Sustainability Check on Rural India

4th August, 2020

By Raghav Garg, Geography Student

Illustrations by Christine Davis and Rashi Agarwal, Creative Directors

As a Geography student, India is the perfect place to conduct research into the sustainability of people’s lifestyles. My childhood has been amazing. From living in the heart of the ‘leather’ city of Kanpur (infamous for its water pollution) to eating freshly plucked oranges from my farm in a satellite village, I have experienced both city and village life.


Indian villages and cities have different sustainability practices from the rest of the world. Like other urban dwellers, most Indian townspeople are still on the verge of developing suitable resource management skills. What is different, though, is that people living in villages have an ancient connection to concepts we now refer to today such as ‘Go Green’ and ‘Best Out Of Waste’. 70% of rural households in India depend primarily on agriculture, with the rest migrating to the cities in search of better opportunities. Traditionally, farming methods included using organic matter for fertility and rain for irrigation, yet these methods could not fulfill the requirements needed to ensure India’s food security.


To overcome this, food had to be imported from other countries. In the 1950’s, the government launched a Green Revolution which led to the introduction of HYV (High Yielding Variety) seeds, artificial chemical fertilizers, and pesticides. In the short run, these less sustainable methods largely helped India attain food security. Yet, as these methods gained popularity, they started causing soil degradation, biodiversity loss, overuse of groundwater and compromised food quality.

 

Scenic view of Kedia village. Image Credit: Greenpeace India

Kedia: A new face of farming


In the past few decades, there has been a massive shift towards eco-friendly ways of farming. Many individuals and organizations have started to join hands with the government to direct farmers down a chemical-free and technology-driven route. One such example is Kedia, a small village in the state of Bihar which has given a new direction to Indian agriculture.


In the past, the village has had a poor reputation due to the rash of suicides committed by farmers, whom are forced down this dark path by overwhelming debt. Kedia’s new eco-agricultural model brought a ray of hope. With the help of Greenpeace India, the village transformed into an eco-farming community. A couple of years ago, the same place used to be home to infertile, chemically-loaded fields with absolutely no productivity. Now Kedia is comprised of green, picturesque land which yields large quantities of organic food.

 

Kedia's farmers gather for a discussion. Image Credit: Greenpeace India

How did this happen?


The farmers chose to switch from chemical-laden farming to ecological agriculture. This transition was not easy, but the farmers persevered. The whole idea was to rejuvenate soil health. For this, they had a fantastic idea: to use locally produced, biomass-based organic supplements made from cow dung and agricultural residues. Essential nutrients in the soil were replenished. By replacing artificial fertilizers, the input costs decreased by 60% in the first year. 

 

The rest of the job was done by domesticated cattle, which proved to be sufficient to plough fields on small landholdings. In the following year, farmers started producing their own seeds and further cut costs. The production scaled up quickly and, due to the crops’ high quality, demand for them rose. Due to the increased demand, there was no need for any third party salesmen, which meant the gap between the farmers and their consumers narrowed.


The Kedia model set an example – with fewer costs and no brokers to pay, it proved that sustainable practices in agriculture are commercially viable. Within the next few years, some farmers had even installed ‘subsidized cow dung power plants’ in their homes, which helped them charge bore wells to draw water. With all these resources, farmers in Kedia could now access a healthy food and water supply. Kedia transformed from a poor farming village into a hub of innovation and now attracts influential researchers, practitioners and policymakers. This fully sustainable business model is now being replicated in other parts of Bihar and India.

 

Farmers prepare Amrit Pani (a concoction of cattle dung, cattle urine, jaggery, neem leaf, calotropis leaf, pulse powder and soil) in a training camp.

. Image Credit: Greenpeace India

COVID-19 Effect


In India, coronavirus has shed light on other aspects of nutrition besides just food security - post-lockdown, India has witnessed a shift in demand towards ecologically produced agricultural commodities. More and more village households are embracing ecological farming, by seeking healthy, organic food that now fetches a good price.


Subsidised agricultural methods have helped curb the negative effects of the Green Revolution in rural India. One such example is drip and sprinkler irrigation systems that help to save water. Another is local power generation plants which use cow dung as the raw material, thus converting waste into electricity and manure. Solar panels also replace generators to a large extent by generating renewable energy.

 

An ecologically grown 20kg (!) bottle gourd in Kedia. Image Credit: Greenpeace India

Ecologically grown tomatoes in Kedia. Image Credit: Greenpeace India

Concluding remarks


Lives in rural India completely revolve around farming and every member of the family contributes to the field. People in the past had to switch towards less sustainable lifestyles, but today’s scenario is a lot different. There are much better prospects and opportunities.


Going to university abroad and interacting with people from all around the world has made me reflect on food security in India. As a resident of India, I feel that the quality of food is as important as food security. Chemical farming poisons the soil, but even a small village like Kedia managed to challenge the unforeseen problems and bounce back. So can the entire continent of India. In the long run, it is necessary that sustainable farming continues to maintain an ecological balance.


Having observed rural India so closely, I strongly believe that innovative agricultural technology will help rural India achieve its untapped potential. Hopefully the day will come when nutritious food, like that in Kedia, will be grown and harvested organically across the world to feed a healthier future.  

 

Some material contained in this post has been adapted from: Ahmed, I., 2018. 'Three Years Of Ecological Agriculture Has Changed Kedia Forever'; Peter Carberry, P. and Padhee, A., 2020. 'Containing COVID-19 Impacts On Indian Agriculture'; Food And Agriculture Organization Of The United Nations, 'India At A Glance'; Rahman, Saidur. ‘Green Revolution in India: Environmental Degradation and Impact on Livestock’. Also with thanks to Abhishek Kumar Chanchal, Public Engagement Campaigner at Greenpeace India.

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