Farming needs to be community-managed’

An agricultural scientist spearheads a movement to non-pesticide farming with

remarkable results, and offers a way for the future.


G V Ramanjaneyalu is an agricultural scientist and executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), a non-governmental organisation in Hyderabad that promotes green and sustainable agriculture. He was instrumental in creating a pioneering non-pesticide managed (NPM) agriculture programme in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana that substantially reduced pesticide use in these states. The programme, now run by the government, is credited with being a viable model of sustainable agriculture for small and marginal farmers.

It won the best rural innovation award from Maharashtra and Bihar in 2014 and was featured in the first season of “Satyameva Jayate”. Ramanjaneyalu is working to develop open source seed systems and scaling up sustainable agriculture in Andhra Pradesh, Maharashtra, Punjab, Bihar, Odisha, Chhattisgarh, Jharkhand, Sikkim and Tripura. He is also trying to link farmers to consumers through a community-managed marketing system, “Sahaja Aharam”.

Edited excerpts from an interview:

Tell me about your work on non-pesticide and organic farming.

When we started, we tried to see what was the most serious distress the farmers were facing. So pesticide use was very high in Andhra Pradesh, and there were a lot of ill effects that were seen on the ground, with agricultural workers and farmers being hospitalised. Also increasing cost of cultivation. So to reduce the cost of cultivation and pesticide use, we tried non-pesticidal management. We got success in small areas in about 10 locations and then we worked with the Andhra Pradesh government and tried to build a kind of scaling-up strategy where a large number of people can adapt.

Our key learning has been that if farmers understand the problem and understand the solution, from their own knowledge base—and they can relate to what they see around them—it is easy to adapt.

From an information-based extension we tried to take the farmers to a knowledge-based extension, so that each can manage his ecosystem and control his pests. It was quite successful, but by 2008 we had realised that this itself was not sufficient. Pesticide use was reducing, but there were other serious problems. The price realisation for farmers was very low, so if my cost of cultivation was coming down by one or two thousand rupees, it may not be sufficient for me. So that was the kind of situation the farmers were in.

We proposed to the state government at that time that we need to move into complete organic, so that the quality of the produce can go up and the prices can increase. Secondly, we needed to organise farmers into cooperatives so that their bargaining power could go up. But unfortunately at that time the state government was not keen on these two aspects. So we moved out of the programme and we started working at about 14 locations and formed farmers’ cooperatives. Directly we tried to market them in Hyderabad to start with.

You say that the use of pesticides actually creates the pest problem.

In any ecosystem, there is an ecological balance. There are insects which are damaging crops, there are insects which are not damaging crops, so even between the insects there is a balance. We have seen that when bollworm comes down in cotton, the sucking pest goes up. There is a balance between pests and between their natural enemies also. Pesticides eliminate this balance. The moment you kill weaker insects—weaker insects get killed when you spray—the stronger insects remain. In a way, you are selecting insects for genetic resistance. The natural enemies that are killing the insects are also dying. These two things together create an imbalanced situation where the insect population grows. Pesticides should be used only to restore the ecological balance.

What was the scale of the programme that you ran with the government?

The programme which we ran with the government was between 2005 and 2008, and we were covering some 7 lakh acres. After 2008, the government took over on its own, took over the community resource persons and started spreading. Till 2010, the data shows that pesticide use could come down by over 50 per cent. It proved the concept that community-managed extensions and alternative sustainable agricultural practices could be put together to solve livelihood problems.

Did the high suicide rates among farmers in Andhra Pradesh at that time play a part in the government wanting to try out non-pesticide and organic agriculture?

Of course. One of the criteria we took for identifying villages was the level of distress. And from 2005 to 2010, if you see the data, not a single suicide was reported from these villages. And even today, I can say, in the last 20 years, where our co-operatives are located and our farmers are there, not a single suicide has been reported because of distress. Creating a community of farmers at the grassroots is very, very critical.

What you are advocating is not just Non-Pesticide Management (NPM) or organic, it has an important component called community management. What exactly is community management?

We called the programme itself community-sustainable management. This is because, in every case, just because organic is there, it will not solve the farmer’s problems. The whole starting point is the farmer’s distress. People can get out of distress only if it (agriculture) is community managed and community owned, as well as following sustainable agricultural practices. Both are critical. The third dimension to the problem is price realisation. So it is about what we can do at the farmers’ level, what we can do at the community level and what we can do at the market level.

