The year after his father died, Ponnamalaiah sprayed his 10-acre field with pesticides and added chemical fertilisers to cotton, paddy and vegetables. The results were impressive. The first summer and winter harvests saw more cotton and paddy than his father had ever managed to achieve. The second year’s harvest, however, dipped.

In the third year, the results were poorer than those without chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

When I meet him about 20 years later, Ponnamalaiah is tending his fields in Enabavi, in Telangana’s Warangal district. He strolls over with a hoe clutched in one hand. His white dhoti is rolled up halfway above his knees and almost disappears into the folds of his white shirt. He sets the hoe aside under a mango tree and sits on a brick enclave adjoining his field. His shirt-sleeves are rolled up to his elbows and his right hand reveals a faded green tattoo that now looks like a squiggle. When he speaks, he reveals a set of crooked teeth.

“The fourth year was the year of the red hairy caterpillar,” he says. “All farmers started finding these pests in their fields. They were so numerous that we could scoop them up in our hands. No pesticide was working against them. That is when I ran into Lingaiah, who worked for an NGO promoting non-pesticide and organic farming.”

Then in his mid-40s, Ponnamalaiah had buried his father three years earlier. The old man had held out against the modernisation of agriculture pushed by the government, which focused on increasing yield by using chemical fertilisers, insecticides and pesticides. Besides cotton, the family grew rice and vegetables which they ate, and Ponnamalaiah’s father believed that chemicals would have ill-effects on the health of people as well as the crops.

Lingaiah told Ponnamalaiah that caterpillars are attracted to light, and gave him a solution. “I would make huge bonfires near the field in the evening, using tyres and kerosene. And hundreds of caterpillars would crawl near it and die. In the night I kept an electric bulb burning. In two weeks, I could rescue my crops. I became confident. Lingaiah encouraged me to go back to the methods used by my father. He also taught me natural methods of pest management,” he says.

Among the green gram plants that cover his field, inverted yellow cups on sticks serve to guard against pests. These are pheromone traps, which can be bought for Rs. 10. They contain a tablet that releases pheromones of the female pest and males of the species are attracted to fall into the trap.

After switching back to organic farming, bolstered by more scientific methods introduced by the NGO, Ponnamalaiah’s crop showed signs of improving. Coincidentally, at the same time in 1995, a wave of farmer suicides started in the erstwhile state of Andhra Pradesh, driven by failing crops and debt to private moneylenders. In present-day Telangana, 25,973 farmers have committed suicide since 1995, according to the National Crime Records Bureau.

In the next few years, both yield and quality started increasing. My tomatoes were so big they looked like apples. We have never see tomatoes like that before. The paddy and cotton too were better.

While his neighbours were finding agriculture increasingly tough, Ponnamalaiah says that his crops started doing better than his father’s ever did. “In the next few years, both yield and quality started increasing. My tomatoes were so big they looked like apples. We have never see tomatoes like that before. The paddy and cotton too were better,” he says.

Neighbours who had scoffed at him started asking for advice. Daunted by private loans and the fear of crop failure, they were attracted by both the better crop yield and the decrease in cost afforded by avoiding expensive chemical pesticides and fertilisers. Many started experimenting with organic farming and soon switched to it completely. In a region where the news of farmers killing themselves by drinking pesticides appeared with a resigned regularity, the decision of farmers of Enabavi to go chemical-free was powerful, moving and desperate.

Ponnamalaiah’s father had been right all along.

Enabavi is 100 kilometres from Hyderabad, off the Hyderabad-Warangal highway. It has more than 500 families, all of them dependent on agriculture. Today, all of them follow organic farming. They enrich the soil using pond silt and use natural fertilisers made by mixing cow dung, cow urine, neem leaves, ghee, milk, jaggery, sugarcane juice and so on. They fend off pest infestations by using pheromone traps, planting border crops, and using pesticides made from natural ingredients.

