To understand the plight of average Indian farmers in the face of mounting agrarian crisis, Padma Shri awardee and Sangeet Natak Akademi chairman Shekhar Sen has taken up an unique challenge — to become one himself.
Sen, a renowned singer, composer, lyricist and actor, not only picked up the spade, but also chose to turn a piece of rocky and dry land in Lonavla into a lush greenfield with patches of potatoes, onions, lemons and pomegranates on it. “I was affected by the stories of rural distress and farmer suicides. I took up farming to understand the pains and troubles of farmers,” he said.
Around five years ago, Sen purchased 27 gunthas (0.67 acre) land and took another 1.25 acres on lease from a neighbouring farmer. “If you want to do something extraordinary, then the challenges should be extraordinary as well. Hence, I chose rocky soil. For the first three years, I grew pulses, roots of which are so strong that they can break through rocks,” he said.
Sen said he also had to implement water conservation methods as the groundwater level in the region was low. “In this region, there is either too much rain or none at all. I thought, if people can grow peepal trees on the third floor of their buildings and railway tracks can have banyan trees, I can also grow something on rocky soil. I created huge trenches and allowed rainwater to seep,” Sen said. The toil, the singer-actor said, had paid off and the farm now boasts of papaya, coconut and tamarind trees.
Sen, who has held several shows across the world and even at the Parliament and Rashtrapati Bhavan, said he now invites groups of farmers from around Lonavala to his farm and teaches them methods of trapping water and ways to keep wild pigs, crabs and rabbits in check. “The problem is that farmers have become dependent on hybrid seeds. I want to teach them a model where they don’t have to buy compost or seeds every year. If you stick to indigenous seeds, you don’t have to buy it every year,” he said.
Another problem, Sen added, is that farmers’ children don’t want to pursue farming anymore. “They prefer to drive autorickshaws or take up odd jobs because they cannot rely on their farm yield alone,” he said.
Asked if being an artist helped him on the farm, Sen said: “One of the virtues artistes possess is that they are never in a hurry. We let things happen in their own time.”