One of the biggest announcements in Budget 2019 was to promote zero budget natural farming (ZBNF) on a massive scale. Terming it as ‘going back to basics’, the Finance Minister made a strong pitch for the implementation of ZBNF. However, the response to this proposal has been mixed, with some experts hailing this as a historic decision of the that would rejuvenate the beleaguered farm sector.

Last year, NITI Aayog Vice-Chairman stated that ZBNF is one of the most potent methods to double farmers’ income by 2022. Welcoming the proposal, NABARD Chairman said that the move will help millions of farmers cut down their input cost and practice sustainable agriculture.

However, there are a few experts who question the efficacy of ZBNF and have dismissed the measure outright, saying ZBNF helping improve farmers’ income, let alone double it, is far-fetched.

What is ZBNF?

ZBNF is a unique chemical-free method that relies on agro-ecology. It was originally promoted by noted agriculturist Subhash Palekar, who developed it in the mid-1990s. ZBNF promotes the application of jeevamrutha — a mixture of fresh cow-dung, urine of aged cows, jaggery, pulse flour, water and soil — on farmland.

The method requires only one cow for 30 acres of land, with the caveat that it must be a local Indian breed and not an imported Jersey or Holstein. A similar mixture called bijamrita is used to treat seeds, while concoctions using neem leaves and pulp, tobacco and green chillies are prepared for insect and pest management.

The ZBNF method also promotes soil aeration, minimal watering, inter-cropping, bunds and top soil mulching, and discourages intensive irrigation and deep ploughing. Since farmers are not required to buy any inputs, the cost of production in ZBNF is reportedly zero.

At a time when chemical-intensive farming is resulting in soil and environmental degradation, water depletion and pushing up the cost of farm inputs, a zero-cost environmentally-friendly farming method is definitely a timely initiative. It is already being practised in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand and Chhattisgarh.

The Economic Survey 2018-19 reports that about 1.6 lakh farmers follow ZBNF. While ZBNF seems to have hit the right chord when it comes to environmental sustainability, enough data needs to be generated to conclusively prove that ZBNF is a potential solution and is scalable.

There has not been any independent evaluation of the income growth it can result in or its impact on productivity. However, some on-field studies are being conducted at various levels and in various universities, including by Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR), to understand the methods, value and viability for farmers in various agro-climatic conditions; none has reached any definite conclusion so far. Nevertheless, some case studies which are self-reported demonstrate that farming without chemicals is a profitable possibility.

According to a brief prepared by Council on Energy, Environment and Water (2018), groundnut farmers in Andhra Pradesh had harvested 23 per cent higher yield than their non-ZBNF counterparts; while ZBNF paddy farmers had an average of 6 per cent higher yield.

Contrarily, in recent years, reports continue to pour in from Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh, Sikkim and Karnataka that farmers are reverting to chemical farming as the alternative has clearly failed to improve their income and yield. Doesn’t it seem to be a hurried recommendation to promote such a practice to double farm income, when the empirical validity is still in question?

The constraints

While the method looks simple and easy to adopt, there are certain fundamental constraints. Even if the inputs are freely available in nature, farmers have to bear the cost of labour for field work and cattle rearing, collection of dung and urine, and in the preparation of jeevamrutha , neemastra and bramhastra.

Besides health expenses of cattle, the cost of cattle feed is also quite high. Because of reduced grazing lands and vanishing small waterbodies, fodder cost in recent years has skyrocketed making it as costly as milk.

Between 2012 (April) and 2018 (November), the wholesale price index (WPI) of cattle feed has increased from 106.7 to 159.3, a rise of about 50 per cent.

Above all, ZBNF advocates the need of an Indian breed cow, whose numbers are declining at a fast pace.

The provisional estimates of the 2019 Livestock Census highlights that the country’s total population of indigenous and nondescript cattle has dropped by 8.1 per cent while that of exotic and cross-breeds has jumped by 29.5 per cent over those in the previous 2012 Census.

Given the falling numbers of Indian breed cows, how can the ambitious vision of doubling the farm income by 2022 be realised?

Future agenda

While there is no doubting the role of ZBNF in preserving soil quality, what’s doubtful is the doubling of farm income?. How can farm income be doubled by 2022, when the income growth in the previous decades seems to be far from satisfactory? Data from the NSSO survey and NABARD suggest that while the annual income of farm households increased by 4.22 per cent in 2015-16 over 2002-03, it rose by a mere 1.39 per cent in 2015-16 over 2012-13.

A recent study has estimated that between 2002-03 and 2012-13, the nominal and real incomes of farm households took almost six and 13 years, respectively, to double. There are a host of structural issues which needs to be addressed first before aiming to achieve the ambitious goal. Sweeping market reforms such as strengthening of agricultural market infrastructure, extending procurement mechanism to all foodgrain and non-foodgrain crops and to all States, implementation of price deficiency payment system for selected crops, fixing MSP in consonance with cost of cultivation, abolishment of minimum export price for agricultural commodities and enacting a legislation on ‘right to sell at MSP’ need immediate attention.

MGNREGS must also be linked with farm work in order to reduce the cost of cultivation which has escalated at a faster pace over the past few years. Unless these issues are resolved, doubling of farm income will remain to be a distant reality.

The writers are former Member (Official), Commission for Agricultural Cost and Prices, and Senior Assistant Professor in Economics, Department of Social Sciences, Vellore Institute of Technology, respectively. The views are personal.