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FEATURES/On Assignment | Oct 6, 2010 | 24188 views

Back To The Roots For Andhra Pradesh Farmers

Traditional practices can revive tired soil and pull small farmers out of debt. Andhra Pradesh shows the way
Back To The Roots For Andhra Pradesh Farmers
Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India

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ineteen-year-old Meenakshi was sure about the way forward, but she had to convince her husband. She tore a sheet of paper and asked him to sign it. It was an unusual contract. They would split the land they had leased for the season — about one-fourth of an acre. They would farm it in their own ways and see who makes more money at the end of the season. If Meenakshi won, her husband would shift to her way of farming.

It was summer of 2004 and Meenakshi, a landless tribal girl from Koduru village in the Srikakulum district of Andhra Pradesh, was convinced that the only way for her to change her debt-ridden life was by changing the way her family practiced agriculture. She was part of a women’s self-help group and had seen positive results of a cheaper, more sustainable way of farming that the group had been promoting.

As was the case with many farmers in Andhra Pradesh, Meenakshi’s family was always in debt. Farming was no longer remunerative and their meagre earnings were spent paying back the interest on the loans taken to purchase chemical pesticides and fertilizers, which accounted for over one-third of the total cost.

That summer, under the guidance of her self-help group, she used locally available resources like cow dung and traditional knowledge of controlling pests. She reaped a profit of about Rs. 15,000 — Rs. 5,000 more than her husband.

A Small Revival
Meenakshi’s stunning success was part of early experiments in a revolutionary approach to farming in Andhra Pradesh, called Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA). Launched formally in 2005 by the Ministry of Rural Development in Andhra Pradesh, CMSA presents a bold alternative to conventional input-intensive agriculture in a state that has the highest consumption of pesticides and fertilizers in the country.

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Illustration: Smaeer Pawar

For example, Meenakshi uses Ghanajivaamrit, a mixture of cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, gram flour and microbes-rich clay. Over a one-acre farm, such a switch could bring down costs from Rs. 2,200 to just Rs. 200.

The need for such a programme was clear. Over the years, indiscriminate use of pesticides and fertilizers had degraded soil health. As a result, yields began to stagnate through the 1990s. Coupled with high cost of inputs, that spelt doom for small and marginal farmers in the state. Such farmers own less than 10 acres of land and account for roughly 85 percent of all land holdings. Incidence of farmer indebtedness continued to rise; agricultural woes have made Andhra Pradesh one of the hotspots for farmer suicides in the country. An estimated 1,688 farmers committed suicides between 1997 and 2004.

So far, CMSA’s results have been heartening. The cost of cultivation has come down by 30 percent to 40 percent. According to one estimate, net incomes on per hectare (or 2.5 acre) basis ranged from $2,520 to $4,032 per annum — a remarkable increase given the fact that earning of the landless poor in India is less than $1 per person per day.

Today, CMSA is being followed by over 3 lakh small farmers spread over 3,000 villages in 21 of the 23 districts in Andhra Pradesh. It is no surprise then that it has caught the attention of agriculturists and politicians alike. M.S. Swaminathan, who led India’s Green Revolution in the late Sixties, likens the CMSA initiative to an “Evergreen Revolution” since it focuses on sustainability of the soil and profitability to the farmers. Buoyed by the possibility of reducing environmental damage, environment minister Jairam Ramesh suggested the agriculture ministry take a close look at CMSA practices. From the Union Agriculture Ministry to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, many are trying to understand how CMSA made it happen.

This article appeared in the Forbes India magazine issue of 08 October, 2010
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Comments (7)
Vk Aug 15, 2013
Fascinating Coincidence: An Organization founded and led by an ex-NRI (after 16 years outside the mother land, and now devoted full-time to this cause, traveling from one village to the next..) called 'Back to the Roots Project' which is incidentally doing exactly this and more with a vision of creating self sustainable and healthy villages in Andhra - with the help of good-natured people willing to give a hand. He sends out regular updates to those in this google group. If you wish, you can write to him at backtotherootsproject@googlegroups.com.
On a separate note :Yes, Indians need to quickly become aware of 'Monsanto' and damaging effects of GMOs before the bill allowing such farming gets passed by the existing governance. (GMO crops and such have already taken the lives of several hundreds of farmers in Bihar alone, not to mention it is toxic food). Watch 'Future of food' in youtube.
Ram Aug 15, 2013
Shh!! be quiet and dont say it out loud. ...lest US corporations will raid
india with all kinds of sanctions etc as they will not be able to sell the
pesticides to India. Just like they killed a natural grains in India to propagate their GM grains.
Vanaja Rampraad Oct 15, 2010
The figures given are unbelievable figures of grain yield. Is Dr. Swaminathan involved in designing the programme? When zero pesticides are used, why are costs mentioned for it too?
Response to Vanaja Rampraad:
Udit Misra Oct 15, 2010
Dr Swaminathan is not personally involved in designing the program but his research foundation has evaluated CMSA.

Regarding the costs of pesticides and fertilizers, kindly observe, and the story specifically details about it too, that practitioners of CMSA substitute €œchemical€Ł pesticides.

As far as the yield figures are concerned, they have been provided by the Government of Andhra Pradesh.
valmiki Oct 12, 2010
The best model would be to adopt one village as a unit, apply this system for all crops of this village for all seasons. Just single attempts will not suffice. Run this project for five years continuously. One will understand the real problem in Indian agriculture. Only then one can find the real truth.
Jayaram Oct 7, 2010
This is the way to farming going forward. There should be health benefits as well in using natural pesticides and fertilizers.
Response to Jayaram:
Vanaja Ramprasad Oct 15, 2010
Why cannot the government, recognise this as provision of ecosystem services and adequately reward farmers instead of giving subsidies for fertilizers?
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