Can you explain these components in detail?

See, one is the farmer’s level. In every situation, what we have seen is, there is scope for reducing input cost. We are one of the high-cost production systems in the world. By any means you take. What happens in that situation is that you become very uncompetitive in the market. Even if the price goes up, it will not benefit you because the cost of cultivation is already very high. So you need to cut down on the cost of production and become very efficient.

And the second important issue is that since the cropping pattern is not based on the situation and the risks involved, the cropping patterns are purely decided by the market, advertisements and all involved, there is an increase in risk of crop failure. Reducing risk in agriculture is very important.

We have also realised that there is scope for increasing unit productivity. It is not just about the yield, it is about unit productivity. Integrating more crops or integrating with animals or growing two crops instead of one, in sequence. Inter-cropping or mixed cropping are all integrated farming. All these models can be used and we can increase the total productivity of the land.

The next is price realisation; if farmers can aggregate themselves, they can get 10 to 15 per cent better price. The farmer can do some things at the individual level, like implement certain practices, but there has to be a plan. And this can be done only at the group level by community management. It can happen also only with the correct public policy. This is what we need to think of. What kind of public policy will reduce input cost, reduce risk, increase price and increase land productivity.

For example, if you take… I will show you a slide… See, this is in 2004, 35 per cent of cost of production goes to seeds, pesticides and fertilisers. And labour forms about 24 per cent, land rent is about 12 per cent. At the time we intervened, our attempt was to reduce this 35 per cent cost. But today, (shows another slide), this is the current cost. In this, the significant portion goes to land rent and labour. And a very small percent, around 12 per cent, goes to pesticides, fertilisers and seeds. [In the Commission on Agricultural Costs and Prices 2015, the land rent is 38 per cent and labour cost is 33 per cent]

Are these statistics for Andhra Pradesh?

These I have taken for Andhra Pradesh, but it is more or less the same across the country.

But pesticide prices have not gone down?

No. These figures are not in absolute numbers. The price of land rent and labour has gone up. So a saving in fertiliser or pesticide is not seen as a significant thing. Farmers don’t perceive it as a big saving. This is one critical factor driving farming today.

The other one, if you see this graph (shows graph), this is the price recovery by the farmer. If rice is sold for `50 in the market, farmers get about `12 in that. Which is only 24 per cent and this is the maximum, for rice. In other crops it will be much lower.

The major cost is taken away by… if we are talking about packing, transport, middling, these are some essential costs. Whereas this wholesaler who takes 15 per cent, the retailer who takes 28 per cent, it is huge. Eight per cent tax. Everybody takes their cut and finally it is the farmer who is being penalised. So what intervention can take this share to 50 per cent?

A big part of the rationale for introducing NPM/organic in Andhra Pradesh/Telangana was to cut down on cost of cultivation. If that is no longer a big component…

No longer a driver. The kind of enthusiasm the farmers had when the cost reduction was high, today you won’t see that kind of enthusiasm.

Beyond cost reduction, what are the advantages farmers can get from non-pesticide management?

One of the drivers is not only cost, but also reducing risk. Every farmer, every individual farmer, or family member, you ask about pesticide, they talk about the problems they have because of using pesticides. Ecological problems. The kind of diseases when pesticides fall on their fingers and hands. What happens when it falls on their head. When animals are fed on the grass where the chemicals are sprayed. All these impacts are clearly seen. So it is not only about cost reduction, but the immediate problems they see with pesticides. It is about getting out of the pesticide trap itself.

You have been a big critic of conventional agriculture. Of chemical fertiliser, pesticide-driven agriculture. What are your points of contention?

One of the major contentions about Indian agriculture, Indian agricultural science I would say, is it never took socio-economic or ecological conditions of the farmers into account. It is purely productivity-driven. Productivity also very narrowly understood as yield—the yield of a single crop. They didn’t even look at the productivity of land or long-term productivity kind of thing. They had a very narrow focus. Second thing is they never cared about the externalities. A pure mathematical-equation-kind-of approach where more input gives more output landed us in serious problems because of high use of chemical fertilisers and high use of chemical pesticides, high use of groundwater, etc. My major critique is that agricultural research was never tuned to meet the agro-ecological situation. If something was successful in Punjab they would want to try it in Rajasthan where the ecological conditions are very different. Similarly, what succeeded in paddy, they wanted to try out in jowar also, which is not possible. The socio-economic conditions were also never taken into account. Whenever farmers were complaining that they were not making money or about the pesticides, all the government was saying was that for national self-sufficiency we need to produce more. To produce more, the assumption is that you use more of inputs.

