Tuesday, 4 December 2018

Farmers in Punjab are saving the climate by bringing back millets

Low input, high output

When I planted ragi, I did not do weeding. I did not water it. I did not even know people would want it for their consumption. I just put up some pictures and I had people asking for it,” says Sherpur Kalan’s Raspinder Singh practising his organic farming in Ludhiana district in Punjab. In 2017, he had six quintals of millets in a little more than half acre of his farmland. After preparing his field, he irrigated it once, did the transplantation and did not water it again.

This is vastly different from Punjab’s agrarian reality where rice is predominant. Punjab farmers are having to dig deeper and deeper for their submersibles to serve their water intensive crops. Methane emission from rice fields adds to climate warming, and the crop goes on depleting the groundwater because rice needs standing water. The government advises farmers to use water minimally but does not provide incentives for crops like millets that take little water and give high nutrition.

The state doesn't incentivise the growing of millets for farmers

Farmers like Raspinder are the exception but the sale of the millets they produce has proved that there is a market for them. Close to Punjab Agricultural University in Ludhiana is a mill where every day 80-90 kg of ragi or finger millet comes to be ground. Raspinder shares the reason: “CMC Hospital has recommended ragi to mothers; it has been suggested for bone issues as well as for obesity; patients who come for bypass surgery are learning that millets help fight blockage; diabetes patients are buying it.”

The planting of the seed

Raspinder studied engineering and taught the subject for a year. What did it take for him to develop an interest in millets? “I had an auto-immune disease and went to Kerala for my treatment. I was asked to have ragi and eventually I got cured. I went to a conference in Indian Institute of Millets Research, Hyderabad, and got to know of how millets are used in naturopathy. In Guru Nanak Dev University in Amritsar, Punjab, I heard Professor Hardeep Singh Gujral talk about how millets benefit us. The domestic worker at my place also knew about it.” To bring back the beneficial, rich millets that everyone seemed to know of at some point but had forgotten, Raspinder decided to start growing them himself. He also distributed free seeds to interested people.

Challenges and learnings on the journey

Ragi is not the only healthy millet. Bajra (pearl millet) is high on energy. Foxtail is easily digestible. Rotis made from browntop millet do not get spoilt for several days. They are all fibrous and keep intestines healthy. Since they are slow in releasing carbohydrates (wheat energises the body quickly), they ward off hunger for a long time without leading to obesity.

It is, however, not equally easy to grow all of these, as Raspinder discovered. Parrots feasted upon all the bajra he grew. Since farmers around him were not growing it, the birds only had this one farm to descend on to devour their favoured food. Apart from ragi, all other millets are also similarly vulnerable to attacks from different creatures.

The people who had taken seeds from Raspinder are now growing their own ragi. This means there is more ragi for consumers, which is a good thing. But it also means that a bigger market is needed for producers like Raspinder, who could sell all his output last year but not this year. In talks with someone who wants to buy ragi in bulk for making malt, he had a discussion with his fellow farmers. The consensual decision was that they should at least get as much as a paddy farmer gets.

Growing of ragi is labour intensive. The harvesting is primarily a manual process. On an average, these farmers are growing about eight quintals per acre and want to be paid a minimum of Rs 65 per kg. Raspinder says it is completely reasonable: “Two years back the price of non-organic ragi was Rs 80 per kg. It must have gone higher by now.”

Millets are not commonly grown in Punjab, not currently, at least, so there are no role models and it is all about experimenting and learning. The worker on his farm advised Raspinder to sow ragi in May. Later Raspinder saw that the yield was higher the year he had planted it around July. He then realised that since his worker is from Bihar, where monsoon arrives early, the right time for ragi in the two states would be different. He decided on the second half of June as a good time to start the plantation. Keeping a gap between the plants also gave them space to grow better and the production was higher.

The urgent need for state support and incentives

Apart from its low requirement of water, millets are also a kind of crop that provide the farmer with a rewarding yield, which chemical fertilisers and pesticides cannot improve further. So it is also not adding to the adverse effect of chemicals on Punjab on its water, soil and people’s bodies. Despite all its advantages, for millets to really take off and for Punjab to make a shift away from water-chemical intensive, climate unfriendly agriculture, incentives and awareness generation by the government is necessary. While the stated minimum support price for millets has been increased, like with any other crop, active procurement and distribution through government schemes is what would make the crop a popular choice for producers and consumers alike.