Most of the farmers still have to rely on private moneylenders to finance their loans, says Ponnamalaiah. But their input costs go down significantly every season because they don’t need to spend on chemical fertilisers. A cooperative set up by the farmers buys the paddy they produce, which is then processed and sold to the market directly. According to the Centre for Community Sustainable Agriculture, an NGO that partners in running Enabavi’s organic programme, a farmer saves an average of Rs.3,500 per acre of cultivated land. And as organic produce, what they sell fetches a slightly higher price.

Both organic and non-pesticide farming—the former does not use chemical fertilisers as well—began in erstwhile Andhra Pradesh during the Nineties. Pioneered by a few NGOs as a means of sustainable and eco-friendly agriculture, farmers in a handful of villages like Enabavi found it more appealing than the more cost-intensive mainstream practices. Some NGOs adopted certain villages, supplying the farmers with technical help and support.

In 2004-06, during the first government of Chandrababu Naidu, Andhra Pradesh faced its worst agrarian crisis. According to official records, 5,864 farmers committed suicide during that period. It is widely believed that the Telugu Desam Party lost the elections because it failed to deal with the crisis. By this time, more than a dozen NGOs were working on the ground, popularising non-pesticide management (NPM) practices and guiding entire villages.

To figure out how to tackle the crisis, the Naidu government appointed a commission which recommended in its report non-pesticidal and community-managed sustainable agricultural practices. The Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) was tasked with implementing the recommendations of the report. SERP tied up with NGOs to implement pilot projects across the state.

On a parallel track, SERP got women’s self-help groups (SHGs) in villages to recruit farmers and coordinate awareness on non-pesticide farming in the most crisis-ridden areas. In 2008, SERP took over the programme from the NGOs and started scaling up the numbers.

At present, the programme has reached more than 38 lakh acres and over 10 lakh farmers, according to SERP data. This makes it the largest experiment in non-chemical pesticide agriculture in India.

Farmers following the CMSA model eliminate the cost of pesticides and are encouraged to reduce fertiliser costs by substituting manure and natural concoctions instead of chemicals.

The CMSA programme is self-managed by farmers and SHGs with SERP playing a mentor role. It aims primarily to cut down the cost of cultivation for farmers, giving them a better chance at escaping the debt trap. The overwhelming majority of farmers who have committed suicides in India are small- and medium-sized farmers. A 2009 report by the World Bank’s sustainable development department quoted data from the National Sample Survey (2003) to estimate that in former Andhra Pradesh, farmers who held less than two acres spent 35 per cent of their investment on chemical pesticides and chemical fertilisers. Fourteen per cent of this is spent on pesticides.

Farmers following the CMSA model eliminate the cost of pesticides and are encouraged to reduce fertiliser costs by substituting manure and natural concoctions instead of chemicals. “Our internal studies based on surveys in various districts have showed an increase in yield and profit for farmers after following CMSA methods. There has also been a definite fall in sickness and hospitalisation related to chemical pesticides. In the long run, CMSA helps the farmer in terms of health as well as livelihood. It also creates chemical free food, helps recover soil fertility and corrects the ecological balance,” says D. V. Raidu, director of SERP.


Parkal is an hour away from Warangal town by bus. The highway carries one past white cotton fields and the yellow of harvested paddy fields and hayracks. As the road gets narrower, the huge trees that line both sides go across and touch each other at times, forming a canopy.

Warangal has the highest density of non-pesticide agriculture in Telangana and Andhra Pradesh. There is one officially registered NPM farmer for every two conventional farmers A rocky, dry region with granite quarries as well as extensive cotton farming, Warangal was once the hotbed of the Maoist rebellion in Andhra Pradesh (Warangal is now in Telangana).

A farmer I met in Warangal said that things were much better under the annas, as the rebels were called. There was less corruption and the police harassed people less. But when I ask him if he would support the Maoists if they were to come back, he shakes his head. “It won’t happen. There’s no coming back. Too much has changed.”

Warangal town and the highway connecting it shows unmistakable signs of that change: KFC outlets, pizza and fast food joints, branches or imitations of famous outlets in Hyderabad, shopping complexes. In the villages, however, there is a sense that not enough has changed since the Reds roamed here a decade ago. Most farmers have mobiles and motorbikes, but the suicide rates remain constant. Warangal has the highest in the state over the last decade.

