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Baiga agriculture can solve problems that plague modern systems

Book>>Benwar Swaraj by Naresh Biswas Nirman Vaikalpik Vikas Evam Sehbhagi Shodh Sansthan, Mandla, Madhya Prades

By Devinder Sharma
Published: Tuesday 15 April 2008

Mixed cropping pattern protect

Several years ago, fresh from agriculture university, I saw a remarkably eco-friendly and productive farming system in eastern Uttar Pradesh. It was based on mixed cropping patterns. To my surprise, scientists labelled the system as backward and inefficient and wanted it to be replaced by monoculture. In this book under review, Naresh Biswas shows how wrong they were. The area of Biswas' research is, of course, different. But it is salutary nevertheless. He takes us through the rich traditional farming systems of Baigas, a tribal community that lives in Madhya Pradesh's Mahakaushal region and in adjoining Bilaspur and Kwardha districts of Chhattisgarh.

Benwar Swaraj is the fruit of 15 years of painstaking research. It has a wealth of detail on Baiga farming practices.Biswas shows that these practices are not only sustainable but also productive. It's no wonder that the Baigas persist with their traditional farming methods even though these were banned by the Indian Forest Rules, 1927.

Benwar, the Baiga's farming system, is a kind of shifting cultivation mostly practiced on hilly slopes, where contour bunding cannot check soil erosion. The practice involves cutting bushes and branches of trees and laying them out on slopes for drying. The branches are then burnt, leaving behind a layer of ash on which a mix of 16 seeds are sprinkled a week before the rains are expected.

Baigas cultivate coarse cereals, pulses and vegetables. Mixed cropping has several advantages. Harvests last all year, skillful crop rotation protects against pests and diseases, and the crop mix ensures that the soil is consistently supplied with organic matter.

Store wellOnce the grains are harvested, a lot of care goes into storage. Use of neem and mahul leaves preserve grains for long. I was amazed to learn that kodon, a coarse cereal, can be stored safely for 100 years.

Down to Earth
Neem leaves for long grain storage

Baigas have answers to many other problems that confound modern systems. Storing seeds of pulses, for example. Baigas have a handy method to stave off a persistent bugbear of modern agriculture pests. An incision is made in the neck of a gourd, water is poured into it and the vegetable is hung for about a week. The rotting insides are removed and the hollow vegetable is then ready to store seeds of pulses.

The book also takes up issues against a lot of current thinking on agriculture. Biswas exposes the flaws in the modern thinking that shifting cultivation reduces forest cover. In 1893, the colonial state allowed Baigas to practice shifting cultivation in seven villages. Forests around these villages are still dense. But they have vanished in areas where shifting cultivation was banned and tribals were forced into modern farming practices.

Culture and religion plays a strong role in binding people to traditional farming systems. Baigas venerate land as mother and so do not plough it. They also do not use chemical fertilizers and pesticides. It has taken us quite some time to understand the merits of traditional systems such as that of the Baigas. Biswas' work is a major contribution in that respect. The book shows how the agricultural system of the Baigas offers drought-proofing solutions.

The book comes at a time when the National Food Security Mission is arguing that the productivity levels of wheat, rice, pulses and oilseeds be increased. Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh governments will be under tremendous pressure to dispense with the Benwar farming systems. Nothing can be more tragic. Perhaps Benwar Swaraj will strike a chord somewhere, and ensure that it is not relegated to the pages of history.

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