Anjali, a student at Ashoka University shares her Verghese Kurien Rural Internship experience, where she interned with the National Coalition for Natural Farming (NCNF) and explored narratives of small-scale farmers practicing natural farming in rural and urban areas.
Why this internship?
We are facing one of the most dangerous global health crises- one that is spreading human suffering and disrupting lives. The Covid-19 pandemic is not only a health issue but also impacts the economic and social lives of the people largely. The pandemic has also impacted the Indian agricultural system. To understand these factors, I did a course on Political Ecology on Agriculture where I learned about the different aspects of the agricultural economy and farmers’ social lives. Fortunately, during my college internship fair, I came to know about an internship opportunity at National Coalition for Natural Farming. NF Coalition is a network and a collaborative platform that connects different organizations and local farmers and many individuals whose motive is to accelerate the agroecological farming practices in India.
I found this was a great chance to continue with my learning in the same field. In this internship, I got the opportunity to interact with the individual farmers, farm groups and many organisations to get hands-on experience and know about their challenges behind the transition to natural farming. I did this internship with a positive attitude and an open mind which held me in good stead because not only did I make good connections with my mentors, but was also given the opportunity to get involved beyond my expectations.
Growing food locally and organically
When I look back into the past 3 months of my internship, I realise that I was able to pick up diverse skills and experiences. I stepped into this internship with the project ‘Poshan Garden’ which is an initiative taken by the Coalition for inspiring urban and rural people towards kitchen gardening. The COVID-19 pandemic has led to a renewed interest in food and vegetables grown locally and organically. Hence, the purpose of this project was to motivate people to develop some self-reliance and avoid consuming food grown using chemicals and pesticides. I interviewed many kitchen gardeners from different states of India who have succeeded in growing fruits and vegetables at home. Listening to different techniques, challenges and progress was really helpful in disseminating their success stories to inspire others for adapting to kitchen gardening.
1.Shilpi, a kitchen gardener from Haryana
2.Deepak’s mother helping him in kitchen gardening
There was one gardener, Nilesh from Rajasthan who started kitchen gardening in order to consume a hundred percent naturally grown food after his mother suffered from cancer. Another gardener, Shilpi from Haryana said that growing vegetables and fruits enhances oxygen in the air, improves the quality of soil, reduces the carbon footprint of transporting fruits and vegetables, and helps in rainwater harvesting. Many gardeners could minimize their consumption from markets for the daily use of vegetables and fruits to fifty percent on average. Apart from this, many gardeners mentioned that their family’s health was improved with healthy and nutritious food, many told that they could reduce the monthly bills on vegetables and could use the time during lockdown productively. It was exciting to know that kitchen gardening came out as a stress reliever and a way to exercise during the lockdown.
Championing Natural Farming
After this project, I got the opportunity to engage with another project ‘Champion Farmers’ which identifies the champion farmers across India who are successfully leading a sustainable life by doing agroecological farming. This was also similar to the Poshan Garden project in terms of the work required. I interviewed some farmers from different states of India to know more about their journey of bringing transition to their farms.
In this period, I interviewed Santosh Didi from Madhya Pradesh. Her story of struggle not only constitutes the challenges in practicing natural farming but also the difficulties faced by women in India when they wish to put a step forward in society. Her husband criticised the idea to practice Natural Farming and did not support Santosh didi’s will to bring transition to their farm. Santosh didi against his will took a step forward by unlearning the societal fundamental beliefs about women’s abilities and skills. Santosh didi has come out as a change-maker for many farmers in her village.
3. Santosh Didi helping women to make manure
4. Ahmad Barasat in his organic farm
Another farmer I interviewed, Ahmad Basarahat from Uttar Pradesh mentioned that though natural farming is labour intensive he has decided to produce healthy, eat healthy, and serve healthy. He shared, when he adopted natural farming he was mocked by other farmers and was called ‘Pagal’(mad). There were challenges faced by most of the farmers, like not being able to get markets to sell their produce at the appropriate prices, not able to get traditional seeds, and specifically the negligible governmental support to natural farming.
Call for Action to accelerate Natural Farming
My engagement as a volunteer in the Coalition partner event hosted by the NF Coalition helped me to broadly recognize some solutions to the challenges faced by diverse groups of farmers practicing in natural farming. Firstly, investments and technical support are needed to diversify and boost agricultural economies by integrating traditional knowledge and traditions with modern techniques. For example, return to bullocks which can be subsidised instead of power tiller- development of appropriate technology/ tools for bullocks and other small scale tools. Natural farming can be accelerated with government support in terms of making policies providing market access for local food systems, traditional seeds, agroecological practices and training. MSP setting/ implementation for organic produce and other crops may be a stepping stone to get recognition for such efforts.
As Natural farming is labour intensive, it needs to be subsidised, if required through existing schemes like MGNREGA. As women farmers remain largely invisible despite playing a critical role, policies should focus on building the entrepreneurial skills to promote and strengthen women’s collectives for market access, land-holding and title access, fair trade business practices, equal pay policies, and value chains that promote gender-inclusive entrepreneurship. Moreover, private sector partnerships sensitive to fair trade, equity, and agro-ecology are needed. Investing in sustainable, diverse local food systems rather than corporatization of agriculture is the way forward.
Anjali is a student at Ashoka University.