Back To The Roots For Andhra Pradesh Farmers
Image: Gireesh G V for Forbes India
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.
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.