Monday, May 18, 2015

A hand to the plough

By AV Balasubramanian May 18 2015

We need an alternative approach to farming that builds on indigenous knowledge and resources

A hand to the plough
“Everything else can wait, but not agriculture”


–Jawaharlal Nehru, 1947

Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru made this famous remark in the context of the Bengal famine of 1942–43 and the acute food scarcity prevailing in the country in 1947. For Indians who grew up in the 1960s, a vivid image is one of perennial food shortages and a precarious political situation due to dependence on imports. The mood of the era was epitomised by a RK Laxman cartoon which showed a minister looking out of his window and remarking to his aide ‘...Good, good, the monsoons are on time. Once again this year, we can ask the Americans to mind their own business.’

Thanks to the green revolution, that era is only a dim memory. While the green revolution led to an immediate increase in production and productivity of agriculture, it was achieved at a heavy cost to the environment and is not a sustainable long-term strategy. As noted agricultural scientist MS Swaminathan said, “The green revolution of the 1960s provided a breathing spell for achieving an adjustment between population growth and food production.” However, it is a matter of concern that even today a large section of the scientific community tends to see the progress in the agriculture sector as a matter of more and more technological fixes, of the green revolution variety.

For several years now, agriculture in India is said to be in a state of crisis. This is tantamount to saying that India is in a crisis since about 70 per cent of our population is still in rural areas with agriculture as their main livelihood. This crisis manifests itself as increasing impoverishment of the farmers and lack of options for rural non-farming employment. There is an alarming degradation of the resource base of agriculture, especially of soil, incr­eased pressure and demand on land from non-agricultural activities, erosion of biodiversity in terms of both spe­cies and vari­eties of cultivated cro­ps and decline in cattle population. This has led to distress migration to the cities and caused sca­rcity of labour in rural areas for agricultural act­ivities.

India has one of the largest networks of organisations and infrastructure for agriculture anywhere in the world. Never-theless, traditional Indian agriculture has hardly any space in the research or extension and dissemination services of the central or state governments. The achievements of the modern chemical model of agriculture have been so dazzling that little attention has been paid to the relevance of indigenous agricultural knowledge and practices.

India is richly endowed with plentiful natural resources and tremendous density and diversity of bio-resources. Its cultivable area of 160 million hectares is about 60 per cent of the total land area against the world average of 10 per cent. The average rainfall throughout India is 105 cm per year, higher than what other large areas of the world receive. Almost all parts of the country have had a rich traditional knowledge of agriculture and sustainable utilisation of natural resources with a history of continuous land cultivation over long periods with little decline in soil fertility. This knowledge tradition is both oral as well as supported by rich textual resources. 

The unique feature of Indian knowledge in many areas is its social organisation into classical and folk traditions. Classical tradition connotes formally organised knowledge supported by a corpus of texts and manuscripts and a clear theoretical framework. Normally, there are formal procedures for training experts. In contrast, folk traditions do not necessarily have a textual basis. The training of practitioners is informal and propagated through a guru-shishya param­para. In the case of agriculture, also, we see two such streams. The classical stream of knowledge isvrikshayurveda, literally meaning knowledge of the science of life of plants. There are a large number of scholarly texts of vrikshayurveda in various Indian languages, including Sanskrit, Tamil, Kannada and Malayalam. In recent years, the Asian Agri-History Foundation has brought out excellent editions of many of these texts which include translations and commentaries. There is also a robust folk tradition of agriculture. 

Aerial view of CIKS farm

Today’s scepticism of traditional knowledge is based on the view that such knowledge cannot be trusted since it has not been subject to testing and validation as per modern scientific norms. In this connection, it is very interesting to see that a vast body of traditional knowledge of agriculture was indeed very recently put to scientific examination.

The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) launched a nationwide mission mode project on collection, documentation and validation of indi­genous technical knowledge under the national agriculture technology project (NATP) in 2000. Info­rmation on indi-genous technical knowledge was collected from primary sources through voluntary disclosure and collection and compilation of the Indigenous Technical Kno­wledge (ITK) volume was made from available literature, books, journals and theses.

The compilation has five documents in seven volumes (published betw­een 2002 and 2004). The first two documents consisting of four volumes listed 4,879 indigenous practices. The third and fourth documents describe eff­orts at validating and cro­ss-validating these practices. Of the 4,879 practices documented, a set of 111 pr­actices were selected and subjected to experimental testing in efforts that were conducted by ICAR institutes and state agricultural departments and universities. These pertain to various topics such as pest control, crop protection, farm implements and weather forecasting. The results of these validation experiments were published as separate volumes. These volumes do not contain an overall analysis of the results — hence our centre has compiled the res­ults in a tabular format (Check chart).

