There is a silent and constructive revolution happening in Punjab to save the environment, regenerate ecological resources, bring back soil productivity and re-establish ecological balance in the farms. This is the natural farming movement of Kheti Virasat Mission (KVM), a civil society action group headquartered in the Jaitu town of Faridkot district. The movement is led by experienced farmers who believe in Guru Nanak's tenet of Sarbat da bhala (well being of all)," says Amarjeet Sharma, a farmer from Chaina village, district Faridkot who heads the village level Vatavaran Panchayat. Vatavaran Panchayats are local-level community institutions working as decentralised participatory civil society initiatives.

KVM is a farmer membership organization with some formal and mostly informal members. Informal members are farmers who work with KVM through its Vatavaran Panchayats. KVM farmers take pledges to start natural farming in one go or in a phased manner. KVM currently has around a 100 formal and 800 informal members.

A natural farming workshop. Pic: Ajay Tripathi, Kudrati Kheti archives.

The practitioners of this 'natural farming' are not environmentalists, economists, or religious preachers. They are not even agricultural experts or health professionals. But the wisdom these natural farmers possess and practice combines the knowledge of all these. KVM preaches its farmers to adopt the famous verses from the Guru Granth Sahib, Pavnu Guru, Panni Pita Matta Dharat Mahat (air is guru, water is father and the earth is mother). One can call this farming with passion, spiritual farming, natural farming, non-violent agriculture or simply Nanak Kheti.

Natural farmers of Punjab say that the land has witnessed the destruction of the environment and particularly the soil ecology in the last few decades as a consequence of chemical intensive farming. The soil has lost its nutrient pool. Burning of paddy straw has further destroyed the soil's health.

But during the last four to five years, the soil in several parts of Punjab has been regenerated and rejuvenated, these natural farmers are convinced, so much so that your feet feel happy and healthy on coming in contact with the soil. You can see earthworm castings, which had completely disappeared in the fields, says a visibly happy and proud Hartej Singh of Mehta village in Bhatinda district. "Our farmers will offer you a handful of soil which you will find soft and with all the natural aromas that are associated with the infinite life of our earth. That is the kind of work we are doing," he adds.

The practitioners of this 'natural farming' are not environmentalists, economists, or religious preachers. They are not even agricultural experts or health professionals. But the wisdom these natural farmers possess and practice combines the knowledge of all these.

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KVM has evolved a distinct philosophy which defines soil as the 'source of infinite lives'. "Yes, it is true and we have experienced it," avers KVM chairman and a farmer from Rai Ke Kalan village of Bathinda, Harjant Singh. If the soil is rich in microorganisms, its texture is soft, full of natural essence and ample quantities of moisture are kept intact. Then the soil gives healthy crops, and there is a lesser need for irrigation.

Harjant Singh further elaborates on the scientific premises of natural farming. All living organisms require nutrition and minerals for their growth, and amongst them plants, being stationary, get their nutrition at that spot. They get carbon dioxide and water from nature and by the process of photosynthesis, the required amount of sugars is produced. Similarly nitrogen is available in the air and the rhyzobia bacteria in the soil can capture it for the plants. These microorganisms perform different functions for the plants. "By using the chemical inputs, especially the pesticides, we have destroyed the delicate microbial equilibrium of soil and tilted the game in favour of external chemical inputs thus making the situation even worst," says Singh.

KVM farmers use Jeevaamrita (a cow urine based microbial preparation) to revive microbial activity in soil. With the application of Jeevaamrita and Ghan Jeevaamrita (a solid form of Jeevaamrita), the soil is gradually becoming rich in the humus, yield has increased and other life forms are coming back in the fields, says Charanjeet Singh Punni, another KVM farmer from Chaina village and a natural farming trainer. Punni highlights another aspect of natural farming. "Although the sunlight of some of its radiation is essential for the photosynthesis, yet it is a threat to the soil bacteria. Mulching is the best answer to this."

Mulching is an essential part of natural farming. Natural farmers aver that when the soil is covered with various forms of mulching, the results are unimaginable. Earlier the soil had lost all soil bacteria, microbes and earthworms. But after adoption of Jeevaamrita and mulching, the farms are again becoming wealthy in soil health. Krishnan Jakhar of village Dhaba (near Dabawali), Vinod Jyani of village Katehra and other natural farmers of the KVM network are using inter crops, plant residue, fallen leaves, bushes, weeds and sometimes even the wheat straw or the rice straw cuttings spread in the fields to cover the naked soil. Besides protecting the bacteria and retaining the moisture, this also keeps the temperature of the soil low and it never goes beyond the 40 degrees Celsius, which is the upper limit for the survival of microbes, tells Ajay Tripathi, associate director of KVM.

KVM farmers have redefined, reestablished and regenerated their mother-son relation with the soil. They feel a spiritual bond, a oneness with the soil. That is why they are against all forms of agro-chemicals and burning of fields - to them it is a form of violence against the earth.

Amarjit Sharma, farmer at Chaina village. Pic: Ajay Tripathi, Kudrati Kheti archives.

Does the economics work?

This spiritual soil science is also more financially beneficial to these farmers. After adopting natural farming they are spending far less from earlier chemical farming days. Natural famring is more cost effective and input efficient says Amarjeet Dhillon a small farmer from Dabrikhana village, who owns only two acres of land. For example, farmers having sugarcane and black gram in their farms have to spend virtually nothing on inputs asserts, Dhillon. He cities several examples where farmer had spend only Rs.100-200 on inputs for one acre as against Rs.3000 by a chemical farming farmer. "Some of us had stopped cash out flow to cities any more to purchase Urea, DAP and pesticides and thousands of others have reduced this out flow of cash in a big way", he adds.

On an average in Malwa's cotton belt farmers are spending Rs.7000 on chemical inputs per acre annually in normal conditions. If there are more pest attacks, then there may be no limit to this amount. There is a rough estimate that every village is spending a large sum of money -- from Rs.40 lakhs to Rs.6 crores -- purchasing agro-chemicals, depending upon area of cultivation and cropping pattern. Natural farmers want to stop the loss of village wealth by bringing down farmers' spending on agro-chemicals.

The list of natural farmers includes names from all corners of the state. The Pingalwara Charitable Society, Amritsar, a prestigious social service institute in north India, founded by Bhagat Puran Singh has joined natural farming and is supporting the movement with its resources. Pingalwara has established the Bhagat Puran Singh Natural Farming Centre in 37 acres at village Dhirakot near Jandiala Guru. Similarly many professionals such as those from the medical field, college and university lecturers and professors, advocates, even government officials and civil servants have joined this movement for rejuvenation of the soil. They are in contact with the KVM and participate in its activities.

In the just commenced wheat season -- from now to mid-April -- KVM activists are planning to reach out to at least 60 blocks of the state. These activists are farmers who work in the fields, not experts who come by when they can spare time to propagate natural farming. They are trainers, scientists and leaders of this ecological initiative, in the service of mother nature.