Budget push for zero budget farming but contradictions mar Andhra’s natural agri foray

The method was promoted as low-cost investment on part of farmers, but huge amounts are being raised for statewide implementation

By Leo Saldanha
Published: Tuesday 09 July 2019

Andhra Pradesh has played a leading role in promoting agroecological farming in the past two decades. The Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA) initiative of the state is often cited as a major intervention which encouraged farmers to gradually move away from chemical-intensive farming. However, despite such efforts, just 1 per cent of the state’s farmers practise non-chemical farming.

In this backdrop, efforts are underway to encourage Andhra’s six million farming households to adopt natural farming by 2022-2024 as part of an unprecedented global initiative.

Called the Climate Resilient Zero Budget Natural Farming (CRZBNF), this approach is inspired by Padma Shri awardee Subhash Palekar, who has been advocating zero budget (no external inputs of any sort, including finance) natural farming for decades. Palekar’s method constitutes one of the many agroecological farming approaches and has been immensely popular.

This is borne out by the fact that thousands of farmers turn up for his training workshops at their own cost. Various farmers’ movements, for instance the Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha, have also advocated Palekar’s approach. Recently, Palekar decided to rename his approach to natural farming as the Subhash Palekar Spiritual Farming, which he later modified as Subhash Palekar Natural Farming.

The emphasis on zero budget has been employed by Palekar to distinguish his approach as sustainable and supportive of farmers in contrast to organic farming, which he claims involves “foreign” inputs, considered an anathema in natural farming.

For a state to choose what is right for farmers is not a new thing. The Green Revolution promoted since the 1960s encouraged farmers with various incentives to adopt chemical farming based on hybrid seeds. During the 1990s, similar strategies were employed to propagate genetically modified (GM) and proprietary cotton promoted by US agribusiness corporation Monsanto.

In the subsequent years, methods employed in promoting the Green Revolution to gene revolution have come under severe criticism. This has led to:

  • Massive loss of local agrobiodiversity and associated traditional knowledge
  • Undermining of seed sovereignty
  • Increased dependence on credit to purchase proprietary seeds, insecticides and pesticides
  • Indebtedness on part of farmers due to low monetary returns from agriculture
  • Stagnation in productivity
  • Low value of agricultural produce.

All these have contributed to an unprecedented suicide epidemic among farmers: 0.35 million suicides are officially acknowledged as farm suicides during 1995-2015. In addition, farmlands are reporting high soil toxicity due to the use of pesticides and fertilisers, thus jeopardising public health.

Advocating CRZBNF globally

In such a context, the transition of the entire state to natural farming is a welcome move. This is particularly true as Andhra Pradesh is a leading consumer of industrially produced proprietary hybrid seeds and GM cotton, and its agriculture today is heavily dependent on pesticides and fertilisers.

The move to promote CRZBNF on a mission mode was undertaken with the establishment of Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS), a fully government owned not-for-profit in 2014, after over a decade’s effort through CMSA failed to wean farmers from chemical farming.

In a rare demonstration of political support of this massive transition, former Andhra Pradesh Chief Minister N Chandrababu Naidu ensured he became the chairperson of RySS and appointed a person he trusted the most to deliver as deputy chairman of the company: former chief secretary of undivided Andhra Pradesh Thallam Vijay Kumar, who once spearheaded CMSA. 

Naidu campaigned globally to raise investment for CRZBNF. In January 2018 he travelled to Davos during the G20 summit to encourage hand-picked global financial corporations, foundations and agribusinesses to invest in the programme.

Prior to this, in November 2017, the state government collaborated with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation (BMGF), Confederation of Indian Industry, Dalberg — a global social entrepreneurship consulting firm — and various media outlets in organising the AP AgTech Summit-2017 in Visakhapatnam. Bill Gates, invited to address the valedictory there, advocated a “shift from agriculture based merely on subsistence to agriculture that is run like a business to be efficient, and profitable, and meets the needs of producers and consumers”.

