Naba Digantho farming offers hope of self-reliance

By Sridhar R on 14th May, 2019

Mammadpur is a small village in the Hingalganj islands of the Sundarbans in West Bengal. It is situated in the North 24 Parganas District. Unlike many other villages in these islands, this island boasts of electricity and a good road that connects Par Hasnandpur to Lebukhali, both boat jetties -the only connection the island has to the main land. A small group of 20 farmer families have come together in this village to make their farming self reliant. This thought dawned on them after the serious and debilitating impact of the AILA floods three years ago. Their paddy lands were made totally uncultivable and till last year crops were a failure.

The seeds they were using, supplied by the Government, could not withstand the salinity that was left after the waves of brackish water receded. The group led by a sharp thinking farmer Thushar Das and his friend Manush, started thinking about an agricultural system that will sustain them, and at the same time be ecologically sustainable. Thushar’s short experience with an NGO, and his association with Alauddin, the State Coordinator of the Save our Rice Campaign(SOR), led him to the idea of a Biodiversity-based Ecological Agriculture model for their farms. So, he set about doing it first. He introduced a model of permaculture in his small paddy land of 3 biggas ( 3 biggas is an acre). A pond was built in one corner of the paddy land, and he started growing many vegetables, tubers and fruit trees like papaya.

The bunds on all the sides of the pond and his agriculture land was used for this purpose, not only increasing the total utility of the land as diversely as possible, but also providing for much of his household needs. In the paddy land he tried indigenous varieties of rice – Kerala Sundhari, Govind bhog etc that not only withstood the conditions, but also yielded very well. Kerala Sundhari according to him yielded atleast 7-10 bags / bigga. (one bag is 60 kg of paddy) This was 420 to 600 kgs / bigga i.e, atleast 1.2 tonne to 1.8 tonnes of paddy per acre.

This was quite on par, if not more, with the high yielding CR and Sona Masoori whose yields they claim came down over time. After the paddy season, he produced pulses from the land, which also enriched his soil and then jute was cultivated in the boro1 season. Once the paddy cultivation is done, the water from the paddy land bearing fishes flow into the ponds where natural fish cultivation continues. This is also a source of food and income. Farmers here generally do not cultivate boro paddy.

This is also one reason why we could see their ponds did not dry up so easily as in the Atgorah area (Alauddins home village) in the same district where boro paddy using borewell irrigation has drastically brought down ground water and dried up the ponds as well. Tushar Das soon realised that it is possible to feed a family through this type of farming throughout the year with just 2 biggas of land. This was unbelievable, but many in his village and family friends decided to join him in this venture. They came together and called themselves the Mammadpur Naba Digantho Krishak Samaj ( The New Dawn Farming Society).

There are 20 member families and most of the farmers own 1 to 3 bigga of land, a few have upto 5 biggas. Only one farmer has 15 biggas. Tushar Das introduced organic farming methods – vermi composting, organic input preparation from cow dung and urine, multi cropping etc. Alauddin also trained them in Biodiversity based Ecological Agriculture (BEA) and 10 farmers have already started following the practices. They have also started a seed bank with some traditional seeds that are suitable for the area. They would be cultivating these varieties this season. We found during our visit that for all the 20 families to adopt this, some of these families needed ponds and together they needed a pump set.

The SOR Campaign decided to support them partly for the ponds and also began an action research programme there. This is a research that the farmer families will do to assess how this Naba digantho farming brings about a change in their lives. A base line survey followed by a daily record of input and output from the family will be maintained by them. The farmers have already observed that their cost of production is much less compared to the intensive chemical agriculture they used to follow.

Indigenous paddy gives them tall straw which feeds their cattle. They are even able to sell the same. The only complaint they have is the increasing cost of labour, which in general is a major problem for farmers. But there are no Government programmes to offset this as of now. Discussions are being held in many States, like Kerala to introduce MGNREGA for farming, especially paddy, as it is a community activity for food security and environmental conservation, especially water conservation. Still policy decisions are yet to be taken in this regard.

The farmers during the discussions revealed that even the largest farmer with 15 biggas of land does not get more that Rs. 4000/month income after all their expenses. The rest of the farmers earned anything between Rs. 500 to Rs. 3000 per month. While much of their food needs are met by the rice, pulses, vegetables, fish and eggs they produce, still this cash income is insufficient for their many non-food needs. But an interesting observation by Tushar das is that when he was cultivating CR variety of paddy his income was Rs. 600/bigga as its cost of cultivation was high.

But when he shifted to Kerala Sundhari, an indigenous variety, it rose to Rs. 2000/bigga and he got Rs. 3500/ bigga when he used Hamai paddy for puffed rice, which yielded slightly less ( 7 bags / bigga) but fetched a higher price. Moreover, the last time they cultivated CR (HYV), the production had come down to 6 bags / bigga ( approx. 1080 kgs / acre) , while both Kamini bhog and Govinda bhog ( traditional varieties ) yielded the same with lesser inputs and lower cost of production.

Now the Naba digantho farmers, before this season have already dug their ponds and are all in preparation for their aman2 paddy cultivation. They have also plans to improve their poultry farms and duckery in the ponds. Introducing ducks in the ponds will improve their fish cultivation. They also plan to maintain traditional seeds of pulses and oil seeds, as well as vegetables. As of now they are dependent on the markets for the seeds. The pump set they will buy will be used by all for irrigation from the ponds. The women in their families are also members of three SHGs.

 The activities of the SHGs are now limited to just thrift and savings and this they want to improve by introducing some value additions of their produce. As dreams sore high, with the foundation of Naba Digantho Krishi rooted in the ecological farming approach, they hope to be self-reliant in farming in an year’s time. And they hope to show case this ecological model, as one suitable for small and marginal farmers.

 

This we feel is the model we need with atleast 90% of our farmers being small and marginal. It is also a model that can demonstrate that low income farmer families can improve their incomes without poisoning the lands with chemicals and GM crops, while conserving the environment and natural resources. (Endnotes) 1 The boro rice is commonly known as winter rice.The term boro is Bengali originated from theSanskrit word “Boro” which refers to a cultivation from Nov.-May under irrigated condition.(http://www.narc.org.np/ rice_knowledge_bank/factsheet/boro.pdf) 2 the aman season accounts for the bulk of annual rice production, lasting to November