In the small, nondescript villages of Central Indian state of Madhya Pradesh's Jhabua district, a group of tribals have joined hands to show the way forward to sustainable future by adopting organic farming.
Two years ago, the tribals of Chhaya Paschim village in the district, about 300 kms from the state's capital Bhopal, were inspired to switch to organic farming by Mahesh Sharma, a social worker and local agriculture expert.
What makes their endeavor special is that they converted entirely barren land into a rich and fertile area by adopting water and soil conservation techniques.
"Once, this land was rocky and barren. Today, it has been converted into a multi-crop land after a lot of hard work," Sharma told HT.
Jhabua, which is a predominantly tribal district and has a high rate of illiteracy and poverty, boasts of 30 such villages where locals have taken to organic farming to grow vegetables, jowar, pulses and groundnut. As per 2011 census, literacy rate in Jhabua is 44.45% as compared to 70.6% for Madhya Pradesh. The number of people living below the poverty line in Jhabua is estimated at nearly 40% as compared to 31.6% in Madhya Pradesh as per planning commission estimates in 2011-12.
Tribals at a pond they dug up after one month of labour. One of the tribals contributed land while all of them pooled resources to build the pond at a cost of about Rs 70,000. The water will be used for irrigating fields.
Organic farming has changed life of many tribals including 23-year-old Varsha, who tills her three-acre farm without using any fertilizers or pesticides.
"We grow a variety of cereals and vegetables partly for our own consumption and then sell the surplus in the weekly haat (makeshift market)," Vijendra, her husband, told HT. Organic farming has helped them to increase their income level as the input costs have come down. “Unlike many other farmers, we don’t have to take loans during the sowing period. We also earn good money by selling buffalo milk at a premium rate,” he said.
There are also stories of selfless acts which have further helped these villagers to build an organic future for themselves.
Sur Singh Meena, a 32-year-old Bhil, donated more than three acres of land for collective organic farming. He has also help dig up a pond on the land donated by a fellow tribal after grave water problem made life difficult for the farmers.
The average annual rainfall that the area receives is just 800 mm as against 1200 mm for Madhya Pradesh. Also, because of the hilly and rocky terrain of this region, most of the rainwater gets drained out leaving the area dry for seven to eight months in the year.
"The rains have been poor this year. The pond (which is partially filled) will be able to irrigate many fields in the village until March when the wheat crop will be ready for harvest," says Meena. Earlier, dedicated irrigation facility was a dream.
With water available, Sharma flaunts the fertile land, rich with vegetation as he talks about the unconventional farming method that helps preserve the soil nutrients without the use of any chemical inputs.
"We don't till the field as it leads to loss of organic matter, destroys soil microbes and also leads to soil erosion," he says.
Cow dung from cattle is mixed with soil teeming with earthworms to make vermi-compost. The leftover leaves and stems after harvest is crushed and mixed back into the soil at regular intervals to replenish it. And it has helped in improving soil nutrition quality.
Vijendra, a bhil tribal, and his wife Varsha at their organic farm in village Dharampuri, in Jhabua. (Shankar Mourya/ HT Photo)
In another village of Dharampuri near Jhabua town, tribals have been experimenting with organic farming for nearly three years now.
"Tribal farmers have been engaging in organic farming in 25-30 villages in Jhabua district. We are taking steps to bring some crops, including pulses and groundnut, under participatory guarantee system (PGS), which is less stringent than the APEDA certification for organic produce," Jhabua deputy director (agriculture) Gauri Shankar Trivedi told HT.
However, there are many villagers who are yet to be convinced about the merits of organic farming. In Dharampuri, for example, efforts to engage tribals in organic farming have been only partially successful.
"Organic farming involves a lot of hard work. In comparison, it is far easier to sprinkle ready made urea across the field," says Sharma.
As there is no other source of income other than agriculture, villagers tend to migrate to neighbouring cities to work as labourers to earn their livelihood. Crop failure due to vagaries of the weather have also led many to take up a life of crime.
"We hope that one day we will be able to sustain ourselves by agriculture alone," says Meena.