“In our country people think farmers are from another planet; the way farmers are discussed, as if farmers are not like other human beings,” says 65-year-old Subhas Palekar.
“For example,” says Palekar, “Prices increase for everything and everyone accepts price rise for everything from toys to petrol, but somehow the moment prices increase for food, there is a furore. Why? Don’t farmers have costs? Aren’t those costs from labour to petrol increasing?”
Since the 1980s Palekar, who has a 36 acre farm in Vidharbha, a region in Maharashtra infamous for its droughts and farmer suicides, has shown the way to around 4 million farmers on how to grow better, healthier crops, make more money without getting trapped in a cycle of more pesticides, more chemicals, more loans, and more suicides. Most farmers who use Palekar’s all-natural methods are in Western and Southern India. At a time when reports suggest that India is moving to large scale food imports in everything from corn and oilmeals to lentils and wheat, Palekar says that it is impossible to argue that the country will feed its vast population using imported food.
Palekar has a point. You only have to look at Punjab, the “bread basket” of India, once an example of the success of the Green Revolution, the dream that India will be food sufficient. Such has been the overuse of chemicals that large swathes of Punjab’s soil are poisoned. A test on water from village wells in Faridkot in Punjab at the University of Exeter in 2009 by Greenpeace found very high levels of nitrates in the water. These nitrates flow in from synthetic nitrate fertilisers in the farm land. Punjab has one of the highest rate of cancer cases in the country and a train that carries patients to a hospital in Bikaner has been dubbed “Cancer Express”.
Palekar advocates something called “zero budget spiritual farming” where nature gives farmers all the nutrients for farming. Palekar is also a major advocate of the use of indigenous cattle breeds in India and says his research shows that manure and urine from “desi” cows — usually with a trademark hump on the back — add far more valuable nutrients to the soil than hybrid cattle. He gives detailed instructions on how to make simple pesticides and fertilisers using cow urine and manure — formulas that had been used in India for centuries before chemical fertilisers and pesticides arrived. Shunning hybrid seeds, Palekar encourages the use of natural seeds.
An activist against gene modification (GM) of food, Palekar has thrown a challenge to India’s agrarian policy makers: “Show me one farmer who has used my methodology and has committed suicide.” He asks that if no one can show him a farmer who has used his methods and has still killed himself, why isn’t the government taking up his ways on a war footing to solve India’s agrarian crisis?