Sreenivas Jeela’s land lies right next to the highway. Row upon row of green chilli plants cover the four acres. Long black and silver sheets of plastic cover each row of the chilli crop, whose knee-high bushes rise up through holes in the sheet. Tubes bringing water from a nearby well snake through the field: the plastic sheets ensure that the crop beds retain the moisture for as long as possible.

Along the perimeter of the field, Jeela has planted jowar in a single line. The leaves of the tiny plants are the first line of defence against pest attacks. The border crop acts as a buffer, protecting the chilli from pests. Apart from the pheromone traps, sticks bearing rectangular pieces of yellow paper are stuck to the ground in chosen spots. The yellow paper, which often flaps in the breeze, is studded with what looks like small white dots. These are the tiny white flies the simple contraption is designed to catch.

The paper is coated with glue or resin and, depending on the time of the season, four to 10 of them are placed in strategic locations in the field. When these do not prove enough, Jeela resorts to spraying concoctions made from natural ingredients that CMSA activists have trained him to prepare.

Jeela says he was the first in his village of Golappalli to turn to non-pesticidal agriculture. Six years ago, he started talking to a cluster activist from a nearby village who convinced Jeela to try out NPM. “My brothers and uncle were angry with me. They told me I will not get anything and will only end up losing everything. I said what is wrong with trying and set aside one acre of cotton for NPM. The results were good and the next year I switched to NPM completely. Soon my brothers and uncles also followed suit.”

Today, a large number of farmers in Golappalli have enrolled in the CMSA programme.

The main reason Jeela has stuck to the CMSA programme is the reduction in cultivation costs. But his total yield has also increased marginally and the soil fertility has increased over the years, he says. “A scientist from ITC came here to conduct soil tests. He says the soil fertility is high. I also have less health problems and allergies now. It’s because I have stopped using pesticides.”

Apart from chillies, Jeela cultivates cotton on one acre and paddy on two acres. CMSA encourages multi-cropping so that farmers have a security net in case of crop failure. Jeela says that after he started NPM farming, the size of the green chillies he cultivates has gone up by as much as two inches. His yield has increased by two to three quintals per acre and he saves an average of Rs. 25,000 per acre in investment. The bigger chillies also fetch a higher price.

This year has been a bad one for the farmers of Telangana. Lack of rainfall has led to crop losses in the rabi season, while the last one was devastated by floods. Jeela has insured himself by entering into a deal with ITC, which lends him money to grow export quality green chillies and agrees to buy the produce at a price lower than the market price. If he is able to harvest the entire crop, he will get a lower profit than if he sold to the market. But if the crop fails, he still gets the price named in the contract. It’s a trade-off he is happy to settle for.


The CMSA approach to farming makes some crucial assumptions that differs from conventional scientific wisdom. The major premise is that the input-intensive approach of high-fertiliser high-yield agriculture is not sustainable. CMSA advocates say that this drives up cost and is not sustainable in several parts of the country.

“Fertiliser use in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is the highest in the country. Which means farmers here cannot compete with other states in terms of productivity because their cost of cultivation is higher,” says Ramanjaneyalu, an agricultural scientist working on non-pesticidal agriculture, who is also the executive director of the Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, an NGO based in Hyderabad.

He says: “The price of the produce is decided by the government or by the market based on a national average. With the same yield and higher cost of production, farmers from here cannot compete on the market. According to the figures of the Fertiliser Association of India, the national average of fertiliser use is 160 kilograms per hectare.

Fertiliser use in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana is the highest in the country. Which means farmers here cannot compete with other states in terms of productivity because their cost of cultivation is higher.

“In (former) Andhra Pradesh, the average use is 251 kilograms per hectare according to the state agricultural department data. In Warangal, Karimnagar, Nizamabad (Telangana), and East and West Godavari districts, it is as high as 400 to 500 kilograms per hectare, which is enormous. So farming becomes unsustainable. Here NPM or organic agriculture helps by reducing input costs and allowing the farmer to stay competitive. It also increases productivity by balancing the ecosystem and improving soil fertility and health.”

