Gujarat has a rich history and tradition of agroecological movements led by people such as Bhaskar Save and Sarvadaman Patel, and grassroots organisations like Jatan Trust. The recent thrust by the Government to adopt sustainable farming methods provides an opportunity to build and scale agroecology but requires knowledge dialogues across diverse stakeholders. Efforts by IRMA’s Small Farm Incomes team in fostering a learning alliance for sustainable agroecological transitions is highlighted.
An impetus for positive change
Evidence from multiple quarters show that the grain based national security enabled by the Green Revolution was achieved at steep ecological costs. These include rapidly declining soil health and depleting biodiversity, costly subsidies in agrochemical inputs and stagnant incomes for farmers with increased input costs and depressed output prices. Farmers in Gujarat are facing increasing debts and declining incomes as the high agricultural growth has largely relied on the production of cash crops like cotton, groundnut, tobacco, cumin, and sesamum, and frequent weather changes have made farmers vulnerable with many facing significant losses. The need for a shift towards agroecology that has been articulated by many farmers and organisations has recently been recognised by the Government of India that is promoting natural farming since 2019-20 under Bhartiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhti (BPKP), a sub scheme of Prampargat Krishi Vikas Yojna (PKVY) that has started in 2015-16 and has also announced the National Mission on Natural Farming with an aim to reach 1 crore farmers to adopt natural farming in the next three years that includes setting up of 10,000 Bio-Input Resource Centers (BRC).
On its part, the Government of Gujarat announced its first Organic Agriculture policy in 2015 to wean farmers away from chemical farming and in 2017 established the Gujarat Organic Agricultural University (renamed as the Gujarat Natural Farming Science University), the first of its kind in India. Translating the intent to implementation at the ground has however been challenging owing to the lack of relevant support systems to facilitate farmers in transitioning to agroecology. This challenge also underscores the need for different stakeholders to find a common ground and support each other.
Reviving old connections and making new ones
Gujarat has a rich tradition of farmers practicing natural farming and the farms of pioneers like the late Bhaskar Save, the Gandhi of natural farming, and Sarvadaman Patel helped seed the agroecological movement in India by attracting and training many Indian and even international farmers. Across the state CSOs and grassroots organisations have been at the forefront of promoting agroecology-based farming through making early connections between sustainable farming, judicious water use and soil health. Organisations such as Jatan Trust facilitated statewide meetings every two years for more than two decades to promote various kinds of organic farming practices. Other CSOs such as Sajjata Sangh, DSC, Utthan, AKRSPI connected natural resource management and farming livelihoods. However, many such initiatives have remained isolated efforts in the absence of platforms to share resources, knowledge and experiences. Sensing the need for a state-level network that could interface with the government, Gujarat recently formed an active network of the state chapter of the National Coalition for Natural Farming.
In tandem, IRMA, through its small farm incomes project, has supported the creation of a multi-stakeholder learning alliance in Gujarat through action research on natural farming in Gujarat with workshops and seminars on building the knowledge base of agroecology and natural farming since 2021. The approach has involved a series of participatory interventions to connect with diverse stakeholders through a national workshop in collaboration with NCNF. The platform enabled different states to share various agroecological initiatives and better understand the efforts of partner organisations. With a focus on Gujarat, the SFI team then set out to document and highlight the role of neglected knowledge avenues. For instance, engagements with grassroots based academic institutions like Lokbharti provided opportunities for their interns to engage with CSOs in Gujarat and facilitated the interaction between the Gujarat Organic Agricultural University (GOAU) and the Gujarat Natural Farming Coalition . The team also actively contributed to discussions on curriculum development for agroecology syllabus proposed by ICAR through public consultation with field experts. Field visits to the Bio-input Resource Centres (BRCs)explored modes of scaling up grassroot innovations.
Further, building on our earlier efforts of facilitating dialogues across CSOs to scale agroecological initiatives at the state level, we designed a participative survey to understand the perception of farmers regarding agroecological practices. National Coalition for Natural Farming (NCNF, Gujarat chapter) and Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP, India) helped in the training and resource support of the students from Lokbharti, while more than 12 Civil Society Organisation (CSO) partners helped the students connect with 288 farmer respondents and facilitated their fieldwork. The survey was conducted across 13 districts of Gujarat, covering the major socio-demographic regions, the tribal belt, the affluent Saurashtra and Kutch regions, central Gujarat and the coastal belt. The results of the survey helped CSOs reflect on their approaches and brainstorm more engaging ways to connect with farmers regarding agroecological practices. The study also offered a template to conduct some pilot studies in Rajasthan with another cohort of interns. Partnership with the Rajasthan chapter of NCNF also led to the development of an innovative writeshop aimed at enabling field resource persons working in CSOs to communicate their findings and perspectives for authentic ground reporting.
The most recent of this was the international workshop on Managing Sustainable Transitions in agriculture that saw the participation of several scholars and members of the Government of India’s Advisory Committee on Natural Farming. Mediating such interactions have resulted in innovative experiments like a women-centred training program jointly run by Gujarat Chapter of NCNF and Gujarat Natural Farming and Organic Agricultural University (now Gujarat Natural Agricultural Sciences University). In effect, our interventions have consistently aimed at creating platforms for knowledge dialogues, building learning alliances, and voicing the neglected perspectives and experiences of small farmers.
Towards Gujarat Agroecology Learning Alliance (GALA)
These efforts have consistently reiterated the need to have innovation spaces or platforms that enable knowledge dialogues and learning together if agroecology needs to scale. Prescriptive policies that chase numbers continue to underestimate the investment needed in transforming agri-food systems and run the danger of replacing the monocropping mindset of green revolution with that of natural farming without any changes in the way knowledge is created, shared and evaluated.
The collaborations and discussions have helped articulate some of the key challenges and themes in scaling up agroecology and natural farming.
What kinds of national and state policy incentives can best support the scaling of agroecology practices in Gujarat?
How can the transition process be better mapped and evaluated to help understand the efficacy of interventions?
What roles can be played by CSOs to complement the state directives on agroecology?
What forms of educational experiences can better prepare agricultural graduates to engage with the complexity of climate and production patterns, and the impacts of agroecology on these phenomena?
How to document the practices of champion farmers and create relevant learning resources for other farmers? What pedagogies would be most effective?
What kinds of ecosystem can support markets that are more receptive to the needs and outputs of transitioning farmers?
How can existing BRCs be strengthened as independent business units and how can the marketing of natural farming produce be enhanced? What are the challenges in its certification?
What are the institutional platforms required for enabling stakeholders to dialogue and align to take these further and is the time right for a Gujarat Agroecology Learning Alliance (GALA)?
Far from being an exhaustive list, these questions are an invitation to design interventions that align with perspectives and needs of farmers. As we continue to broaden the scope of inquiry and practice, we hope to form sustained collaborations with people and organisations invested in sustainable food systems. The February 16th Gujarat Agroecology Learning Alliance (GALA) is another small step in that direction.
C Shambu Prasad is a Professor of Strategic Management and Social Sciences at Institute of Rural Management Anand (IRMA) and coordinates the Living Farm Incomes (LFI) project.
Deborah Dutta is a Senior Research Fellow in the LFI project, IRMA.