Niloshree Bhattacharya

Alongside the spread and intensification of globalisation, the margins of this global system vibrate with possibilities. These localised and varied alternatives and small in scale and reflect the knowledge, culture and lives of the people in the respective locality. The global food economy is one such example; on one hand we have global chains of restaurants and agribusiness companies, while on the other, numerous sustainable agriculture and alternative farming methods initiated by local communities and movements that have emerged as a form of resistance.

Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), a farmer’s movement based in India, encourages and promotes agro-ecological methods of farming, particularly zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF), as a solution to climate and agrarian issues, and farmer suicides. KRRS emerged in the 1980s under the leadership of M.D. Nanjundaswamy. The movement emerged following the Green Revolution in India. The Green Revolution concerned the industrialisation of farming practices throughout India, which resulted in significantly greater use of pesticides and herbicides, the consolidation of land into larger farms, and the use of seed varieties developed by industrial agricultural companies. Since the 1990s, when markets were deregulated, millions of Indian farmers have found it difficult to make a living, and, driven into debt, thousands have committed suicide.

KRRS is also a member of La Via Campesina, which is a transnational agrarian movement comprised of more than 200 organisations from over 70 countries. KRRS recently established Amrita Bhoomi, the first agro-ecology school in South Asia, in Chamrajnagar (Southern Karnataka) under the initiative of Chukki Nanjundaswamy. Amrita Bhoomi was formed in collaboration with La Via Campesina, and is a space where agro-ecological methods of farming, such as ZBNF, are practised through horizontal learning methods.

Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha

Initially, KRRS primarily consisted of middle- and higher-income farmers belonging to the dominant castes of Lingayats and Vokkaligas and focused on prices, loans, water and electricity; their campaigns and actions were mainly targeted at state level. Some of the organisations major campaigns have targeted illegal granite mining, the anti-liquor movement and the recovery of loans. The ideological foundations of KRRS are based on Gandhian ideologies of self-reliance, self-respect, satyagraha and non-violence, and Ram Manohar Lohia’s socialist thought. Since the 1990s, changes in political and economic contexts led the movement to participate in anti-globalisation protests. KRRS burnt field trials of genetically modified (GM) seeds, ransacked KFC outlets and Cargill offices, held protests in Delhi along with other farmers’ movements against the Dunkel Draft (which became the foundation document of the World Trade Organisation), and organised the Intercontinental Caravan in Europe, where 400 farmers protested against meetings of the WTO. The Beeja Satyagraha (freedom to save seeds) and the Bandi (Cart) March were other important campaigns. The Beeja Satyagraha campaign, launched in the earlier ‘90s, was not only a critique against the introduction of biotechnology in agriculture through GM, but also posed larger questions about the livelihood of farmers, ecological and health issues, and whether the application of technology was a suitable solution. The movement was also called the second Green Revolution, invoking memories of the adverse effects of the Green Revolution upon India. It was in this period that the movement received acclaim from other groups around the world that were also protesting against globalisation, and new transnational ties were built. KRRS became a member of La Via Campesina in 1996 and People’s Global Action in 1999.

Amrita Bhoomi

Nanjundaswamy had conceived of Amrita Bhoomi, a global centre for sustainable development, but could not complete the project within his lifetime. His daughter Chukki Nanjundaswamy inaugurated the centre in February 2013 in the Chamrajnagar district of Karnataka. The centre is spread across 66 acres, with a seed bank, an auditorium, training centres, dormitories and model farms. The model farms are run by peasant youth interns to help them learn the skills needed to apply the methodologies in their own communities.

In Amrita Bhoomi, following the general framework of food sovereignty, KRRS has been encouraging agro-ecological methods of farming, such as ZBNF. Food sovereignty is a broad concept popularised by La Via Campesina, and has become a guiding principle for many such efforts around the world. Food sovereignty is a political discourse, a proposition and, in some ways, an abstract description of a system of agricultural production, distribution, consumption and related social relations. It is allencompassing – it addresses questions of farmers’ livelihoods, food crises, climate change, international trade, food politics, agro-ecology, land reform, bio-fuels, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), land grabs, and so on. The foundational principles of food sovereignty encourage plural alternatives, inclusive of heterogeneous identities and varied forms of resistance.

The cornerstone of food sovereignty is agro-ecology. Agro-ecology is based on a dialogue between diverse and subaltern knowledge systems based on the principles of sustainable agriculture and horizontal learning. Furthermore, agro-ecology is a way of resisting chemical agriculture and agribusiness multinationals. Thus, food sovereignty and agro-ecology go hand in hand. ZBNF facilitates the application of the agro-ecological model achieve food sovereignty. Food sovereignty concepts have existed within the movement for some time, primarily in its conception and during the hebeeja satyagraha (seed sovereignty) campaign in the 1990s. In a way, it is a continuation of the same ideas of non-violent resistance already present within the movement.

Zero Budget Natural Farming

ZBNF is a toolkit of farming techniques, developed by Subhash Palekar, which has taken the form of a grassroots social movement, with massive participation across classes and castes. It is an example of a non-violent form of constructive resistance which creates viable alternatives at the grassroot level. Subhash Palekar and Amrita Bhoomi hold massive training camps across the country, and Palekar has become the farmers’ ‘guru’.

ZBNF is one of the most successful agro-ecology movements because of its massive reach and scale. As the name suggests, ZNFB is a method of farming that is based on minimum- or zero-input farming, which implies no input costs ,and hence no credit. Farmer suicides have been on the rise in India, primarily because of debt; zero-budget natural farming directly addresses this problem. It is based on using inputs that are already available on a farm. It is also called “spiritual farming”, because it is intended to connect farmers with nature, to understand and work with it. While other forms of alternative agriculture are practised in India, based on traditional knowledge systems, organic methods and Masanobu Fukouka’s ‘do-nothing’ farming, ZBNF is unique because of the scale it has reached.

