Saturday, 28 January 2017

Learning from farmers

Last month I went back to Champa.   Champa is a town on the main railroad line between Mumbai and Kolkatta.  It is in the state of Chhattisgarh, and is the place where I first met Sheba when she was freshly posted at Champa Christian Hospital, a mission hospital which had been founded by American Mennonite missionaries almost a century ago.

I can still remember my giddy happiness when I found out that our hospital was holding its annual regional meeting at Champa just over a month after I paid my first visit to Champa.   By the time we met for the third time it was time to define the relationship – and after a night of prayer and reading Psalms, I had my answer.  After church that Sunday I proposed… and she accepted!

So Champa always will remain special to me.  But my recent visit was not to do a nostaligic walk back through our courtship – I was there with 15 farmers from our villages that we are working with in the Bar block of Lalitpur.

We had taken a 14 hour train ride in the cold of the last days of 2016 in order to learn about farming.  

Namely about how to farm organically and that too from farmer-practitioners themselves.

The Champa Christian Hospital is one of our sister-hospitals in the Emmanuel Hospital Association and like HBM Hospital, it runs a community health and development programme.  The Champa CHDP was the programme that Sheba was leading when I first met her.  At that time it was best known for working with village women who raised and wove silk cocoons into beautiful saris.  Today, under the leadership of the undefatiguable Baswaraj, the focus is on helping local communities best use their God-given natural resources – and one of these is looking to see how farming practices can become less dependent on chemical fertilizers and pesticides – and use more of what is naturally available to the farmer.

Here are some learnings from our visit.

Learning No. 1: Matter matters

The base of organic farming is using what the farmer has in his or her hands.  Soil. Biomass. Cattle.  Using these God-given resources so much can be done.   Cattle are key.  There are some outlandish ideas about the value of cattle these days, but by using their dung and urine a lot can be given back to the soil.  The foundations of organic farming is making compost and biofertilisers.  The farmers we met, like Bhagwat Prasad, have set up vermiculture compost pits – where worms help speed up process the making of rich compost.

Bhagwat Prasad showing us his backyard - full of organic farming innovations... 
Bhagwat shared about how the Champa Christian Hospital team had taken him to Dehra Dun three years earlier and how he had learned basic organic farming practices there – and then put them into practice on his land.  Today he is a farmer scientist, with the small area behind his house is a dense thicket of plants as every bit of land is used for growing something, or trying out something new.
The most basic task is to make compost.  Using cow-dung and biowaste to make a rich fertile soil.  Bhagwat and other farmers use humble worms to get their compost faster. 

Rich compost made with the help of worms
The compost made is then put back into the fields, adding organic material and nutrition for the crops and increasing the moisture retaining capacity.

Along with the compost, the farmers also treat the soil with a bio-fertiliser made from cow dung, urine, molasses, chick pea flour.   There are pests to be dealt with as well.  But instead of dousing the plants with pesticides (the normal practice – we eat an appalling amount of pesticide with our food), the farmers here make their own bio-pesticide.  The key is using plant leaves which have compounds that are unappealing or toxic to insects.  The leaves of the neem tree are standard, but the farmers found out that virtually any plant whose leaves goats don’t eat can be used.  The leaves are gathered and fermented and the solution is then sprayed onto the fields.

A bottle of liquid bio fertiliser (left) and neem-sar - a bio pesticide (right) which the farmers use - along with planting marigolds on the margins of their fields...   plus some organically grown ginger!

Further farmer innovation includes planting marigolds on the borders of fields to act as a deterrent for pests, and the used of ingenious moth capturing devices.  One farmer-scientist that we met showed us light-traps that he had developed.  The idea is to have a small light held between two funnels, and as the moths are drawn to the light, the hit it and die, and their bodies then fall into the funnel and into a plastic bag attached to the bottom of it.  Other lures that he showed included complex ones that used pheromones (!) to attract female moths and then trap them – and simple ones which were small bright yellow plastic banners smeared with a sticky substance (old engine oil can be used).  Insects seem to be attracted to the colour yellow – they get stuck and die.

A farmer scientist shows us the moth traps he has developed -
 and couldn't resist talking about using the stalks of a plant to spin fibres... ideas can keep flowing!

The take-home message in all of this is straight-forward.  Lots can be done with the things that farmers have in their hands – but it takes work.  Lots of work.  Nothing comes for free.
Going organic takes a lot of hard work, especially if the farmer has been using lots of chemical inputs.  Some of the groups were 100% organic in their farming, while others were transitioning towards this. 

