In Maoist heartland, farmers turn to organic farming, reap benefits

Katekalyan has quietly been building another identity — as the nursery of organic farming mushrooming across the district, where farmers have come together to set up a company to market their produce across the country.

Written by Dipankar Ghose | Katekalyan (dantewada) | Updated: March 5, 2017 12:45 pm
 Chhattisgarh, Maoism, Maoist issue in Chhattisgarh, Chhattisgarh-naxals, Katekalyan, organic farming, India news, Indian express My produce has never been better, says Gonelu Ram

IN CHHATTISGARH’S Dantewada district, Katekalyan is a name that largely inspires worry. While the situation in the Maoist-hit district is slowly improving, its district headquarters mirroring a well-kept small town and Maoist influence being largely pushed into the jungles of Bijapur, Sukma and Narayanpur, senior police officers still identify Katekalyan as a problem area.

Yet, Katekalyan has quietly been building another identity — as the nursery of organic farming mushrooming across the district, where farmers have come together to set up a company to market their produce across the country.

Gonelu Ram is one such farmer. It isn’t paddy season yet, so the crop is assorted — tomatoes, peas, chana and mustard. Standing in front of his lush green fields, he beams as he reels off their names, and then adds an important note. “All this is completely organic. The fertlisers I use are what nature gives… Cow urine, neem leaves, bitter gourd leaves and besharam patta. My produce has never been better before… 90 per cent of Katekalyan has now returned to completely organic farming,” he says.

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Till about five years ago, Ram, like most other farmers across Dantewada district, was caught in a dilemma. Organic fertilisers and indigenous seeds were part of the knowledge passed down to farmers for generations, but the administration, looking at agriculture as a way of reaching out to people in a conflict zone, was sending a different message. The crops that were pushed were homogenous “high-yielding” varieties that worked best with chemical fertilisers.

“These high-yielding seeds and the fertilisers were not suited for the microclimate. There was good yield for a while, but the soil soon became unresponsive and it killed the ecosystem around it. There were no fish in the ponds or earthworms in the ground. Now, the district administration is returning to organic methods, and wants to make Dantewada a completely organic farming district,” says Akash Badave, who was a PMRDF fellow in Dantewada and has since been working on agricultural improvement in the district.

The Indira Gandhi National Agricultural University records 22,000 different varieties of rice found in the state, most unique to it. And Dantewada is no different. Badave says that while no exhaustive study has been done so far, a 10-village sample survey revealed 35 different varieties of rice, with differences in gestation of crop ranging from 60 days to six months.

“The most important thing is that these communities have known these varieties for a generation, and each has different properties. There are many types of rice that have medicinal qualities, some that are given to lactating mothers, others for joint pain. Then there are millets such as Kosa, which are in high demand elsewhere but are unique to Bastar,” he says.

The return to traditional farming, with a few tweaks, began during the kharif crop of 2013. The district administration began the process of teaching farmers “systems of rice intensification”, which included tips like ensuring space between two stalks.

The method was used to show that despite no use of fertilisers or high-yielding seeds, productivity could still be high. “In 2013, 300 farmers adopted it, and their produce increased three to four times. Now, there are over 2,000 farmers, and 170 small groups of farmers have been formed to go around the district and tell others about the benefits of organic indigenous farming. It’s a peer review system, with these groups looking at fields and certifying whether the produce is organic or not,” says a senior government official.

Those involved in the process realised that the system wouldn’t work if there was no market to sell to. So, on August 26, 2016, the Bhumgadhi Organic Farmers Company Limited was set up to package and sell the unique Bastar produce across the country. It has since expanded to include 370 farmers. Each farmer pays Rs 1,000 to buy a share in the company, which in turn buys organic produce and uses state-aided technology to improve the seeds. In the next month or so, district officials plan to procure a processing unit with storage godowns.

“The administration is incurring some expenditure, but there will be no interest, and the money only has to be paid back in 10 years, by which time the company will have grown. The term Bhumgadhi, fittingly, means the post-harvest festival of prosperity,” says Badave, who is the CEO of the company.

Dantewada District Collector Saurabh Kumar says they are in touch with buyers from across the country. “We are in talks to sell our produce in stores all over the country, such as Udaipur, Chandigarh, and especially in South India where the demand for our produce is very high. We are attempting to fill the vacuum of an available market,” he says.

A few kilometres short of Katekalyan, on the road from the district headquarters of Dantewada, some residents of Gatam village sit and listen intently to a small team that talks about the producers’ company. Eighty-six of them belong to an extended family, and they laugh when they are asked to confirm that number. “All of us are related, one way or another, and live in one part of Madkampara village,” says one of them.

But the large family isn’t the only thing that is striking. Amid a large swathe of brown, their fields are glistening green. Three big containers are filled with organic fertilisers, made from the waste after the droppings from the mahua tree are converted into local alcohol.

Asked if they will be a part of the farmers’ company, one of them answers: “Kucch accha ho raha hai… Karenge, hum karenge (Something good is happening… we will take part).”

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