Organic farming: Nature’s Way of inclusion

Established in 1999, Naman Sewa Samiti has been at the forefront of a movement to ensure equal rights and opportunities to persons with disabilities. The organisation has been able to achieve a lot during a short period of time due to support of the community and its wilful partners. While a cooperative credit and savings bank, a spice processing and packaging unit and organic farms are the tangible resources, a more enduring outcome has been the number of poorest of the poor who are now experiencing better living standards and dignity through these set ups.

Marginalised farmers leading organic farming
Going organic

It was a chance introduction that inspired office bearers of Naman Sewa Samiti to promote organic farming. A four member team of the Samiti including DPO leaders attended a workshop on chemical-free farming at Kathgodam, Uttarakhand. They got so enthused by the concept that on return, they started practising it on their farms and got good results. Further study of the organic model through exposure visits to other states strengthened the belief and chemical-free farming presented itself as a very good mean for involvement of persons with disabilities in poverty alleviation and malnutrition, two of the major reasons for disability.

Little gap between cost and earnings through agriculture is pushing families into poverty while increasing climatic variability is just aggravating the crisis. Neighbouring Vidarbha region has been witnessing high rate of farmer suicides due to rising input cost of farming and subsequent debts.

Poorest people, including those with a disability, are most likely to lack access to clean water, fertile soils and energy sources. In addition, climate change is projected to increase malnutrition and the distribution of many diseases, increasing incidence of disability. In Asia, severe weather emergencies have increased by four times in the past 20 years. These events increase the rate of disability in communities and destroy infrastructure, leaving people with a disability even more vulnerable. It is estimated that 18 million people with a disability will be displaced by climatic events by 2050.

Since organic farming has been globally recognised as a sustainable and effective response to environmental degradation and climate change, involvement of those with disability in this programme gives power to those who need it the most.

Betul, one of the most back of the beyond regions of Madhya Pradesh, is already facing acute water shortage and high soil erosion. While the monsoon rain causes erosion of the fertile top earth of the hilly terrain, the laterite soil is a poor keeper of water. Thus the underground water can only be found at great depths of 400-1,000 feet. Organic farming, thus, becomes extremely essential in this area. Not only the natural manures help retain soil moisture, the stronger stalks and roots of the crop prevent erosion.

The process

Building on the already established network of disabled people’s organisations and self-help groups in Athner block, Naman Sewa Samiti held umpteen village-level community meetings to create awareness and mobilize farmers on opportunities in organic farming. Broadly, the process of inclusive organic farming was discussed with the community members and onsite feedback collected. A reporting format for survey to collect the demographic data, disability specific information, ownership of land, current agriculture practices, land size and market feasibility was developed.

Thanks to efforts made, today there are 327 farmers currently involved in organic farming of which 161 are persons with disabilities or their family members. A total of 165.76 hectare is under organic way of cultivation. Naman follows a well-established process which scrutinises each and every applicant and helps set up an individual system of support and reportage. Once a farmer is informed about various benefits of organic farming, he can formally apply to the Naman Sewa Samiti for inclusion in the programme. An approval is granted after considering his interest and commitment. The farmer is further informed about the aspects he needs to care about when carrying out organic farming through a step-to-step guide.

Soil test is done for the individual land earmarked for organic farming. The test result gives information about deficiency in the soil and Samiti members suggest natural fertilisers to make up for the deficiency. Samiti also provides indigenous seeds or saplings to the farmer to initiate him into organic farming. The farmers are required to maintain a daily diary with details of bio compost, seeds, tools used and their cleaning, production, barriers to external environment, packaging and storage. They should also own livestock so that it’s easier to prepare organic manure. But for the dung to be organic, the animal feed also needs to be chemical free. Hence, a holistic approach to the whole organic concept is adopted.

Crop is protected from possible contamination through barriers to external environment. While water draining from adjoining fields is diverted or stopped through building of furrows, mixed crop is planted on fringes to impede contamination through air. Since farmers often exchange farm tools and machines, it’s mandatory to clean them properly before use on organic farm so that chemical residue is also prohibited.

