Will Zero Budget Natural Farming address India’s complex farming and food demands?

Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advocacy of Zero Budget Natural Farming comes after the controversial farm laws were repealed. But further critical examination is crucial.
Farm workers in Amaravati
Farm workers in Amaravati

In a televised address to the nation on the morning of November 19th, Prime Minister Narendra Modi sought forgiveness from farmers and the entire nation “with all sincerity of purpose and from the bottom of my heart” for aggressively and undemocratically promoting three controversial farm laws. He took this decision even though only a small section of farmers opposed the laws, Modi said.

What the Prime Minister claimed is in stark contrast with facts: the Opposition opposed the laws when they were introduced in Parliament in 2020. Yet the laws were abrasively rushed through both houses. The manner in which the farm laws have been repealed now is no different. Clearly, democratic debate and discursive reasoning is anathema to Modi’s style of governance.

It is the historic and unimaginable farmers' protest of over a year that has exposed the toxic governance the nation has been enduring for some years now. Despite the gates of Delhi firmly shut on them with concrete barricades, spiked roads, frequent and outrageous police violence, and also the horrific Lakhimpur Kheir incident, all farmers unions/networks of the country, with the exception of Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS) affiliate Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS), came together and stayed united under the Samyukt Kisan Morcha (United Farmers Front; SKM) leadership to challenge Modi’s didacticism and what they termed are pro-corporate farm policies.

Modi never reached out to hundreds of thousands of farmers through the year of their incredible protests, even subjugating them to to live in makeshift tent towns on Delhi’s borders enduring the coldest of winters, through a harsh and long summer, weathering the brutal impact of the COVID second wave, and the long damp monsoon season. His emissaries tried to convince farmers the laws were passed in their interest. But the farmers stood stolidly demanding they be repealed. Seven hundred of them lost their lives there protesting.

The objective of announcing the repeal of the farm laws on Guru Nanak Diwas has been widely held as an act of great worry of not gaining ground in the soon-to-be-held state elections in Punjab. Given that the protests witnessed massive participation of Sikh farmers, it must have weighed on Modi’s mind that there was no way to secure their support but to give in to their demands. With the horrific Lakhimpur Kheri incident, the support of farmers in Uttar Pradesh, which is in election mode, appears tenuous. The repeal decision appears sodden with electoral considerations. Yet it was delivered by Modi without a hint of ignominy and in typical style — turgid, ridged heavily with a saviour complex. Yet on the upside, farmers won for Indian democracy an incredible step up.

A government for private corporations?

From the time Modi became Prime Minister in 2014, he has pushed policies which forestage corporate interests. This has been the case with banking, finance and insurance sectors where he has promoted amalgamation and privatisation. With his hubristic demonetisation decision, he wrecked the back of middle classes and the poor, and set India’s economic growth back by years, if not decades. In infrastructure development (promoting such projects as the super expensive ‘Bullet train’), in the redevelopment of Varanasi and Delhi Vista, and in ‘smart city’ development, he has demonstrated the extent to which he will employ his didactic decision making approach.  With public asset privatisation, he has been criticised for risking the country’s future and placing the futures of millions of public sector workers at the mercy of mega private corporations. In energy, in mining, even in health and education, it has been the interests of the corporate sector that has taken precedence over all else.

The first major indication of how Modi would direct governance of India came with the TSR Subramanian Committee Report (2014), set up to ‘reform’ environmental, forest and biodiversity conservation laws. These laws were termed as ‘bottlenecks’ to economic progress and so the Subramanian Committee recommended they are comprehensively ‘reformed’, disregarding environmental jurisprudence painfully constructed over decades, and on the basis of the principle of ‘utmost good faith’. This meant the corporate sector would be trusted to self-regulate their environmental compliance, an approach even the most capitalist of all nations, USA, does not allow.

The trend has continued into major transformations promoted in the energy sector; major  amendments to the Electricity Act have been proposed to comprehensively open it up to private sector investment from generation to consumption, even billing farm consumption. Alongside, the Essential Commodities Act, Environment Impact Assessment Notification and Forest Conservation Act are up for fundamental amendments that guarantee a huge boost for corporate interests. All such changes are being rationalised as promoting improved efficiency of governance.