The chart shows that slightly more than 80 per cent of these practices were valid and about 6 per cent of the practices were partly valid. About 9 per cent were concluded as being not valid. There were a few cases where scientists felt that experiments need repetition. In some cases, the results were not dec­lared. In summary, there was overwhelming evide­nce in favour of the validity of these practices. How­ever, it is strange that this entire exercise seems to have left no impression whatsoever on our body of scientists nor have the validated practices been disseminated through our extension services.

In fact, the existence of this voluminous body of information is hardly kno­wn, much less publicised widely. Information about the series could be procured only after filing a petition under the RTI Act!

A whole range of solutions and technologies dra­wn from indigenous knowledge, however, are now available from various sou­rces, including various volumes ofvrikshayurveda and the journal published by the Asian Agri-History Foundation (; various issu­es of the journal Honey Bee published from the Centre for Management of Agricu­lture in the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmeda­bad (

A large number of effo­rts undertaken by non-government organisations acr­oss the country to document and field test these practices have also produced a significant body of credible experience and evidence.

This is a glimpse of the great richness and robustness of traditional agricultural knowledge systems. That they have survived down to this day despite total neglect by the official establishment or any kind of support from trained scholars or the scientific community is a testimony to their inherent strength and vitality.

The three essential elements of the material reso­urce base required for agriculture are — soil (fertility), water and sunshine, as well as seeds. The Indian subcontinent is a region of extremely high biodiversity of plants and in fact, two of the 12 global “biodiversity hotspots” are situated in India. It has been estimated by the government’s National Bur­eau of Plant Genetic Reso­urces (NBPGR) that currently there are 75,000 to 100,000 landraces of paddy available in India. Similarly, there are about 2,700 varieties of commonly used vegetables that are being preserved in the Indian Institute of Vegetable Research (IIVR) at Varanasi. In addition, there are a significant nu­mber of varieties of paddy and vegetables still available with farmers which are not noted or captured by the formal systems. Along with this, there is also extensive literature and knowledge regarding the agronomic properties as well as the therapeutic and nutritional properties of paddy and vegetables. Such knowledge is rich, varied and nuanced. Let us, for now, illustrate this rich knowledge through indigenous paddy varieties.

According to the late RH Richharia, who was one of our outstanding rice scientists, about 400,000 rice varieties existed in India during the Vedic period. He estimated that even today about 200,000 rice varieties exist in India — a truly phenomenal number. This means that if a person were to eat a new rice variety every day of the year he could live for over 500 years without reusing a variety!

In every nook and corner of India, farmers have nurtured and cultivated varieties suitable to those areas.

These conservation pra­ctices are often interwoven and linked with cultural, social and religious practices in an organic way. For example, it was observed by Richharia that at the Puri temple in Orissa, Lord Jagannath is worshipped with food prepared from freshly harvested rice every day of the year. This means that there was an intimate knowledge of the varieties of the rice that could be grown and harvested thro­ugh all the seasons and a ritual linkage with a temple which ensure that these varieties continue to be cultivated and propagated. Throughout India, many varieties of paddy (and for that matter other crops such as millets, fruits and vegetables), are utili­sed and linked with specific festivals and celebrations, which, but for these linkages would have been extinct.

There are two broad categories of reasons why such diversity is important — agronomical as well as nutritional/therapeutic. In different parts of India, paddy shows variation with respect to crop age (short, medium and long duration), resistance to pests and diseases, requ­irement of water, suitability to various seasons, capa­city to grow in different attitudes (ranging from the Himalayan heights to lands below sea level) and in different kinds of soil (sandy, clayey and so on). This has ensured that a rice crop be harvested in almost every party of India through various times of the year.

A few indigenous rice varieties with interesting agronomic properties from Tamil Nadu illustrate this:

Sigappukuruvikar (pe­st-and disease-resistant), Koo­mvazhai (flood-resistant),JilJilVaigunda (dro­ught-res­istant), Kullakar (provides excellent straw for thatched roofs), Panan­gattu Kudai­vazhai (good fodder).

