Land reclamation: The secret to food security in rural South India

Amid all the disheartening reports about threatened food security and depleted agri-yields, Pushpanath Krishnamurthy discover partnerships in the heart of rural South India that are providing beacons of light for sustainable agriculture simply by letting the farmer use his native wisdom on his land.


Amid all the disheartening reports about threatened food security and depleted agri-yields, Pushpanath Krishnamurthy discover partnerships in the heart of rural South India that are providing beacons of light for sustainable agriculture simply by letting the farmer use his native wisdom on his land.

The Indian Parliament debated and finally introduced  The National Food Security Bill in August this year, as well as the Right to Food Bill, a pet project of the ruling Congress Party. As a common man living in the city, I decided to go to some villages in South India to get a flavour of what food security means at the household of small farmers. Here is what I found.

Just 60 kilometres from the bustling city of Bangalore, India’s Silicon city, and I am in the Kodahalli Hobli (A block within the district of Ramanagaram), in Karnataka. The villages looked spectacular with green hills and water overflowing after a year of more than expected rainfall. I find out soon that the beauty hides the real struggle of the peasants here. The small patches of land here on the undulating and treacherous hill path are everyday paths these farmers have to tread, sometimes with bags of manure that can be a killer!

Small fields at Ramanagaram

Small fields at Ramanagaram

“Why do you struggle so much,” I ask Narayana, 45, who owns few guntas of land here (40 guntas make an acre). “You can just sell and move to town as many in this East side of the capital are doing (steadily, villages on this side of the National highway 241 are disappearing to give way to luxury homes to the new rich).”

The struggle is worth it, he says. “We have formed groups which collect and support each other in reclaiming small patches of land. See!” he said and showed me, what is perhaps, a few guntas of a healthy looking ragi, the finger millet crop, that they have planted on this newly reclaimed land.

“I will harvest 8-10 bags which will give me enough to eat and also sell,” he says with a smile, full of obvious pride and confidence.

This new found confidence seems to have come about recently, thanks to the technical and financial mobilisation and support from DHAN Foundation, an organization that works across the country on livelihood and poverty issues. DHAN more recently decided to act on the worsening situation of poverty among the rain fed agricultural community by undertaking a number of actions.

Land reclamation, even if in small patches along with land rejuvenation, has started to show impressive results in providing better food security for small farmers through sustainable and appropriate cultivation practices.

In the home of the traditional farmer

We go on next to meet Mahadevayya, a 37-year-old farmer who looks 30. He is tall, elegant, full of beans and an unsurpassed host. He is well travelled, being talented in various folk forms – from Dollu Kunitha to Kosale Kunitha (spiritual-cultural expressions) and is called upon to sing, drum and dance by the Karnataka Government  and others too. When he is at home, he is surrounded by native chickens, goats, cows and pet dogs that run wild around his big joint family home with a front yard wide enough to play cricket!

He said to me that while he used to travel so much across India,  he  always came home and went out to buy whatever he needed including food. His father and grandfather were known for their knowledge of native herbal medicine and were also acclaimed in integrated cultivation.

A few years ago he felt that he had abandoned them and therefore Lord Shiva called out to him. “Mahadeshwara (Lord Shiva) told me to get back to land,” he swears. “I have never left the singing and dancing but my passion is full time to grow food, vegetables and other herbs, and collect local seeds.”

Land – a cure for all ills

“For each plant I grow, there is in it, hidden, a remedy or a cure for any ailment from constipation to cancer.” He takes me around his farm, all the while singing songs in praise of Shiva, and shows me the range of Organic solutions he makes from many items that are found locally and in the vicinity.

The land is infused with the rich silt from the local water tank that has boosted his crop. Thanks to its ability to retain water under water deficit stress periods, combined with the organic fertilizer that he makes, the crop look ravishing as it was getting ready for harvest. Mahadevayya beams when he says that his crop is the only one that did not break when a recent high wind and rain wiped out other millet crop grown under inorganic way.

Fish paste was his favorite concoction. “Just apply them to any plant and it gets an army of buzzing bees that not only helps pollinate better but by its sheer force prevents any other pests from attacking the crop.” He takes me around to show me the various collections of seeds he saves – from valuable minor millets to local onions for himself and for others who come from far and wide to his farm, as his work gets known because of DHAN. Mahadevayya’s collection is preserved and propagated with the help of DHAN.

Deep faith is something that sustains the peasants here and it is something that makes them feel that irrespective of bad year they hope the next year will be better, so they sow again. This is an aspect that we as development secularists ignore very easily.

From one farmer to another

DHAN has this great ability to identify and support individuals and take traditional knowledge and good practice to other farmers through the farmers groups that they work with as well as to the various events such as the Seed Festival in Bangalore, both for sales and to publicize their work.

From developing and supporting rain fed farmers’ federation to documenting community bio-diversity registers and seed banks, providing small grants, enabling infusion of quality seeds, supporting identification of native millets to groundnuts through local participatory selection, soil health enhancement through tank silt provision to land levelling, solar fencing to protect crops from wild beasts – these are just some of the ways DHAN has been helping the farmers of Ramanagaram.

Their most important contribution has been in developing solidarity among groups of men and women, improving the knowledge, skill, competency and leadership of local community. The women and men of Kodhihalli Hobli are bringing a silent revitalization of the natural and community resources. The work is just a few years old but shows so much promise, possibilities and lessons, and has made a breakthrough of sorts in sustainable, rain fed agriculture.

As we drove back, I felt more hopeful about the future of our food chains, nutrition and livelihoods for these farmers. One answer is partnerships between organisations like DHAN Foundation and rural communities that have marshalled their social institutions to manage both food and environment sustainably.

This article is a part of our November theme, Nature On My Plate, to celebrate all things organic at BioFach India 2013.


  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pushpanath 'Push' Krishnamurthy has three decades of experience at the leading edge of development work across three continents. At Oxfam he has led pioneering campaigns such as Make Trade Fair and the Climate Change Hearings. With a background in development studies and agricultural science, Push has grassroots experience from regions as diverse as East Asia, Southern Africa, the Balkans and the ... more

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  ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Pushpanath 'Push' Krishnamurthy has three decades of experience at the leading edge of development work across three continents. At Oxfam he has led pioneering campaigns such as Make Trade Fair and the Climate Change Hearings. With a background in development studies and agricultural science, Push has grassroots experience from regions as diverse as East Asia, Southern Africa, the Balkans and the ... more

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