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Small Dalit farmers 'get into' highly diverse, mixed, creative farming in Buldelkhand

Pajan Lal with his wife Bhuniya
By Bharat Dogra*  
If you meet Komal Prasad Aharwar in passing in his village ( Teraih, in Talbehat block of Lalitpur district, Uttar Pradesh), you may well ignore him as any other ordinary villager, but once you speak to him at length about his livelihood, you are likely to be highly impressed by the recent initiatives of this Dalit farmer.
Komal Prasad is a small farmer owning about 4 acres of land. He tells with great enthusiasm about how in recent times he has converted this entire land to natural farming. Not only this, he has also converted smaller portions of his farmland to gardens of multi-layer vegetable growth and to clusters of fruit trees like guava, lemon and jackfruit.
While Komal’s wife Sheela is an equal participant in the careful tending of the farm and garden, he also helps her in managing a natural farming centre which provides enough scientifically prepared organic fertilizer and pest repellant to not just meet their own needs, but also to sell at a modest price these products to those farmers in the village who due to various reasons cannot prepare these on their own farms.
Komal’s enthusiasm increases as he talks about the soil quality improving with natural farming and tree growth, with the soil becoming more porous and retaining more moisture. He says happily: Do you know earthworms are coming back in good numbers? Do you know how useful these are for soil? Oh I see more frogs too and they eat up the terrible mosquitos and harmful insects. We see more birds now and they are helpful for farming too. Did anyone tell you that we have started seeing peacocks again.”
Finally I come to my most important question: Do you think that with these changes your small land holding can sustain you adequately?
Komal does not hesitate even for a second before answering: Yes of course. Our expenses have been reduced in a big way, our productivity particularly from vegetables and orchards is increasing.
Several other farmers in this village to whom I spoke are also quite upbeat about their prospects. 
The combination of natural farming, multi-layer vegetables and fruits came to their village a little over two years back, thanks to the efforts of Centre for Advanced Research & Development (CARD) and Srijan voluntary organizations under the Bundelkhand Initiative for Water Agriculture and Livelihoods (BIWAL) program, which receives financial support from a group of philanthropists called Caring Friends.
Starting with 10 lead farmers who adopted almost the entire range of recommendations for successful, scientific natural farming together with more productive use of small farms, more and more farmers of this village have been joining this initiative, first bringing in a part of their land and then extending it.
Pajan Lal Kushwaha has even less land than Komal Prasad: just about 2.25 acres. Yet he is no less confident about his ability to make a satisfactory livelihood. He has converted most of his land to natural farming, and is in the process of converting the remaining land too. Pointing to one patch of his land he says that at least five vegetables are being mixed cropped with maize, after duly considering which vegetables can be best grown here. 
Then pointing to a very green space he said that this multi-layer garden involves even more careful knowledge-based planning about which vegetable growth will be supportive to each other so that many vegetables can be grown, with the help of wires and bamboos, with creepers at the top, followed by smaller plants and then root vegetables at the bottom. 
Then there are suitably spaced fruit trees of lemon, guava, papaya, jackfruit ad mango. With such a diversity of crops there is always something being harvested for sale at the neighboring markets, and good rates are available for organic produce. Hence there is a steady stream of income coming in all the time. In addition there is also steady income from the sake of buffalo milk.
The farm, garden and animals are tended with a lot of care mainly by Pajan Lal and his wife Bhuniya, helped by a son and daughter-in-law. The nutrition of the entire family has improved since they took up natural farming with emphasis on diversity of fruits and vegetables.
Pajan Lal has three brothers in the village and they too are following his new path of hope. One of them Jagdish says that he started his tryst with natural farming on a part of his land with such poor soil quality that this had been yielding close to nothing. He felt he had nothing to lose here and so willingly started natural farming here, putting in a lot of organic fertilizers. 
To his delight, he could achieve reasonably good production even on this land. It was as though the land was hungry for organic fertilizer produced with cow dung ad cow urine as the base and with additions like some jaggery and gram flour.
This village has good irrigation but in other villages experiencing water scarcity, this initiative of BIWAL and CARD has implemented several water conservation measures so that this model of natural farming can also be supported there.
While conversing with these farmers I felt very happy as their happiness was infectious and as natural as their farming. However, it is not just the good yields, improved income and reduced expenses which explain this happiness. One gets a strong feeling that the very act of highly diverse, mixed and creative farming is a very happy experience (as long as any serious unexpected problems do not appear) and it is this happiness that too was getting reflected in the course of this conversation.
There is a very real farming crises in India as well as at the world level, even in some of the richest countries where even farmers having 100 acres or more may be very unhappy and frustrated in the middle of mounting problems and debts. It is possible, in fact very likely, that the small, very ordinary farmers of Teraih village are contributing to finding solutions to this serious crisis in their own small but nevertheless significant way.
---
*Honorary convener, Campaign to Save Earth Now. His recent books include “Planet in Peril”, “Man over Machine” and “India’s Quest for Sustainable Farming and Healthy Food”

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