Democracy deficit and its implications for farm security

All of these transformations have been marked by massive democracy deficits. Farmers have held the farm laws would place farmers at the mercy of traders and giant corporations, and force them to forfeit sovereign control over seeds, farm lands and their produce. Far from being interested in the promised global reach of what they grow, and of betting on a better price from corporatised markets, they have insisted categorically that legally entitled Minimum Support Price must be introduced and opposed amendments to the Electricity Act. They have opposed corporatisation of farmland and demanded those responsible for the Lakhimpur Kheri incident must be held accountable. Until these demands are also secured, they have refused to leave their protest camps.

When UPA-I was in power, Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh was challenged to address India’s farming crisis, disturbingly indicated by massive numbers of farmer suicides. Dr Singh responded by establishing the Swaminathan Committee on Agricultural Reforms (2004-6), which witnessed vigorous debates and discussions, even disagreements, everywhere, and in just about every form of public and Parliamentary engagement. An indication is an Open Letter written by veteran organic farmer Bhaskar Save to Prof MS Swaminathan in which the agricultural scientist was directly held accountable for the dire stairs Indian farmers find themselves in: “You are considered the ‘father’ of India’s so-called ‘Green Revolution’ that flung open the floodgates of toxic ‘agro’ chemicals – ravaging the lands and lives of many millions of Indian farmers over the past 50 years. More than any other individual in our long history, it is you I hold responsible for the tragic condition of our soils and our debt-burdened farmers, driven to suicide in increasing numbers every year.” The 2007 National Policy for Farmers was an outcome.

Pitching ZBNF

Such a spirit of discursive reasoning and disagreement is clearly missing now. In Modi’s 17-minute long speech there was no mention at all of the Swaminathan Committee, or even the Farm Policy. He made it a point, however, to claim India’s farming would now shift to “environmentally safe Zero Budget Natural Farming” (ZBNF). He also announced there would be a committee constituted by him to implement this reform.

The ZBNF announcement must be seen in the complex context of India’s farming scenario: 58% of India’s population is dependent on farming, and the region is constituted of the most diverse agro ecological zones.  About 80-90% of India’s water consumption is for farming, and half of it is by lifting groundwater - implying, therefore, that India’s farms are heavily reliant on a favourable electricity supply policy. Besides, India’s largely non mechanised farming relies on unfettered access to grazing pastures to support livestock rearing, to forests for minor forest produce and biomass, on lakes and rivers for  maintaining soil moisture, and access to fair markets with a basic guarantee of income assurance which is absent now. With the majority of India’s farming households constituted of small landholders, a nationwide shift to agroecological farming methods has been considered necessary to root out prevailing extractive and exploitative practices, which has wrought the prevailing farming crisis. Would ZBNF address such complexities of India’s farming and food security demands?

ZBNF, popularised by Subhash Palekar, is so named as it is claimed to be a method that requires no investment (thus zero budget), and yet guarantees maximal gains for the farmer. Palekar advocates the use of various inoculations of the cow’s urine to guarantee high farm productivity. Inoculating soil with such treatments massively increases soil microbial populations which then aids release of soil nutrients to boost plant productivity. There is evidence that the ZBNF method works well in areas where there is ample irrigation, soils are rich in carbon, and where farm labour costs are low as the practice is labour intensive. However, concerns have been expressed that the method could contribute to depletion of available carbon in the soil, especially because India’s soils are heavily carbon deficient. This worry emerges in light of Palekar’s advocacy against adding biomass to farm soil and that this would result in  soil microbial populations exhausting soil carbon, and then turning to consume solid minerals which would result in irreversible soil degradation. This will have a direct impact on farm productivity in time, it is argued.

ZBNF came into prominence when N Chandrababu Naidu as Chief Minister of Andhra Pradesh (2014-19) decided to turn the state’s 60 lakhs (6 million) farming households to comprehensively adopt the practice by 2022.  To execute the project on a mission mode, he set up a parastatal - Rythi Sadhikara Samstha (RySS) independent of the State’s Agriculture Department.  The project involved creating a network of Farmer Producer Organisations (FPOs) - a form of self organised local parastatal and outside the representative Panchayat Raj institutional network. The project thus sidestepped the mandate of the 11th Schedule of the Constitution which requires “agriculture including agriculture extension” to be governed through Panchayats. There was no extensive debate or discussion in launching the project, even in the State Assembly.