Can you tell me of a particular instance when the use of pesticide has resulted in a pest population going out of control?

In 1986-87, there were a large number of farmer suicides which happened in Guntur and Prakasam districts in Andhra Pradesh. That was the first reported data on farmer suicides. More than 100 farmers committed suicide because of the white fly incidence. I was in college then, I had just joined for B. Sc. agriculture. We used to see clouds of white flies even in my college. Nearby towns, cities everything was filled with those white flies. At that time whatever pesticides were there failed. The government said we will bring in synthetic pyrethroids which are more powerful. They were brought in, and within two years’ time all the white flies were controlled. But the bollworm problem increased. By 1997-98 there was a huge outbreak in Guntur and Karimnagar districts. There were 2,000 farmer suicides that year. By that time, they said they will bring in BT cotton (resistant to bollworm) and that they will bring in new pesticides. By 2007, the bollworms have been managed but the white flies have become a major problem. They made a comeback. This imbalance of trying to look at only one pest and one way of managing it is creating the problem. A purely technological solution will never work.

What is the impact of long term use of pesticides and fertilisers on soil?

Of course. Certainly. More than 30-40 percentage in any of these chemical fertilisers is inert matter. Basically fill-up material to make it into granules and mostly it is talcum powder that is used. The fine powder actually fills up all the soil spaces and today the hard patches that are found in farmlands are because of that. Second is that the increased use of one or two nutrients also causes imbalance (in the soil). It also led to salinity. These two have killed the soil health biologically. Soil biology, soil chemistry, soil physical structure—all three properties should have been taken into account. But there was an excessive focus only on the chemical properties.

On the pesticide issue, if you look at the annual report released by the Central Groundwater Board, even groundwater in Hyderabad is seen to have chemical pesticide residues. How are they coming in? Entire groundwater aquifer is contaminated. Surface water is contaminated. What are we doing to our natural resources? How do we clean them up? Pesticides which were banned 20-30 years back like BHC (Benzene Hexachloride), if the residues are still seen today, then when are we going to get out of this crisis?

Has the amount of pesticides and fertilisers being used being going up?

Of course. If you look at pesticide use, in many states, the use of pesticides have gone up 30-40 per cent. You also need to take into account that there has been a reduction in the volume. The older high volume pesticides are replaced by newer low volume pesticides. If you correct it for that, it means the real use must be very, very high. Fertiliser use has also been going up. Today, if you take Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the average fertiliser use is 261 kg per year per hectare. It is higher than the global average. Perhaps 50 kg higher. That is the state average. If you look at it district-wise, there are certain districts which are very, very high.

Why is fertiliser use going up?

It is similar to the pesticide problem. The plant depends only on the chemical source of nutrients. And when you use only one or two nutrients, the other nutrients become limited. When other nutrients become limited, the yield comes down. When the yield comes down, people feel that the fertiliser amount used is not sufficient, and they put in more fertiliser. Additional fertiliser is not in any way helpful to the farmers or to the plants. But they go on using it. Balanced use was never an idea. Public policy also shifts [which fertilisers are used]. For example, after the decontrol of DAP (Diammonium phosphate), the prices shot up. But urea was still subsidised. People started using more of urea and started using less of potash and phosphorus.

There is a plan to introduce GM mustard in India.

The GM mustard they are trying to introduce is a hybrid. They introduced technology to develop a hybrid. The way to make a hybrid is to introduce male sterility in the crop. India is one of the centres of diversity for mustard. If you are introducing male sterility into it, it can get crossed with several other traditional varieties or improved varieties. The sterility genes can escape from GM mustard and get into others also. Cross-pollination would be a serious problem. The claims made that yield would increase is not substantiated. They compared it with some 20 or 25-year-old variety. There are recent varieties that yield better. A very important issue is herbicide-tolerant genes were used in generating this technology. Herbicide tolerance is not advisable because herbicide use goes up. There are a number of reports that show that the herbicide that is going to be introduced with this—gluphosinate—is going to be a major ecological disaster in other countries. It can cause the same problem here also.

Can non-pesticide management give the same yield as conventional agriculture?

