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A critical analysis of the Zero Budget Natural Farming paradigm

by Kripa Krishna

This article analyses the Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) movement in India pioneered by Subhash Palekar. The first part of the text delves into the ecological understanding of this method and the accessibility of the ZBNF for all classes of farmers. The next section deals with how this method of farming was adopted by Andhra Pradesh and looks at the intricacies of how it was institutionalized and implemented in the state. The piece aims to critically examine the sustainability of the ZBNF paradigm. 

Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) started out as a peasant movement in Karnataka in response to the agrarian crisis characterized by farmer suicides and the increasing indebtedness of farmers.  Subhash Palekar pioneers this alternative method of farming that promotes growing crops in tune with nature, aiming to develop a self-sustaining farm system.

ZBNF is practiced using things that are naturally available in nature. Palekar details the four pillars of ZBNF, Jivamrutha (enhances soil microbiome), Beejamrutha (microbial seed coating), Acchadana (mulching), Whapasa (water vapor harnessing). This method holds Indian philosophy as the absolute truth, claiming deviance to native species as demonic. Palekar strongly criticizes anything foreign from western science, organic farming, and industrial agriculture. The movement promises reduced costs, increased yields and income from the farm. The removal of all external inputs like chemical fertilizers or pesticides reduce expenses and dependence on loans, it makes the land more fertile and hence leads to better quality and high yields. ZBNF emphasizes using the native cow to make its mixtures, and promises that one cow is sufficient for 30 acres of farmland and will earn the farmer 12 lakhs per acre. Additionally, the lack of chemicals provides nutritious food and also enhances the biodiversity of the farm.

The goals drawn out by the ZBNF paradigm aims to better farmer’s welfare and sustainability, however, the implementation of the scheme in context of the socio-economic conditions of India brings up limitations of the scheme on ground. This paper will first look at the viability of the ZBNF movement as Palekar advocates it and then look at how an institutionalized ZBNF takes shape in Andhra Pradesh.

Nuances of the ZBNF movement

According to the studies conducted by Khadse in Karnataka, from the inception of the ZBNF movement, there has been quite an improvement in the status of farmland ecology and the farmers livelihood. Out of 97 farmers 78.7% saw improvements in yield, 93.6% in soil conservation and over 90% experienced reduced farm expenditures and need for credit. However, these results miss out on crucial caveats of the paradigm. All farmers in this sample owned land and most of them had access to irrigation and 68% owned a native cow. This points to the initial capital that farmers require to adopt and transition to ZBNF. Meeting the specific requirements of ZBNF like a native cow, specific types of crops, increased human labor and irrigation act as barriers for poorer farmers to enter this paradigm. This movement made no particular efforts to remove these barriers other than the mere exemption of training fees for Palekar’s workshops (FAO). This is barely a removal of barriers because a marginal farmer cannot afford to leave their farm for 5 days at length to attend training. Further access to irrigation facilities and a native cow requires a large amount of initial capital which is left unaddressed in the movement. Furthermore, Palekar’s discourse is founded on spirituality and nativity. The sacredness he assigns to the native cow and his scathing critique for any other form of western or alternative agricultural knowledge entangles with the larger politics of religion and caste and produces a ground to appeal to right wing Hindu forces in India that have been violent towards religious minorities and beef consumers. Furthermore, the rejection of organic farming or any other agroecological practice by Palekar demonstrates a complete ignorance of the agricultural history of Indian agriculture. Palekar ignores the scientific proof that other agroecological practices provide and instead makes ZBNF the absolute solution for the agrarian crisis. Flachs notes that ZBNF came in as a charismatic solution to the agrarian crisis that builds its appeal through Hindu nationalistic sentiments on ecology.

In addition to that, it is crucial to assess whether ZBNF is sustainable. While the ZBNF paradigm is relatively more agro ecologically aligned than conventional industrial farming, it cannot be labeled fully sustainable. ZBNF is a very labor heavy practice thus there is a high likelihood that hierarchical structures within farm systems are established which would lead to unequal labor distribution. Farmers express that the labor requirement depends on the farm size and the type of crop they are growing. In a small farm several families depend on their own extended families labor and in large farms labor is hired. What deviates ZBNF from sustainable practice is the likelihood of unequal labor distribution between men and women need to be assessed. Patriarchal structures are likely to be in effect and hence burden a woman more while not paying her enough or at all for her labor. The working conditions and the wages should also be assessed in large farms where there is a high plausibility of unequal and meager wages being paid to wage laborers.

