Living responsibly could mean different things to different people. When I started exploring farming, it brought some very unexpected learnings. Today, growing my own food and living off the grid, has become the core of living responsibly for me. I started my farm with one horse. I do animal rescue and there was a horse that needed a home. I needed land for him. We went looking for land along the Yamuna. There was this degraded piece of land with not a blade of grass on it. The farmer who owned the land had stopped farming on it. He said, “If you want to take this whole stretch, you can”. I stood there and decided right there and then, “I am going to farm”. I took on this piece of land and then I started learning about farming. There was one jamun tree and a charpoi; and I had an ipad and Google to rely on. To everyone around, I was a curiosity because I was an urban person from Chennai and I was sitting in the heartland of UP, trying to understand farming.
I soon discovered that we had all been farmers at some point. We grew our own food. We grew in season, we regenerated soil, we value-added produce, we pickled, we preserved, we kept it for the next season. We lived a community life where everyone shared seeds and everyone shared produce. Farmers were herbalists, for they knew about indigenous medicine. Farmers were weather forecasters. They could stand and see one gust of wind and say the season was going to change or rains were coming or that there was moisture in the air and we needed to start planting. You didn’t need BBC to tell you that.
In the 1960s, the Green Revolution brought a completely different way of farming. That has affected a huge part of how we live today. With the Green Revolution, we imported seeds and we imported cattle from outside. The whole emphasis shifted from dung to milk. Today, we worship the milk, not the dung. Cows have become factory animals.We have stopped tilling with a bull and a plough. We have mechanized our agriculture. We use diesel with tractors, which means we are leaving a huge carbon footprint. We use hybrid seeds which cannot be reused. We use chemical pesticides and fertilizers, trying to produce greater yields out of land, while continuously destroying our soil.
Today, one of our greatest social responsibilities is to regenerate soil. Out of the soil come our produce, our fibre, our fuel, and our natural resources. Out of the soil comes everything. It regenerates our resources and regenerates water. We build using soil. There is nothing we can do without it. But chemical farming means that you constantly degenerate soil. This is completely against the grain of nature. The world over today, there is soil degradation and ground water pollution. Food is full of pesticides. In Kerala, there is Endosulfan, a pesticide, in all the backwaters. It is causing deformities in children. Punjab, or the ‘Land of Five Rivers’, and considered to be one of the most fertile regions of India, is barren today. The ground water is poisoned, the rivers are dying.
Further, villages are emptying out, because all the migrant youth that you see in cities have left their villages to look for a brighter future in cities. Lands are being occupied by corporates, by city folk, and being converted into industries and colonies. We are losing our agricultural land. In urban places we remain very disconnected from land, food and nature. Produce in the super markets comes in shiny plastic bags, and no one cares to know where it comes from. There is no urban-rural connect. Yet everyone talks about environment pollution and degradation. If you ask me what it is to live responsibly today, I would say that it begins with the farm land. It begins with agriculture, with understanding how those three meals get to your table, and what is in those meals.
It was a discovery for me that we are a link in the whole chain, and it is we who are disturbing the entire ecosystem. Tomorrow, if we were to go extinct, the world will actually flourish. If the bee were to go extinct, we too would soon be extinct. The bee is the one that pollinates the forests, and pollinates our crops. There can be no life on land if not for the bee or the insects. We have given ourselves a great sense of importance of being useful to this planet, when we are actually a burden. Once we realize that, we can begin to live with a greater sense of responsibility. We can then begin to ask, why should we protect everything? Why should we protect indigenous species? Why should we protect the tiger? Have we thought about it? Everyday, as we speak, hundreds of species are going extinct. Why should we protect them? That’s because every species that exists on this planet is a link in nature. It affects our climate and our seasons, it affects our natural cycles in ways that we don’t even know. We have to protect these because the real World Wide Web is this: the life that is under the soil, the life that is among the plants, and the life that is between animals. The ecosystem under the soil is much more complicated than even the internet. Fungi speak to each other. There is enough evidence to show that trees communicate. Yet, most of us walk by a tree without even a second glance. Today it does not take people two minutes to cut off twenty trees to divert a road.
Madhya Pradesh, which is the land of forests, is where our seed wealth comes from. It has a remarkable diversity of seeds. However, the land that grew millets and legumes that were sustainable for their environment now grows largely soya bean. Maharashtra too has become a cash crop area. They mainly grow cotton; there is hardly any legume. Today, the Indian Government has leased land in Madagascar and Brazil to grow legumes. This made me wonder: Are we short on land? Are we short on people? Or are we short on resources?
