In the great Indian epic, Mahabharata, there is a telling story of the valiant Abhimanyu who died fighting while trying to force his way through a chakravyuah (seven rings). Mahabharata tells us that Abhimanyu had learnt the art of smashing through the seven layers of the human chain of the chakravyuah. In lot many ways, I find the Indian farmer is also like Abhimanyu. He has been forced to get into a chakravyuah but does not know how to emerge out of it. Like Abhimanyu, he too is fighting it out valiantly but eventually will meet Abhimanyu's fate who died on the battle field.
In a country where 290,740 farmers have committed suicide between 1995 and 2011, I am always reminded of Abhimanyu. Pushed deeper and deeper into a chakravyuah by a profiteering agro-chemical industry and an insensitive scientific community, Indian farmer faces a Hobson choice. He knows that sooner or later he too will become a victim of the serial death dance being enacted on the farm or will be forced to quit agriculture. Intensive farming systems in the name of increasing crop productivity has devastated soil fertility, contaminated the environment, mined the groundwater and turned agriculture into a losing proposition. Farmer is left to die.
Much of the destruction that we see on the farm is the result of unwanted and exorbitantly expensive chemical inputs. Take the case of chemical pesticides. It was in late 1970s that David Pimental of the Cornell University had said in his landmark paper that 99.9 per cent chemical pesticides go into environment and only 0.01 per cent of the pesticides sprayed reach the target pest. Despite this warning, agricultural scientists continued to advocate the use of chemical pesticides. While the industry gained immensely, farmers as well as the gullible consumers suffered. This makes me wonder whether there is a way out. Can the Indian farmer ever emerge out of the chakravyuah?
In search of viable alternatives, I have spanned the globe. I have seen and worked with farmers who took up the challenge to produce crops without the use of chemicals. Across the country, and even outside Andhra Pradesh which has an impressive 35 lakh acres under no pesticides, I have seen numerous initiatives which provide hope. Last week, I visited Nidana and Lalit Khera, two tiny and nondescript villages in Jind ditrict of Haryana. Farmers and village women in these villages have gone a step ahead. Not only they don't spray chemical pesticides on cotton, they don't even use bio-pesticides. They have allowed the insect equilibrium to prevail to such an extent that the harmful insects are taken care of by the beneficial insects.
The amazing story of Nidana has to be told. Ask any cotton farmer about mealy bug and he will shudder. Ask any pesticides manufacturer, and he will break into a big smile. This tiny insect, which has emerged as a major pest of the cotton belt, is a blessing for the pesticides industry. Over the past few years, this pest has paved the way for a multi-billion rupee business for the chemical pesticides industry.
For some illiterate and semi-literate women and some enterprising farmers around Nidana village, mealy bug poses no threat. Mealy bug is a sucking pest and is known to be devouring crops at will. The mere presence of the insect in the cotton fields sends a chill among the farmers. Not only in Punjab, Rajasthan, Haryana, Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the insect has been a major threat to cotton production in neighbouring Pakistan. Massive and timely chemical sprays are advised by worried farm officials. But here in Jind district, some farmers remain unconcerned and take it easy.
Meena Malik is a 23 year-old graduate, who along with some 30 women of the nearby villages, partakes in a mahila keet pathshala (women insect school) every week. Once in a week, they spread across cotton fields in small groups early in the morning, each carrying a magnifying glass and with a notebook in hand. They identify the beneficial insects, which are mostly non-vegetarian, and count its population on a few plants. Similarly, they look for the harmful insects, mostly vegetarian feeding on the plant foliage and fruits, and based on their observations make a note of the insect diversity that exists in the crop fields.
"We have been able to identify 109 non-vegetarian insects and 43 vegetarian insects in our cotton fields," Meena tells me. An elderly lady Santosh Malik adds: "Mealy bugs are controlled by 16 kinds of beetles, 6 kinds of bugs, 7 kinds of flies and insects like praying mantis and chrysopa." At her age, I was surprised when she brought some beetles and bugs for me to see. Explaining to me the how different insects adopt different mechanisms to kill, she told me how an insect called angira, black in colour, would lay eggs in the stomach of the mealy bug. One egg per mealy bug. This eats up the stomach of the mealy bug which turns red in colour and eventually dies. Besides angira, she named two other of the same kind -- fangira and jangira.
Among the bugs that feed on seeds in the cotton bolls of are kala baniya, lal baniya. The third of the species -- matku baniya -- sucks the blood of lal baniya. The bugs, very small in size, literally are blood suckers. Among the lady beetles, both the adults as well as the larvae, feed on the crawlers (children) of the mealy bug on priority basis. In its life cycle of 30-35 days, each mealy bug lays on an average 400 eggs, which becomes a rich food source for the lady beetles and their offsprings. Such is the importance of lady beetle insects that the women have prepared a Haryanvi folk song highlighting the virtues of the insect. If I understood properly, the lyrics of the folk song do plead for the lady beetles to come and save the cotton crop which has been destroyed by pests.
The most dreaded pest on cotton is the American bollworm (locally called American sundi), which is polyphagus in nature surviving on some 90 plant species. Dr Surinder Dalal, an Agricultural Development Officer of the Haryana Agriculture Department, who is considered to be the moving spirit behind this remarkable initiative in preserving insect equilibrium so as to maintain ecological balance, says: "The moths of the bollworm lay on an average anything between 700 to 3000 eggs on different plant leaves". Adds Kuldeep Singh Dhanda, pradhan of village Brah Kalan Bahra in Jind district, "The beetles eat the eggs, and 9 different kinds of bugs -- two of which are locally called katil burga, didar burga -- suck the eggs, and the moths are eaten by robber fly and dragon fly." Together they control the American bollworm.
The Nidana experiment began in 2007. Certainly it wasn't easy to convince cotton farmers that they can do without chemical and biological pesticides. But with each passing year now, more and more farmers are becoming aware of the ecological pathway. And this makes me wonder whether the approach scientific institutes followed all these years -- from 'lab-to-land' -- is in reality the bane of Indian agriculture. If only agricultural scientists had learnt from the farmers, if only they had adopted the reverse pathway -- from 'land-to-lab' -- probably farmers would have not been thrown to the gallows.
To me, the Nidana experiment is the way out of chakravyuah. The sooner we spread the message far and wide, the better it would be for the future of Indian agriculture as well as for the very survival of the farmers.
A ray of farming hope, Deccan Herald, Bangalore/Delhi, Sept 11, 2012