By adding organic manure to the soil and using silt from small local ponds, NPM farmers replenish the organic content of the soil. This increases yield as well as makes the crops less vulnerable to diseases as well as certain kinds of pests. “In 1995, it was found that one kilogram of fertiliser yielded eight kilogram of paddy. Now it gives only between six and seven kilograms of paddy. Chemical fertiliser use has increased susceptibility of cotton and paddy to sucking pests. Where nitrogenous fertilisers have been used, the brown plant hopper is now affecting paddy crops and the mealyworm is infecting cotton.”

This is why Ramanjaneyalu advocates widespread adoption of NPM and organic agriculture in all parts of the country. The state governments of Chhattisgarh, Maharashtra, Odisha, Bihar, and Jammu and Kashmir have already introduced organic and NPM agriculture to many villages on a pilot basis by partnering with NGOs.

Scientists advocating non-pesticidal agriculture argue that pest infestations occur when the ecological balance is disturbed and there is a disproportionate increase in the population of an insect species., When chemical pesticides try to eliminate the insect population, insects that benefit the farmer by preying on the pests are also killed, thus destroying the ecological balance between different species populations.

Over time, he says, pest populations develop resistance to the pesticide. Without the predator populations to check them, they multiply and cause damage. Newer and more powerful pesticides, which are often more expensive, are then introduced to tackle this. They have the same result. “The farmer gets caught up in a vicious cycle.”

Initial studies by SERP as well as independent studies by the Acharya N. G. Ranga Agricultural University (AGRAU) in Hyderabad corroborate Ramananjaneyalu’s words. The AGRAU study was conducted by two agricultural scientists, R. Ratnakara and M. Surya. They made field visits and surveyed 3,200 farmers in 18 districts of Andhra Pradesh and Telangana in 2009.

The study reported an increase of one to two quintals per acre for all crops. They found that on average, farmers who followed NPM and organic farming earned an additional net income per acre of Rs. 7,000 for cotton, Rs. 5,000 for paddy, Rs. 4,500 for maize, Rs. 8,500 for chillies, Rs. 5,500 for groundnuts, and Rs. 5,800 for vegetables. For these same crops, stopping chemical pesticide use saved the farmer approximately Rs. 1,700, Rs. 940, Rs. 1,300, Rs. 1,700, Rs. 1,000 and Rs. 1,400 per acre respectively.

The highest savings for paddy and maize was in Guntur, where farmers surveyed managed to save Rs. 1,949 per acre for paddy and Rs. 1,825 for maize. Farmers in all districts made substantial savings by reducing fertiliser use. From 2005 to 2010, Andhra Pradesh led the country in consistent and high reductions in pesticide use. While the pesticide use of most states went up during this period, it declined from 1,997 kilograms per acre to 1,015 kilograms per acre in Andhra Pradesh.

Sashi Bushan, an agricultural scientist at AGRAU who specialises in pesticide residue and toxicology, however cautions against extrapolating from limited data to conclusions about the effectiveness of non-pesticidal farming. “Chemical pesticides allow 40 to 50 per cent control of a pest population. Studies have established that. While AGRAU has started studying NPM (in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana), there is not enough scientific evidence to compare it with pesticidal agriculture. While farmers may say there is better yield, as scientists we cannot go by that. Data has to be collected over a period of at least two years before a comparison can be made,” Bushan says AGRAU is now in the process of doing such studies.


It is a cold grey morning in Narsarpur, where a farmer field school is being conducted. The sun shines meekly as Sambaiah Chepori leads the way through a cotton field with another farmer. A tall man, he is dressed in a white full-sleeved shirt and dark pants with a pen tucked into his shirt pocket.

Sambaiah is a farmer who is employed by SERP to oversee CMSA work in a cluster of five villages. The dusty black soil of the field has caked and giant cracks spread across its surface. The soil has dried out because of lack of irrigation, and the flowers on the waist-high cotton bushes are brown and shrivelled. The soil turns moist as one enters the next field, stepping across the ring of small teak bushes encircling it. This is where the farmer field school is to be held.

