Like many other States, Andhra Pradesh is known for indiscriminate use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to the extent that residues found their way into mothers’ milk in a few villages in Guntur. As Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) takes root in Andhra Pradesh, promising to move away from synthetic fertilizers and pesticides and rejuvenate the degraded soil, a retired civil servant, T. Vijay Kumar, is leading the project.
What is the mission?
Mr. Kumar is being seen as the prime mover of the ZBNF as Andhra Pradesh inches towards becoming India’s first natural farming State, covering 60 lakh farmers and 12,294 gram panchayats by 2024, and 80 lakh hectares or 90% of the cultivable area by 2026.
For Mr. Kumar, a 1983-batch IAS officer, heralding a natural farming era is a dream and comes at the end of a long career, 28 years of which were spent on the Tribal, Rural and Agriculture Development Departments. After retiring in September 2016, he became adviser to the government on agriculture and vice-chairman of the Rythu Sadhikara Samstha, a not-for-profit company set up by the government to usher in natural farming. According to Mr. Kumar, “’for both farmers and consumers, natural farming is a win-win situation.” Simply put, the ZBNF is a practice that believes in natural growth of crops without fertilizer and pesticide or any other “foreign” elements. The inputs used for seed treatments and other inoculations are cow dung and cow urine. Vidarbha farmer and Padma Shri awardee Subhash Palekar, the biggest champion of the ZBNF, pioneered a cow dung- and cow urine-based concept for seed treatment, inoculation, mulching and soil aeration.
How did he spread the word?
Mr. Kumar realised that to promote the ZBNF, he would have to speak to the farmer in a language he understands. He prompted the Agriculture Department to identify community resource persons or ‘champion farmers’ from the villages who would motivate other farmers to achieve the ultimate goal of ‘biovillages’ (the entire village taking to natural farming) in phases. The initial committed group of 800, trained in natural farming, were used as CRPs to spread the concept. After preparatory work, this massive task began with Mr. Palekar’s eight-day training for 5,000 farmers in the ZBNF in January 2016. By the end of 2017, 40,000 farmers in 704 villages were covered, 2017-18 saw 1,63,000 being roped in at 972 villages, and during the current year the target is 5,00,000 farmers in 3,015 villages.
What were the challenges?
For Mr. Kumar, one of the biggest challenges was that of mindset. Farmers had been brought up to believe that chemical-based farming, with external inputs, was necessary to increase yields. But when fellow farmers who had taken to natural farming briefed the others of the benefits, especially of cost, they took to it “like fish to water.”
Having worked for rural welfare for years, Mr. Kumar found it easy to reach out to the community. In service, he had initiated the novel concept of Community Coordinators. Under it, young professionals from reputed institutes, like the IITs, would spend three years in a tribal village. Then as CEO of the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty of the undivided Andhra Pradesh government from 2000 to 2010, he implemented a poverty eradication programme on an outlay of over ₹2,600 crore. The programme, covering all villages, was successful in organising 1.15 crore rural poor women in thrift and credit-based self-help groups. The key impact is that these groups mobilised bank credit to the tune of ₹65,000 crore in the undivided State as on March 2014.
What lies in store?
Mr. Kumar is looking forward to the day, most likely by 2024, when Andhra Pradesh will be called a natural farming State.
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