In September 2018, Naidu was invited by Eric Solheim, the then executive director of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) to address a high-profile investors’ gathering in New York to support CRZBNF on the sidelines of the UN General Assembly. All along, RySS also developed collaborations with various international organisations for advocating CRZBNF.

The move to turn Andhra Pradesh into the world’s first natural farming state is estimated by the RySS to cost $2.3 billion (approximately Rs 17,000 crore) and is to be raised as credit based on state guarantees. UNEP has stepped in support of this ambitious programme and has promoted the Sustainable India Finance Facility (SIFF) as a collaborative investment venture with BNP Paribas bank of France and the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre.

The Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI) has also extended RySS a Rs 100 crore grant. According to RySS, the money would be invested in building a statewide network of community resource persons, natural farming fellows and non-profits, who will assist in delivering this ambitious programme by assisting farmer-to-farmer learning.

This way, the total cultivable land of 8 million hectares will come under natural farming. The produce from natural farms will be marketed through farmer producer organisations to be set up at the village level so as to achieve “farmers’ welfare, citizens’ well being, and, environment conservation”.

Justifiable apprehensions

Such a massive influx of foreign credit in farming is unprecedented in India as well as globally. Such a huge investment into natural farming calls to attention the obvious contradiction.

Natural farming is principally about subsistence farming and without any external inputs, including money. CRZBNF, in contrast, is being primed as an investment opportunity for global financial and agribusiness corporations, and that too through climate bonds, that siff and RySS propose to promote in mid-2019.

In effect, Gates’ advice appears to have been comprehensively internalised in CRZBNF. The implications are far-reaching as the Niti Aayog has already advocated that all states in India should adopt it. Karnataka and Himachal Pradesh have already made advances in this direction though there has been a divergence in their approaches.

While the former has chosen to carefully assess the viability of the programme by roping in agricultural universities, farmers’ unions and networks and the district administration for carefully assessing the productivity of natural farms and then decide on transition, Himachal has decided to embrace ZBNF comprehensively.

There are concerns over CRZBNF exposing India’s agriculture to global finance, given the vicissitudes of international financial markets. There are also serious issues like the secrecy employed in memoranda of understanding (MoUs) and agreements advocating the programme.

Panchayats have not been integrated in the decision-making process relating to the expansion of CRZBNF, as RySS has been set up to operate as a parastatal unit accountable directly to the chief minister.

Apparently, no prior consent has been obtained under the biodiversity protection laws in advocating CRZBNF in collaboration with a variety of foreign agencies, who are involved in researching and propagating the programme globally.

Such concerns have been brought to the attention of key promoters of CRZBNF in a detailed paper, A Review of Andhra Pradesh’s Climate Resilient Zero Budget Natural Farming Programme by the author. The massive transition has also resulted in heated debates among food and farming circles in India and abroad.

Not the least of the concerns is the involvement of BMGF in documenting the ongoing efforts of CRZBNF, in partnership with Digital Green, a global development organisation. While this raises concerns about the risk of biopiracy with such documentation now travelling globally without any statutory protection, it also draws attention to the contradictions of BMGF, which is an avowed promoter of and investor in GM agriculture.

In recent times, BMGF has been accused of unsuccessfully trying to manipulate decision making in African countries to open their doors to GM organisms. Recently, international non-profit Third World Network (TWN) reported a decision of the 14th Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD) Conference to investigate the possible conflict of interest issues involving BMGF.

According to TWN: “a private agriculture and biotechnology public relations firm called Emerging Ag had recruited and coordinated at least 65 people to participate in the CBD online forum on synthetic biology in order to influence its outcome. Emerging Ag had been paid $1.6 billion by BMGF to do this”. 

Government response

In a change from the past, when Andhra has chosen to brush aside criticisms of its approaches on various public programmes, Kumar has chosen to engage. He has done this through a detailed response to the author’s paper and a letter raising various concerns about the programme co-signed by organic farmers, journalists, farmer leaders and critical researchers.