First published in Beyond Headlines, 30 Nov.

Monday, 3 December 2018

Mother’s illness led this man to organic, climate smart agriculture

When Ravdeep’s mother first heard that her son is going to take up farming, she was deeply disappointed. Standing in his farm in Punjab’s Pharwahi village in Barnala, Ravdeep remembers with a smile: “She said all the resources and efforts she had put into my education had been in vain.” But she also knew and took pride in the fact that her son could successfully meet the most difficult challenges. Ravdeep proved it was true when farming became his means of livelihood.

Ravdeep on his farm

Actually, it was because of his mother that Ravdeep had felt an urgent need to grow food organically. When his mother got cancer in 2009, Ravdeep started spending a lot of time at the hospital. The number of people he saw that had got diagnosed with the disease, and the fact that children were also patients, shook him up. He started questioning his entire way of living. “I always knew that chemicals are not good for us but my mother’s illness made me realise that we are poisoning everything . . . our air, water, food.”

Then a friend gave him agriculturist Subhash Palekar’s book on natural farming. Ravdeep also got in touch with Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), a non-profit working for farmers’ rights and food security that regularly conducts organic farming trainings.

The paddy problem

Ravdeep finally started farming through organic methods in the year 2012. “I first stopped growing paddy. In organic agriculture, it takes longer to harvest. The crop also has to be completely dry or the mandi, the market, does not accept it. By the time this happens, the sowing of the wheat gets delayed. I was also unhappy when I noticed the eventual hardening of the soil due to puddling [when the land is tilled while flooded to make the soil soft for rice plantation].”

Punjab ranks third in rice production in the country with 2.97 million hectares of the land under rice cultivation. 2.5 percent of human induced climate change in the world is estimated to have been contributed by flooded paddy fields.

Ravdeep says, “Earlier at least we used to retain trees around our farms. Now with the overabundance of paddy and the use of tractors and combines, there is no place for trees.” Not only environment but human health has been affected by the overzealous production of paddy. Ravdeep, along with his family, is conscious of his food choices: “Traditionally we grew and ate a variety of crops. Now it’s either rice or wheat and then we struggle with gluten allergy.”

He also blames paddy growing for being the original cause of stubble burning in Punjab, leading to polluting and warming of the atmosphere: “In fact the Punjab Agricultural University, based in Ludhiana, which is now advising farmers against burning, is the one that started doing it years ago.” Farmers say they cannot use machines or labour to remove the stubble because of the expenditure involved. But Ravdeep has a different take. He feels the cost one pays for illnesses like asthma or when injured in an accident caused due to decreased visibility because of smoke is much higher. Farmers need to see economics in its full picture, he insists, and not just have a short term vision.

However, he admits that a good number of farmers cannot afford happy seeders or tractors or other big machines. Some villages have a few of these machines that are to be shared by the community through cooperatives but it is often not practical. Ravdeep explains, “One seeder covers one acre of land per day. Farmers have ten days and 3000 acres to sow. So they need twenty seeders at the same time in the sowing season and cannot afford to take turns individually.”

After all these issues, Punjab has had to face rejection of export consignments because of pesticide residue in the rice. “The farmers who grow this rice do not eat it themselves. It is bought by the Food Corporation of India for distribution. People in south India like their own varieties. So why are we still growing it,” laments Ravdeep.

Beauty, and balance, in diversity

Following farmer-philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka’s book The One-Straw Revolution, on Ravdeep's six-acre farm, he is growing multiple crops, vegetables and fruit and flowering trees. They are not water intensive, and growing them organically has brought back the birds and insects that are killed or driven away by chemicals. In awe of this rich biodiversity through which his farm is making itself climate resilient, Ravdeep confesses that before this he had seen this feature only in the fields of his predecessors. Stubble is “food” for his crops and so he even collects the straw from his neighbours’ fields, which the farmers are only too happy about.

Long lost insects and birds have returned to Ravdeep's farm

The market

Ravdeep, like many other organic farmers, end up selling some of his produce in the common market. Wheat and pulses get the rates deserving of organic produce. He says 5-10 percent of the customers are ready to buy organic food at the correct price, though all agree that chemicals are bad. But in this small percentage there is a mix of “rich, lower middle and middle classes”, explains Ravdeep, depending on how serious they are about their family’s health or whether there has been an illness in the family.

