Re-opening the doors to Natural Farming

Kalyan Subramani
Kalyan Subramani

A very quiet revolution is brewing in India’s villages.  It will not be too long before this new movement will be hailed as the ‘real Green Revolution’ of India.

It is a late Sunday morning in mid-May and I am on a field trip to a local farm outside Bangalore city.  My pick-up point near The Art of Living international headquarters is arranged well in advance. The farm itself is a short two-kilometre winding road from the Ashram’s main gate number 5.  The locals tell me that the legislators responsible for the area had wisely used their annual budget just ahead of the state assembly election. No one is complaining about the serpentine, but beautiful black road, bejewelled with the white paint dividers and shoulders.

My host for the day is Dr PrabhakarRao. Our assignation, thanks to my ill-planning, is delayed by nearly 20 minutes.  My transfer from an Uber to Dr Rao’s SUV is quick and efficient. For a moment I feel like I am on an undercover mission at the start of a major media expose.  It is only a fleeting thought that is better left by the roadside. Dr Rao is listening to bajans by Mahesh Raghavan, a talented youngster and now anYoutube rage he knew from his days in Dubai.

Dr Rao’s wife Rugmani is my friend, agony aunt and sort of teacher too.  Though Dr Rao and I have met a couple of times before, they were not enough to know each other beyond names.  I knew he is an ‘NRI architect’ and also into sustainable agriculture. His inconspicuousness can be quite deceptive.

In his simple blue cotton shirt, a hard-to-tell-color pants and brown leather floaters, he comes across more like a teacher in a local government school.  Nothing about him gives away the fact that he is one of the most sought after architect in the world with projects like Palm Island in Dubai, Statue of Unity (the Sardar Patel one) in Gujarat, Amaravathi Green City and more recently the Amochu Land Development and Township Project, Bhutan, to his credit. But today he is keen to talk about what is happening in his 2.2 acre land, off Kanakpura Road in Bangalore.  Within minutes after firing his SUV to a soft hum, he comes to the point. He is into Vedic farming.

I am thinking this must be an exotic variant of organic farming. Soon I realize Dr Raois a gifted thought reader too. “Both natural and organic farming are chemical-free. That is the beginning and end of the similarity between the two,” he asserts. Now what is natural farming, I wonder.

Natural farming is a more acceptable name for what used to be called Vedic farming.  This is the type of farming Dr Rao has been successfully practicing for the last four and half years which finds its roots in the Rig Veda, an ancient collection of Vedic hymns in Sanskrit that cannot be dated with any certainty.

Natural farming, which is what it will be called from here on, is an immensely suitable way of growing our food says Dr Rao.  Organic farming is unsuitable for a tropical geography like India. While organic agriculture depends heavily on a compost-based farming technique, it does not have the inherent advantage of natural farming that uses microbes to nourish the plants. 

Organic farming, as Dr Rao explains, depends on the use of Farm Yard Manure (FYM) which he believes is a western concept that is more suited for cold countries. “Here (Indian sub-continent) fresh cow dung is put into pits and layered with soil and other organic waste. These Layered pits are periodically watered to keep the fermentation process going. There is tremendous heat produced in this anaerobic process that eventually kills all the microbes. Well decomposed FYM is fully sterilized. It adds carbon content to the soil and improves texture and water holding capacity. However, its ability to provide all the nutrients required for plant growth in tropical countries is under debate. For this reason, we find many Indian farmers add urea or DAP (chemical fertilizer) along with organic farming using FYM,” says Dr Rao.

However in natural farming the source of this microbe is a fermented concoction of cow urine, dung and a few other natural additives like neem seeds and leaves.  These microbes at the heart of natural farming do two things. One it has a rare quality to attract earthworms and two, also provide the nutrients to the root of the plant, one molecule at a time.

We have been walking around this farm for more than an hour now and I have already chomped through a variety of fruits and vegetables, picked directly from the plants and trees. I am starting to feel like a less-useful, vertical earthworm.  Several thousand earthworms that now inhabit this farm are tilling quietly and efficiently. These worms, make two trips every day moving slowly from the topsoil to 12-ft below one way, thus clocking a 48-ft round-trip every single day of their short life.  Thousands of these worms, toiling together through the day, churn the earth nicely. “I haven’t myself tilled this farm once so far,” says Dr Rao. He is right. These are not manicured farms that can easily impress the new-age health-conscious millennials who are fond of anything and everything organic. Apart from attracting earthworms, microbes from the concoction also deliver the nutrients plants needs. “For every molecule of nutrient delivered to the root, the microbes receive one molecule of sugar that provides the energy for the microbes to survive and continue the exchange process.” 