ZBNF is based on four practical principles:

  • Jivamrita, meaning ‘life tonic’ in Hindi, is a homemade fermented microbial culture made of water, cow dung and urine, jaggery, legume flour, and a handful of soil as an inoculant of local micro-organisms. Jivamrita acts as a catalytic agent that enlivens the soil, increasing microbial and earthworm activity. Jivamrita also helps to prevent fungus and bacteria.

  • Bijamrita is a homemade microbial seed treatment made of similar ingredients to jivamrita and used for the treatment of seeds, seedlings and other planting material. It is effective in protecting young roots from fungus as well as soil and seed-borne diseases.

  • Mulching of topsoil; covering it with organic material, rather than tilling the soil.

  • Whapasa, or moisture. Palekar maintains that plants do need water as much as they need moisture, thus reducing the need for irrigation.

Through these four pillars of ZBNF, the agricultural techniques introduced during the Green Revolution are completely reversed, countering irrigation, tilling, and the use of fertilisers and pesticides.

ZBNF has been a major success story; farmers who practice it claim that it significantly improves yield, soil conservation, the quality of produce and increases autonomy. Monoculture became the usual way of farming during the Green Revolution, when it replaced multi-cropping system. In a multi-cropping system, farmers have an income throughout the year, as they plant intercrops. Moreover, it is often desirable to plant some crops with others, for example, planting marigolds alongside legumes prevents insects from spoiling the legumes. Not only did monoculture replace traditional methods of farming, it also resulted in soil erosion, seed diversity and traditional knowledge. These adverse effects of the Green Revolution have been extensively discussed in the literature. ZBNF addresses these issues by providing practical techniques which are taught in the camps.

Learning in camps

The ZBNF camp is unique because it is a platform for farmers to not only learn techniques, philosophies and ecology but also to exchange technical knowledge about their farms and get inspiration from the stories of successful farmers. In addtion to with Palekar’s lectures on ZBNF, the farmers also engage in horizontal learning from each other.

These camps are organised in mathas (Hindu monastic institutions, separate from a temple) which are plentiful in Karnataka.Attendance ranges from 1000 to 5000 farmers. Farmers join the camp for a nominal fee, and volunteers do the logistical work;farmers often donate food. Through learning, volunteering and exchanging knowledge, a sense of solidarity and community develops.

A key ally and supporter of ZBNF, and one of the reasons for its spread and scale, is KRRS. KRRS, being a farmers’ movement and a member of LVC, promotes ZBNF through all of its local, national and global networks. In 2011, KRRS organised a Natural Farm Visit for Asian Farmers and, in 2015, organised ZBNF training for farmers from every continent. KRRS has played a key role in linking global agro-ecology campaigns and the struggle for food sovereignty with very local initiatives such as ZBNF.

The seed bank

Amrita Bhoomi houses an indigenous seed bank containing 100 varieties of rice, 26 varieties of ragi and 14 varieties of millets and other vegetables. The purpose of the seed bank is to conserve biodiversity and resist multinational agribusinesses and seed patents. The promotion of millets, which were wiped out as a result of the Green Revolution, is a key campaign of Amrita Bhoomi. Farmers are trained in millet production at the camps organised by Amrita Bhoomi, and are given seeds for planting. The same farmers are invited to millet fairs, where they sell their produce to urban consumers.

Looking forward

KRRS has come a long way; from being a farmers’ movement holding massive rallies addressing the state, being the strongest voice in India against neoliberal globalisation during the 1990s, and setting up Amrita Bhoomi in 2013. Examining the life of the movement, one can notice the distinct shifts in engaging with politics, organising resistance and creating alternatives. Since the 1990s it has become necessary to stage protests at the global level and to engage in transnational networks and build alliances to create the world that the movement had envisioned.

To achieve sovereignty from the complex inter-linkages of a global food economy dominated by agribusiness giants, to prevent climate crises and to provide solutions to rampant farmer suicides in India, KRRS utilised multi-pronged strategies of protests, negotiations with policymaking bodies and the creation of agri-food networks. The focus on information sharing, engaging with networks of similar groups, exchanging knowledge and building solidarity across local and global spaces, has been a discernible shift within the movement. However, the primary driving force behind such efforts has been the movement’s demand for sovereignty. – Conceptualised initially by its leader Nanjundaswamy as seed sovereignty in their campaign Beeja Satyagraha, the concept of food sovereignty has broaderned in later years via the movement’s links with La Via Campesina. The influence of Gandhian principles on the notion of sovereignty with regard to the freedom to cultivate crops and save seeds has continued through several generations of the movement. Today, it is primarily the youth who are involved in Amrita Bhoomi and its efforts to create a more just, ecologically sustainable and self-reliant society. Herein lies the success of the movement, that its vision has been carried on to the next generation.

Niloshree Bhattacharya is Assistant Professor in Sociology at Presidency University, Kolkata. She obtained her doctorate in Sociology from University of Hyderabad in 2015. Her research interests revolve around understanding social movements, politics, economy and the environment. Her doctoral research is an ethnography of Karnataka Rajya Raitha Sangha (KRRS), a farmer’s movement from Karnataka, India where she explores the networks of KRRS, particularly with a transnational agrarian movement La Via Campesina, and the emerging discourse and practices of alternative agriculture. Her work has been published in journals Development and Practice and Economic and Political Weekly.