ZBNF claims that all its practices will sustain the health of the soil. However, the usage of Jeevamrutha in arid areas is seen as a concern by a few activists and practitioners. Bablu Ganguly, from the Timbuktu collective, flags that in some regions, the soil has little to no organic matter. Application of Jeevamrutha alone in soil with low organic matter will further degrade the existing farmlands, as the soil microbes will consume the minerals in the soil. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, states that are practicing ZBNF, have soil with low organic matter. ZBNF’s one size fits all solution does not take local soil into account. There is not enough scientific research on how different types of soil react to ZBNF methods. It is a serious concern that the central government advocates this method for all states without adequate research in the field.  

Considering the nuances mentioned, how states implement this as a public scheme can provide more insight on how ZBNF works on ground. The next section assesses Andhra’s implementation of the scheme. 

Institutionalizing ZBNF- the case of Andhra Pradesh

The ZBNF program in Andhra Pradesh (AP) was a modification of the previously state led program on non-pesticide farming called Community Managed Sustainable Agriculture (CMSA). In 2015-16, the state introduced ZBNF as a replacement to the CMSA initiative dubbed as the Climate Resilient Zero-Budget Natural Farming (CRZBNF). To implement this program, AP established a parastatal agency called the RySS.

The state support provided is largely based on facilitating farmer to farmer exchange to transition to ZBNF. Community resource persons, who are successful ZBNF farmers, are employed to train other farmers. The transition period for a farm is noted to be 3 years and during these years the CRPs are expected to guide other farmers. This allows for decentralized community engagement and involvement of Self-Help Groups to disseminate knowledge. However, this is the only support provided during the transition to ZBNF.

While this project is promoted as low-cost investment for farmers, a large sum has been extended to the program. APPI extended Rs. 100 crores to this program. In 2017 the state collaborated with Bill and Melinda Gates foundation, Dalberg and the Confederation of Indian Industry. Additionally, the UNEP along with the BNP Paribas bank of France and the Nairobi-based World Agroforestry Centre also invested in the program. These loans have to be paid back through the profits earned by the scheme. Ryss estimated 17,000 crores as a transition cost in the state but there is no information on where this money is being spent. The only expenditures mentioned are the training costs and the scientific research funding to establish the science behind ZBNF.

Such a massive intake of global investment into local farming highly commodifies and corporatism ZBNF leaving little room for sovereign and autonomous farming. Besides, the lack of transparency on where the money is invested in the local sphere brings into the question of who really is benefitting from the program. There is no mention of transfer payments or subsidies to help farmers transition which leaves out many poor farmers from adopting ZBNF. Furthermore, this scheme has been imposed on the farmer without the consent of Panchayats. Parastatals (Ryss) are instead replacing decentralized decisions eliminating farmers from decision making. This gives no autonomy to farmers to follow other agroecological practices and instead forces one method on all of them.

Furthermore, ZBNF production in current market structures pose a challenge. With the absence of labeling and certification, there is no way for consumers to differentiate between chemically-grown produce and ZBNF produce. This may also lead to competition where chemically grown crops can be cheaper. Unless the state guarantees procurement of produce from all farmers, the initial marketing of natural produce remains a challenge. While some cities do have exclusive ZBNF stores, such efforts are not seen in AP .

Conclusion

As detailed, there are many loopholes to the way the AP government has implemented ZBNF. The global stakeholders involved also weaken the future of sovereign farming in the country. In order for ZBNF to succeed, farmers have to be involved in decision making and have access to financial resources and incentives to transition. Further, the scheme has to be inclusive of other agro ecological models of farming and provide autonomy to the farmer to choose a practice. If the scheme continues in the same way that it is today, there is a real danger that ZBNF will take the trajectory of the green revolution and gene revolution where farming methods were undemocratically imposed on farmers. 

Author: 

Kripa Krishna is a 3rd year undergraduate studying Political Science and Environmental science at Ashoka University, Sonipat. Her research interests lie in environmental politics and environmental justice

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