Dr Rao’s farm resembles a forest more than a farm.  This is exactly how nature meant it to be, he adds in his characteristic whisper.  And this is how agriculture was practiced in India until the British marched in with their urea and phosphates, starting an unhealthy trend that has today led to poor farm output, squeezed out of nutrient-free land, producing tasteless, unhealthy fruits and vegetables.  Dr Rao believes that the current plight of farmers killing themselves to get out of their eternal debt-trap is a direct outcome of over two centuries of unhealthy and unsustainable farming India inherited from her former colonial masters.

This is not some East vs West, Orient vs Occident debate for him though. That doesn’t fly in today’s age and political climate, where the mention of the word vedic attracts extreme criticism and dogged pushback even by the well-meaning critics of India’s role in the progress of human civilization.  He is on a different mission and his journey so far has been fascinating and even a bit mystical.

Dr Rao has a post-doctoral (PhD) degree from G. B. Pant University of Agriculture and Technology, Uttarakhand.  He was also part of the Green Revolution that the Indian government had initiated successfully in the early-Sixties.  While this revolution put India back in the world agriculture map as a food-secure country, it depended, among other things, heavily on chemical fertilizers.  Dr Rao today regrets playing a role in poisoning the otherwise healthy soil.

His role, albeit a small grass root-level one, became the reason why he is now practicing natural farming.  “This is sort of Prāyaścitta (atonement) for me,” he says.  A vedic farmer atoning in Sanskrit seems quite natural. In 2010, during a chance meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia with his guru Sri Sri Ravi Shankar​, he mentioned that he was ready to leave his hectic career behind and move to India permanently.This is where the mystical part comes.“I know for a fact that no one in the ashram knew or even if they did, told Gurudev about my background in agriculture.  But he made me the Trustee of the Sri Sri Institute of Agricultural Sciences & Technology Trust anyway,” he says.

Reviving natural farming is one of the many missions The Art of Living Foundation is working on.  The global spiritual institution that today serves in over 156 countries with over 300 million practitioners has been engaged in grassroot level work in areas like river rejuvenation, education, women health and empowerment, prisoner reforms etc. Dr Rao found his calling in the field of agriculture. “This (his farm) is for validating the work that is done by the trust,” says Rao.

The real output of this farm is not the fruits and vegetables that are visible to visitors like me.  Dr Rao and his Man Friday, Rabin, are busy harvesting seeds that are mailed to farmers and green-thumbs around the world. What is even less visible is his effort to revive fruits and vegetables that have long become extinct in India and other parts of the world.  He says the trust has brought back to life some 142Indian vegetable varietiesover the past four-odd years.

The agri trust that he heads has one big and important agenda that loops back to what Dr Rao does in his own farm.  He and his colleagues, both on and off-field believe that Sri Sri Natural Farming is the only way for Indian farmers to get out of their terrible plight.  Karnataka, the state in which Sri Sri and his foundation are headquartered, reported 3,515 farmer suicides between April 2013 and November 2017 (source: State Agriculture Department). The cruel irony of farmers, who make a living out of feeding the rest of us, killing themselves due to financial issues is not lost on anyone.

For Dr Rao and his team in the trust,their efforts go far beyond the confines of the ashram and his farm. The Trust has created seed banks spread across the country and now supply seeds for natural farming to 2.2 million farmers in the country.  These farmers collectively cultivate 2 million acres of farmland in the country.This is no ordinary mission.  Make no mistake about it. What is being attempted by the advocates and practitioners of natural farming is to reverse a vicious downward spiral to a virtuous upward one.  India in the early Sixties had to import American agri-scientist Norman Borlaug to sow the seeds of the Green Revolution. In an age when science is increasingly reaching out to understand spirituality better, it is only natural that the next Green Revolution might as well start from one of today's most revered spiritual teachers in the world -- Sri SriRavishankar.

Foot-soldiers like Dr Rao have started their march.  And if we listen closely we can perhaps also hear the march of the millions of soldiers below our feet mulching their way into India’s real Green Revolution.

(Author is a Bangalore-based writer with over a decade and half experience in news outlets like Business Standard, Business world, Bangalore Mirror and Hindustan Times.) Mail id: kalyan.subramani@yahoo.com)

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