In Bhubaneshwar, 3,000 tribal women stage a demonstration demanding the declaration of Orissa as an "organic" state. In Medak, Andhra Pradesh, 1,000 women march through the streets demanding a ban on hybrid and Genetically Modified (GM) seeds.
Women are the major stakeholders in organic agriculture, precisely because they are the worst victims of inorganic agriculture, or chemical farming. Over decades, the socio-economic and health status of women in farming communities has been adversely affected by Green Revolution or "industrial" farming technologies and policies.
For millions of rural Indian women, organic agriculture offers escape from the three demons of debt, disease and destitution. In an arid corner of Rajasthan, Anand Kanwar of Laporiya village recalls how, when she was an adolescent, the entire village would be decimated by drought. Crops would fail, cattle would die and people would have to migrate to cities in search of work.
Today, thanks to a community-driven watershed management-cum-organic farming project implemented over 15 years, the village manages two crops a year and at least one crop even in a really bad drought year and maintains large herds of milch cattle. No one ever goes hungry or thirsty, she says.
Crop rotation, use of bio-inputs, water-harvesting, animal husbandry, development and maintenance of pastures and wildlife preserves are all part of an integrated organic management system which has made this possible. Says Anand Kanwar: "We conserve water, we maintain forest cover and pastures. We do not poison the water or soil with chemicals. We do not hurt birds or any other animals. We do not cut down trees. We respect the earth and in return, the earth sustains us".
The project was first mooted by Anand's husband, Laxman Singh, himself a farmer. It was she who brought the women around to the idea. Once they were convinced, they took the lead in developing and maintaining traditional water-harvesting structures, wildlife sanctuaries, pastures and woods and even learning about composting techniques. Groups of women perform these community duties in rotation, with spectacular results.
Apart from milch cattle, food processing is another income-generating activity. Having realised there is an urban market for organic food products, women like Anand have formed Self-Help Groups to process and package organic foods for Mumbai and Delhi. "We supply traditional items like daliya, papad, etc," Anand says proudly.
Organic agriculture is knowledge- rather than resource-intensive. Much of the required knowledge and techniques are already available with traditional farmers. ITKS or indigenous traditional knowledge systems, are at the very core of organic farming. The Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) has conducted trials and validated many of these ITKS. Traditional knowledge has thus entered the realms of "agricultural science".
In organic farming, no inputs need to be purchased. Access to cattle and cattle products is essential for organic cultivators - hence, the special status accorded to cows in rural households. Women have a critical role to play in the care and maintenance of cattle and processing of cattle products. Even dry cattle provide the household with fuel, building material, pharmaceuticals and draught energy.
Fertilisers and pesticides are manufactured on-farm from cattle manure and locally available trees and shrubs. Biological and mechanical systems of pest control are employed.
Organic farming promotes indigenous varieties of seeds rather than hybrids, so that the farmer is not dependent on seed marketing companies - a major saving. Women play a crucial role in selection and preservation of seeds.
The popular myth that organic farming leads to lower yields has been exploded by trials conducted worldwide, including India. The Tamil Nadu Agricultural University's study on organic cultivation of green chilli found it produced better yields and quality. Likewise, the University of Agricultural Sciences, Dharwar, Karnataka, found more viability in organic cultivation of groundnut. Ditto French beans. Punjab Agricultural University studies found use of organic inputs produced better rice yields.
As ICAR Diretcor-General (DG) Mangala Rai pointed out, in rainfed agricultural systems, organic farming produces consistently better yields. In Green Revolution areas, too, there is no diminishing of yields. Even the World Bank admits: "Farmers in developing countries who switch to organic agriculture achieve higher earnings and a better standard of living, according to a series of studies conducted in China, India and six Latin American countries by the International Fund for Agricultural Development (IFAD)."
Asha Mawasi, a small farmer of Tagi village in Madhya Pradesh, is one of the half-dozen women cultivators who have joined an organic farmers' collective under the aegis of the Krishi Vigyan Kendra (KVK) in Chitrakoot, Madhya Pradesh. She says: "We do not use chemical fertilisers nor chemical pesticides as they destroy the crops. We follow what the KVK tells us and also our traditional agricultural practices, like nakshatra farming (going according to the movement of
the planets). Our harvest is better and there are no pests or diseases."
All over the country, groups of small and marginal farmers are coming together to form organic farming collectives. Through NGOs or government agencies, they are getting their farms certified as organic, thus opening up markets in Indian and abroad.
What's lagging behind is government policy. On the one hand, the manifest success of organic agriculture demonstrated by Vandana Shiva's Navdanya, the Kheti Virasat mission in Punjab, the Uttaranchal Organic Commodities Boards, the Maharashtra Organic Farmers' Association, the Spices Board and countless other agencies have forced the Ministry of Agriculture to set up a National Centre for Organic Farming (NCOF).
However, in terms of policy, it continues to kowtow to pesticide, fertiliser, agri-machinery, bio-technology and seed lobbies. Chemical agriculture is subsidised, organic agriculture is not. It has been left to the Ministry of Commerce to lay down standards for organic certification and for state governments to promote organic agriculture.
Although 68 per cent of the total agricultural land available in India is believed to be under de facto non-chemical farming, no effort has been made to improve yields through organic methods or obtain organic certification (thus opening up world markets to India's organic farmers). Only 6,000 farms, with a total area of 76,000 hectares, are currently certified as organic.