Contribution to GTI Roundtable "Farming for a Small Planet"
Sujata Dutta Hazarika
To begin with, congratulations on producing such a clear and erudite addition to discussion of the global transition to sustainability. I have been an ardent follower of GTI and am always enthusiastic to know what happens next: how we, through small baby steps, create and contribute to this rather exciting evolution of human civilization.
I would like to share a few anecdotes from the Far Eastern world, where indigenous communities managed to preserve some of the unique traditions of sustainable agriculture. This may, however, be short-lived, as they struggle to grapple with the onslaught of conventional agriculture. In Assam, conventional industrial agriculture only penetrated through the colonial capitalism of the tea industry. Food crops were fortunately not tampered with, and communities were allowed to carry on with their traditional practices. However, this is not to say that the scourges of industrial agriculture and production of tea did not impact the local ecosystem, biodiversity, and livelihood patterns owing to the indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers for mass production. Thus, in spite of large-scale degradation of soil quality, water, and human health, what can be still salvaged is probably the invaluable indigenous knowledge of sustainable agricultural practices among the indigenous communities in areas of flood control and management, bio-fertilizers, pest control, multi-cropping, seed preservation, food storage, livelihood support, and local food security. It is remarkable that most of the tribal communities inhabiting this region have been self-sustaining in terms of their social structure and economy. Starvation deaths are unheard of, and common property resources are regulated through customary laws that ensure equity, intergenerational stability, and—to some extent—gender equality.
The traditional paradigm of sustainable agriculture is the organic agricultural practices underlined in the greater traditions of Hinduism and its grand narrative in texts such as Vrikshayurveda and in practices of agnihotra yajna, etc. The little traditions of the tribal folk cultures, such as those inhabiting the peripheries of Northeast India, often go unnoticed because of the lack of proper documentation and research in these areas. There is a great impetus in this region to go organic, given the potentials for organic farming and a growing market of citizens seeking “clean and pure food” production. Undoubtedly, there is enormous potential for this region since it is not even halfway as polluted as the other parts of India that went for intensive agriculture during the Green Revolution, such as Punjab and Bengal. Learning from the price that was paid by the Green Revolution in terms of adverse health impacts and natural resource pollution, the current agenda is to go towards an evergreen revolution with full support of the government. Regions like Northeast India, being the last frontier to the Indian post-development planning, await this attention eagerly. But, are they ready for this? A government-commissioned study should be the first step. A haphazard adoption of organic farming will not only jeopardize the ethical component of going organic, but will also uproot and destabilize prospects of agroecology in one of the most deserving regions of the world. Right now, there are a number of unorganized endeavors towards organic farming by private entrepreneurs and local farmers. However, in the absence of awareness and commitment to organic food, coordination and networking between farmers and consumers, and community and institutional support for farms to be self-sustaining in terms of seeds, storage, marketing and brand building, organic farming in Assam and Northeast India as a whole may never see the dawn of success.
In fact, even when industrial manufacturing backed by large corporations has tried to transition to sustainable practices, it has found itself bitterly overthrown. For example, in Assam in the year 2006-7, in an experiment undertaken by Dhekiajuli Tea Estate owned by Parry Agro Industries Ltd, a corporate conglomerate, tried to implement sustainable agricultural practices in its tea cultivation. The initiative was taken by the local management primarily to address the hazardous impact of toxicity in the local environment, particularly soil and water quality. The impact on the health of the resident labor population became a major concern when the management found a significant rise in the incidence of lung disease, skin infection, and birth deformity among workers. I first visited the tea garden in 2007 to conduct fieldwork with my students from the Indian Institute of Technology, Guwahati. The experience for us was positive, and the optimism of the management and workers was contagious and motivating for the young technocrats of India’s future. The management was committed to a market-driven, competitive industrial manufacturing process, but conducted a parallel experiment of vermicompost, agnihotri yajna, Panchagavya or cowpathy, Amrit pani or fermented cow dung (which generates about 250 kinds of beneficial bacteria), and other localized and organic pest control and fertilizer techniques to promote sustainable industrial growth with low chemical impact. Sources of indigenous knowledge such as the Vrikshayurveda were systematically explored to unearth traditional organic practices in farming and agriculture. The cultural worldview of environmental sustainability embedded in our traditional knowledge about agricultural practices and farming is elaborate in its glorification of trees and tree planting. Every topic connected with the science of plant life such as procuring, preserving, and treating of seeds before planting; preparing pits for planting saplings; selection of soil; method of watering; nourishments and fertilizers; plant diseases and plant protection from internal and external diseases; layout of a garden; agricultural and horticultural wonders; groundwater resources; etc., finds a place in these texts.
In spite of the significant improvements in environmental and human health and the quality of natural capital like land, water, and soil (which started reflecting low toxin and chemical content that is disastrous and highly polluted), the Dhekiajuli Tea Estate abandoned this experiment in 2014. Apparently, the embedded externalized costs of poor health, environmental degradation, and toxic waste generation are seldom reflected in the company balance sheet. As a result, the transition towards the new paradigm of sustainable industrialization of tea manufacture was seen as a failure in terms of production cost and output. The situation will be worse for unorganized farmers who live in rural areas and for whom agriculture is economically nonviable because of small landholdings and lack of infrastructural support. Moreover, the rather inferior value attached to manual labor makes farming a very low-prestige profession with which the emerging educated middle classes loathe to associate themselves. The push factors of emerging urbanization have made rural India and the associated attributes of village life and farming as a livelihood option unattractive to the youth. This is a dangerous trend for emerging economies: the centrifugal forces of urbanization are creating havoc with the balancing of local development of rural India and preservation of its “little and folk traditions.” In fact, what is happening is even dangerous: a booming ICT, satellite TV, mobile, and internet facility is bringing the global society into the threshold of village society, but at the cost of a great loss to the self-esteem of rural India as it finds itself dispossessed of its sustainable heritage, which includes organic farming and sustainable food cultivation.