By announcing a push to zero-budget natural farming (ZBNF) in the Budget, the Centre seemed to have reiterated its policy support for non-chemical-based farming methods. However, ZBNF has kicked up something of a stir, not least because of the positions taken by the individual associated with it, Subash Palekar. Palekar has gone to great lengths to drive a distinction between ZBNF and other forms of non-chemical farming, be it ‘climate resilient sustainable agriculture’, organic farming, natural farming or permaculture, arguing that the rest are damaging from the emissions viewpoint. This is an egregious distinction. Palekar’s formula of jeevamrutham (cow dung, urine, jaggery, pulse flour and clean soil), beejamrutham (cow dung, urine and lime coating on seed and seedlings), mulching and aeration, as a result of these applications, is supposed to be a winning one. It has been promoted by the Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka governments. But the jury is still out, in terms of whether his package can work across all soil and climatic conditions. Indeed, there are reports from Maharashtra that farmers are less than convinced. ZBNF is not really zero input; it connotes that no input needs to be purchased from the market, assuming that the farmer has at least a cow, a desi one at that, and plenty of water. To be sure, a shift to such methods is desirable in view of the soil imbalance caused by indiscriminate application of chemical fertilisers and pesticides. The utility of an ₹80,000-crore subsidy for fertilisers needs to be questioned. Inorganic farming in many regions has driven farmers to debt and worse. But a transition to sustainable practices needs to be managed differently. A scientific approach must replace one that favours the fad or cult of the day.
The Centre’s rhetoric on ZBNF is not matched by budgetary allocations. The total allocation for schemes such as the National Project on Organic Farming, Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana, and National Project on Soil Health and Fertility is just about ₹650 crore. The soil health cards scheme, in fact, holds much promise, as it seeks to match soil quality with cropping patterns, nudging farmers to make sustainable choices. However, an outlay of ₹324 crore does not indicate seriousness of intent.
Farmers must be convinced that sustainable farming helps in doubling incomes. Their costs have been rising over time, while prices have not. If the government seeks to drive down costs of fertiliser and pesticide use, it must do so by ensuring that there are no serious production setbacks that derail the transition. Above all, farmers must be encouraged to undertake organic farming by trying what works for them and innovating accordingly. Top down packages are not likely to help.