KVM, which Ravdeep is connected with, has a shop in the area but it is open only once a week. Private buyers who get to know of organic farmers also buy from them directly. But Ravdeep says he could not have pulled it off without his family’s support. His wife, who is a teacher, and his daughter help with processing some of the produce at home before it can go to customers. “If I had to go out for processing, the cost and logistics of it would not have worked out.” Therefore Ravdeep recognises that a farmer cannot make a sudden shift to organic farming, and underlines the need for government to incentivise organic agriculture, and to provide markets for those who are already doing it.

First published in Beyond Headlines, 30 Nov.

Friday, 30 November 2018

How these farmers in Punjab are using the practice of mulching to fight climate change

Increasing soil fertility, avoiding stubble burning

Upon reaching Anirudh Vashisht’s farm in Sunam in Sangrur district in Punjab, a couple of other people with a camera could be seen. They had come to document the work of farmers like Vashisht who are setting an example, at a time when Punjab’s farmers have had to bear the brunt of criticism from the capital for stubble burning and adding to air pollution. Vashisht is part of the minority in Punjab that does not burn crop residue.

The documentarians talking to him had primarily come to film instances of stubble burning. To avoid doing it himself, something which leads to pollution, causes accidents by reducing visibility and harms the soil, Vashisht has been practising mulching. In the process, the stubble is cut and collected, and the small pieces are spread over the soil. While explaining the process, Vashisht took a few handfuls of chopped straw and covered the onion and garlic patches with them: “When we burn stubble, we lose microbes healthy for the soil; friendly insects die. Birds and animals also get injured. But with mulching the number of useful microorganisms grows. The soil is protected from the direct sun, its health is preserved and since it is able to retain moisture the ground needs less water. That’s why this process is climate smart.” Chasing away a parrot that had come for the fruit of a tree on the farm, Anirudh gave the example of a forest where grass and leaves cover the soil and it remains fertile despite anyone watering it.

Some farmers who can afford the machine use a rotavator for mechanically spreading the stubble on to the soil but most land owners believe that doing it manually has better results. But isn’t the manual process of mulching labour intensive? “It is,” Vashisht agrees, “but it is a long term investment.” Mulching increases soil fertility and yield and therefore ultimately it would be profitable.

Seema Jolly in Karodan village, Mohali, also prefers to put in human labour in the process of mulching because she does not find the use of big machines consistent with her organic farming practices and principles.

In Barnala’s Pharwahi village, Ravdeep, who is also into organic farming, recalled that even when he was a regular farmer using chemical fertilisers he did not feel comfortable with burning and still used mulching.

For his farm near Kapurthala, Rahul Sharma bought straw from his neighbours to mulch: “Once the soil is covered with the straw, it becomes dark and damp, encouraging the growth of earthworms, which are healthy for soil. If wheat needs to irrigated thrice, then with mulching only two rounds are enough.”

There have come to light other uses for the stubble that comes after a paddy harvest, instead of burning it and adding to climate change. It is being used for power generation, by the paper and packaging industry and, possibly, for furniture.

Why hasn’t mulching become popular in the state yet?

Shamser Singh is a farmer in Sunam. Asked about why he is unable to adopt practices like mulching, he shares: “Machines like happy seeders [machines that cut the straw, sow the next crop and puts the cut stubble over the sown area] and rotavators that should be priced at thousands cost lakhs. How are we supposed to buy them? The 50 percent subsidy is not enough.”
Farmers complained that labour is scarce, especially since many have been absorbed by NREGA (National Rural Employment Guarantee Act) works, and turn out to be expensive for the farmers if employed in huge numbers.

Another farmer, Parpoor Singh, adds, “We also suffer from the effects if stubble burning, from breathing difficulties to burning in the eyes. But what are the options? Let the government subsidise the growing diesel prices so we can use machines to clear the fields of the stubble.”

Time is also a factor. To reduce water use, the government has shifted the rice sowing time further ahead. This means that as soon as farmers harvest paddy, they have to clear the field and sow wheat. In such a scenario, mulching seems time-taking compared to burning the straw. Some farmers also believe that mulching makes the soil uneven and prone to attacks by rodents. But the farmers implementing this practice, including Vashist, saw it more as a prejudice. Buying the straw for commercial use by private parties is not widespread yet.