While there is ‘more work’ – at least initially – in switching over to organic farming, the benefits are commensurate.  The basic thought that the Champa CHDP has helped their farmers grasp is that they want their own children to eat healthy.  The first goal for the organic farmer is for his own family to have good food to eat.  Food that he or she knows is not contaminated with pesticides.  Any extra can then be sold – but feeding the family well comes first.

Interestingly the value addition of organic farming is already being recognized locally.  You can actually taste the difference.  We asked about the price of tomatoes in the local market.  In Lalitpur tomatoes were being sold for Rs. 5 per kilo when we left (partly because of the much vaunted ‘demonetisation’ that the central govt. had rolled out which has gutted much of the local economies).  We asked what the going rate in Champa was.  The farmers told us that most tomatoes were selling at Rs. 10 for 2.5 kgs – but their organically grown tomatoes were selling at Rs. 10 per kg.
I plucked a tomato and ate it off the vine.  It was delicious!

Learning No. 2: Working Together
The second lesson that came up again and again was the value of working together.  The farmers we learned from were individuals, but almost all of them were linked up with others.  The Champa Christian Hospital Community Health and Development programme has helped them form farmers clubs and self-help groups.  Each one of these groups had an admirable level of organization.  We were able to look and learn from their documentation:  each one had a basic membership register which showed who were the members of the group (along with their pictures) and had their basic articles of association.  Then there were registers for the decisions the group had taken, for money that was collected for savings, for inputs and expenditures for the common actions taken by the group.  We also found that each group had a guest book where visitors (like us) were asked to write our names and addresses – and make comments on what we saw.

We met women’s groups that had started kitchen gardens together.  Though they did not have an easy access to water for irrigation, they worked together and built up their gardens.  Another group of women decided to farm cooperatively.  We talked to them and they said that not only are they earning more, but the sheer joy of working together kept them going.   

A lady farmer showing us kitchen gardens farmed organically with the help of Self-Help Group members

In another village we met a man with 2.5 acres of land, who has brought others from the village to form a cooperative to farm it.  The whole land is organically farmed, and the group has meticulous records of the inputs and outputs. 

Everyone knows that working together has so many benefits, but we also know how hard it is to put into practice.  We asked the main man about what the group did when there were shirkers.  He was pragmatic.  “If we find that one person is not working his share, we ask him 2 or 3 times to do what he needs to do.  If he doesn’t, then we remove him from our group.”  Did the group have to do this?  “Yes, but all the 10 members we have now are working together.”

Though all the members have to work, the group also realised that different ones have different abilities - among them was a man who is not able to walk without crutches - but is included into the group and helps out as he can.

Learning No. 3: Diversify, diversify
On one hand, as mentioned before, we learned that organic farming is not just the matter of making compost.  It is a way of life, a constant learning how to better practice integrated farming which uses local resources to make the soil more fertile and moisture retaining, and at the same time protecting the crops from pests.

A common thread that we saw from all the field visits we made was that the farmers all seemed to have their fingers in a number of pies.  Besides the basic crops or vegetables that they were growing with various levels of organic input, they were also not only growing one set of crops.  Most of the farmers were also looking after livestock along with their cropping, which also helps with organic matter through the recycling of their manure.

At almost every farm we saw enthusiastic use of mushroom cultivation.  The preferred method is to take straw and layer it in plastic bags, seeding three layers with the mushroom spores.  The bags are hung up in damp rooms / sheds and the fungus harvested regularly – with each bag giving three harvests.  They sell the mushrooms to the project at Rs. 100 per kg and get a profit of about 20% on their inputs.  The project in turn sells it onward for Rs. 120.

At one of the places we met we had mushroom pakoras!  Delicious. The mushrooms can also be dried and stored – or ground into a powder for later sale.

Another income generating activity that some of the women’s groups are doing is the production and selling of sanitary napkins.  We are proud to see how the programme is able to help promote menstrual hygiene and build up the capacity of its members as entrepreneurs.

The other area of diversity is looking to see what other crops can be grown. 

Not only rice.  The common crop in Champa.  But seeing whether other seeds can also be sown.  And seeing if some of the traditional grains can be saved.  One of the farmers we met had started a seed bank of different local varieties.  Further insurance against failure.

Different kinds of local seeds being collected by a farmer scientist

One of EHA’s ideas for seeing community change is to build resilience.  We know that challenges happen.  Things fall apart.  But having back-ups helps tremendously.  If one area doesn’t work, there is something else to fall back on.   Each activity may not support the family fully, but every bit helps.  Diversifying  income sources hedges against hard times. 

