Deschooling farmers

Published: Tuesday 15 September 2009

-- A new bill in Tamil Nadu puts farmers at the thrall of agriculture university graduates

On the last day of its budget session the Tamil Nadu assembly passed 30 bills without any discussion. One of them was without parallel. If the governer signs the bill, writings of Thiruvalluavar, Oovaiyar and many more poets would become unlawful as they have several things to say about farming.

Let us forget the people long dead. Even prominent personalities associated with agriculture like Norman Borlaug, the doyen of the modern agriculture system, cannot give suggestions to farmers in Tamil Nadu. A first suggestion will attract a fine of Rs 5,000; they will be fined Rs 10,000 if they repeat their crime. They might even be imprisoned for six months.

The Tamil Nadu State Agriculture Council 2009 says only those with a degree from three universities in Tamil Nadu can counsel farmers. Such esteemed advisors will be called agricultural practitioners--like medical or legal practitioners.

All farmers of Tamil Nadu will have to abjectly follow the agricultural graduates. Many of these graduates would have seen a paddy plant for the first time during their college life.

Down to Earth What the agricultural universities all over the world have done so far is to pick up farmers' innovation, work on it, improve it and give back the farmers their knowledge--packaged very often as a new product. Has an agricultural university ever discovered a food crop or pioneered the domestication of any animal species?

During colonial rule, agriculture universities were geared towards the export market and towards mills in Manchester. But many British scholars did acknowledge farmers' knowledge. One of them, Albert Howard, declared "Indian farmers will be my professors for next five years".

In every village community the knowledge of farming is embedded in folk songs, stories, and riddles. A Tamil riddle asks " Adi kattula, nadu mattula, nuni veetula. athu yenna? (What is the item at whose base lies the field, cattle is at its middle and the house on the tip?)

This answer is paddy. The riddle can give a lesson or two to our agriculture economists. When paddy is harvested we leave the basal portion in the land as it is of no use to the farmer or the cattle. The straw goes to cattle, which give the farmer milk and supplies draught power and provides manure. The land and the cattle were nourished from what the farmer cannot use. The result was the tip, the grain, kept inside the house.

The green revolution taught the farmer to feed the soil with fertilizer, a work he earlier left to nature. It brought in new types of seeds, which left his cattle without fodder. He was forced to sell the cattle and lost the manure. He could not keep the grain inside the house; he had to sell it to repay loans. He also had to part with his wife's jewels and the land documents.

If the government was seriously interested in helping the farmer then it should have directed the scientist to go to the villages and learn from them. Let's take the technology that officials and those used to jargon refer to as the system of rice intensification. The farmers had begun using the method since the late 1990s but the government programme began in 2002.

That farmers are way ahead of government thinking is a challenge to the managers of agriculture science, who have sold themselves to Monsanto and other multinationals. In fact, the vice chancellor of the Tamil Nadu Agriclutural University had, sometime ago, said, "The university will promote Bt brinjal seeds."

Laws will not stop farmers from sharing experiences. But this bill, if enacted, will rob the farmers the choice of to whom he/she should listen. This is a violation of one's fundamental right.

R Selvam was a government official till 1994 when he began organic farming

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