There has been a widespread agrarian crisis in India since the neo-liberalisation of the Indian economy. Year after year, farmers are losing seeds from their own crops and are forced to buy them anew from external seed providers which becomes an increasingly tiresome process (known as seed privatisation) which makes inputs, markets, and new seeds increasingly inaccessible to them. As a result, farmers find themselves in vicious cycles of debt caused by high production costs, high rates of interest, and volatile, unpredictable market prices for crops. Their situation is exacerbated by high prices for fossil fuel-based inputs.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), more than 2,50,000 Indian farmers have died by suicide in the last two decades. Most studies on this suicide crisis have attributed the deaths to increasing debts and farmers’ inability to pay them off, which is a problem for all farmers in India.
Under such pitiful conditions, ‘zero budget’ farming is emerging as a viable alternative that ensures food security, promises more production output with less input, and builds resilience and adaptability of smaller farmers to create a food-secure future. Branded as a “grassroots peasant movement” by the FAO (United Nations), it leaves farmers with debt that is substantially less (or non-existent) than it would have been with conventional agricultural methods. It is, as described by the Andhra Pradesh government, “based on the latest scientific discoveries in agriculture, and, at the same time, rooted in Indian tradition.”
Zero-Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) radically challenges conventional agriculture in the sense that it disregards the state agronomy and its mission in pioneering food sovereignty, independent of standard agrarian markets. Looking at the name itself, it implies, ‘zero budget’, suggesting that this type of agriculture has zero cost of the input (i.e. cost of growing and harvesting plants), and ‘natural farming’ implies farming with nature and without synthetic inputs of any kind.
This means that farmers do not have to purchase conventional chemical-based fertilisers and pesticides which are very costly to ensure a healthy crop. ZBNF calls upon nature to use biological fertilizers and pesticides, which include, but are not limited to, earthworms, cow dung and urine, plants and their remains, and even human excreta. This not only substantially reduces farmers’ expenditure, but also helps improve soil quality and prevent its degradation. It also enhances biodiversity on the farm and may contribute to ecosystem services.
It has also been reported how “ZBNF replaces chemical fertilisers and pesticides with multiple concoctions of cow dung, cow urine, jaggery, and pulse flour, all to ensure optimal soil conditions for healthy plant growth. In addition to this, the following also play a huge role: beejamrutham, seeds coated with cow dung and urine (this protects from fungus, and soil- and seed-borne diseases); jeevamrutham, a concoction of dung, urine, jaggery (gud) and pulse flour to help multiply soil microbes; and kashayam, a concoction of lilac and chilies to ward off pests.”
An integral part of ZBNF is its insistence on keeping the topsoil covered with crop residue to ensure water retention. This can also solve the problem of the stubble-burning practice prevalent in Punjab, as farmers can put crop residue to use instead of burning it.
This process is almost like a cycle—it activates soil microbes, which attracts earthworms, which, in turn, circles macronutrients from deeper layers of the soil to the topsoil, where the seedlings grow. They then feed on the mulch cover placed on the ground, resulting in the production of humus near the roots, which feeds the plants with essential nutrients necessary for growth.
This proves that ZBNF prioritises the maintenance of soil and keeping plants healthy, and fertility, which requires little-to-no cost on the farmer’s part, as a type of win-win scenario. This is a paradigm shift from mainstream agricultural practices that prioritise profits above all else, as ZBNF is a rare, delicate balance of human profitability and nature-conservation. It requires humans, microbes, cows and even plants to cooperate and work together for mutual benefit, an interlinked web rarely seen in scenarios where humans are concerned.
Subhash Palekar, considered the ‘father’ of the ZBNF movement, told the Economic Times that 50 lakh farmers had started practicing his method of farming, a huge achievement. He was conferred with the Padma Shri, India’s fourth-highest civilian award, by the Government of India in 2016.
He vehemently opposed mainstream chemical-based agriculture, modern industrial agriculture, and the global agricultural regime. He openly opposed the involvement of chemicals of any kind in conventional agricultural practices in favour of natural, microbial processes. He exhibited uneasiness about the integration of smaller farms into larger, profit-driven industrial agricultural behemoths.
By aiming for ecological and economic self-sufficiency on farms, ZBNF is a shift towards more sustainable agricultural practices and subtle criticism of modern industrial agriculture and the global food regime. It has found numerous supporters of its cause across the globe, including the Andhra Pradesh Government, which initiated the ‘Andhra Pradesh ‘Zero-Budget’ Natural Farming (APZBNF) Program’, through Rythu Sadhikara Samstha (RySS) (corporation for farmers’ empowerment) in 2015-16.
The trend of zero-budget natural farming is rapidly catching on in smaller farms and large governments alike, where farmers and officials aim to minimise costs and maximise outputs and profit (by spending less on increasingly expensive synthetic materials), with soil conservation as a delightful side-effect.