A few of the residents living around farms said that the pollution around has decreased since the government started imposing a penalty on burning. But this measure could not stop the practice at a larger scale. It led to resentment in the agricultural community against what they see as government’s apathy to their problems.

Farmers across different districts reiterated that they would prefer not to burn the residual straw if the government helps them fight the factors above through cash incentives. Agriculture expert Devinder Sharma agreed, “You cannot remedy this through punitive action. Cash is what the farmers want in the form of an incentive and that is what should be given to them.”

Most farmers using mulching consistently are also those who are doing organic farming and therefore have an overall, larger vision of how agricultural practices should not adversely affect plant, human, animal or environmental health in general. But both organic farmers and experts admit that for the farmers relying heavily on chemicals and under the pressure to get high yields quickly for financial returns, the shift to organic farming, of which mulching is already a part, will also have to be incentivised by the government, especially in the transitional phase.

This article is being published as part of the GIZ-CMS fellowship. First published in DailyO, 30 Nov 2018.

Sunday, 18 November 2018


Dear capitalism,
I am a woman
And for quite some time now
You’ve been trying to convince me
That you’re on my side.
You say you respect me
Because you believe in me:
No, not so much in my ability
But in my capacity,
My “purchasing capacity”
To buy your products
Without having to depend on men.
Then you go ahead and tell me
How those products
Would make me a more lucrative product
For those men.
Who writes your copy?

First published in Ethos Literary Journal, November 2018.

Saturday, 17 November 2018

Whatsapp blues

There are friends who get upset
If they learn you’ve seen their messages
But did not respond.
One would think they must have gotten used it to it by now.
After all
There’s so much we witness,
So little we respond to.
The trick is not to take these things personally.

First published in Ethos Literary Journal, November 2018.

Friday, 9 November 2018

How theatre in Delhi has been finding and creating stages beyond Mandi House

A theatre is not a blank page for editorial, it is not a soapbox or a Tannoy system: it is a conscience that wakes with what is happening in the space, and wakes further still in response to what people are making of it.

-Andrew O'Hagan

When I joined the Hindi dramatic society of my college in Delhi University in 2003, it was the mention of the National School of Drama (NSD) that used to get us all starry eyed. To give us a flavour of the city's theatre, our seniors took us to Mandi House for a show of Premchand's Rangbhoomi. We sat enraptured as we watched professional actors play out the subtleties and complexities of each character, and of a bygone era. It still remains one of the most memorable performances I have witnessed.

Therefore it was only natural that when those interested in theatre walked out of their colleges, NSD was one of their top priorities. Of course with few seats and state-wise allocations, not everyone could join. Some people trained at other places in and outside India and brought to Delhi their experiences of physical theatre, theatre with dance, theatre as therapy, theatre with communities, children, theatre as clowns . . . As these specialisations developed, the theatre circuit in Mandi House expanded to make way for a larger, more organically shaping theatre scene in different parts of the city.

In Shadipur, Studio Safdar has a small rehearsal-performance space and also a book cafe, which hosts readings, talks, music sessions. Groups have been hosting intense performances in small cafes. There are "alternate theatre" groups like Third Space Collective that have been successfully staging their shows on bigger stages like Epicentre, Gurgaon. The group I was associated with, Aatish, and the project I was part of, Genderventions (by The Pocket Company, directed by Niranjani Iyer), transform atypical spaces like parks, gullies and bus stands for interactive theatre on ongoing social issues. And then there is solo theatre by people like Maya Rao and Mallika Taneja deeply invested in issues like gender justice, power packed deliveries that have broken the myth of such performances being navel-gazing exercises involving dull monologues. Mohalla Festivals organised by the Lost & Found Trust hosted performances in residential colonies, supported by the resident welfare associations and the inhabitants of the locality. Trees people jogged beneath in parks were used to prop halogens.

