Rooftop revo­lu­tion

More and more peo­ple in food-deficit Ker­ala are tak­ing up ter­race farm­ing to grow or­ganic veg­eta­bles and fruits


Tis un­be­liev­able. Three HE SIGHT big co­conut trees, 35 banana trees, pa­payas, guavas and chick­oos, grapes with bunches of green fruits hang­ing, yel­low-green pump­kins, light-green ash gourds, whitish-green snake gourds wind­ing their way down from a pan­dal, lush fo­liage of dark-green bit­ter gourds, ten­der okra, drum­sticks, toma­toes, many va­ri­eties of beans and tu­bers such as yam and tapi­oca, turmeric, gar­lic and ginger. All on a ter­race! And that too on a four-storey build­ing amid high-rises at the busy Con­vent Road in Ker­ala’s Er­naku­lam city, the busi­ness cap­i­tal of the state.The gar­den even has a small lo­tus tank, and a ver­mi­com­post­ing fa­cil­ity.

This green par­adise be­longs to 70-yearold ARS Vad­h­yar, a civil engi­neer. “City­d­wellers with their busy jobs of­ten com­plain that they don’t have time and space to grow any­thing. But we have been suc­cess­fully do­ing rooftop farm­ing for the past 15 years,” says Vad­h­yar. When Vad­h­yar started ter­race farm­ing, many thought he was crazy. But now a large num­ber of peo­ple in cities and towns of Ker­ala are grow­ing fruits and veg­eta­bles with­out us­ing chem­i­cal fer­tilis­ers, pes­ti­cides and in­sec­ti­cides. Those who take up ter­race farm­ing are not reg­u­lar farm­ers, but pro­fes­sion­als such as engi­neers, doc­tors, em­ploy­ees from the public and pri­vate sec­tors, se­nior cit­i­zens, women homemak­ers and stu­dents. “There could be a min­i­mum of 20,000 rooftop cul­ti­va­tors in each of the 14 dis­tricts in the state,” says K Pratha­pan, di­rec­tor, State Hor­ti­cul­ture Mis­sion, which has been pro­mot­ing or­ganic veg­etable farm­ing. “The main rea­son for this trend is grow­ing health con­scious­ness and fear of con­sum­ing con­tam­i­nated food,” adds Pratha­pan.

Deficit and con­tam­i­na­tion

Ker­ala faces two se­ri­ous is­sues: short­age in pro­duc­tion of veg­eta­bles and fruits, and chem­i­cal con­tam­i­na­tion. Ker­ala’s an­nual

re­quire­ment of veg­eta­bles is three mil­lion tonnes. “De­spite hav­ing good rains and sun­light, the state pro­duces only 30-40 per cent of its re­quire­ment,” says Pratha­pan.The rest is im­ported from the neigh­bour­ing Tamil Nadu and Kar­nataka. With high lev­els of lit­er­acy, Ker­alites have been in­creas­ingly mov­ing away from farm­ing and pur­chas­ing al­most ev­ery­thing from the mar­kets.

But there is no guar­an­tee about the safety of veg­eta­bles and fruits avail­able in the mar­kets. “Farm­ers in Tamil Nadu and Kar­nataka of­ten ap­ply huge quan­ti­ties of chem­i­cals such as pes­ti­cides, in­sec­ti­cides and fungi­cides to veg­eta­bles and fruits.The same is true for com­mer­cial cul­ti­va­tion within the state,” says Lal Varghese Kal­pakavadi, chair­per­son of the state-owned veg­etable pro­cure­ment agency, Ker­ala Hor­ti­cul­tural Prod­ucts De­vel­op­ment Cor­po­ra­tion. He says reg­u­lar tests of veg­etable and fruit sam­ples from the mar­kets re­veal high lev­els of chem­i­cal residue. “The state has a high can­cer in­ci­dence rate and one of the rea­sons for this could be chem­i­cal con­tam­i­na­tion of veg­eta­bles and fruits,” he adds.

While peo­ple like Vad­h­yar and Ab­hi­lash P T, an engi­neer with Tata Con­sul­tancy Ser­vices in Er­naku­lam, grow veg­eta­bles in spe­cially—built space on the ter­race, a ma­jor­ity of ter­race farm­ers grow veg­eta­bles in plas­tic “grow bags” which are avail­able at Kr­ishi Bha­vans un­der the state agri­cul­ture depart­ment and also at pri­vate out­lets. “These bags are stan­dard­ised for ul­tra­vi­o­let rays. So they last for at least 4-5 years,” says Joji Mathew, an engi­neer from Thiruvananthapuram, who prac­tices rooftop farm­ing.

