Friday, December 02, 2005

Biomass and critical mass

Tuesday, November 29th, 2005:

On this day, we visited the Magadi area, about 40 km north of Bangalore – in some villages here, Prasanna (AID Saathi + Full-timer with AID Bangalore) and others are involved in an agriculture intervention. Prasanna had sent out documents a couple of days ago and I was pleased to find a report about their trip last year to Mr. Renake's project in Solapur. Mr. Renake has been producing vegetables in arid Solapur (and neighboring areas) and it seems he has demonstrated the best yields in such conditions.

This particular intervention in Magadi is being supported and planned by Dr. Datye. The team working on this includes Prasanna, his sister Prafulla, Vatsala - an (early) retired IISc professor, Ravi and Mr. Ramamurthy. The goal of the intervention is to introduce sustainable approaches to growing vegetables, grains and pulses etc. while working with the local population, especially the landless poor, to generate (or regenerate!) agricultural livelihoods. One way in which this could be achieved, according to Dr. Datye, is to work with Panchayats and develop food-for-work programs initially when the land has not reached its full productive capacity. Further, once these techniques have been well understood by the villagers, the Panchayats or Zilla Parishads (district level administration) could allot government 'wastelands' to the landless so that they can develop it further. According to Mr. Renake, 10 guntas of land would provide work and partially meet the food requirements of 5 women and their families. According to this group, that is too hard to implement, especially in the early stages, so they are working with 20 guntas (half an acre) for a group of 5 women.

Our first stop was Thorepalya and Mr. Ramamurthy's land, which is one of the plots being used. Mr. Ramamurthy retired from a senior position at the National Aeronautic Labs and is a philanthropist/social worker. AHe has raised funds to build a school for children in the area. The school buildings are all in the shape of a pyramid – apparently this structure concentrates the senses and aids thinking!

At Mr. Ramamurthy's house, we also met Ravi, one of the key members driving the project. Ravi hails from Motaganahalli, one of the villages in the area where land has been leased at a nominal price for the project. His presence and relationship with the villagers has meant that they have been actively involved in this process. Such is not the case in Mr. Ramamurthy's land – he calls for laborers when required and manages the planning etc. himself. However organic techniques, including the Madagascar or SRI technique for rice, are being employed on his land. He has also had a composting pit built and the humus generated has been used in an experimental plot. The soil in this area is predominantly red soil which has a low water-holding capacity. Addition of humus improves water-holding capacity as well as nutrient availability. In one plot, Mr. Ramamurthy has planted banana trees and in others vegetables. One plot is being used as a control plot in order to record differences in yield.

We next went to Maralagondala where Prasanna and Prafulla have bought land and are experimenting on it. This land was all under banana and ragi cultivation earlier. A caretaker, Govindappa, has been in charge of the farm and apparently he is not convinced enough about these methods to follow Prasanna's instructions. Subsequently, only one plot, in which Prasanna personally planted horse grams, has been worked on as planned. In a few other plots, mixed cropping techniques were initiated. Alternate rows of tur, jowar, marigold and other seeds had been planted in one but were not well tended. Inspite of that, they have grown well and are close to harvest. Prafulla and Prasanna had faced a number of personal issues, including their mother's illness, this past year and so could not devote as much time and energy as is needed in such an intervention. Further, because of Govindappa's lack of enthusiasm, it has not been easy to get local support. Prasanna has begun going to the farm regularly (atleast once a week) in the past few months and has also met the women in a local savings group. Hopefully, over this coming year, he can build stronger links with the community.

The last farm we visited was in Motaganahalli, Ravi's village. This was the best example of the project, also of Renake's methods. Rectangular plots had been prepared in a raised-bed style (here humus and soil is heaped on top of the ground without digging and seeds/saplings are planted directly on it – it is less labor intensive) and planted with radish. Circular heaps have bottle gourd in them and in other plots ragi is being cultivated. Vatsala and Ravi had planned to measure the height of ragi in a control plot, but it had already been harvested! Apparently, out of fear that the next day may be rainy (a reasonable one considering how wet this year has been), the women working on this land had harvested the crop the previous day. The travails of data collection!

In Renake's approach, 1.2 tonnes of biomass is required per gunta, especially in the initial stages. Since the team started work late this year, they were not able to collect as much as required, so have set up one plot with less biomass. Next year, they plan to put more land under cultivation and work with other organizations in the area. They will continue to record and analyze their results in order to come up with a feasible approach for this area.

The social aspects will also have to be concentrated on – more local people will have to be convinced about or develop an interest in the project. Prasanna has had some interactions with youth groups and women's savings groups. As he puts it, the social, economical and political conditions in this area have to be looked at to achieve some measure of success in this intervention.

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