Con­nect­ing for food

A trans­for­ma­tion in the food sys­tem is un­der­way with 100 con­sumers fund­ing tra­di­tional mil­let farm­ers LATHA JISHNU |

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Hy­der­abad con­sumers ex­tend cash sup­port to mil­let farm­ers

WHEN UR­BAN con­sumers start to think in earnest about their food, from the way it is grown to how they can ac­cess nu­tri­tious and safe sup­plies, then it can lead to a trans­for­ma­tion in the way the food sys­tem op­er­ates. No longer able to ac­cess nu­tri­tious food that is free of pes­ti­cides and chem­i­cals, con­sumers have been cast­ing about them for al­ter­na­tives. While some have set­tled for or­ganic food avail­able in su­per­mar­kets and niche out­lets, a group con­sist­ing of 100 con­sumers from Hy­der­abad have de­cided to try a dif­fer­ent route.

They be­lieve that the farmer has to be the cen­ter­piece of the new par­a­digm, and that a di­rect link with pro­duc­ers alone, will guar­an­tee nu­tri­tious sup­ply. Af­ter years of de­bate, the group, which is part of the Hy­der­abad-based Disha con­sumer move­ment that pro­motes eco­log­i­cal farm­ing, has de­cided to pro­vide di­rect mon­e­tary sup­port to farm­ers who have been prac­tis­ing tra­di­tional mil­let-based bio­di­verse agri­cul­ture for decades. In re­turn, con­sumers will get an agreed quan­tity of grains af­ter the har­vest.

A mini rev­o­lu­tion

The be­gin­ning of this mini-rev­o­lu­tion was ini­ti­ated in mid-June this year at a ham­let in Te­lan­gana’s San­gareddy dis­trict, some 120 kilo­me­tres from Hy­der­abad. A group of en­light­ened con­sumers de­scended on tiny Ar­jun Nayak Thanda where women farm­ers dressed in vi­brant tra­di­tional at­tire greeted them. It was a meet­ing of two dif­fer­ent worlds that knew lit­tle of each other, but were pal­pa­bly caught in the ex­cite­ment of a joint en­ter­prise that had brought them to­gether.

The phi­los­o­phy un­der­pin­ning this un­usual part­ner­ship is the be­lief that In­dian agri­cul­ture needs to go be­yond the or­ganic. Disha con­venor D Satya­narayana Raju says that af­ter work­ing for over a decade on the con­cept of healthy eat­ing, first in Pune and then in Hy­der­abad, he felt the move­ment was miss­ing some­thing crit­i­cal. “We started with or­ganic and fo­cused on the in­di­vid­ual health of con­sumers. Like so many other or­gan­i­sa­tions we too over­looked some­thing ba­sic: a more sus­tain­able form of agri­cul­ture for a bet­ter so­ci­ety and came to the con­clu­sion that food had to be viewed in a larger con­text.” Disha brings to­gether con­sumers who want to look at food in a holis­tic man­ner start­ing with sus­tain­able pro­duc­tion.

It is a lofty am­bi­tion that has made a small be­gin­ning in com­mu­nity sup­ported agri­cul­ture (csa) in In­dia.

csa is a con­cept in which con­sumers share the re­spon­si­bil­i­ties, risks and re­wards of farm­ing. Be­gin­ning in the 1970s in Ja­pan and Switzer­land, it is now spread­ing in the US and some Euro­pean na­tions. Veg­eta­bles and fruits, along with dairy prod­ucts and meats, are the prod­ucts most favoured in csa which is a way of fos­ter­ing a close bond be­tween farm­ers and their im­me­di­ate com­mu­nity. In some cases, con­sumers of­fer their labour in ex­change for fresh pro­duce.

Raju’s col­lab­o­ra­tion with the Dec­can De­vel­op­ment So­ci­ety (dds), a non-profit based in San­gareddy, helped sharpen his ideas on the way for­ward. dds has been work­ing for over three decades on pro­mot­ing mil­let farm­ing that re­lies on the tra­di­tional knowl­edge of farm­ers, spe­cially women food pro­duc­ers, to spread the mes­sage of food se­cu­rity for cul­ti­va­tors and good health for ur­ban con­sumers. To­gether with dds, Disha named the project Be­yond Or­ganic, the ConFarm (con­sumer-farmer com­pact). P V Satheesh, dds di­rec­tor, de­scribes it as “a holis­tic part­ner­ship be­tween eco­log­i­cal food pro­duc­ers and en­light­ened con­sumers who are aware of the deep cri­sis in In­dian agri­cul­ture”, and hopes it will change the cur­rent dy­nam­ics of farm pro­duc­tion and the mar­ket. dds works in 55 vil­lages where

sang­hams (col­lec­tives) of women farm­ers have been set up to strengthen their way of life and farm­ing.

Chal­leng­ing en­vi­ron­ment

In all, 83 hectares (ha) have been se­lected for ConFarm in Ar­jun Nayak Thanda and five ad­join­ing vil­lages in San­gareddy, and agri­cul­ture in these parts present the kind of chal­lenge that ur­ban folk would find daunt­ing. The ma­jor­ity of farm­ers here are women with plots as small as 0.4 ha. For decades, they have been grow­ing mil­lets such as jowar and ba­jra to lesser known va­ri­eties (barn­yard mil­let), along with dozens of other crops, like lentils and oilseeds.

Bul­locks are used for plough­ing and there is no mech­a­ni­sa­tion of any kind. There is no ir­ri­ga­tion fa­cil­ity either and the farmer is de­pen­dent on the timely ar­rival of rains. Last year, the har­vest was af­fected by the late rain­fall and also by birds feed­ing on de­pleted crops.

It was a bad time for farm­ers. Yet, the con­sumer-in­vestors of Disha are un­fazed by such risks. “We have been read­ing so much about the epi­demic of sui­cides by farm­ers, we felt that some­thing should be done to help them out of a cri­sis sit­u­a­tion,” says Shrin­kla Chand­hok, who is part of the Disha con­sumer move­ment. “The real risk is for the farmer and we won’t be com­plain­ing if we don’t get our share of grains.”

While the 100 con­sumers have con­trib­uted `12,500 to `25,000 each for this sea­son, dds joint di­rec­tor Jayasri Cherukuri says farm­ers will get sup­port of `10,000 per 0.4 ha. Grains of equiv­a­lent value will be given to the con­sumers as each crop is har­vested.

Need­less to say, the farm­ers are a happy lot. Shakribai, a young woman farmer who heads the dds sang­ham in Ar­jun Nayak Thanda, is de­lighted that con­sumers are dis­cov­er­ing the food pro­ducer and hopes that the Disha move­ment will spread the mes­sage of eco­log­i­cal farm­ing much more widely. “Once city folk un­der­stand the im­por­tance of eco­log­i­cal farm­ing and see how healthy we are, they will also be­gin to eat healthy.”

PHOTOGRAPHS: LATHA JISHNU

(Above) Shakribai (cen­tre) of Ar­jun Nayak Thanda vil­lage wel­comes ur­ban con­sumers to her world of bio­di­verse farm­ing; women farm­ers and con­sumers sign a com­pact agree­ing to pro­vide or­ganic grains in re­turn for fi­nan­cial sup­port

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