From Mani Mahesh Aurora
Bolpur, West Bengal, June 14th (IANS / 101Reporters) Rabindranath Tagore loved the Santal tribes for their unique way of life, which combined agriculture with poetry, music and dance. Spread over the whole of rural West Bengal, the Santhals often own tiny pieces of land, but mostly work as day laborers on rice fields.
With modern rice cultivation practices that drain their groundwater and make the community sick, this tribe in West Bengal falls back on tradition to find more “peaceful” ways to grow crops.
In one of her old traditional songs, ‘Har har Dharti Rima Baha Bagan; Baha bagan rima hunar Baha ‘, the Santhalis celebrate the green earth full of incredible diversity. But with the widespread introduction of modern agricultural practices, which are often wasteful and harmful, much of this biodiversity has been lost.
In the Birbhum district, many still foraging Santhals have seen burrowing animals and herbaceous plants disappear, particularly in and around the rice paddy ecosystems. Today the Santals in Bolpur are trying to turn back time; relying on traditional wisdom and some modern scientific ideas to regain some of what was lost.
The challenge came in the form of rice cultivation, initiated with the Green Revolution, which increased the overuse of groundwater, chemical fertilizers and pesticides and led to a deterioration in soil biodiversity over the years. The new rice varieties, with their shorter and weaker stems, cannot even be used as straw or cattle feed.
The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides had a direct impact on farmers’ health. Some Santalis claimed that their cattle became sick and died after eating the straw or drinking the water from the local rice fields.
A women-led group recognized the dangers of conventional rice cultivation and incorporated the wisdom of the indigenous peoples with permaculture for a sustainable economic alternative to the way agriculture and forestry are practiced. Permaculture is the development of agricultural ecosystems that are supposed to be sustainable and self-sufficient. The group from the village of Khanjanpur in Bolpur have turned a little less than an acre plot of land drained with cracked earth into a lush green ecosystem.
Their success inspired many villagers to switch to growing native rice varieties naturally, which not only preserves groundwater, but saves them and their future generations from having to wade through chemical-laden water for higher yields.
Overuse of the groundwater
Agriculture as practiced in India is one of the main reasons for rapid groundwater consumption, according to a 2016 report on the state of groundwater in West Bengal. This is also confirmed by another report on the water-intensive boro rice cultivation.
With this knowledge, Sharmishtha Dattagupta, a former professor of geobiology at the University of GÃ¶ttingen, introduced permaculture techniques to the Santhali women with the support of an Israeli permaculture consultant.
âIn the past, rice was grown in the region in harmony with nature by using rainwater during the monsoons. But now even policymakers and governments are promoting the abstraction of groundwater and the use of hybrid rice varieties that can be grown in the dry winter season, âsays Dr Scharmishtha. Since the rice field has to be flooded with water, the villagers build pipe wells that draw water from a depth of up to 80 meters. This groundwater takes several years to recharge.
“Deeper groundwater is rich in salts. When used in rice cultivation, it evaporates quickly and makes the soil salty, which causes damage. Excessive direct sunlight on this topsoil and plowing with tractors is devastating as all bacteria, fungi, and earthworms, which play an important role in the soil ecosystem. Basically, we kill the soil ecosystem and then treat it with fertilizers and pesticides to grow food, “she adds.
The Duria Initiative
Sharmishtha with Abhinanda Bairagi, a local biology teacher; Saraswati Murmu Baski, a Santali woman who leads the initiative; and Kadamb, who split from the group after their marriage – called their permaculture initiative – Dularia. In Santali mythology it means “created by love”; the original love that created all living beings on the planet.
The initiative, launched in 2017, involved community members with a workforce made up of people of different faiths from the surrounding villages. Expert advisors and volunteers from different parts of the world support them in integrating the methods of permaculture into traditional agriculture.
Yuval Leibovich, Israeli permaculture advisor and co-founder of the initiative, said: “Before we started this small piece of land, rain fell on the hard ground and drained away, taking away valuable topsoil. To catch rainwater and restore groundwater.” , we found slopes, created a system of drains called “sinks” where water seeps into the ground and replenishes the water table. Organic substances that are added to the swamps act like leaves on a forest floor and hold back water even in the dry season. “
Within 3 years the land turned into a mini forest ecosystem and native trees were in bloom. Frogs, birds, crabs, snakes, fish and earthworms also thrived. The community now follows permaculture-based principles such as minimal or shallow tillage, no tractor intervention, no use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, nitrogen addition to the soil by growing legumes, and growing separate plants that attract pests to keep the rest of the food can be grown undisturbed.
The initiative prompted the Santhali community to return to traditional cultivation techniques and cultivate indigenous rice varieties such as ‘gobindobhog’, which is grown in sync with the monsoons and does not require groundwater consumption. This variety is sold at a market price of up to Rs 150 / kg, compared to Rs 30 / kg that hybrid rice varieties grown perennial achieve.
A community-wide scale-up
Given the economic opportunities, the community is now keen to switch to natural farming methods. Some farmers who are part of Dularia have already committed to changing their own farms and farming methods. Other villagers often drop by the project site and get involved with the Dularia team.
The Dularia team plans to work with local farmers in 30 Santali villages in Birbhum, to lease “abandoned parcels”, to regenerate them and to convert them into “natural fields”.
Sharmishtha and the Dularia team explain the benefits of natural rice cultivation to farmers and advise them on how to use them.
What began as an education and demonstration initiative is now inspiring a broad community of farmers who are switching to natural rice cultivation in Bolpur.
âI worked as a farm laborer for Bengal. They used chemical pesticides and fertilizers in the fields. Often my face, even my hands and feet, were swollen after a day in these fields, a feeling that others shared, âadds Churki Soren, 42, a Santali woman from Bishnubati in Bolpur who has been in a hospital bed for months fights poor health. Churki Soren recently vowed to farm their land naturally.
Madhusudan Ghosh, 50, a local farmer from Bandhnavagram, Bolpur, is striving to adapt to natural methods to completely transform rice cultivation in his village within the next decade. âNature itself is limitless. But the way we use it, it won’t last long. We are currently exploiting nature by cutting down trees, managing chemicals and preventing rainwater from flowing back into the ground. It’s extremely harmful. âHe says.
One of the major challenges is to find the right type of land that can be naturally farmed. Most of the Santhals owned lots are small, low-lying lots surrounded by fields that have become saturated with chemicals over the years. The excessive use of groundwater in adjacent fields has also affected these small plots.
(The author is a Dehradun-based freelance journalist and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-Indian network of grassroots reporters.)