Among the chest-high cotton plants, four farmers are waiting for Sambaiah and his companion. Most are dressed in shirts and dhotis; one wearing a jacket carries a notebook and pen.

Farmer field schools are conducted in a different village of the cluster, five days in a week. Both the village activist and the cluster activist are present at these classes and it is attended by CMSA farmers in that particular village. Sambaiah takes out a blue and orange mobile phone and opens an app into which he enters the names of those present. The app transfers the data to a database in SERP’s Warangal district office.

The farmers start fanning out into the field. They are searching for pests and insects that might damage the crop in spite of the pheromone and paper traps. They are also on the lookout for sickness and deficiencies in the cotton stalks and leaves. The cotton bushes are so close-grown that at places they have become thickets. The farmers push through them as they cover more ground.

One of them comes up to Sambaiah with a small green insect clutched between his thumb and forefinger. The cluster activist peers at it for a few seconds before giving his verdict. Mitra purugulu, a friendly pest.

The conservation of insects that are predators of pests that attack crops is integral to NPM. The farmers were trained when they joined the programme to identify pest activity. “We were shown charts of friendly and enemy pests, and the effect on the leaves of various crops when attacked by enemy pests. That is how we are able to identify them,” says Bhaskar, the village activist.

Sambaiah inspects the crop that Surendra, the owner of the field, shows him. The leaves are faded and show small pores. “It is magnesium-borium deficiency,” he says. Surendra has guessed as much. As an emergency measure, he bought and sprayed a magnesium-borium mixture on the crops two days before. Sambaiah now asks him to prepare and spray Dhruvajeevamritham, a natural pesticide promoted by the CMSA programme. It’s made using a mixture of pulses and oil seeds which are allowed to decompose sealed inside plastic drums.

I ask Surendra whether he will use the magnesium-borium mixture or the Dhruvajeevamritham. “I will use the Dhruvajeevamritham,” he says. “It takes two days to prepare the mixture. That’s why I rushed to use a chemical pesticide. But this is far more effective. And I can make it at virtually no cost.”

Another farmer finds what looks like a pest infestation in some plants. He brings the leaves over to Sambaiah. The leaves are blackened and full of small pores. Searching fingers locate the small, almost invisible speck of white hidden among the pores—the “white fly”.

Sambaiah prescribes the use of Panchamrita, a mixture made from cow dung and urine, milk, and yeast. If it is available, Surendra can buy it from a shop that sells natural pesticides and fertilisers in the village. Otherwise, he will prepare it himself.

As the class winds up, they discuss how in spite of using BT cotton—which is genetically engineered to resist boreworms—boreworms are starting to appear in some places. They were visible in his neighbour’s field and Surendra suspects that the infestation will soon appear in his own. Sambaiah asks him to use a compound made from decomposing cow dung, cow urine, and neem leaves called Brahmastra. Surendra laughs and imitates drawing a bow and arrows. “It is like what the Pandavas used to do in ancient times. When nothing else works, we farmers use the Brahmastra.”

Sambaiah first heard of bio-fertilisers and bio-pesticides on the radio, 12 years ago. He read about it in the newspapers too, which told him that farmers can save money on chemical pesticides and improve the fertility of the soil. Worried about his expenses going up and his income coming down, he started trying out some of the natural methods he heard about on the radio. But he continued to use chemical pesticides and fertilisers.

In 2006, at the height of the agrarian crisis, one of the NGOs working on sustainable agriculture contacted him. “They were looking to identify progressive farmers who were interested in NPM practices. With the support of the NGO I turned to full-time non-pesticidal farming,” says Sambaiah.

Following multi-cropping, he cultivates cotton, paddy and red gram. In a few years, he noticed the soil gaining strength and the yields going up. “I get up to 13 quintals of cotton per acre, whereas earlier I would get only 10. Because the soil here is alkaline, I used to lose 25 per cent of the winter crop in paddy. Now I get 100 per cent. With the quality of the crop also getting better, I am also able to get better prices,” he says.

