It is symptomatic of an event-driven media that there is now a great deal of attention paid to farmers' suicides in Maharashtra, Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, but hardly any focus on the alternatives to the high-input farming that is driving farmers to desperation. As is now well known, most farmers have committed suicide because they are steeped in debt, from loans taken to sow improved seeds or use better fertilizer or pesticide, or most likely a combination of all three. The perils of those choices are now starkly before us, and the need of the hour is to look hard for alternatives, and adopt them rapidly.

The Rural Development Committee of the Rotary Club of Bombay, in association with the Forum of Environmental Journalists of India (of which this author is the Chairperson), recently organised a presentation by three experts and farmers from Vidarbha who have opted for organic methods. Unfortunately, it was sparsely attended, except for a few of the already converted and some enthusiastic vendors of organic produce.

Overcoming scepticism

Dr Tarak Kate, from Dharamitra, an NGO in Wardha, has extensive experience in research on agriculture which employs no external inputs. His work in Vidarbha covered two phases. In the first, between 1988 and 2001, seven NGOs worked with 400 small and marginal farmers in 22 villages in four districts. In the second phase, he concentrated with what these alternative proponents term "resource-poor" farmers - to carefully differentiate them from standard notions of poverty - in one block in Yavatmal district. According to Dr Kate, the scientific establishment, including some of the world's top agricultural scientists, are sceptical about organic methods. Norman Borlaug, the Nobel Laureate and father of the Green Revolution, says: "We cannot feed 6 billion people with organic farming; if we tried to do so we will level most of our forests...." John Emslay, a senior Cambridge (UK) chemist puts it more bluntly. He says that the greatest catastrophe that the human race will face this century is not global warming but a global conversion to organic farming - an estimated 2 billion people would perish.

Such scepticism is why Kate and his colleagues in Dharamitra have collected data systematically, to negate the charge that this alternative is "unscientific" and "unproven". The data relates to each farmer and covers the cropping pattern, yield and income per year.

Bhaskar Save, a farmer and 'village-level scientist' whom Dr Kate has dubbed the Indian Fukuoka, has recently written to Dr M.S. Swaminathan, voicing his concern about the mounting suicides:

"I am an 84-year old natural/organic farmer with more than six decades of personal experience in growing a wide range of food crops," he wrote. "I have, over the years, practised several systems of farming, including the chemical method in the fifties - until I soon saw its pitfalls. I say with conviction that it is only by organic farming in harmony with nature, that India can sustainably provide her people abundant, wholesome food. ... You, M S Swaminathan, are considered the 'father' of India's so-called 'Green Revolution' that flung open the floodgates of toxic agro-chemicals ... As destiny would have it, you are presently the chairperson of the National Commission on Farmers, mandated to draft a new agricultural policy. I urge you to take this opportunity to make amends - for the sake of the children, and those yet to come."

 •  Persist with organic, see results
 •  Transitioning to organic
 •  Putting away the toxic spray
 •  Farmers' suicides - full coverage

In Vidarbha - now repeatedly in the news over its mounting suicides, and historically neglected by the government of Maharashtra which has pampered the sugar farmers in the western part of the state instead - subsistence farmers are left to the vagaries of nature: as is evident from this monsoon itself, rainfall is getting increasingly erratic. But Dr Kate and his colleague Madhukar Khadse are more concerned about what they term the "over-dependence on the market for external inputs". The acreage devoted to pulses - which add nitrogen to the soil - has declined, which also means that the people lack a balanced diet. And there are no additional opportunities to earn income: Agriculture Minister Sharad Pawar, who has championed the cause of cane and grape growers, has suggested that Vidarbha take up dairy farming, but where will the fodder come from, in this parched area?

The true picture is presented by the current cropping pattern. After the introduction of high-yielding varieties, cotton accounts for two-thirds of the produce in the region. Pigeon pea comprises 17% and the remainder is accounted for by sorghum and soyabean. Under the circumstances, it is not surprising that this excessive reliance on cotton as a monoculture has literally killed farmers. As much as 60% of the pesticide in the country is for growing cotton.

According to a survey by Dharamitra, in a typical village in the region, Rs.1500 to Rs.1700 is spent per acre on hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Additionally, up to Rs.700 per acre constitutes interest against loans taken from moneylenders for the capital investment required, at 5% per month, for the seven months from sowing to harvest. Hence the total capital expenditure works out to between Rs.2700 and Rs.3240 per acre, once labour charges are also added. With an average output of 2.5 quintals of cotton per acre, and the price of Rs.2000 per quintal, the gross income works out to Rs.5000 per acre. Hence the net income is only Rs.1760-Rs.2300. Prior to the introduction of high-yielding varieties, when farmers relied on local and inputs which were not chemical-based, the yield was lower at 1.5 to 2 quintals per acre but the profit greater at Rs.3000. Hence the conclusion: "This shows that enhancement of productivity does not necessarily mean increase in profits."

This underlines the crisis in arid regions of the peninsula with what Dr Kate terms "high input, high output, high risk" farming. Dharamitra's calculations further show that between Rs.2200 and Rs.2450 per acre of cotton - excluding the labour involved in applying chemicals - goes out of the village "in the name of external inputs and interest needed to be paid on cash capital borrowed from money lenders". The NGO cites Umari village, with 75 families, which grows cotton over 250 acres. A staggering Rs.7.5 lakhs flows out of the village each year in this manner. As Dr Kate says: "There is need to stop this outflow and ensure that this money remains in the village."

Dharamitra has organised farmers' study groups to demonstrate how organic farming can prove profitable. "Seeing is believing," he says. This was tried out at Saidapur, a small tribal village in Wardha district, for two years. Moreover, everything was pain-stakingly documented. One of the innovations was to create a grain bank, which provided 15-20 kg of foodgrain per head in a village as a safety net in times of extreme distress. Any needy person could access this bank but had to return it the following year with an additional 20% of grain. Inevitably, female self-help groups proved more successful than their male counterparts in using this.

Dr Kate is at pains to emphasise that organic farming is not a simple switch-over to different inputs - or, rather, a return to traditional practices - but involves a "bundle" of measures. It is most necessary to monitor the health of the soil. Samples randomly collected from 8% of the villages covered have shown a clear improvement in the nitrogen content and level of beneficial microbial activity. "If you save the soil, you save the nutrient," he points out. There is extensive use of nutrients which are available in situ, like leaf litter and cattle urine.

Despite these gains, Dharamitra is aware of the obstacles to wide-spread adoption of this alternative. Farmers need to undergo a major change in mindset to apply contour bunding and composting, techniques which require constant monitoring and regular maintenance. As Dr Kate admits candidly: "Although crop productivity under the non-chemical system has been brought almost at par with that of the chemical system, the overall productivity is still quite low. Similarly, even if a noteworthy increase has been registered in the net incomes of the farmers under the non-chemical system, the total income is still very low to meet their livelihood needs."

Manohar Parchure, who is the moving spirit behind the Maharashtra Organic Farmers Association - the state is the leader in this respect - cites how 5 lakh farmers have turned to this practice. However, none of the universities have done any work in this area and therefore there is no academic data available. The average loan, with current farming methods, is Rs.40,000 per family. "Earlier, we imported wheat," he observes. "Now we import fertilizer."