are not people who believe that the cow is useless. They take care of their cattle. You are still not answering my question. How can a farmer be accused of a crime when he or she is buying or selling his or her own cattle?

No farmer will need to sell a cow if he follows my method. You are not a farmer; that is why you ask these questions. No farmer is willing to sell his cows. He says that it is his mother. I can only argue through my mass movement. If my movement is limited, then I accept that.

But your mass movement has larger ramifications. In 2007, at the Vishwa Gou Sammelan, a gathering in Karnataka attended by several Hindutva organisations, you were awarded the Gopal Gaurav Award. You have attended many such events. Why don’t you distance yourself from these organisations?

Why are you saying that only cows should be eaten? What is the reason that human beings should eat cows?

That is a separate argument. How can the state or any religion dictate what people can eat?

My movement is not associated with any religion. Don’t ask me any questions about religion or politics. I will not give you an answer. We have totally avoided these questions from our movement. I don’t know any gau rakshaks or what they are doing. I have kept them [gau rakshaks] out of my movement. In my seminars, there is no violence.

Do you think there is any need for a law against cattle slaughter in India?

A hundred percent, yes.

So people who slaughter cattle, farmers who sell them should be punished? If there is a law, then someone will be punished.

I don’t know. You ask this question to the government.

Manas Roshan is an independent Delhi-based journalist writing about agriculture and the environment.