Natural farming, termed Zero Budget Natural Farming in India, has been adopted by upwards of 972 villages.
Will all of India's 650,000 villages take to it?
Sanjeeb Mukherjee examines the pros and cons.
Subhash Palekar and his Zero Budget Natural Farming are again in the news.
The government’s Economic Survey of 2018-2019 advocated it as a lucrative livelihood option for small farmers.
A day after, Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman in her budget speech, mentioned the method as one of the innovative models through which farmers’ income could be doubled by 2022.
ZBNF has been in practice for almost 10 years, in various forms.
Japanese scientist and philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka first popularised natural farming, practising it in his family farm in Shikoku.
Natural farming is conceptually different from organic cultivation, though there are often mistaken as one and the same. Palekar’s effort popularised ZBNF in this country. It got a fillip in 2015, when the Andhra Pradesh government started a non-profit organisation to popularise it among farmers.
Called the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, the non-profit body, with financial support from Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives and the state government, got 138,000 farmers to try ZBNF. In two years, 150,000 acres were brought under the model.
Later, the farming practice spread to other parts of the country, largely due to the efforts of Palekar and his team. According to the 2018-2019 Economic Survey, Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh are the other states where this is gaining in popularity.
As on date, ZBNF is being implemented in 131 clusters covering 704 villages under the Centre’s Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana. And, 1,300 clusters covering 268 villages under the Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana among 163,034 farmers, says the Survey.
In Himachal, officials say around 4,000 farmers are adopting the practice and the state is planning to become the first fully ZBNF-compliant state by 2022.
What exactly is ZBNF? According to a 2018 report from the Council for Energy, Environment and Water, done by Saurabh Tripathi, Shruti Nagbhushan and Tauseef Shahidi, it involves four components.
One, beejamrutham or microbial coating of seeds using cow dung, and urine-based formulations. Two, jeevamrutham or application of a concoction made with cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, pulse flour, water, and soil to multiply soil microbes. Three, mulching, or applying a layer of organic material to the soil surface, to prevent water evaporation and contribute to soil humus formation. Four, waaphasa or soil aeration through a favourable micro climate in the soil.
For insect and pest management, ZBNF propagates the use of various decoctions made from cow dung, cow urine, lilac, and green chillies, called kashyams.
Is ZBNF beneficial?
The CEEW study, done between 2016 and 2017, is based on crop-cutting experiments in 13 districts of Andhra Pradesh where ZBNF was being practised, as part of the state government’s RySS. It found a sharp decline in input costs and improvement in yields among farmers who used the technique.
Clearly, Palekar and his technique has some takers.
But, given the scale and size of India’s farm economy, does this technique have the capacity to spread across the country and deliver similar results in all agro-climatic conditions?
Though on-field studies are being conducted at various levels and in various universities, including by the official Indian Council of Agricultural Research, to understand the methods, value and viability for farmers in various agro-climatic zones, none has reached any definite conclusion so far.
“The biggest threat to Indian tomato growers today is from a pest called tuta absoluta which entered the country in 2015 and could wipe out entire fields in short time. Our studies have shown that there is just 5 per cent infestation of this deadly pest in fields which have used ZBNF, while in organic fields it is 60 per cent and in fields where chemical pesticides have been used, the incidence is 20 per cent, despite four-times application of harmful pesticide,” said Rajeshwar Singh Chandel, principal scientist at the state-run Dr YS Parmar, University of Horticulture and Forestry, Solan, Himachal Pradesh.
In the next two years, he said, there will be properly documented evidence, based on field studies, to show the impact of ZBNF on farmers’ fields, their incomes and yields.
Not all seem convinced. Mahendra Dev, director at the Indira Gandhi Institute of Development Research, said it could be difficult to replicate the model on a large scale.
“It can be one of the models to double farmers’ income but not the only solution, as yield growth through ZBNF over a longer period of time in comparison to conventional methods isn’t known. More tests and studies in various agro-climatic zones need to be done before any firm plan is made for a nationwide push. Else, it could be counter-productive,” he said.
Ram Kaundinya, director-general of the Federation of Seed Industry of India, said there needed to be a scientific evaluation of the sustainability of ZBNF, on its impact on yields and whether it can be scaled up to cover 140 million farmers.
“I am not saying it is bad or good but every technology has its own place where it gives best results. ZBNF has its own space but it needs to evaluated first, where it can be scaled up. Also, if this technique was so attractive, why it is confined to a few farmers for so long?” he asked.
Within the NITI Aayog, which has been championing the cause of ZBNF through its vice-chairman, Rajiv Kumar, there seem two distinct views on scalability and efficacy.
While Kumar seems convinced about the beneficial impact of ZBNF, others differ.