Take the green revolution. There is a lot of discussion which happens about the green revolution saying that technology solved the problem. But it’s not just technology. They started using chemical fertilisers and new seeds. But beyond that, the entire public extension system was built around that. There were extension systems where people used to go to villages, talk to people, give seeds and all that. The banks were all nationalised to provide credit. The Food Corporation of India was established to actually buy at the farmers’ footsteps. The minimum support prices were ensured. Subsidies were given, Seed Corporation was established to produce and supply seeds. So, a whole range of support systems were established for the green revolution. This created an ecosystem for the success of the model. Whereas when we talk about alternative models, NPM was the only initiative where to a limited extent the government built comprehensive support systems.  When we are talking about alternatives, where is that ecosystem that is built?

How have the central government’s policies over the last two years affected agriculture?

I would say they are still grappling with what to do. During the elections, the BJP said it would implement the Swaminathan recommendations of increasing the prices; but after coming to power, they said it’s not possible, that we would provide income security through farm income insurance. But the farm insurance scheme has not yet rolled out. In the last budget, the government said it will double the farmers’ income.

As per the National Sample Survey, 81 per cent of the people’s monthly income is less than their monthly expenditure. In absolute numbers it is so low, what do you do even if you double it in five years? The average is between `4500-5000 in the small and medium farmer category. Even if it becomes `10,000 in 2020, what do you do after that? Cost of living is also going up in everything like health and education because there is so little government support in rural areas. There should be a comprehensive approach and a new policy framework. While the government has said that it will double the income in five years, in the last two years the prices (of crops) have gone up only 5 per cent. How would you increase so much in the next 3 years?

Basically we have indebtedness. If people are spending less than they earn, the credit cycle starts.

This is because the support from the government’s side is decreasing. Even today credit access is 30 per cent, insurance is only 30 per cent, subsidies not even 10 per cent.

From a liberal economic standpoint, as the economy develops, landholdings have to become larger and the number of people dependant on agriculture fewer. Is the government thinking that the way forward is to encourage migration from agriculture to industry?

It is a wrong thinking is what I would say. The government is looking to have a large source of unorganised cheap labour so that industrial development can happen. If you look at the last ten years, what the government has done, they couldn’t create any additional jobs. Whatever additional jobs were created were created only in the construction sector. The construction sector is a very unsustainable business, right? More than 20 per cent of these constructions are lying vacant. The written policy of the government is that industrial development will solve all the problems. For that you need to take out a large number of people from agriculture.

According to the last National Sample Survey Data, between 2004-05 and 2009-10, the growth rate in terms of employment (in different sectors) is coming down. The only sector where the growth increased is the non-manufacturing construction sector. See, no one has a second opinion that you need to increase the productivity of labour. But what we are asking is, at what cost? When you are displacing someone, what are you doing to them? I think that is something that is very, very critical. If there is no plan for the people you want to displace, but you are still displacing them, it is a criminal act.

You mentioned access to markets to increase the price farmers get. What can be done to give them direct access to markets?

One of the key things is to increase aggregation at the farmer’s level. If that can be increased, the farmer’s share in the consumer price will go up. One effort is to build famers’ cooperatives. In Sahaja Aharam, a cooperative scheme we are running in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana, the consumer price of the produce is `80. The farmers get `42 out of that. So, there is a way. The difficulty is for these farmers’ institutions to get support from the government. The key challenge is that today if a farmers’ cooperative goes to a bank to get a loan, they ask for 150 per cent collateral security with non-agricultural assets. They ask whether in Hyderabad, you have land, whether you have a building… They don’t take agricultural land as the collateral. While most of the non-performing assets the banks are suffering are from industries. If you look at agricultural loans, there are not much NPAs. And they charge high interest rate of 13 to 14 per cent on these.

How many farmers are involved in the Sahaja Ahara scheme?

There are 5,000 farmers.

You told me you are signing an MoU with the Andhra Pradesh government for scaling up…

For scaling up organic farming and marketing, yeah… We are working with Sikkim and Tripura governments also. Andhra Pradesh is planning to scale up to about 131 clusters. Each cluster of about 5 villages, and 10 clusters in each district, is the plan. They will pick the best villages from the community-managed sustainable agriculture villages programme, started in 2004. A comprehensive approach is being developed with support from local NGOs and other state agencies to develop a system where we will help the farmers go organic and market their product directly. As part of the Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana, they are putting in the resources. We are trying to develop convergence plans with various ongoing government programmes also.