In 2007, Sambaiah became a village activist, in charge of monitoring and supporting NPM farmers in his village. The NGO was so pleased with his work that it promoted him to a cluster activist, tasked with overseeing the work in a cluster of five villages. When SERP took over the programme, it continued with the same model, integrating it into a state-wide network and linking it to SHGs. Along with village activists such as Bhaskar, Sambaiah facilitates NPM farming in the villages under his cluster. He is paid a monthly wage of Rs.2,000 by SERP.

The thousands of village activists and cluster activists form the backbone of the CMSA programme. Apart from popularising NPM agriculture, the village activist is the first go-to point for the farmer who has switched over from conventional agriculture. He also has the job of creating a database of what crops are being cultivated in a village and in what acreage. Along with the cluster activist, he helps the district SERP office map the impact of the CMSA programme.

Sambaiah and the village activists also attend daily or weekly (which varies by village) meetings of the village women’s SHG. Here they give classes on particular agricultural practices being implemented that season in the village. The SHGs act as a parallel network that disseminates information on NPM practices.

Sambaiah says, “We have often found that suggestions which are not implemented when we talk to the farmers, get done when it is introduced in the women’s SHG. They meet more often for discussions and these ideas also get talked about. For example, the plan for each farming household to have a kitchen garden did not take off till we got the SHGs involved. This is because women realise the household expense that is involved in buying vegetables from the market.”


Apart from livelihood and environmental considerations, farmers spoken to for this story reported improved health and said they felt safer eating food on which pesticides have not been used. In India, accidental pesticide poisoning during use is a health hazard that sees thousands of farmers being hospitalised every year. A report by CSA shows there has been a drastic reduction in cases of severe hospitalisation due to pesticide poisoning in Khammam and Adilabad districts (Telangana).

The study says, in 2005-08, 104 villagers in Khammam were hospitalised. None of them were from villages in which NPM farming is practised. In Adilabad, the number was 40 with no one from NPM villages. The study was also carried out in Vijayanagaram district (Andhra Pradesh), and did not show significant hospitalisation in either groups.

The study also tried to compare farmer suicides in NPM and non-NPM villages by taking a few case studies. (The ratio of non-NPM to NPM farmers within a single NPM village varies). It found that nine suicides were reported from non-NPM villages in Karimnagar and none from NPM villages. In Adilabad there were three suicides in non-NPM villages and none in NPM villages.

While no comprehensive scientific study about the link between suicides and agricultural method seems to have been carried out, a limited study was conducted by two researchers, Lakshmi Vijayakumar and R. Satheesh Babu. Published in the International Journal of Social Psychiatry, the researchers compared suicides in four NPM villages in Khammam to four non-NPM villages. They reported that more suicides had occurred in villages following conventional agriculture.

The study concluded that since most farmer suicides in India happened through ingestion of pesticide, the “restriction of pesticide availability and accessibility by NPM has the potential to reduce pesticide suicides.”

Sambaiah himself does not have a kitchen garden in his courtyard. Instead, the space is taken up by a large grey machine on wheels. Rows of gunny sacks are lined up beside it. Paddy seeds are poured into a funnel that sticks out of one side of the machine. Plates with rollers shake the seeds, separating them out. Seeds that are too large or small, as well as those that are not fully developed, are dumped into metal trays. The fit seeds come out of a funnel at the end and are then filled into the gunny bags.

One of the long term objectives of the CMSA programme is for farmers to produce seeds on their own and market them at prices which are more affordable than market rates. Several seed machines were distributed to farmers (both NPM and conventional farmers). But very few were able to run them effectively. Sambaiah is one of the rare success stories.

He was given the machine for free and, along with a group of farmers, set up a seed production business. An agricultural university gives what are called the “mother seeds”. Sambaiah and his friends buy the seeds and give them to interested farmers in the village to cultivate. The second generation of seeds are called “foundation seeds” and Sambaiah buys them on credit. He pays them back after selling the seeds on the
market. In the last kharif season, the group sold 3,000 bags of paddy seeds.They were priced at Rs. 650, which is Rs. 50 below the market price.

Sambaiah says that he plans to switch fully to organic farming soon. He has been gradually cutting down on the chemical fertilisers he uses. “I am already 70 per cent there,” he says. He believes that over the years, soil fertility has been increasing and that he can achieve equal yield using organic methods. The decision is mainly commercial. If he is able to market the produce as organic, he believes he can get a better price.