Almost all these groups are travelling troupes, performing outside Delhi and, at times, outside India too. Apart from NSD, there are theatre courses in Sri Ram Centre and in newly emerging institutions like Shiv Nadar University and Ambedkar University. Courses are being designed keeping in mind people in other professions so that they do not have to thwart their love for theatre because of being in full time jobs. At the same time, schools have opened up to teaching theatre and theatre practitioners are being appointed by them. Theatre Professionals, Mumbai, is a group that has been identifying such artists in Delhi and placing them with schools here. Kingdom of Dreams in Gurgaon is seen as many as an elitist, commercialised theatre space while other actors feel the pay they get there allows them to do other, more "soulful" theatre. Slam Out Loud, an arts group I worked with, is pushing the envelope further and taking theatre to children in government schools.

This varied mix of theatre groups, spaces and methods has been a welcome development in Delhi where theatre enthusiasts do not have to settle for a narrow definition of theatre but can choose to get involved in the kind of theatre that relates best to their individual interest and ideology.

First published in DailyO, 10 Nov 2018.

Thursday, 8 November 2018

V for Vendetta: A film I do not tire of watching

As Guy Fawkes Night has been observed for Centuries because it is imbued with a timeless symbolism, so are certain films which become a part of you — and increasingly relevant — over time.

Like most films, V for Vendetta too is not able to perform highly enough to meet the expectations of its illustrious parent, the book with the same title by Alan Moore and David Lloyd. The occasional attempts to insert mush do not go well with the overall flavour of the story.
Having disclaimed that, it is safe to say that the 2005 movie made by James McTeigue and written by The Wachowskis holds a claim to distinctiveness. It is special enough to make me and my partner watch it when we wish to compensate for being away from our families on festivals.
The film doesn’t fail expectations at all. It is a high tension electric wire running through the audience’s minds and hearts as the anarchist revolutionary V, played by Hugo Weaving, orchestrates a series of events to expose the government, very much in the vein of the Paris revolution’s “No replastering, the structure is rotten.” It is art done elegantly, when a dystopian theme like this could have resulted in a lot of confusion and muck flying around. Its finesse does not gesticulate towards its beauty but rests in its place after it has been created, to be appreciated by those who will.
I believe it settled in some part of me because after I saw it, one of my delirious dreams, conceived during some sickness, was this:
A feminist revolution has achieved the complete eradication of sexism. I know the overthrow has been successful because some of the revolution graffiti is also sent to my new phone as a text message. The first line reads: “It may seem to you an occasion of bereavement but you’ll soon discover that it is one of joy.” I read the message and am immediately reassured that the efforts made by me and my compatriots to bring in equality of all genders have not been in vain.
It awakens unstirred parts of you: vestigial parts that haven’t been used in a while so you can’t immediately locate the vibrations. So you don’t want to talk about the movie after it’s over but close your eyes and wrap yourself around you and listen to those stirrings and eventually act upon them, when you are hit hard by the truth of these words uttered by Valerie, a character V fondly recalls in the film: “Our integrity sells for so little, but it is all we really have. It is the very last inch of us, but within that inch, we are free.” I know I want to live each day, no matter what the span of my life, when Valerie’s voice in the film gives credence to her persona in the book: “ . . . for three years, I had roses, and apologized to noone.”
Without pouncing upon you with some cliched declamation, it touches you in places you had not thought of for some time. You see it as a long-forgotten friend but don’t know how your present world will absorb it and so you quietly pull it into a corner and keep it hidden, to visit when no one is around. You know that it is not vendetta that V needs; he needs love and out of that love for him you want him to have his vendetta for isn’t he wonderful and shouldn’t he have everything he desires?
And of course, most of all, the film is about the fearlessness everyone wants, fear being the only real obstacle to living. I had been hugely impressed with the part where Natalie Portman is angry with V for making her go through torture, until he makes her realise that it had been to rid her of her fears. There is solace in the routine of torture because you seem to know more or less when it will be, even if it is every day, and can actually prepare yourself for it, and then be tortured and have even more time to prepare for the next day. This is not in the nature of a calamity, which catches you unawares and demands immediate attention. Isn’t it true that the only way to defeat our fears are to go ahead and meet them, to look them in the eye, rather than to keep looking over our backs all life?
A lot of fans have tried to guess at who the character of V “really” is, to speculate on his relations with other characters. I do not want to do that, to indulge in the “paradox of asking a masked man who he is”. Because I think what the film, and V, wanted us to know and believe was that V is all of us, and that we have it in us to be V if we can go through a fire and come out burnt but not broken.

First published in  thREAD, The Hindu, 8 Nov 2018.


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