In his letter, Kumar expresses his surprise and anguish over such criticism, which he claims are “without checking facts with all of us involved”. He reaffirms the intent of the “Government of Andhra Pradesh to bring about an agroecological transformation in the state”, with the resolve “that every farmer should come out of the present chemical input-based agriculture and. practice climate resilient, low cost (zero-budget) natural farming, and the entire cropped area in the state should be under natural farming”.

He provides details of how this is to be achieved: “We plan to reach 16 per cent farmers in 2019-20, 37 per cent by 2020-21, 58 per cent by 2021-2022, 80 per cent by 2022-23 and almost 100 per cent in 2023-24. The cultivable area will go up steadily and the entire 200 lakh acres (80,93,712 ha) should come under natural farming by 2026-2027”.

Kumar’s letter states that “the role of women SHGs (Self-Help Groups) and their federations is critical in management of the programme” and that “in the 5 years of programme intervention, it is planned to bring the men farmers also into farmer self-help groups and federate them at the village level”.

In this manner, the “programme becomes a programme by the farmers themselves”. He shares that the “agriculture department field functionaries are trained in ZBNF, theory and practice, and they are responsible to provide all support to the real change makers”. Kumar also says that “almost the entire investment in the programme is to support these two processes”.

To achieve all these, Kumar says, RySS has developed collaborations with UNEP, the Food and Agriculture Organization, Indian Council of Agricultural Research institutions such as Central Research Institute for Dryland Agriculture and National Academy of Agricultural Research Management, Centre for Economic and Social Studies, Indian Institute of Science, Indian Institute of Technology (Mumbai), BNP Paribas, World Agroforestry Centre and the French Agricultural Research Centre for International Development.

While Kumar asserts the programme is designed to adopt Palekar’s ZBNF practice, now renamed as Subhash Palekar Natural Farming without any emphasis on zero budget, he says, “CRZBNF has been designed to accommodate the best suitable and adaptable practices of existing regenerative or agroecological farming methods. These practices might have emerged out of various agroecology systems like zbnf, npm, cmsa, permaculture, jaivik krishi, Co-aadharita Krishi, etc.”

This calls to question why, in the first instance, Andhra Pradesh decided to embrace a particular form of natural farming propagated by Palekar, when it could have been open to all agroecological farming practices in its historic move away from chemical farming. A substantial outcome of these engagements has been that RySS has placed online the MoUs it has signed with SIFF and APPI.

The original MoUs have been amended, deleting secrecy clauses. But the clauses that provide the financing and collaborating agencies proprietary right over knowledge produced still remain. The agreements that speak of the financial details of the programme have not been shared.

Concerns that international financial and research organisations will have access to India’s agrobiodiversity and associated traditional knowledge in violation of CBD and biodiversity protection laws remain legitimate. Panchayats, which are constitutionally empowered to oversee all agricultural interventions, continue to be sidestepped by RySS.

BNP Paribas is among the leading financiers of coal projects globally, including one in India, which is the controversial Tata Mundra ultra-mega coal fired power plant. Its support of climate finance has been exposed by grassroots organisation Friends of the Earth Europe after it awarded the bank the much derided Pinnochio award in 2017.

That it is this very bank, which UNEP has chosen to partner with in promoting climate resilient natural farming in Andhra Pradesh through SIFF, speaks volumes about the UN agency’s commitment to tackle climate change. The question is: Does Andhra Pradesh need such massive financing to promote natural farming?

Karnataka has demonstrated that standard budgetary allocation for agriculture can be rechannelled to promote agroecological farming. It is now clear that Andhra intends to move ahead with CRZBNF, with support from BNP Paribas and BMGF, as Kumar dismisses concerns raised about their involvement stating “we do not subscribe to your description of Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and BNP Paribas Bank. We are clear that in the interest of the farmers and in reaching objectives of a statewide rollout, crzbnf will collaborate with institutions agreeing with the core principles of the programme”. So, the contradictions in CRZBNF remain rife. 

(The author works with the Bengaluru-based Environment Support Group. He has wide experience in environmental law and policy, decentralisation, urban planning and a variety of human rights and development issues)

This was originally published in Down To Earth's State of India's Environment 2019.

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