Gunbir Singh, the president of Dilbir Foundation, is an environmentalist and has been working with farmers in Punjab, for about 12 years, to reduce the use of chemicals and produce a harvest in the natural way. He speaks to Chandigarh Newsline about his plans to promote the use of millets, which he claims are healthier than rice and wheat, in the Tricity.
What made you launch this voyage to promote organic food?
I first started eating organic myself and then cultivating it at home. Later, I took the initiative to other people. I have been working with farmers primarily in Punjab for almost 12 years now. The chemical cultivation was ushered in with the green revolution in the 1960s, before which farmers practiced natural cultivation. My aim is to promote natural cultivation. We ask farmers to practice natural cultivation in at least one part of their land. It has turned out that if a meeting is supposed to be for five farmers, 35 come.
How do pesticides affect the soil?
When chemicals are used for plants, they kill at least 95 per cent of friendly pests that enriches it. But when we stop using pesticides on our soil, it is enriched again with friendly pests coming back to the soil. The stubble we are burning today needs to be mulched into the soil itself to produce nutrients for it. Our work is to ask a farmer with five acres of land to start producing organic food for his family so that he makes a beginning. Once he gets to know the importance of organic food, we tell him how others also need to benefit from the organic food.
What motivates the farmers to listen to you and introduce organic cultivation in their farms?
There is tremendous interest among the farmers for organic production. One, they know the adverse affect of the chemicals they are putting in. Two, their own families are suffering from toxic fallouts such as tumors, cancers or other health issues. Our aim is to address the bigger farmers of the the Tricity, provide them with some incentives, so they come here and sell their food directly to the consumers. As a foundation, our effort is to streamline this process. As long as they are with us, we examine their produce and soil randomly without letting them know. If we find that any chemical has been used, we blacklist their products from our platform.
What problems does a farmer face while growing natural food?
If the farmer produces large amounts of wheat and rice, they will get a minimum support price from the government, but if they switch to natural cultivation, they will not get the support price. There is no ready buyer or government support, which is why he is unable to even risk one crop.The seeds are supplied on credit, the inputs are supplied on credit, and even the machineries are supplied on credit by the people who will normally pick up the produce also. Therefore, it is a vicious circle he is unable to come out of. Moreover, they are afraid of the fact that there is no ready market for organic food.
How are you helping to get the farmers battle this problem?
We provide a platform where the farmers know that if a normal product is being sold at Rs 30, the organic will be sold at Rs 40. We set up the weekly farmers market, one of which we are running in Amritsar since 2016. We put up the market every Sunday in Amritsar. Every Friday we run it at Rakh Bagh in Ludhiana and now we have started one in the Tricity.
Over time, we have established contacts in other states as well. Our purist natural form of spices are sourced from a farm at Mundakayam in Kerala, for pulses we contact Andra Pradesh farmers and for fruits we engage with those growing fruits in Himachal Pradesh. There are four women farmers from Himachal Pradesh whose entire family, from generations, has not allowed chemicals to touch their farms and we get seasonal fruit from them.
How is your foundation engaging with different kinds of people that too from other states?
It is a melting pot of people, who will produce as well as make things which are sustainable, and thus create a model for sustainable lifestyle. Since we have been getting things from outside, we had to create a store called the Earth Store, an initiative of the Dilbir foundation. The store stocks merchandise from farmers and puts them on display at market places, on behalf of the farmers.
How are millets produced and will these not be expensive for the common people?
Millets do not need to be expensive, in fact, no natural products need to be expensive. My belief is that farmers must be paid for the additional effort he puts in to grow organic food. Compare it with the cost of healthcare in this country. Moreover, millets survive climate change, are pest-proof and can grow on their own. They require minimum water and urja (energy) from the sun.
How has the Tricity responded to your initiative?
We are in our third week here and the response of the local people has been very nice. In the Tricity, we have collaborated with Bella Vista in Sector 5, Panchkula. They provide us with the space and a place to stock the produce of the week besides running a food court for us. The food court uses the organic produce of farmers. They cook delicious meals to showcase to the people about the difference between the taste of the nutritious food and the normal chemical food. There are people who came here once and have continued coming. New products like millets and ragi malt are also being offered here. We also schedule master classes so that people can see how they can substitute their wheat and rice staples with millet, which is way more healthier and nutritious.
Do you think residents of the Tricity can grow organic food at home?
When one wants to grow things at home, vegetables are an easy bet. For example, in our kitchen garden we grow spinach, mustard, cauliflower, broccoli and mint. We get excited when people come to us and take our advice on kitchen gardening, because they love the soil and their children love to touch the soil and relish the joy of plucking carrots and radish, washing it and using it. Such practices take our children away from fast food to slow foods, which is the real nutritious diet. It also binds people to the good food produced. Only 18 inch of soil is required to grow veggies and we can also grow them in pots.
Do you think the government is providing required support to farmers?
The lack of the government support is one of the factors contributing to resistance to change. We also know that Punjab’s underground water reservoirs have been in the red zone for decades now. We have to stop rice production here. Ample rice is produced in other parts of the country. Also, if you look at the other side, European Union has stopped rice trade from Punjab because of the chemical content. The writing is on the wall, change has to take place.
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