Wednesday, February 16, 2005

From fishing to farming - the organic way

Feb 7th:

Revathi is a woman in a hurry. She walks with a limp, due to a childhood attack of polio, but it's still hard to keep up with her. After all, she is on a mission – to help farmers in Tamilnadu get out of the debt-prone, input-high conventional methods of agriculture. "Whenever we visit farmers who have attended our training sessions, to found out how they are doing," she says, "they ask us, 'Why did it it take you so long to show us these techniques?' 20,000 farmers throughout Tamilnadu are now using organic methods, but there are countless more that we still have to reach." So she finds it hard to sleep – when she does, she dreams about the work she needs to get done! Those around her worry about her health and well-being. But in the 3 days I spent with her, it seemed to me that she was most energized while discussing issues with villagers, agricultural techniques with NGO representatives etc. It is the daily logistic hassles, critical analysis and things she feels are peripheral to the task at hand that irritate and fatigue her.
I met up with Revathi and her companions on the night of the 6th after they dropped off Vandana Shiva at Chennai airport. I was initially supposed to join them when Ms. Shiva was visiting, but would have had to take a bus to Nagapattinam alone and so hesitated. Instead, I met up with Revathi, her husband R.T. Swamy and friend and supporter A. Srinivasan closer to home at about 10 pm. We then picked up Dr. Manikandan, a Philosophy professor at IIT-Chennai and a representative from a German NGO, ASB, named Clas.

Revathi was a high school teacher until 7 months ago. An environmentalist all her life, she began to develop an interest in agriculture, specifically organic farming. She started to attend training sessions in the company of Nammalvar-ji, considered by many to be the Father of the Tamilnadu Organic Farmers' movement. Nammalvar-ji has spent a lifetime traveling across TN, meeting with farmers and exchanging information about techniques. He has barely any assets and pretty much lives from honorarium to honorarium. Revathi soon picked up skills and started conducting training sessions herself. She quit her job last year and since then has plunged wholeheartedly into the task of building a network throughout Tamilnadu, connect with groups in other states working on similar issues etc.
RT Swamy, Revathi's husband, used to work in the Navy as an Air Traffic Controller. After 15 years of service, he retired last year at Revathi's request to support her in her activities (publishing, technical support) and to manage the home front, which consists of their 6 year old son. Right now, their income consists of RT's pension, Revathi's income through honorariums and support from AID through the Saathi program.

A. Srinivasan, a friend and supporter, used to be an adventure tour organizer before he learnt about and began to appreciate organic farming. He bought a plot in Thirunelveli dt. and used the techniques he learnt to grow paddy. In a few years, he was producing as much, if not more, than conventional farmers while spending less. He discovered, however, that while a market might exist for such products, there wasn't a good process in place for getting goods to the market in Chennai and other big cities. Morever, consumers are not aware of where the food they eat comes from. So he decided to open a store in Chennai. (Organogros in Adyar) He has received media coverage, and thinks that, while as a shop, it might have limited stock, it has acquired greater value as a resource center. With all this, he has not been able to farm for a few years but hopes to return to it eventually.