The structure

Naman Sewa Samiti has in place a well-defined organisational structure complete with adequate checks and balances as well as a support system. Each farmer, with maximum of 4 hectares under organic cultivation, is member of one of the 24 farmer self-help groups (SHGs). These SHGs are further affiliated to Haldar Krishak Federation, an organisation of farmers which procures and sells the organic produce in market. Of the 327 total farmers, 81 are women and 161 are persons with disabilities or their family members. An 11-member elected committee looks after functioning of the federation.

Three field managers of Naman Sewa Samiti make regular visits to the farmers, organising meetings of SHGs and giving inputs on various aspects of farming. In addition, 74 villagers, mostly persons with disabilities, have been trained to act as master trainers or peer educators on organic farming. They not only interact with farmers but also provide information on preparation of natural compost, pest control, farm maintenance, livestock management and government schemes. Two internal inspectors scrutinise the compliance to guidelines on ground while a recommendation committee having members from various government and non-government organisations reviews the overall functioning and implementation of the programme. Ecocert, an organic certification organization, has been providing technical assistance for accreditation purposes.

Certification

The team from Ecocert gave training to Naman staff on internal control systems and use of GPS in field. Internal inspections of the farms are done twice during the crop season. The first inspection is done after 21 days of sowing the crop. Efficacy of border crops, maintenance of the field and preparation of organic pesticides are checked at this time. If pesticide is not ready on time, the farmer is advised to purchase the recommended products from the market. Second inspection is done at time of harvest and storage to ensure an exclusive storage space for organic produce so that the chemical contaminants do not creep in. These two visits by inspection team are over and above the regular monitoring and evaluation done by field managers and master trainers or peer educators.

Since there is more than one organic farmer in each village where the programme is being implemented, self-regulation is quite effective. Members monitor each other’s practices and report in case of non-compliance to the Samiti. That the review system is very strict is evident from the fact that as many as 173 farmers were dropped from the programme after they were found to be violating the norms.

A report based on inspections is sent to ECOCERT and an online updation is done on APEDA platform every six months with details of production besides harvesting and sale of produce.

Partnerships

Efforts of a non-government group are further bolstered through convergence with government schemes. Naman Sewa Samiti focuses on systemic delivery of services and gradually strengthening the links between service delivery providers and service users.

While a set of master trainers take information about government schemes to the community, various resource persons from government departments have been part of orientations for farmers.

Collaboration with the Madhya Pradesh Agriculture Department has been one such instance of successful convergence since the state government is keenly promoting organic farming. The Agriculture Technology Management Agency (ATMA) has been holding training programmes for farmers at cluster levels. Farmers linked to Naman Sewa Samiti also attended the trainings at Krishi Vigyan Kendra in Betul to understand science behind organic farming. The district authorities found maximum positive response from farmers in the Athner block because of the work Naman had already done in the area. In fact, the Betul district collector recommended for Athner to be developed as organic block since it has the maximum potential to act as a model for others.

Around 200 farmers linked to Naman availed of the government subsidy for construction of vermicompost pit while 19 farmers got the machines for grading of produce from the authorities. The back and forth linkages with government departments also helped Naman to sensitize government officials about need to include farmers with disabilities in their programmes.

Some officials of the state agriculture department are also advisory board members of the Haldar Krishak Federation, which is the formal group of organic farmers and producers.

The way forward

The project was taken up by Naman as a challenge to bring financial sustainability to the community. This was also a means to break the cycle of abuse by money lenders of marginalised farmers who end up losing their entire crop in lieu of informal loans. But thanks to good results already evident in the second year of the programme implementation, more farmers are showing interest in growing organic. Another 200 farmers have been identified for inclusion in the programme in the next stage. Of these, 85 per cent are persons with disabilities or their family members.

Most of the farmers associated with Naman Sewa Samiti are slowly but surely increasing their landholdings under organic. They are adding an acre every year because not only such a gradual increment acts as cushion against sudden drop in production, but also helps them gain better skills at managing an organic farm.

One thing they all have learned is that chemical-free farming demands honest effort and commitment and they are willing to put their best foot forward. Next level for Naman and Haldar Krishak Federation is to crack the market for organic produce. Though several procurement agencies and companies have already shown interests in the crops, the farmers are yet to work out a standard market mechanism which can fetch them the best price.

It is expected that once the land is certified, the products will get a greater recognition while market linkages will be established on a firmer ground.

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