The project started with an initial grant of  Rs 100 crores from  Azim Premji Philanthropic Initiatives (APPI), which was subsequently enhanced. But it got a boost when it received massive support and global advocacy from Sustainable India Finance Facility (SIFF), a financing facility organised by United Nations Environment Programme with support from French bank BNP Paribas, German bank KfW, Bill and Melinda Gates Fund (through investments in Digital Green to provide digitalisation support) and also research and advocacy support from World Agroforestry Centre (WAC, also known as ICRAF), World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), World Wildlife Fund (WWF), etc.

Very soon, Naidu was seen meeting with leaders of giant agri corporations at the World Economic Forum (Davos) and the UN General Assembly (New York) stitching global partnerships for a supply chain mechanism that would take AP’s natural farm produce into global markets in Europe and elsewhere. “You can know the history of the food; which land it has come (from); what are the ingredients; what are the soil properties; that is the biggest advantage,” Naidu exclaimed. “I have a dashboard to measure (performance of CRZBNF) against SDG achievements….Everything will be online. And there will be no corruption”.  To implement all this in a project that came to be called “Climate Resilient Zero Budget Natural Farming” (CRZBNF), the capital infusion needed was Rs. 16,500 crores. This was to be sourced through foreign loans and capital markets.

Has ZBNF succeeded in Andhra Pradesh?

When Naidu lost elections to Jagan Reddy, ZBNF’s progress faltered. Various assessments by think tanks and some universities in partnership with RySS do project CRZBNF as a success. But the project, underway now for six years, is far from achieving the transformation expected by the end of its term: a year from now.  RySS has renamed the project as Community Managed Natural Farming, distancing itself from the claim of being zero budget - given how its success is pitched on loans from foreign banks.  Azim Premji Foundation in a terse assessment in April 2021 has stated: “RySS is boosting the income and yields of 500,000 farm households across AP by cutting risks and cultivation costs through climate-resilient zero budget natural farming (CRZBNF)”, a far cry from the 60 lakh farming households that were to adopt the practice by next year.

When Modi chose to advocate ZBNF, he was basing it on AP’s experience as he was on Niti Aayog’s advocacy of “Bharatiya Prakritik Krishi Paddhati Programme (BPKP) under centrally sponsored scheme- Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY)” which the agency claims is “aimed at promoting traditional indigenous practices which reduces externally purchased inputs….based on on-farm biomass recycling with major stress on biomass mulching, use of on-farm cow dung-urine formulations; periodic soil aeration and exclusion of all synthetic chemical inputs”. It is evident how the cow is central to this proposed transition, which Niti Aayog says is well underway in Himachal Pradesh as well.  Whether the centrality of the cow to these farming practices will be employed in the dominant politics of our times, remains to be seen.

Given that the AP model is pitched entirely on foreign direct investment, and of export of sovereign farm information to foreign corporations for verification, serious questions arise about implications to sovereignty of seeds, agrobiodiversity and associated traditional knowledge. It is also not clear how this transition is transformative and beneficial to farmers as a centralised initiative against the constitutional scheme.   

Portents for India’s farm, food and biodiversity sovereignty

Prior to the introduction of the controversial farm laws, Jaswinder Singh of All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS) had expressed concerns over Narendra Modi’s 2018 ‘Doubling Farm Incomes’ policy saying it  “is only going to deepen the agricultural crisis in the country” and that “farmers will not be given the complete benefits and will merely become pawns in the name of globalising the nature of Indian agriculture”. That fear certainly has found support in farmers, evident from their nationwide protests against the farm laws. If AP’s CRZBNF model is what the Prime Minister is advocating, it must be seen for what it is: corporatised, financialised and commodified, based on foreign direct investment and easy transfer of farm information and produce globally, the very thing farmers have opposed the farm laws for.

Chief Justice of India N V Ramana recently termed the lack of forum for debate, discussion and disagreement  in the prevailing state of governance as a “sorry state of affairs”. He articulated what he meant: "There's no clarity in laws. We don't know for what purpose the laws are made. It's creating a lot of litigation, inconvenience, and loss to the government as well as inconvenience to the public”. This assessment alerts us of the need to critically examine if India should risk farm, food and seed securities, and their sovereignty, on Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s advocacy of Zero Budget Natural Farming.

The authors Leo F Saldanha (leo@esgindia.org) and Bhargavi S Rao (bhargavi@esgindia.org) are part of the Environment Support Group, a public interest interdisciplinary legal and policy advocacy initiative.

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