In my journey I was inspired by a few people: Masanobu Fukuoka, Bhaskar Save and Subhash Palekar. Masanobu Fukuoka, of ‘One Straw Revolution’ fame, realized that lesser the intervention, the more the yield. Therefore, he started ‘do nothing farming’, where you are not an intervener, but you are only a facilitator. Bhaskar Save believes in complete natural farming. His farm in Nagpur uses no chemicals, no fertilizers, not even natural pest repellents. Yet, his yields are much better than the neighbouring farms. Subhash Palekar propounded a new system of farming called the Zero Budget Natural Farming. I largely follow his method because it is a cow centric farm, which is midway between ‘no tilling’ and ‘tilling’. My farm is called Beejom. I was drawing the beej (seed) and realized that in the beej, there is the shape of an Om. I decided to name my farm ‘Beejom’ because everything begins with the seed.
The farm is host to many rescued and rehabilitated animals. We have horses and seventy cows from across all of India. There are eleven varieties of indigenous cattle, all of which are endangered. These animals are the ambassadors of the farm. It is they who run it; we are only facilitators. The cow shed is at the heart of it, and the farm is all around it. From the gobar (cow dung) and gau mutra (cow urine) we make pest repellents and fertilizers. We use indigenous seeds and source our grain seeds from Navdanya.2 We buy mother seeds from them and try and collect vegetable seeds from people who wish to donate them. We have a bio-gas system, so our kitchen runs on that fuel and so do some lights. We use solar power too and do rainwater harvesting.
Using Palekarji’s methods of farming, we grow a lot of millets. A super market today sells nothing but wheat and rice. Before the Green Revolution our staple diet was millets. Bajra, jowar, ragi, kangni, kodo, sama: we had hundreds of millet varieties. From being the food of the common man, millets are now found in super specialty stores, where only the rich can afford to buy them. Ordinary people can afford only wheat and rice, which are in all grocery stores. One kilo of rice takes 4,000 litres of water to grow. Millets on the other hand are rain fed. They can grow in poor soil, are pest resistant and don’t leach the soil. Instead they contribute to it. Millets can also be companion planted with a variety of other crops. Its’ grass makes great fodder; the grain makes great food. Why then would we grow something else, something as unsustainable as rice?
These shifts are perhaps due to the control mechanisms of governments and corporations across the world. As people who want to live responsibly, we need to understand how corporations and governments work. It is the government that now tells the farmer what to sow and how to fertilize his soil. It has taken away independent thought and action, the sense of freedom, from the farmer. The farmer who was a provider has now become destitute. He stands in queues for subsidies, which he does not need. He seeks loans, which push him into a debt trap. And then he commits suicide.
With globalization, we have come to a stage where the farmer is hungry and we are in supermarkets buying exotic grains—kinuwa from South America, chia seeds from some other place in the world, and we want to cook with olive oil. Our food is often contaminated. Farmers are sick when they should have been healthy. Monsanto is the largest company that sells pesticides and fertilizers. Recently, Bayer bought Monsanto. Bayer is a company that sells medicines for cancer. So, the company that sells fertilizers and the company that makes the cancer drug are one. There is a train that goes from Bhatinda to Bikaner. It is called the Cancer Express. It takes farmers from Bhatinda to be treated in a huge cancer hospital in Bikaner. Can you see how unsustainable our whole life has become?
I don’t need the government because I sow my own seeds, grow my own food and make my own fertilizers and pesticides. In addition I generate electricity and make bio-gas. I have what I need and the surplus, I sell. That’s how I believe every farmer should be. We grow through a method called barahnaja. Barahnaja is actually barah anaj—growing twelve grains on one field. This is a way of farming that is widely practised in the Uttarakhand hills. After one crop that leaches the soil, we crop-rotate with a legume. The legume has rhizobium in the roots that fixes nitrogen in the soil. That is how crop rotation re-fertilizes the soil in traditional agriculture. But today, monocropping has become the bane of our existence. We take and take from the land and never give back. Therefore, we are continuously destroying land.