In Lalitpur, we see how many of our farmers are only in the village for a few months of the year.  When their single crop is over, they migrate to the cities looking for work.  So many end up making bricks or working in small sweat shops.   Sometimes whole families migrate. They are at considerable risk from labour contractors.  And worse.  Across our nation, so many women and children are abused and trafficked.   But stepping away from the extremes, the absence of people due to stress migration hurts families.  Having parents – or children – away from the village means that families are separated and children’s educations are disrupted. Families that are not together are not going to prosper and flourish.

The basic idea that we took away from our visit to Champa was a reaffirmation that God has given the land to be used.  And used well.  Having farmers live on the land, and live off its God-given and human-husbanded bounty is something very positive.  While we don’t want to prohibit people from moving to cities, we want farmers to be able to experience the basic prosperity of being able to live on the land year-round and see their families grow into the God-given potential they have.

Learning No. 4: Getting the word out
Our farmer friends are no wilting petunias.  They share what they know and let others know as well.  One way is to tell newspapers about what they are doing.  It helped that one of them was a journalist himself.  We found multiple newspaper clippings featuring the organic farming endeavours that the farmers were involved with.  Our own visit to one of the villages was already announced on the day we arrived.  There was a small inaccuracy in the headline - stating that a group of farmers from Uttar Pradesh and Kerala had come to learn about organic farming.   We were definitely from UP but not a soul of us was from God’s own country – at least in this group.  But be that as it may, the word was getting out.

We also saw that a number of the farmers had received awards.  Some were district level awards.  Some were state-level gongs from the agricultural department.  A few had even received national level recognition. 
some of the prizes won by local farmers in Champa... and proudly displayed!

These awards are not just self-promotion.  They feed into a positive feedback loop.  The farmers that the Champa CHDP is working with are building an identity.  The government folks have been taking notice.  Which leads us to the final learning for this blog…

Learning No. 5:  Working with the Government
The national and state governments have a number of farmer-focussed programmes.  Each state has an agricultural department, and each district has a number of officials whose whole work is to help farmers be better farmers.  The Champa CHDP work has dove-tailed well into the desire of the government to promote organic farming as well.  The local officials have targets to meet.  It is no accident that they are thrilled with the work that the Champa CHDP is doing and the farmers groups being formed.   Likewise, the Krishi Vigyan Kendra – that agricultural extension programme – is tasked with bringing about new and improved agricultural techniques.  They too are pleased to see progressive farmers.

We had the privilege of going to both the district KVK and the district agricultural officer.  In both places our group of 15 farmers was ushered into the conference room.  We all sat behind our designated microphone and were addressed by the head of the KVK in one place and the District Agricultural Officer in the other. 
The district agricultural department officer meeting with our group

Now, we know that the agronomy of the Champa district is radically different from that of Lalitpur.  The district Agricultural Officer told us that over 95% of the farms in Champa are irrigated.  Many of them farm not only 2 crops per year, but 3!  What a contrast to the single cropping that most of our farmers face. 

But the learning was in the dialogue.  Here we were.  Fifteen farmer leaders from a far-off place – being given a meeting with the head of district agricultural department.  Having our farmers ask questions to an officer who otherwise would hardly be met.  Our task is not to replicate the kind of agriculture that is practiced in Champa – but to see a similar trust relationship build up.  One where when the agriculture department wants to start something new, they will ring us up first and ask if the farmers groups we are working with can take up something new…

Like when this year the Champa District Authorities sanctioned 10 sheds for mushroom cultivation.  It was the groups linked with the Champa CHDP which got the lion’s share of these.  The women’s Self-Help Groups had started mushroom cultivation on a small scale, and proved their capacity.  Now the district authorities are giving them grants of Rs. 5 lakhs each to build sheds.

Mushroom cultivation
Dedicated sheds are coming up to for mushroom cultivation like the one practiced by this farmers group.

The other novel experience was having multiple government officials meet us in the field.  We were visiting a progressive farmer – one who had one multiple awards.  And along with other scientist farmers we were also addressed by the animal husbandry extension officer, the agricultural extension officer, and the local agricultural department officer.   Young men, moving up in their careers.  They made sure to have someone take a photo of themselves addressing the farmer team that had come from Uttar Pradesh (that’s us).  At the end of the day, our government officers also want to progress in life.  Can we make it easier for them by helping their schemes to be more successful?

Receiving a kilo of organically grown rice.

