Life is organic on this earth. Paradoxically organic is now a new way of life on this very same earth. In the need for plenty we have resorted to cultivation of food using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. However, it has taken a toll on our health and well-being. Now the labels boasting ‘organically grown’ demand a premium price on it in the market as if it is something flown in from another planet. The original practice mankind followed to grow and eat food has now become a fashion only rich can afford.
That is the story consumer talks about organic farming and food. What about the story at the other end of this ‘going back to organic’?
Here are 2 stories of organic farming from the rural locales of West Bengal:
Food Security, Socio-Economic Equality For Rural BPL Families, But No Access To Premium Market or Supply Chain
Sutapa Mandal lives in the Sandeshkhali block of Sunderbans, in north 24 Parganas in West Bengal. She belongs to a farmer family and grew up learning farming from her parents. Her in-laws’ own around 1 acre of land. Her father in law would farm using chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Sutapa took part in a Self Help Group training and came to know about the benefits of organic farming. She also learnt about the health hazards of chemical farms related to orthopedic, diabetic and ophthalmic problems. When her husband started suffering from joint pain and problem of excess uric acid in his blood, she realized it could be due to the chemicals in her farm produce. She convinced her in-laws to convert in to organic farming.
She now uses compost ashes of hay for cooking, and the excreta of ducks, cow dung and cow urine, leaves and trimmed parts of creepers on the fencing of her house. These are dug in two man-size pits and left undisturbed for a year to compost. Sutapa also uses Miracle solution and vermicomposting in her farming.
She has two fishing ponds, twenty five ducks, two cows, ten goats and grows vegetables and paddy on the rest of the land.
Now I don’t need to buy rice, vegetable, eggs, milk and fish from the market. The growth and taste of my farm produce have also improved a lot. Our health is much better now, says Sutapa. It has given her family food security and helped her save money on her household food budget. She also manages to earn a few extra bucks everyday by selling eggs and the other items of her farm at the local market. However, Sutapa and the other households in her village who have opted for organic farming are not able to sell the excess produce at a premium price.
“We fail to compete with chemically grown farm produce which looks attractive, with no insects. People lack awareness and still do not believe in the benefits of organic farming. Hence the customers in the local market are not ready to pay extra price for it. There is no support from government or any NGO to sell our products at a better price. These are perishable items. There is no facility for storage or there is no logistical support for supplying it to cities. Hence we are forced to sell the extra produce at the same price as chemically grown farm produce. It is quite disappointing as organic farming is very labour intensive and we expect to earn a better price”, rues Sutapa.
Under the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarojgar Yojana (SGSY) launched by Government of India in 1999, Self Help Groups or SHGs were formed and training and financial aid were provided through NGOs, banks and financial institutions to these groups to augment their capacity for a sustainable livelihood and income. Mr Mukut Roy Chowdhury in the capacity of a Fisheries Extention Officer posted at the Sunderban took the initiative to help form SHGs of rural women and train them into organic farming as an alternative livelihood.
“Most of these women living in small islands in Sunderban area were running the household by fishing in rivers, creeks and canals as their husbands were away in far off cities in Maharashtra, Karnataka, Kerala working as construction labourers. Fishing became prohibited and they were on the verge of starvation and utter poverty. They did not have the money to invest in chemical farming as well. They were not educated to utilize whatever land was available to them to grow more than one crop a year. They were mostly Below Poverty Level (BPL) families. However, once they were trained in organic farming in the available patch of land around their houses, irrespective of the size of the land, they started growing enough produce to at least feed their family and thus food security was ensured for them,” explains Mr Roy Chowdhury.
Like Sutapa, some of them also earn around 15 to 20 thousand in a month by selling organically grown vegetables, albeit in the same price as chemically grown vegetables.
Increased food security and some additional income has improved the socio-economic status of women in their family and the community. The men are gradually leaving working as labourers in cities and joining their wives in farming. It is also improving the quality of their family life.
This is not activism. This is a social movement. It can eliminate hunger and raise income through awareness, motivation and training, emphasizes Mr Mukut Roy Chowdhury, who in his tenure as a government official helped form thousands of SHGs opting for organic farming and fishing.
However, as far as getting better price for their organic farm produce is concerned, Mr Roy Chowdhury does not believe the farmers are totally at a loss; he says if they count the money they are saving by not having to invest in chemical fertilizers and pesticide and also not having to buy food from the market, they are indeed earning extra even though they are selling it at the same price of chemically grown farm produce. He also feels certification of these village women and their knowledge of organic farming which they have acquired from intensive training is necessary to increase their authenticity and negotiating power.
Same is the story of Rekha Ray and Sitamani Tirke from Ghosh Pukur gram panchayat at Hashida block in Siliguri sub-division of Darjeeling district.
