Sudhirendar Sharma

In the last fortnight, two announcements to revive the sagging farm sector evoked differing responses. While the announcement by the government to hike minimum support price for selected crops generated political noise, a more nuanced approach by NITI Aayog seeking State governments’ support in reducing cost of crop production was lost in the din.

In the context of the government’s commitment to double farmers’ income by 2022, a hike in MSP can only reduce farmgate losses to a limited extent, whereas reducing cost of production through ‘zero budget natural farming’ (ZBNF) stands to enhance the profit margins for farmers.

MSP not too effective

Had MSP been an effective mechanism to remunerate farmers, agriculture would have been a profitable vocation all through.

Even the proposed MSP hike, from a low of ₹200 for paddy to a high of ₹730 for jowar, falls short of the prevailing market price for these crops by ₹90 and ₹780, respectively.

To make matters worse, MSP neither factors total cost of production in its calculations nor accounts for concurrent change in cost of inputs.

Therefore, the proposed hike is unlikely to hold good because an increase in paddy MSP by ₹200 has already been offset by an increase in the price of a urea bag by an equivalent amount. And, this is just one input.

In taking a call on revising MSP at a whopping cost of ₹33,500 crore to the exchequer, the government has grossly overlooked the findings of the Dalwai Committee Report on doubling of farmers’ income. While addressing productivity concerns, the report identified the need to improve input use efficiency as a means to reduce cost of production, and in turn improve profitability.

With 47 per cent of farm households in the country operating on plots less than one acre, the need is to nip the cost of inputs at the farm level without compromising on crop productivity such that the marginal farmers make the most of the prices on offer in the market.

In contrast to the government’s political rhetoric on hiking MSP, NITI Aayog has taken a pragmatic view on reducing the cost of production instead.

In pursuing the States to adopt ZBNF, the apex agency is seized of the fact that the zero-budget technique has resulted in an increase in the yields of crops like cotton by 11 per cent, paddy by 12 per cent, groundnut 23 per cent, and chilli 34 per cent at less than half the cost of cultivation.

Pioneered by Subhash Palekar, an innovative farmer from Maharashtra, the technique has been tested across Andhra Pradesh where over 163,000 farmers on some 150,000 acres of farmlands spread across six agro-climatic zones have successfully demonstrated that farming without chemicals is a profitable possibility.

ZBNF has been in vogue on a small scale across several farms in the country for over a decade now, but the AP Government gave it the desired fillip. The technique replaces fertilisers and pesticides with concoctions of cow dung, cow urine, jaggery and pulse flour, and ensure perfect soil conditions for plant growth.

It does so by keeping the top soil covered with crop residues to increase water retention while beejamrutham , coating of seeds with cow dung and urine; jeevamrutham , concoction made of dung, urine, jaggery and pulse flour to multiply soil microbes; and kashayams , concoction with lilac and chillies to protect plants from pests, do the rest.

Validation of pilots

NITI Aayog has advised States to adopt zero-budget natural farming under two existing schemes: the Paramparagat Krishi Yojana and the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana.

However, to propose that scientists of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) will validate the pilots before widespread adoption of ZBNF is flawed.

How can scientists who have all along worked on promoting chemical agriculture be qualified to assess zero-budget farming which is based on dung, urine and farm waste? For once, it should be left to farmers to assess ZBNF as an alternative to the so-called mainstream agriculture.

Natural farming had its place under the sun even before Masanobu Fukuoka’s One-Straw Revolution had gained popularity, but there was no measured assessment of low-input farming practices as an alternative to the so-called mainstream agriculture that has become a bane for farmers in recent years on account of rising input costs, stagnation in productivity, and adverse health and environmental impacts.

It needs policy and political traction in no uncertain terms to pull farmers out from the corporate-sponsored state-subsidised chemical abyss.

While the core objective of scaling up investments in ZBNF is timely, the critical question regarding bringing natural farming on top of agriculture research and extension agenda remains.

By diverting existing subsidies away from chemical fertilisers and other inputs to strengthen the existing Krishi Vigyan Kendra network, NITI Aayog can garner the desired institutional support for widespread dissemination of ZBNF.

The most challenging task for NITI Aayog would be to neutralise the political-economy of green revolution (fertliser, pesticide and seed industry) in favour of an evergreen revolution. For the over 60 per cent of the country’s population engaged in agriculture, this is a challenge worth taking.

The author is an independent writer, researcher and academic.