So we are now back in Lalitpur, having learned a lot from our visit to Champa.  We are very grateful for the welcome all of us received from Mr. Baswaraj and the Champa CHDP team, as well as the Champa Christian Hospital leadership of Mrs. Manjula Deenam and her team.  Special thanks to our main partner TEARFund UK who have continued to encourage us to learn.  

Now to put what we know into practice.

This weekend we are getting an opportunity to do just that.  We have a reverse visit.  Two staff from Champa and two farmers have arrived in Lalitpur to help our farmers put what they learned about organic farming into practice and start out with some organic demonstration plots of our own.
Watch this space.  We trust that something will grow soon!

Organically grown Egg plants (Aubergenes or Brinjal as we call it locally) ripening in a field in Champa district

Tuesday, 17 January 2017

Ah, Taj!

The line snaked forward into the distance.  Mostly men. Behind me a group of Tamil speakers chattered away in Sheba’s father’s tongue.  Every so often, a man would come up to me, show his blue official tourist guide ID card and inform me that I was in the wrong line.

“You need guide sir?” “Foreigners not in this line sir” “I will take you quickly, this line takes 2 hours. With Guide only 5 minutes.”

We were in Agra for a quick 2 day visit.  Our wonderful daughter completed 16 years on the 16th – and so we came up on Saturday night to meet our dear friends Arbind and Putul – with the added bonus that their daughter Urvashi was finishing off her Christmas holidays with them – and their son Rishav was given a 2 day break from his 12th standard exam and medical entrance exam preparation.’

Arbind serves with the defence forces and is stationed in Agra.  He has experienced almost 3 decades of the military life – 3 years in one place… and then off to another!  We visited the family when they were posted in Meghalaya.  But this visit was spur of the moment.  A phone call.  A big yes from Arbind.  Tickets booked, and off we went up to Agra.   But since I don’t look like most of my 1.2 billion other countrymen (and women) – with only Tom and Jamie Alter being the exceptions that come to mind – we decided not to go through the hassle of getting the special permission that I would need in order to stay with them. 

Instead, we sort of invited ourselves to stay with dear aunty Chinnamma Baby - whose home hosts the meeting hall where Arbind and Putul worship on Sunday (and other days of the week too).  Chinnamma's son Charlie was on tour in Tamil Nadu - but when I mentioned that we were looking for a place to stay he instantly told me to stay with his mother.  So on a frigid dark night the four of us from Lalitpur showed up and were taken in by our sprightly 82 year old host.  And for the next 48 hours she doted on us - along with Arbind and Putul who flitted in and out with good things to eat from their home on the base 2 kms away.

After worshipping with the saints on Sunday morning, and enjoying a meal with aunty, we stepped out into the winter sun to see what is to be seen in Agra...

Sunday afternoon - and that too on Makar Sankranti - the festival of spring - may not be the best time to see the Taj as we found out.  Half of Agra seemed to have taken the same decision we did and the line was almost half a kilometer long.

Turns out that it was the line for Indian men.  The rest had other express lines.  Our ladies wandered off ahead and were soon into the promised land.  I clutched my Indian general ticket - well worth the Rs. 40 - and my adhaar card and brushed off tourist guide after tourist guide who came up and told me that I was in the wrong queue.  That I needed to pay Rs. 1000 and that I would be in through the gates in 5 minutes.  And slowly, at the snail's pace that things take in these latitudes, we inched forward.  The time was well spent talking with Arbind.  After all - the Taj was a backdrop to the joy of being together after so long, and many tales were told (in between the inevitable tour guide or helpful chappy chipping in that I was in the 'wrong line.'

When we finally did get to the gate (not 2 hours as direly told, but a good 45 mins later) we found ourselves walking through the places where the mughals ruled.  The vast Taj complex has walls within walls.

And the gate is itself worthy of coming a far way to see - Mughal architecture at its grandest:

But we were not here for the gate, imposing as it may be.  In we went, drawn by what lay beyond.

In the darkness of the hall we could see something glimmering - but before that apparition, a small scrum of folks were holding up their mobiles to take the treasured shot of the Taj silhouetted by the classical arch (I of course joined in the fun):

And then we were in.  Joining the thousands who had gone before us, we were there out in the winter sun again, and right in front of us was the Taj Mahal itself.

Well now.  You just want to take a shot.  The photographers were buzzing around like flies - but hey - we do have a camera which you can make phone calls with!  So pose time it was - and the two next gen Eichers reluctantly joined the oldies for the obligatory pose.  Ah yes.  Those lovely smiles. Enough to melt Shah Jehan's heart way back in the large mausoleum he built for his 4th wife (and where he was also laid to rest after exiting stage right).

