ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846
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Mirage of Zero Budget Farming

Is “zero budget farming” the new demagoguery of the state to camouflage misgovernment?


The conferring of the Padma Shri on Marathi agriculturist Subhash Palekar had brought the concept of Zero Budget (Natural) Farming (ZBF) to public notice in 2016. In the context of the vulnerability faced by the commercial input-intensive agrarian systems in the country, many perceive this naturalistic farming method as a potential breakthrough. First, by eliminating the use of purchased/commercial seeds, fertilisers, and chemicals, production costs can be drastically cut down. Second—and largely as a consequence of the first factor—by reducing farmers’ reliance on loans, their entrapment in debts can be avoided. If these are among the reasons underlying the enthusiasm of the Bharatiya Janata Party government at the centre for pushing the ZBF as a strategy for the distressed agriculture in this country—through its Economic Survey 2018–19 and budget 2019—then our scepticism about the government’s intentions may be excused as a critic’s paraphernalia. But, will it be easy to side-step some of the crude realities?

Reportedly, Palekar’s experimentation with ZBF was almost a decade old by the time he was felicitated in 2016. Yet, apart from some media reports and case studies that were predominantly published and publicised around the time of the award, and the books written by Palekar himself on the ZBF techniques per se, no independent, in-depth economic assessments of this farming model are available in the public domain. With a 2016 case study conducted by the La Via Campesina (LVC)—a coalition of 182 farmer organisations across 81 countries—mentioning that most of the farmers collaborating with Palekar
in Karnataka came from the “middle peasantry,” the issue of the inclusiveness of this model remains open to contention, as do the aspects of scalability and sustainability. While the same report cites the marketability of the ZBF produce to be a major limitation, some recent media reports have brought to the fore several instances where farmers using the ZBF methods have returned to the conventional input-intensive farming practices on the grounds of profitability.

With the implications of the ZBF for the farmers, especially the smallholders, being a black box, what could possibly explain the central government’s stance of projecting it as a strategy for doubling farmer’s income by 2020? Going by the aforementioned case study of the LVC, if the prime beneficiary of the ZBF is the “middle peasantry,” then suspecting this stance to be a political expediency will not be unjustified. Historically, the middle peasantry—as a political pressure group—has played a critical role in determining the electoral fate of political parties in this country, particularly in the Hindi belt in the north. Simultaneously, the non-inclusion of the small/marginal farmers and agricultural labourers in this pressure politics has prevented any radicalism in the farmers’ agitation in this country. In such settings, government policies have often been mere “pacifiers” and not “transformers” for the agrarian society.

Recall that the first recognition for the ZBF (and its champion, Palekar) in 2016 came on the back of a political agitation against the re-promulgation of an ordinance to remove the mandatory “consent” clause and the social impact assessment from the Right to Fair Compensation and Transparency in Land Acquisition, Rehabilitation and Resettlement Act, 2013, in December 2015. With the issue of “ownership” of land hanging in uncertainty, what difference would any recommendation on farming technology make for a farmer? Moreover, ZBF does not mean zero production costs to farmers. It rather means that production costs will be compensated by income from “intercrops,” thereby making farming close to a zero-budget activity. Pushing a farming technology for intercrops without transforming an incentive structure that currently encourages monoculture (read, the minimum support prices), speaks volumes about the political will of a self-proclaimed “farmer-friendly” government.

The demagoguery of “going back to the basics” through ZBF may come in handy to a government interested in arousing nationalist sentiments among the commoners and diverting them from asking the hard questions on the government’s accountability towards the holistic development of a resilient farming system in the country. Whereas a keen observer will find more explosive issues of misgovernment buried in this demagoguery. For instance, if “going back to the basics” means developing a low-cost farming system, then why does Andhra Pradesh, one of the prime champions of ZBF, have to amass a fund to the tune of around ₹ 17,000 crore for its Climate Resilient Zero Budget Natural Farming programme? Such huge investments—coming from global financial and agribusiness corporations and through climate bonds—call to attention the obvious contradiction of policy and practice. More disconcertingly, it raises the apprehension that the ZBF is perhaps a new tool in the hands of the neo-liberal state to serve the dual purpose of incentivising its corporate benefactors and executing austerity in its spendings on priority sectors.

Updated On : 7th Aug, 2019


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