Bharat Ratna C Subramaniam’s dream of transforming agriculture needs a push



Raghupati is a new age farmer. Based 105-kms from Chennai in Tamil Nadu, he farms 4 acres of irrigated land in Sirunagar in Kanchipuram district. Speaks a little bit of English, and when he told me that the farmers’ club he chairs — Sirunagar Farmers’ Club — was awarded for best performance by the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD) I was not only curious but also keen to know.

The club has 17 volunteers who reach out to more than 70 farmers in the village. But that’s not the only thing that is important. What is more important is the willingness with which he has been experimenting with new farming practices turning the polluted landscape into a verdant, healthy and ecologically-sustainable landscape. More keen to know about the farming practices he followed, I walked with him across the crop fields. His face beamed with pride when he showed me the healthy looking traditional rice varieties (white ponni is the rice variety) he cultivates on his farm, and that too adopting the System of Rice Intensification (popularly called as SRI) method of cultivation.

I asked, what was so special about SRI? Doesn’t it require a lot of labour and seed as a result of which the cost of cultivation goes up? No, he replied. It’s a wrong impression being created. Raghupati told me that SRI has resulted in 1/3rd saving of water and simultaneously an increase of 50 per cent in crop productivity. The seed requirement has come down from 30 kg/acre to 5kg/acre, and there is no additional labour required. Against an application of about 75 kg of urea per acre he has completely stopped its use while he has been able to scale down the usage of DAP fertiliser from 3 bags to one bag now.

When I told him that I don’t believe your claims about input applications, he challenged me to talk to any of the farmers who now cultivate a total of 50 acres of paddy in this village. His argument is that farmers have shifted to the use of panchkavya, neem oil, cow urine based plant bio-pastes that have been effective source of major and trace nutrients and at the same time act as insect repellents. No pesticides are being used by those farmers who are members of the club.

The claims were endorsed by Mr M R Ramasubramaniyam, Executive Director of the National Agro Foundation (NAF), who along with his colleague Mr Murugan, accompanied me to the village. I have now requested them to prepare a case study of SRI in rice cultivation for all the villages in Kanchipuram district that the Foundation works in.

National Agro Foundation was set up by the late C.Subramaniam, awarded Bharat Ratna, who many consider to be the real architect of the Green Revolution. Set up in 2000, the NAF has now completed 14 years. “It was Subramaniam’s dream,” his son, S S Rajsekar, who is the Managing Trustee, tells me “to set up a training centre that helps take the farmers take the next logical step — from seed to the market.” The NAF now works ‘directly or indirectly’ in some 250 villages in Tamil Nadu besides providing services in food safety and agriculture, which includes vocational training for confectioners, hawkers and bankers.

At another village, Kamsalapuram, located about 85 kms from Chennai, I met a young and enthusiastic farmer, Thiruvengadam. He cultivates 5 acres of land in which he grows rice, brinjal, onion and chillies and also has a few native breed animals. He heads a 30-member volunteer farmers club, which reaches out to about 100 farming families in the village. Although his village has mainly small farmers, owning 1 to 1.5 acres each, the applicationn of chemical pesticides has been reduced by 50 per cent on vegetables. Instead, farmers now apply chilli+garlic+ginger paste sprayed two times to ward off worms. Plus, for sucking pest control they prepare a five leave extract, which includes leaves of datura, neem, nochi, and tumbai.

I asked Thiruvengadam how much has training helped him to become a better farmer. “What I am doing today is because of the training I got.” How many times have you gone to NAF training centre, I asked. “Must be some 40 times”, he replied. Accordingly, the continuous training system has helped them move to a more sustainable farming practices which has provided the fellow farmers with increased income in their hand.

Visiting the watershed village of Nugumbul village, some 100 kms from Chennai, reminded me of the famed Sukho-majri village in Haryana, which has completely transformed the village, from a typical drought affected poverty-stricken village to a prosperous village. At Nugumbul, Mr Murugan explained to me how adopting the simple water conservation techniques like gully plugging, water absorption trenches and check dams has changed the village profile. Earlier, water-melon was the major crop, and now it is rice. 100 per cent crop cultivation is now being done in this village, up from 50 er cent earlier.

The community-based water harvesting systems adopted in 4 villages by NAF has helped save 28,000 lakh litres of water in a year, changing the fate of 850 villages.

Although, the NAF has a lot of activities in food and nutrition security, women empowerment, technology transfer, veterinary, horticulture, farm machinery and water management etc, it hasn’t been able to communicate its role with the people at large as well as the policy makers. Not many outside its direct association are aware of the role NAF has been quietly playing in rural transformation. Since the research and training infrastructure has already been created, and is operational, it is time to turn the NAF centre into a multi-purpose training and development centre. It has to move to the next logical step of opening up to the masses, including colleges and university students, and taking a bigger role in training and education, which can be better coordinated by not only collaborative efforts with ICAR/CSIR/banks but also with civil society groups/NGOs/colleges. Media could have been used as a strong ally in reaching out.

NAF needs a complete re-orientation in the way it has been working so far. More documentation of the work accomplished, periodic assessment studies, case studies and analysis in its areas of operations need to be published and shared. Finances are a constraint for everyone who is engaged in rural development, but a little more imagination and vision could have turned NAF into a household name. Perhaps that is what C Subramaniam envisaged.