 Now when the old man is not in the picture - then something more natural emerges.  Urvashi and Asha were able to show some pearly whites in front of the best known white building in the world (baring perhaps Rashtrapati Trump-ji's Washington haveli).

We were of course mainly in town to talk with each other - and the Sunday afternoon was mainly spent in conversation between old friends - a family which is very much our own and whom we have seen grow from strength to strength over the years.

But the Taj did have us in her charms.

I was taken by the glimpses of her through the wooded parts of the gardens (something that I don't remember from our previous visit on our honeymoon on a frigid December morning a good 17 years ago).
We ducked into a lovely little museum which was housed in one of the one on the water palaces (Mughal ingenuity had rivulets of water cooling what is an infernally hot place in Summer).  You can hardly believe that it is possible to paint with such precision and such intricate detail - but then you are looking into a Mughal miniature just cms away from your nose and you have to ooh and aah.

The fact that all of this was created by the powerful - and largely for the powerful kept coming back, but today it is the aam admi who is able to wander around and look and click selfies to their hearts' content.  A small victory of sorts in a world where the richest 8 people (read: men) are said to own as much as the poorerst half the world.

But for sheer size and beauty, I still think that whatever its tangled history, this must be pretty much the most beautiful building we can think of.  Just look at her:

Having been inside once already - and not wanting to wait another hour before we can enter into the mausoleum, we enjoyed the Taj from without.

With the sun staring to head down to the horizon, it was time for us to make our way back as well.  But you just can't stop taking shots when you have the Taj around.  You see beauty everwhere"

And even as we left the grounds, there were still folks coming in.  Young and old. Rich and poor.  Local people, and others who have come from around the world.

And the scrum at the entry gate continues, even as we were making our way out into the twilight, there were still more people coming in to see the Taj.

Ah, Taj!  You wonder.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Reading in the new year

How is it possible that we have slipped into 2017?

Just before Christmas we got a room heater which has taken off the edge of the fridge that we are currently living in.  Is this the same home which half a sun-spin before seemed the best place to grill a tandoori chicken?

Well, needless to say, I am next to the said heater right now, typing these words thanks to the miracle of wifi (a slightly neurotic internet connection notwithstanding).

What better to do on a cold night like this than cuddle up near the heater and read.

So what are we reading these days?   Sheba is reading John Pollock's biography of George Whitefield (which I devoured a few months ago).  She is touched by the youth and energy of Whitefield, amidst the often debilitating illnesses faced in those days.  How could such a man preach to so many, how could a voice penetrate into the hearts of such large crowds?

Enoch is working through The Nightmare Years William Shirer's memoir of his years of reporting from Nazi Germany from 1930-1940.   Enoch says he likes to hear about people's real experiences.

Asha is reading various Jane Austen books on her kindle.  She is currently putting in about 8 hours a day of studies as she gears up for the dreaded 10th standard exams in late February.   Sheba will take her up to Wynberg-Allen school in mid Feb.

I have just emerged from a long-overdue re-reading of Is Paris Burning by Larry Collins and Dominique Lapierre.  A vivid crawl-through-the-undergrowth, dine-with-the-Boches, carreen-through-the-streets-in-your-half-track view of the liberation of Paris.  Took my breath away.  Amazing to see a small Prussian General drift into delaying Hitler's command to destroy Paris.  All the great Parisian sights were mined to be blown sky high, but der General did not give the command.

And yet for all the miracle of the Notre Dame, Louvre and Eiffel Tower still standing, for the mercies of the worst slaughter not being done, like the unspeakable horrors of Warsaw, there were still terrible tales.  The firing squads killed hundreds.  The liberators and the retreaters snuffed out precious lives as the war ground on.  The cost of liberating Paris meant that the American tanks ran out of gas before driving into Germany, allowing the Wehrmacht to regroup and holding the Allies back for over a year.

And all of this being read in the cold of a Lalitpur winter.  Printed word translated into the grime and gore of street-fighting in Paris, the sorrow of a returning soldier who meets his wife only to have to tell her that their son just died.  The delirous joy of a population who can't believe that the nightmare of the crooked cross on the blood red flag has come to an end.  The enigma of De Gaulle.  A different world brought to life through black and white.

Each book takes you to different worlds.  What a pleasure there is in the printed word.  All hail the writers.  May the tribe of word-smiths increase.

Mean-while the young Eichers - and elder ones too would be more than happy to have new and old books wing their way out to L-pur.  There is always more space on our shelves - and in our hearts.

Here is to the pages to be turned in 2017!