We reached Nagapattinam at about 4 am and went to a hotel where rooms had been booked earlier. 4 hours of sleep, not counting the naps in the moving jeep, and we were back on the road. As we passed through Nagai, signs of the recent tsunami were visible here and there. Right opposite the restaurant where we had breakfast were a line of wooden boats stacked up haphazardly. These had been thrown from the sea and still hadn't been moved from their temporary resting place. At other places were boats that had been flung a few hundred metres across the road. These were upturned and hadn't been moved. Destroyed houses here, a bridge torn apart there – the parade of destruction, still visible more than a month after the disaster, swept before our eyes.
We reached the village, Therukku Poingai Nallur or South Nallur, in about half an hour. It is off the main road and we lost our way once. Finally we found our way to land that is now familiar to Revathi. TP Nallur's president and a few other villagers were there waiting for us.
As we walked through the lands towards the sea, we could see fields with paddy still in them, but with the paddy withered and brown. As the villagers described it, it looked as if the fields had been burnt. We picked up stalks here and there and could see that the grain had not matured and was still a milky paste inside the husk. The tsunami had hit just 15-20 days before the harvest, a time when the paddy seed matures and hardens. In some places, there was nothing inside the husk – all the material must have been washed away. Small ponds constructed in each field to store rainwater now had seawater and sludge in them. The villagers said that the water had stayed in their fields for two days. In some cases, they had to push out the water into drainage canals, 2 of which take water from the fields into the sea and which are now clogged with sand. The canals flow through a small opening in a human-made sand dune that forms a border between the village and the sea. The dune had been built decades, if not centuries, ago and parts of it are tree filled.
When the tsunami hit, it could not breach the dune in most places. But where the canals had formed openings, seawater gushed through and widened the breach. The sand it carried swamped the fields – in some places, you have to dig a foot deep to find a paddy stalk! Two women from the village working in a vegetable patch near the sea lost their lives. The rest were working inland and ran away before the brunt of the wave hit. Their houses were not affected, but 600 acres were outright destroyed. More might start experiencing salinity as time passes due to evaporation in the summer heat, according to Revathi. The trees in the area exhibit a seawater line and some still have paddy stalks around them.
We walked towards the sea where the villagers explained why this village did not have fishermen. It seems that there is a whirlpool and currents right off the coast of TP Nallur. These currents are dangerous to boats. Therefore, while fishermen took off up and down the coast, this was a purely agricultural village. The villagers kept saying that the sea has changed – it comes further inland during high tide and the currents pattern also seems to have shifted. On our way back, we passed a casuarina grove. For all that these trees are touted as a 'natural barrier', they seemed to have just bowed before the incoming wave. Also they were planted in vertical rows and did not seem to have any 'entropy'. What the group said confirmed this point – they dismissed the value of a purely casuarina barrier. Revathi plans to revive te ancient mangrove belt in these stretches – some remnants of it still exists in 1 or 2 places, including Muthupet.
After having some coconut water, we walked back to the car past mango and tamarind trees, a cucumber patch and a snake gourd grove. (snake gourd is so called because the vegetable coils up like a snake unless it is weighted down with a stone) In a mound of earth, palm seeds were buried until an edible offshoot grew out of it. This offshoot is called 'Thega' in Telugu – it is shaped and looks a bit like a radish and is rich in carbs. It is roasted and eaten. We also were plied with gooseberries which have an amazingly cooling effect. In sort, we were replete! Revathi said that this village's rich biodiversity have made it a prime supplier of vegetables to the local market 'Paravai', one of the biggest in Tamilnadu. Because of the industry and ancestral awareness of the villagers, she is confident that they will recover from their present losses.
We spent the afternoon discussing a budget, after which we parted from Clas and Manikandan, who were taking a train back to Chennai. We were to head to Trichy where RT and Revathi live. On the way, we stopped at the agricultural dept., where Revathi wanted to casually enquire about their records on the village. She came out with RT visibly upset. It seems the officials inside said that there was no damage to agricultural land in TP Nallur as it was a rain-fed area. They told her that some politicians in the area were misguiding her. We went immediately to the Collectorate – Revathi had met him earlier and she hoped to have a few minutes' conversation with him. We first went to the NGO co-ordination cell, a service set up on the request of the Collectorate to collect and disseminate information, organize meetings etc. Through their intervention, we were allowed into the Collector's office. It was 9.30 pm and he was still hard at work but outwardly showing no signs of hurriedness or stress. He invited us to take a seat and Revathi started off. Without referring to what she had found out, she talked about the village and how important it was to launch a Food for Work program for it. She also talked about the sand dune, the small ponds in each plot etc. The Collector was interested and said he would visit the village the next day. He asked if she was available and she immediately said yes. A training session was in progress in Sivagangai dt, south of Trichy, more than 7 hours away, which she needed to attend. But she decided that the Collector's visit was more important.

On the way back to the hotel, RT and Revathi discussed the change in plans. RT was to go back to Trichy to their son and Revathi, Srini and I were to stay on in Trichy. For now, Nammalvar-ji was to manage the training session on his own.

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