Kitchen gardening through organic farming has ensured food security for them and other villagers to some extent. Organic farming at a larger scale under the Anandadhara project of West Bengal government to implement National Rural Livelihood Mission (NRLM) has generated employment too. But excessive physical labour not materializing into monetary benefits in the form of higher sales is dampening their motivation. Other financial problems such as much delayed payments for services provided under MNREGA and from the tea companies render them with irregular cash flow in hand to explore marketing of their farm products in a smarter way and thus forces them into poverty and debt. This is hindering success of organic farming at entrepreneurial level in villages.
Conversion Of Urban Wastewater To Successful Organic Fishery; Threat Of Losing Livelihood On Government Leased Land
Ganesh Bag is a fisherman by profession and the secretary of Mudiali Fishermen Co-operative Society (MFCS) at Kolkata – an amazing example of passion, perseverance and teamwork in organic farming under the dedicated guidance of Mr Mukut Roy Chowdhury – who joined the co-operative in 1985 as the CEO and the government nominee from the fisheries department.
In 1942, a group of fishermen migrated from Howrah district because they lost navigability in Damodar river where they would regularly carry out fishing. They started living around the area where Mudiali Nature Park exists now in Kolkata. Initially they would do fishing under the then landlord. Later in 1961 they formed a co-operative society of fishermen. They raised funds by contributing as minimum as 25 paise per person per day, mortgaging family jewellery and taking loans from the local rich people to lease 250 hectares of waterlogged lowland at the south-western edge from Calcutta Port Trust. It was a wasted wetland and a dumping ground – frequented by criminals and smugglers. In the next fifty years MFCS did the impossible by turning the leased land, currently measuring around 60 hectares, into a fishing haven. It has 31 varieties of fish as well as a bio-diversity Nature Park.
The fisheries have been developed treating 70 per cent industrial and 30 per cent domestic wastewater from Sonarpur canal through a simple step by step sewage process using six ponds.
In the first stabilisation pond, wastewater is treated by sprinkling quicklime over it. In rest of the ponds, water hyacinth absorbs the oil and grease. Connecting tunnels between the ponds are populated with exotic fish like tilapia, nycotica that can endure toxic stress, and air-breathing varieties like singi, magur and koi. These are indicator fishes as they give early signal if the water is contaminated with deadly chemicals. When the fish jump out of the water to breathe too often, the fisherman comes to know that the dissolved oxygen in the water is low. At each pond the water gets cleaned by siltation and adsorption, following which it is channelled into the fishing ponds.
The effluent is tested at regular intervals at the in-house laboratory for the presence of any deadly chemicals before it is drained into fishing ponds. The 1990 NEERI report testifies that “the climatic condition of the area facilitates conversion of organic waste into protein-rich micro algae for raising a fine catch of fish without much supplementary feeding… reducing the cost of aquaculture.” The treated wastewater then flows into a canal joining the Hoogly.
The fishermen practicing organic fishing here do not try to shoo away the birds though they feed on the fish because droppings of some of these birds are very good fish feed.
The silted soil was used to develop a nature park over 20 hectares around the water bodies. A healthy mix of 100,000 nitrogen-fixing plants like Sabadul for fish feed and dust and chemical absorbing trees such as Neem and Akand were planted which started attracting 141 varieties of bird including 27 types of migratory birds, 127 plant species, 84 types of butterflies.
“We have won national productivity award for a record five times for fish production currently worth more than 60 lakhs per annum,” Ganesh announces proudly.
Now 300 families depend on this fishery. Besides fishery they have also diversified in to commercial goat and duck rearing, fish breeding, horticulture, manufacturing paddle boats, managing eco-tourism and social forestry and earn additional 50 lakh per year. All the members right from the Chairperson to the ordinary members are bound by a policy that mandates them to serve in various capacities by rotation. This includes everything from cutting grass, fishing in the ponds to office work. It has inculcated a sense of collective responsibility in them, reduced alcoholism and other vices in the members. The society also provides schooling expenses of members’ children, runs a free coaching centre, a fair price shop, a medical clinic and provides financial aid for marriage and funeral expenses.
However, Mudiali Fishermen Co-operative Society faced an eviction notice in the nineties from the owner of their leased land – Calcutta Post Trust in which they managed to win a stay order. In 2011 they were again asked to pay 77 crore as lease rent which was beyond their affordability. Hence, the uncertainty and fear of losing the livelihood developed through 50 years of organic farming, hang on their head in an ever-developing metropolis.
The above stories highlight the potential of organic farming to ensure food security, better income and social status. However the problems arising out of living too far from the city or too near the city are causing hindrances too in the success of organic farming as a social enterprise. While in case of far off villages, lack of infrastructure and logistical supply chain support hampers the scaling up process, in case of near-city organic farming, lack of land, pressure of commercialization and industrialization proves a constant threat to its scaling up potential.
Photo courtesy:Somma Banerjjee, Sutapa Mandal & Google images