The bags come in dif­fer­ent sizes, and they are filled with a mix­ture of top soil, cow dung, river sand or La­t­erite pow­der, coir pith and Pseu­domonas, a biopes­ti­cide, in equal pro­por­tion. All these com­po­nents are avail­able in the gov­ern­ment’s agro-bazaars. These bags be­came pop­u­lar in 2010 when the Hor­ti­cul­ture Mis­sion dis­trib­uted thou­sands of such bags with a va­ri­ety of plants and a guide free of cost. In Thiruvananthapuram city alone, more than 33,310 house­holds were each given 25 such bags and plants. “We are sure at least 60 per cent of house­holds are con­tin­u­ing with rooftop farm­ing,” says Pratha­pan. Now, 25 bags with the soil mix­ture are sold at a sub­sidised rate of ` 500.

Many like R Raveendran, a res­i­dent of Ul­loor in Thiruvananthapuram, and A K Mathew, res­i­dent of Kakkanad in Er­naku­lam and for­mer gen­eral man­ager of Hin­dus­tan In­sec­ti­cide Lim­ited, make the mix­ture on their own. “The so­lu­tion can be pre­pared by spend­ing just one-tenth of what you would spend for buy­ing or­ganic ma­nure,” says Raveendran, who got the In­no­va­tive Farmer Award in 2014 from the In­dian Agri­cul­tural Re­search In­sti­tute.

Net­works for farm­ing

So­cial media too has played a cru­cial role in sus­tain­ing the or­ganic ter­race farm­ing move­ment. Groups such as Kitchen Gar­den and Kr­ishib­hoomi share knowl­edge among mem­bers. In Au­gust last year, a few so­cial media groups came to­gether to form a Kitchen Gar­den Fo­rum on the World Kitchen Gar­den Day.The fo­rum, along with Thiruvananthapuram-based non-profit, Thanal, or­gan­ised a three-day ex­hi­bi­tion-cum-train­ing work­shop on or­ganic farm­ing. The so­cial media groups have planned to grow paddy on the ter­race in pots so that they won’t need to buy rice for Onam, the pop­u­lar harvest fes­ti­val.

Joji Mathew points out such work­shops help gen­er­ate aware­ness among peo­ple about on­go­ing gov­ern­ment pro­grammes, sub­si­dies and sim­ple tech­nolo­gies. For in­stance, the state’s Depart­ment of En­vi­ron­ment and Cli­mate Change (doecc) is pro­mot­ing a pro­ject com­bin­ing ter­race farm­ing and biodegrad­able waste treat­ment, un­der which a cus­tomer is pro­vided 25 “grow bags” with veg­etable seedlings and a mi­cro ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem. The sys­tem is equipped with an au­to­mated timer and can run even when the ter­race farmer is out of town.The ac­tual cost of the sys­tem is ` 10,000, but it is avail­able at a sub­sidised rate of ` 3,000. A per­son who avails this fa­cil­ity is given 70 per cent sub­sidy for a bio­gas plant. The cost of the plant is

` 15,000.“The slurry from the bio­gas plant is good ma­nure for or­ganic farm­ing,” says C S Yalakki, di­rec­tor, doecc, Ker­ala.

“To ad­vise and help the ur­ban rooftop cul­ti­va­tors, there should be skilled and trained farm ser­vice providers as is in the case of the IT sec­tor,” says S Usha of Thanal. There are a few ser­vice providers like the Thiruvananthapuram-based Karshika Karma Sena, which is a joint ven­ture of Ku­dap­panakunnu Gram Pan­chayat and Kr­ishiBha­van.The tech­ni­cians of this group as­sist clients—from se­lect­ing a plot for farm­ing to mar­ket­ing the pro­duce.But the ser­vice is avail­able only in Thiruvananthapuram. Women’s self-help groups un­der the Kudum­bas­ree Mis­sion, a state agency for em­pow­er­ing ru­ral women, is also pro­vid­ing the ser­vice, but in a lim­ited way.

Rooftop cul­ti­va­tors point out that there is im­mense scope for such ser­vice providers and their ser­vices should be made avail­able through­out the state through the of­fices of the state agri­cul­ture depart­ment, Hor­ti­cul­ture Mis­sion and Veg­etable and Fruit Procur­ing Coun­cil. If this hap­pens, ur­ban rooftop farm­ing will rev­o­lu­tionise the food deficit state.

A R S Vad­h­yar, a civil engi­neer, and his wife, Jayashree, a re­tired pro­fes­sor from Ker­ala Agri­cul­tural Univer­sity, have been do­ing rooftop farm­ing for 15 years in Er­naku­lam

Thiruvananthapuram res­i­dent, R Raveendran, who won the In­no­va­tive Farmer Award in 2014 from the In­dian Agri­cul­tural Re­search In­sti­tute for his rooftop farm

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