The CMSA programme was launched as an urgent intervention in the agrarian crisis that gripped farmers in Andhra Pradesh. While it sought to help farmers from falling into a cumulative debt trap by reducing losses, it had to resort to additional strategies in areas that faced different kind of problems.

Anantapur, now part of Andhra Pradesh, was the driest district in the undivided state. Farmers there faced acute irrigation and rainfall shortage. Districts like Kurnool, Kadapa, Mahbubnagar and Nalgonda also faced water shortage. NGOs and SERP initiated rain-fed agriculture in the region and trained farmers to use water conservation methods.

Along with water conservation, CMSA also promotes the System of Rice Intensification (SRI) method of cultivating paddy for farmers struggling with access to irrigation. Instead of water-logged paddy fields, farmers maintain only a thin film of water through the season. The weeds that come up are removed using hand-held or mechanised weeders. They are added to the soil to increase the organic content, allowing farmers to cut down on fertiliser cost.

The second component of the SRI method is to increase the space between the rice plants. Ramanjaneyalu explains, “Usually sowing is done in such a manner that three plants grow up closely together to increase the total grain yield. But these plants also compete with each for nutrients. SRI increases the yield of a single plant by increasing the space between the plants.”

According to National Sample Survey 2003 data, the average income per acre of a small farmer (having up to two acres) in Andhra Pradesh was Rs.5,038 per hectare. The programme encouraged farmers to innovate and increase their income. Singhavena Ravinder of Parkal in Warangal grows cotton and paddy in three acres of land (1. 2 hectares). But it is not enough to make ends meet; both Ravinder and his wife work as casual agricultural labourers. He sends one child to a private English medium school and another to college.

Ravinder turned to NPM agriculture in 2006. While that has helped him increase his net profit, he now finds a substantial second income by selling ivy guards that he grows at home.

He says he got the idea from seeing people grow grapes in their fields. The grape vines were spread over a metal trellis. Ravinder used bamboo sticks to build a mesh that covers his entire front yard. Now it is covered by cucumber creepers.

“I make Rs .500 to Rs .600 a week selling ivy guards. My neighbours buy it all. My investment is zero. We save Rs. 150 to Rs.3 00 on buying vegetables also,” he says.

Non-pesticidal remedies are easy to prepare with almost no cost. The main ingredients are biological waste, seeds and leaves of various plants. However, they take time to make. This has ended up creating a market for enterprising farmers who have started NPM shops in their villages. Last year, encouraged by Sambaiah, Joseph started experimenting with an NPM shop in his home. SERP estimates that more than 3,000 farmers are engaged in running NPM shops in Andhra Pradesh and Telangana. Joseph prepares natural pesticides and fertilisers specified by SERP. 

“I sell vylakashayamJeevamrithamPanchagavya and Brahmastra,” he says. He varies their production according to which crops are being sown in the village in a particular season and their stage of growth.

Right now, it is rice transplantation season and he is mainly selling Vylakashayam, a liquid extracted from neem leaves. He prepares Jeevamritham, a fertiliser, by mixing jaggery, cow urine and dung. Panchagavya is another fertiliser made from cow dung, cow urine, milk, ghee and yogurt. Brahmastra is a bio-pesticide made from neem leaves, custard apple, castor, papaya, bitter gourd, and cow urine. With the help of his wife and children, Joseph mixes the ingredients in large plastic drums stored in a shed outside his home to decompose.

Since half the ingredients are waste products, it costs Joseph little to make the products he sells. It has been more than a year since he opened the shop and while sales are often seasonal, he has found that they can also be brisk. This rabi season, he has sold 55 litres of the kashayam and 30 litres of other products. He charges Rs.20 per litre. “I charge less right now because I want it to spread. People should start buying more.”

Joseph is now confident enough to invest more time and expand his business. “I will stock 3,000 litres of Vylakashayam in the next season. I am confident I will be able to sell it all,” he says.

