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For ages, Indian farmers have practised ecofriendly farming by using local resources to improve soil fertility and control pests and diseases. However, with the Green Revolution, along with the high-yielding varieties, synthetic fertilisers and pesticides, came adverse ecological consequences. Today, urbanites and business firms are taking up organic farming, some out of concern for the environment and others to tap the market for organic products in the West.
S A DABHOLKAR, a mathematician-turned-agriculture researcher, has developed a way to farm on wasteland. Using his technique, a five-member family with 0.093 ha of wasteland can sustain itself. His method, known as experimental web, has transformed grape cultivation in drought-prone parts of Maharashtra and now more than 20,000 farmers cultivate grapes, mostly for export. Dabholkar has received many awards for his contribution to rural development and agricultural research, including the Vasanthrao Naik Pratishthan and Jamnalal Bajaj Awards. In an interview with S RAJENDRAN, Dabholkar shared his experiences.
How did you switch from mathematics to agriculture research?
Since childhood, I was fond of growing crops and the yields were impressive. Kitchen garden and wasteland research gave me enough confidence to start experimenting with other crops. On the terrace of my house, I successfully raised sandal, which needs special care and environment. This is a fine example of experimenting and studying small-farm research for successful farming.
Though I graduated in mathematics, I constantly thought about how my small model could be applicable on a larger scale, say, for the country. So far, a revolution has taken place only in grape cultivation, but the technique is slowly taking into its fold other horticultural crops and cereals.
Operating from Sangli district in India, what did you do to raise the productivity and quality of grape cultivation to world standards?
I perfected the system of Prayoga Parivar (experimental web), a new sociology of science in which experimentation, dependence on local resources and dissemination of appropriate technology are emphasised. The focus is on innovation and interaction. Basically, new knowledge, new thought and ventures are essential to successfully practice "nature farming", which aims at maximum yield in a short period. Other aspects like harvesting of solar energy, planting of trees and studying their growth pattern are also included in nature farming.
Using such techniques, experiments on a 0.093 ha kitchen garden provided enough vegetables, fruits and fuel for a five-member family. This encouraged me to try the technique on wasteland and the same model was used to raise grapes. The farmers were encouraged to discuss and share their experiences on various operations like spacing, pruning, girdling and preservation. Vaidnyanic Drakshaula (a group of farmers practising experimental grape cultivation) in Tasgaon taluk in Sangli district then spread the experimental package to drought-prone areas of Maharashtra. Now this state earns more than Rs 500 crore from grapes.
Did you face any problems in the process?
Most of the people had volunteered to learn, share and experiment in farm research. People from the scientific community and women from far-off places joined in my research. However, as is always the case in life, there were those without serious commitments who were interested only in quick profits -- they were the ones who slowly dissociated themselves from my project.
However, because the experiment was essentially based on farmers' experiences, it spread fast to other regions. In fact, I learnt more from the farmers than they did from me. The rural community may be less educated or even illiterate, but it possesses a high level of intelligence -- as much as eminent professionals, if not more. Therefore, by demystifying science, even rural people are capable of grasping scientific knowledge and data in any field of life if they feel it is helpful to them.
In today's socioeconomic context, how do you see the roles of organic and inorganic farming in India?
Unlike natural farming, nature farming is done by learning about nature and understanding it through critical enquiries and experiments -- it rests more on knowledge input. My approach has emerged through educational and other original research carried out on the basis of self-appraised and sustainable methods. This is not what one would refer to as institutional type of activity but a new type of network, spread over at distant places striving together to resolve community problems for the common good.
What is your assessment of the contribution of technology to rural development in India, particularly in the area of farming?
The common people can define and evolve their techniques through first-hand literacy (we can call it "techniracy") instead of adopting professed technological packages. With this non-system approach, even on 10 gunthas of land (1/10 ha) in scanty rainfall areas, a family can achieve better living standards. The daily waste-water of a family is sufficient to raise various crops in eight gunthas. If government efforts like subsidy for fertilisers are discouraged, farmers would certainly switch over to more ecofriendly farming.
What is the purpose of doing small plot research?
It is not just the question of small plot research -- it is how effectively resources are used. On my terrace, I successfully raise vegetables, fruits, climbers, spices, cereals, sugarcane, flowers and even sandal wood.
In small plot research, entire domestic needs can be met in the doorstep. One can monitor closely and assess the canopy, fruit-bearing capacity, absorption of solar energy and yield. House terraces and wastelands can also be utilised. Besides, the model can be replicated in bigger plots.
If domestic waste-water and material are used effectively, every household can sustain itself. A five-member family can produce sufficient food, fibre, flesh, fodder, fertiliser, fuel, fruits on a 0.093-ha plot. This can give them freedom and a better and fuller life.
Why do you advocate demystification of science?
Basically, demystification of science creates confidence and reduces external dependence. One can start thinking of alternatives and simple ways. At one time, the government attempted to propagate chicken mash as poultry feed, but this turned out to be expensive and farmers had to be goaded into buying it.
As a substitute, I raised 80 papaya fruits in my backyard with little water and care. Papaya fruits have adequate nutrients and minerals to raise both Western and local poultry breeds. This has reduced the dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides.
I have seen that by mastering nature's way of making humus and fertile soil, one can ensure record yields in farms. A deprofessionalised education system will give strength to rural people. By demystifying science, rural people can grasp the subject better and can build up their own techniracy through their own experiments and field research. This would enable them to achieve many of their coveted practical goals.
How do you see the present practice of providing total packages through our education?
In the present formal education system, talent is identifiable not in schools or colleges but in one's own field of work. More often than not, this is certainly a more scientific way of going about things. After Independence, most of the people of our country thought that by imitating Western ways of development, the country could be changed. But this alien manner failed to bring any development or change.
However, it is not the knowledge system that is to be blamed. The problem lies in the way it is provided to young minds. The present education system ignores a person's capacity to think and prioritise. People unnecessarily try to replicate Western models and feel frustrated when the results are wanting. Scant respect is paid to traditional knowledge and people don't seem to be clear about the role of traditional knowledge today. Even at the governmental level, there is very little encouragement to those who make sustained efforts to promote something as basic as organic farming. We must realise that unless science is experimented on at every stage and shared with others in the neighbourhood, our efforts at promoting things scientifically will be a waste.