Chhatrapati Shahi Munda in his vermicompost unit
He went to the Central Institute for Medicinal and Aromatic Plants (CIMAP) at Lucknow way back in 2002 for a training in medicinal plants, but was attracted to the lowly earthworms. "I thought what is the use of cultivating medicinal plants by poisoning my soil with chemical fertilisers," he said, and added: "I therefore thought of turning my soil itself into a medicine by getting it rid of all the poisons."
"If my soil is good and healthy, my plants too would be healthy and nutritious," Chhatrapati tells me, and I can see the gleam in his eyes.
For the 65-year-old Chhatrapati Shahi Munda, a resident of village Nawagraha, some 40 kms outside Ranchi in Jharkhand, this was the beginning of a journey into the discovery of truth. The truth is that we have forgotten to tend our soils, to rejuvenate the soil micro-organisms, to provide a breathing space to the gasping soils, and in other words to infuse life in the dying soils. "A healthy soil becomes the ultimate medicine. The path to sustainability in farming therefore begins by keeping the soil healthy."
In 2002, Chhatrapati bought 2 kg of earthworms -- the exotic Eisinia fotida species --from the Indian Council for Agricultural Research (ICAR). He started using the worms for composting, and gradually started selling earthworms as well as vermicompost to neighbouring farmers. Six years later, in 2008, he had a turnover of Rs 75-lakh (Rs 7.5 million) from vermicompost, producing about 2.5 tonnes of compost every year.
"I want to encourage farmers to take to their own vermicomposting. Instead of buying from me, I feel the best way forward is to educate them to take care of their own needs. So I give them earthworms with the condition that when they multiply the worms, they will return what I gave them." This has caught up with farmers in the neighbouring villages. He sells earthworm for 25 paise/worm. Farmers in at least 10 surrounding villages have adopted vermicomposting.
Not only in Jharkhand, the message is spreading far and wide. His company -- Sarvashree Swarnarekha Enterprises -- is marketing it to Orissa, West Bengal and Assam. "I am keen to ensure that more and more farmers get out of the chemical input trap and stop poisoning their soils." Farmers are realising the mistake they committed all these years, and are slowly but steadily switching over to the sustainable option. The crop yields have gone up by almost double, Chhatrapati claims, and adds that the soils have become rich and porous, the food becoming nutritious. "Take a bite into this," he hands me a maize cob from a nearby field, "you will taste the difference."
How much vermicompost is needed per acre, I asked. "Ideally, 3 quintals (300 kgs) is required to be used in the first year in soils where no chemical fertiliser has been applied. And then every year, your requirement comes down by 20 per cent or so. After a stage, all that you require is 25 kg of vermicompost." For a farm where chemical fertiliser has been used, Chattrapati's advise is to apply 20 quintals (2000 kgs) in the first year.
A bag of 50 kg of vermicompost is priced at Rs 300.
Going around his manufacturing unit, I found Chattrapati trying various innovations. For instance, he has put a layer of bamboo-sticks at the base of the compost pit to protect it from the acidic water that accumulates at the bottom. He also mixes water Hyacinth leaves with cowdung so as to enhance the availability of nitrogen for the worms. Each compost heap laid out in 30x4 ft carries over 100,000 worms, and is ready for composting in 60-90 days.
Why in 60 days, I asked him. He explained: "In 30 days, each worm gives about 10 eggs. It takes about 22 days for the eggs to hatch. So the egg which is delivered on the 30th day needs another 22 days to hatch, which means 52 days. Taking a safe buffer period, I ensure that the compost should be ready for packaging on the 60th day."
For the next two days, I was to travel to Daltonganj (now called Midinanagar) in Palamu district for a talk and also visiting some farmer groups/NGOs. Chattrapati accompanied me, and that gave me the advantage of knowing more about vermicomposting. Interestingly, such was the growing demand for the vermicompost he produces that he got an order for 20 tonnes while we were in travel. "The demand is growing. I am unable to meet the growing demand, and that is why I am keen that more farmers should start cultivating earthworms on their own farms."
We were travelling to meet some of the students of the Chakriya Vikas Pranali (Cyclic Model of Development) that the late Parshu Ram Mishra had initiated a decade back. As someone who had the privilege to know and work with Parshu Ram Mishra from the days of famed Sukho-majri environmental success story of Haryana, I was returning to Palamu to revive my memories, remember the great social scientist and at the same time rekindle the spirit of cooperation that he had imbibed, but which had slowed down over the years.
The response was overwhelming. In my three hours of interaction with people coming in from various villages, I realised that people were willing to take development into their own hands. With a couple of hours, after intense discussions, six people volunteered to initiate a people's programme in their own villages to conserve water and stop the run-off at the village level. This is important considering that Palamu is passing through a severe drought for the third year in a row. A team was formed, two coordinators were nominated, and the next day the entire group met again to lay out an action plan.
Along with water conservation, the other major problem the region faces is hunger. I asked them why people cannot take control over house-hold food security in a village. Why do we have to depend upon government doles when the region itself had a traditional sharing-and-caring food security concept of gola. Again, I was floored when volunteers got up to restart the gola concept. Jugnu, a tribal coming from a village near Ranchi, along with Devender Thakur, a disciple of Parshu Ram Mishra, have promised to start a food distribution centre in their own village based on the principles of gola. They have themselves prescribed a timeline of a month.
Additional Conservator of Forests Ajay Mishra is so bitten by the advantages vermicomposting carries that he has in addition promised to start a farmers cooperative. "Jatka village in Palamu district has come forward to start producing 100 tonnes of vermicompost on a cooperative basis. Two other villages will soon follow," he told me. Ajay Mishra is the son of late Parsu Ram Mishra. All participants agreed that a combination of water conservation methods, sustainable farming by encouraging vermicomposting and cattle rearing, along with house-hold food security is the way forward to emerge out of the perpetual crisis the region faces.
What is clearly apparent is that people do know of the local solutions to local problems. Given a motivation, they are willing to dwell deeper and build up on the traditional and time-tested technologies. I am sure we could probably have had more stimulating discussions and come up with more viable and sustainable options if we had spent more time. In the days to come, the Chakriya Vikas team will look into it more diligently.
I only wish Bill Gates was listening. At the national level, and even at the international level, the development model that is being pushed is based on the sophisticated technologies that the private companies are looking forward to sell. Whether it is Africa or Asia, Bill Gates is now on the forefront and he has even been successful in bringing some of the other billionaires into the development activities. This is certainly welcome, but the litmus test lies in what technologies and approaches are followed. This is where I think Bill Gates has to widen his understanding, and look at the vast array of location-specific and time-tested technologies that can be woven into a social fabric that engulfs the rural areas with happiness.
I am sure the lowly earthworm can help chart the pathway to a truly sustainable agriculture system that does not add to global warming, does not poison the soils, and does not finish groundwater supplies.
We need the earthworm to revive agriculture.
You can reach Chhatrapati at: 09431578590