The Journey Together
Seeing the green rice field, we feel like we are eating the Amritam, divine nectar. — Rangaswami
A founding member of Amrita Sadivayal Vyavasaya Kulu Farmers’ group formed in 2016 to revive organic agriculture, Rangaswami peers at the first lush green rice field in over 5 years. Following a 5 year gap in cultivation, the once chemically damaged land is producing once again. The farmer’s group, which has been using natural farming methods for the last four years, has received an organic certificate for their land.
Home to the 44 household Irula tribe, the 150 resident Sadivayal village is located in the midst of a reserve forest in Tamil Nadu. In 2016, upon hearing about the hardships the community was facing, the Amrita SeRVe team went there for the first time. By this time, years of fertilisers and pesticides had resulted in infertile soil, so the farmers had abandoned the land. For over five years, the soil remained uncultivated, which meant the farmers had to work at seasonal jobs to earn their livelihood.
Sreeni KR, Amrita SeRVe’s agricultural program officer, began to understand the multi-layered problems the tribe was having after he began working side-by-side with the farmers. “The cultural ethos of the Irula tribe is based on living in harmony with Mother Nature,” he relates. “Unfortunately, however, for several generations they have been victims of caste discrimination, infringement of the right to livelihood, forcible encroachment, wage discrimination, and poor literacy. This has negatively impacted their confidence, health, education, and the overall standard of living.”
Sreeni further discovered that because the tribal land is part of the reserved forest area, the residents do not have pattayams, title deeds, and are therefore ineligible for government schemes. By 2011, most had stopped farming, instead seeking employment in the nearby village.
“Some are employed as daily wage workers at the forest check post,” Sreeni says. “They don’t tend to look for work outside of the village.”
The journey together began with the formation of a farmers’group consisting of 20 families. The first goal was to motivate the farmers to transition into organic agriculture, thereby doing away with the harmful use of fertilisers and pesticides. Sreeni inspired the farmers by introducing new methods of natural manure and pesticide preparation. He further updated them in other critical areas: tillage, irrigation preparation, the collection of seeds, the introduction to technological innovations, modern methods in production, the processing of raw materials, and the marketing of products.
In group meetings, the traditional knowledge and opinions of rice cultivation was shared and mandatory preparations completed. This included registration and the opening of a joint bank account in which each family contributed 500 rupees. Finally, Sreeni connected the farmers with several government agencies and helped them apply for land deeds necessary for the certificate of organic agriculture.
Even with the excitement of land deeds and new farming methods, the focus on mother nature has remained an integral part of farming. “Coconut, sugarcane and jaggery; we will say prayers for everything in the field. Then we will sow. After 24 days, we will take the saplings and transplant them to a nearby plot,” Rangaswami relates.
Pujas, worship ceremonies, are conducted both at the start of a new farming cycle and at the conclusion. One such traditional puja was conducted at the Sadiamman temple, on the Sadivayal hilltop, by one of Amma’s senior disciples. The belief is that once the puja is performed correctly, the rain will come.
Just beforethe first harvest season, Rangaswami, Kaliswami and Vallingiri came to Amritapuri with Sreeni to meet with Amma and seek her blessings. Amma lovingly inquired about their health and farming practices, encouraging them to continue on this path. Then they discussed the different rice varieties and their choice ofBhavani rice, a traditional varietywith a high nutritional value that will potentially sell for a higher price in markets.
Amma also asked about irrigation, emphasizing the need to maintain the required water level in the field. Following this initial meeting, the farmers returned to the Amritapuri ashram every year to discuss theircurrent situation with Amma.
“Amma’s help and guidance together with our own effort has led us to success,” Rangaswami reports. “We have felt Her support from the very beginning.”
The first harvest in 2017 paid off. According to Sreeni, there was a huge increase in net income, “from a loss of ₹23,600 in previous years to a profit of ₹27,000 per acre using natural farming methods,” some of which was used to pay off debts owed to the rural moneylenders. With Sreeni’s help, the farmers were able to continue farming and availing other practical aid and schemes from the government and forest officials.
Since then, the farmers have had successful harvests—even with some lossesdue to forest animals. Before the special harvest festival in 2018, wild boars came and destroyed some acres. In 2019, wild elephants did the same. A watch house was made toguard against such wild life along with 24-hour shifts rotated amongst the farmers.
In January 2020, thefourth harvest completed, the farmers’ group has already begun planting its next crop. Only this season, they are expanding to include a variety of mixed vegetables and grains in the certified area: beetroots, millet and cowpeas. To maintain their organic certificate, which empowers farmers to receive a higher value for their produce, the land must be inspected annually. Buoyed by the knowledge they have gained, the group is optimistic about maintaining its status as well as facing any challenges that may arise.