While most mainstream agricultural scientists remain sceptical of the effectiveness of NPM, NPM advocates also criticise the government CMSA programme for its lack of proper implementation. Many farmers interviewed for this story say that at times, they resort to spraying chemical pesticides in case of emergencies, or as a supplement to bio-pesticides.

This makes it difficult to create non-pesticide certification from outside agencies, which can lead to significantly higher prices.

In its study of the CMSA programme, AGRAU scientists concluded that “the targets were fulfilled to the extent of 50-60 per cent.” The study found that 60 per cent of the farmers surveyed were following the SRI model as well as using non-pesticidal methods to control pest attacks. However, it concluded farmers do not possess a real knowledge of the methods they were using or the rationale for them.

The greatest limitation of the CMSA programme has been its inability to create market linkages for the farmers and to fetch them better prices by promoting their produce in the non-pesticide and organic food market.

The greatest limitation of the CMSA programme has been its inability to create market linkages for the farmers and to fetch them better prices by promoting their produce in the non-pesticide and organic food market.

To make NPM agriculture sustainable, the study recommended introducing a more systematic method and curriculum in the farmer field schools, publicity campaigns to create awareness about NPM and organic practices, and concentrated efforts to build the knowledge and skill of farmers.


Outside India, the debate about the way forward in agriculture is playing out in a slightly different form, but with the same stakes. In September, American magazine Wiredquoted Neil Harker, a weed ecologist with the Canadian agriculture department, as saying, “We are on the brink of a crisis situation. I do consider right now to be a watershed, direction-defining moment for agriculture.”

Harker’s comments were in reference to the decision of the US department of agriculture to allow the introduction of a new generation of genetically modified (GM) corn and soy crops that are resistant to 2-4D, a weed-killing pesticide. Advocates for GM crops say that the use of genetic technology to increase agricultural productivity is the only way to keep up with the food needs of an increasing global population. Critics say GM crops are health risks to users and farmers and damaging to the environment.

Ecologists like Neil Harker however, say that the root problem is the herbicides. So called superweeds—resistant to the herbicide glyphosate—developed after Monsanto introduced glyphosate resistant crops, leading to indiscriminate use of the herbicide. Many weed scientists, including Harker, argue that the same thing will happen with the new GM crops which will lead to more superweeds. He argues that the solution is to use fewer pesticides and switch to a multi-cropping system.

Critics of alternative approaches point out that their economic viability at large scales in relation to industrial agriculture has not been proven. However, in recent years there has been growing recognition among governments and policymakers that alternative approaches like NPM cannot be easily dismissed.

The recently-appointed UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, Hilal Elver, in her first public speech warned that conventional agricultural methods were not sufficient to feed the world’s increasing population. But instead of GM crops, she advocated eco-agriculture methods like NPM.

“The 2009 global food crisis signalled the need for a turning point in the global food system. Modern agriculture, which began in the 1950s, is more resource intensive, very fossil fuel dependent, using fertilisers, and based on massive production. This policy has to change. We are already facing a range of challenges. Resource scarcity, increased population, decreasing land availability and accessibility, emerging water scarcity, and soil degradation require us to re-think how best to use our resources for future generations.”

Elver argued that recent scientific studies suggest that eco-agriculture is the only way of practicing agriculture in a sustainable way. “Agro-ecology is a traditional way of using farming methods that are less resource oriented, and which work in harmony with society. New research in agro-ecology allows us to explore more effectively how we can use traditional knowledge to protect people and their environment at the same time.”

She also pointed to the disparity in allocation of resources and research fund for industry agriculture and sustainable agriculture. “Empirical and scientific evidence shows that small farmers feed the world. According to the UN Food and Agricultural Organisation, 70 per cent of food we consume globally comes from small farmers,” said Elver.

“This is critical for future agricultural policies. Currently, most subsidies go to large agribusiness. This must change. Governments must support small farmers. As rural people are migrating increasingly to cities, this is generating huge problems. If these trends continue, by 2050, 75 per cent of the entire human population will live in urban areas. We must reverse these trends by providing new possibilities and incentives to small farmers, especially for young people in rural areas.”