Kudaivazhai; Kullakar

The value of indigenous varieties to act as insurance during times of distress and calamities was dramatically illustrated during the 2004 tsunami in Tamil Nadu, when tho­usands of hectares of land under paddy were under sea water for a brief period along the coast of Naga­pattinam district. This rendered the soil saline and no high-yielding or modern paddy varieties could be cultivated. How­ever, an excellent solution was provided by the use of an indigenous paddy variety called Kalarpalai(literally meaning a variety that grows in kalar – salty soil). This variety cannot only withstand soil salinity, it is also resistant to pests and diseases and provided an excellent solution to tsunami-affected farmers. Dur­ing this period, it was found that even Kala­namak, an indigenous var­iety from northern India known to perform well in saline soil, could also be cultivated in these areas.

There are also references to the nutritional and therapeutic properties of indigenous varieties of paddy (and for that matter various other grains, vegetables, fruits and spices in the literature of ayurveda, siddha as well as the texts of pakashastra(traditional science of cooking). Knowledge and und­erstanding of food and its properties has always formed an essential part of the traditional medical understanding, as the ancient Sanskrit saying illustrates:

Amantramaksharamnasthi, nasthimoolamanou­sha­dham/Ayogyapurusho-nasthi, yojakastathradu-rlabha (There is no letter that is without the power of mantra and there is no plant (root) without medicinal value).

India has over 4,000 ethnic communities with a deep knowledge and unde­rstanding of the properties of natural products, particularly plants with which they live in close communion. The all-India coordinated research project on ethnobiology (AICRPE) produced a midterm rep­ort in 1994 which stated that the ethnic communities in India alone (who constitute only about 7 per cent of our population) had knowledge of around 9,500 species of plants used for varied purposes, the major ones being for medicine (7,500 species) and food (3,900 species). 

Here are some examples of indigenous paddy varieties that have traditionally been accepted as containing varied nutritional and therapeutic properties. Modern laboratory studies carried out recently indicate that the traditional understanding may be consistent with these findings.

There are varieties that are suited for making particular preparations such asSempalai (for puffed rice), Pitchavari (for puttu) and Samba Mosa­nam (for aval – pounded rice). The scented variety, Seeraga samba, as well as another variety,Kitchili samba, are preferred for biryani.

Mapillai samba; grains of Kalarpalai

In terms of nutrients, Mappillai samba is considered an excellent sou­rce of strength and is found to be high in carbohydrates and crude fibre. Two traditional paddy varieties of Tamil Nadu, Nee­lam samba and Kuzhia­dichan, are said to be gala­ctogogues, that is, good for lactating mothers. Labora­tory studies show that Neelam samba is rich in calcium. Karunkuruvai is used in the treatment of filariasis. It is actively in use by siddha physicians of Tamil Nadu and mentioned in ancient Tamilsiddha medical texts. Lab­oratory studies show that Karunkuruvai is rich in iron and has a low gly­cemic index. The glyce­mic index of Karunku­ruvaiKullakarKovuni,Mapillai SambaNeelam samba and Kudaivazhai are low compared to market varieties such as white Ponni — which is consistent with the traditional view that these are good for diabetes.

Mind you, this is just the tip of the iceberg, numerous other examples can be cited from all parts of India.

In today’s agriculture, there is very little presence or use of indigenous varieties of paddy. Several of them have not even been characterised rigorously through modern scientific efforts. They suffer a fate similar to the indigenous breeds of cattle which still continue to be described in official records as “nondescript (ND).”

Today, in Europe or North America, traditional agriculture is referred to as chemical agriculture since it has been in vogue already for a few centuries. Much of what goes by the name of organic farming or ecological agriculture is an afterthought or a corrective because of centuries of chemical agriculture and consequent environmental damage.

However, in India, sustainability and eco-friendliness are inherent to our knowledge systems.

The current policy on agriculture continues the green revolution strategy heavily dependent on ext­ernal inputs ranging from seeds and including fertilisers, pesticides, and most importantly, knowledge of cultivation practices. This has led to declining yields and soil fertility and an increasing realisation of the limitation of chemical farming.

We need an alternative approach that builds on indigenous knowledge, wisdom and resources. We have outlined and shown that there is a tremendous potential for this.

Equally importantly, we are endowed with a tre­mendous resource base consisting of land, water, sunshine and biodiversity. This can provide a strong and unique starting point for alternative strategy for the development of Indian agriculture.

(AV Balasubramanian is with the Centre for Indian Knowledge Systems (, Chennai, an institution working on sustainable agriculture building on traditional knowledge and practices


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