We have introduced such traditional systems of agriculture like barahnaja, multicropping, inter-cropping and companion planting, using traditional seeds. We see weeds and insects as friends. When we came to this land, it was grey and had no microbial activity in the soil. There was not a single earthworm. We began using liquid cow-dung fertilizer, which when mixed with dal, jaggery, besan and a bit of forest soil, creates a microclimate. After four days the microbial activity is perfect and ready to be poured onto the land. Within two years, when we had rains during monsoon, we could not stand on the land, since there were so many earthworms. We thus discovered that nature is most forgiving. Even if you give a little, it is happy to regenerate itself.
We also built environmentally friendly cow sheds. Our roofs are made of recycled tetra packs. We have a brick floor which collects the urine in tanks and from this we make pesticides, repellents and fertilizers. We have a project called ‘dung home’. We celebrate dung, and make a variety of things with it. Apart from fertilizers and pest repellents, women in the villages make phenol, dhoop, agarbhati, mosquito coils, and gobar pots for nurseries. Nurseries typically use small plastic covers to grow their seedlings. Plastic does not degenerate, whereas with the gobar pots, once the plant has outgrown the pot, the pot itself is the manure. We make gobar logs as a substitute for wood for bonfires, havans and cremations, so that trees need not be cut. There are tonnes of gobar in every goushala in the country, but nobody uses it because most farmers now use chemical fertilizers.
We have training programmes where we invite farmers. We share knowledge and our seeds. We teach them for free, give them seeds and encourage them to grow these by natural methods. At the Beejom cooperative, farmers who grow organic produce can also sell it. They don’t want to sell it in the local mandi because it goes away into the local produce and nobody knows that it is organic. It is also correctly priced, and is not expensive. Our shop challenges the general belief that only the rich can afford to buy organic produce. We don’t sell packaged goods. The grains are in sacks, so people bring their own bags or we provide cloth bags so that they can carry the provisions home.
On our farm, the animals are happy. We have beautiful breeds of indigenous healthy cows, and specific breeds of cattle are bred consciously. We have the Gir, Sahival, Tharparkar, Red Sindhi, Kankhrej, Rathi, Malnad Gidda, Hariana, Kangayam, Vechur and the Murrah buffalo. The Vechur is in the Guinness Book as the smallest breed of cow in the world. There are only 300 of them left. The Malnad Gidda is from the cattle family of the Western Ghats, and of these only some 2,000 are left. There is, hence, a huge onus on us to preserve our traditional cattle, preserve our traditional seeds and, preserve our traditional practices.
I believe that all of us have to participate in our own little spaces. We cannot just stand and watch all this, and do nothing. We need to understand how this food comes to our plate. We need to realize that a vegan needs one-sixth of an acre, a vegetarian needs three times as much, and an omnivore, eighteen times as much. We cannot simply allow forests to get cut, and soil to be degraded. We need to understand how we are contributing to the destruction of the planet.
It has been a journey in exploring and breaking down barriers for me. The greatest teacher is nature and therein lies its divinity. I liken the road to individual freedom to the journey of a river. It starts as a trickle in the pristine snow mountains and when allowed to meander and flow as it chooses naturally, it becomes a large, turbulent, grand, river. In its journey, it gathers so much and processes it into rich, fertile silt that it shares generously by throwing it on the banks along the way, facilitating the growth of entire civilizations. When it merges with other rivers, it becomes a confluence of waters. Yet, through all its learning and its journey, and doing and sharing, it never loses its identity. Eventually it reaches the ocean and just before it merges into the ocean forever, it casts the last of the silt to create fertile deltas and sandbanks and then, it is free. When we build dams, rivers are forced to alter their natural course, causing destruction in their path. Likewise, we have to break our walls and allow ourselves to flow naturally like a river.
We have to observe the world around us; we have to ask ourselves why are we doing what we are doing? There has to be a purpose. We have to ask each time: “Do we really need this? How is this going to impact the world around me?” Maybe then every action of ours would be towards living responsibly. Jane Goodall, who is the greatest chimpanzee expert in the world, said that indigenous people in different parts of the world would sit around before they made a decision and ask themselves, “How does this decision affect our people seven generations from now?” That is what we need to ask ourselves. That would be a perfect recipe to live responsibly.
- Based on a talk given at the Annual Gathering, 2016, of the Krishnamurti Foundation India with the theme ‘Living Responsibly in Today’s World’.
- Founded by Vandana Shiva, Navdanya protects biodiversity and promotes organic farming. It also runs community seed banks.