SUBHASH Palekar got to know that he was selected for the Padma Shri, while watching TV at a hotel room in Kakinada last month. The 66-year-old agriculturalist from Belora village of Amravati district in Maharashtra’s Vidarbha region was at port city to address some 8,000 farmers at an Andhra Pradesh government-organised programme, where he was specially felicitated by the chief minister N Chandrababu Naidu.
Palekar is happy being conferred India’s fourth highest civilian award “not because it was I, but a practicing farmer who got it”. Palekar is a pioneer of ‘zero-budget spiritual farming’, a technique that he claims has over 40 lakh adherents, three-fourths of them in South India.
While a staunch critic of chemical agriculture, Palekar interestingly isn’t supportive of the much-hyped ‘organic farming’ or the Japanese philosopher Masanobu Fukuoka’s ‘natural farming’ either.
Organic farming, he tells The Indian Express, is based on composting and vermicompost techniques that have originated in western countries “and actually pollute the atmosphere, as the resultant manures are known to emit huge quantities of greenhouse gases (methane)”. Similarly, Fukuoka “prescribes sowing and harvesting without any intervention, whereas this approach only leads to excessive weed growth in farms, affecting crop yields”.
His method, on the other hand, largely draws from ancient Indian farming techniques, at the heart of which is a formulation called ‘Jiwamrita’. The formulation itself was a revelation that followed appraisal and practical experience of various farming techniques for over two decades, right from the seventies while as a student at the Shri Shivaji Agriculture College in Amravati.
“I was doing a project in the Melghat forest area of Amravati to assess the impact of nature on the lives of the indigenous Korku tribal community. It was there that I realised how nature was the answer to the problems stemming from modern-day agriculture based on chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The question I asked myself was: how do we have such a wide variety of trees that grow abundantly in nature without our doing anything to help them grow?” says Palekar.
The search for answers led him to conclude that that the so-called modern agricultural practices taught at universities were, indeed, detrimental to farming. “The only terms that got repeatedly hammered in students’ minds were fertilisers, hybrid seeds, insecticides, irrigation, and deep trenches. So deeply entrenched were these concepts that they made us unable to think beyond and practice anything other than chemical farming,” he adds.
Palekar’s decision to exit his undergraduate agriculture degree programme midway was only logical. The following two decades were spent on finding answers to agricultural problems based on nature’s teachings. By the year 2000, he had “standardised” his technique of farming centered around ‘Jiwamrita’.
“The farmer needs to apply to the crop a dose of Jiwamrita — a fermented solution containing 200 litres water, 5-10 litres cow urine, 10 kg dung, 1 kg each of gur (jaggery) and besan (gram flour), and a handful of soil from the farm bund — for every acre. The other important thing is to spread a carpet of harvested crop residue between crop rows, which helps to absorb moisture from the atmosphere and also prevents emergence of weeds,” explains Palekar.
According to him, Jiwamrita basically nurtures thousands of bacteria essential for healthy crop growth. The urine and dung used in the formulation, he insists, should be from indigenous cattle: “one desi cow can nourish 30 acres”.
What are crop yields like? “You can get 5-6 quintals of cotton and 3-6 quintals of soyabean per acre in non-irrigated patches. On irrigated patches, these can go up to 10 quintals. Besides, my method contributes to soil health, while increasing the plant’s capacity to even tolerate inundation from heavy rains or hailstorms,” declares Palekar.
What about production costs? “The term zero-budget farming is self-explanatory. All you spend is on seeds and Rs 5,000 per acre for laying the harvested residue carpet, which can be covered by the inter-crop raised on it. So, whatever is obtained from sale of the main crop is your income and there’s no question of farmers committing suicide,” he states.
Palekar’s writings have made him popular enough to attract hordes of visitors to his 31-acre farm at Belora, apart from receiving lecture invitations from across the country and even abroad. Today, he spends 25 days of the month on tour to give ‘free’ training sessions to those willing to experiment with his technique. Among his fans are Tamil Nadu Chief Minister J Jayalalithaa and her Andhra Pradesh counterpart Chandrababu Naidu; the latter sought that Palekar spend at least 10 days a month in the state and visit all districts to promote natural farming.
He hasn’t got any such call from his home state yet, though.