Magazine article New Internationalist

Organic and Beyond

Magazine article New Internationalist

Organic and Beyond

Article excerpt

Anil Gupta is a professor at India's most prestigious management institute. He's a key player in an impressive array of Ahmedabad-based appropriate technology organizations, like the Society for Research for Sustainable Technologies and Institutions (SRISTI) and the National Innovation Foundation (NIF). They run something called The Honeybee Network, with its own newsletter bringing together eco-theorists and practitioners.

We meet in his office on the modern Ahmedabad campus. Gupta bubbles over with enthusiasm about the genius of rural India. For him, the failures of the formal sector have left gaps in which indigenous science has had a chance to develop. He points to the work of SRISTI in first documenting and then patenting and helping develop a plethora of farmer-based inventions. He is obviously a man who carries a lot of intellectual weight with his co-workers, who hang on his words. He points to the simple cotton khadi that he wears, as a way of indicating both its comfort in the blistering heat and his faith in the future of the fabric.

There is a beautiful simplicity in the non-chemical bio-controls of organic production that has an immediate appeal. Gupta spins off example after example of how it might be done. Common-sense things, like spraying sugar on plants to attract ants that will eat the eggs of at least some cotton pests. It certainly sounds a little simpler, less expensive and dangerous than dousing the crops several times with pesticide each growing season. Gupta believes that a whole arsenal of these kinds of controls, in combination with the scientific innovation carried out by SRISTI, can provide an alternative model for cotton agriculture. Dr Vipin Kumar, the Chief Co-ordinator of SRISTI, proudly holds up a natural pesticide that the group is making available to Gujarati farmers for a fraction of the price of conventional agro-chemicals.

SRISTI and NIF maintain an impressive volume of hundreds of farmer-based inventions in various stages of development. The grounds of NIF are scattered with them - from the straightforward to the complex: simple devices that allow water to be carried greater distances (usually by women) with more ease; exercise chairs; coolers and milking machines that use no external energy source; a machine that would allow the harvesting of the traditional short-staple Desai cottons that made Indian textiles the marvel of the world in the era of handloom weaving.

With the World Health Orgnaization estimating three million pesticide poisonings and 20,000 deaths annually - it is definitely time for a change. And Gupta doesn't restrict himself to the ecological impact of agriculture but looks 'downstream' to the environmental impact of textile mills. He surprises me with the simple fact that cotton can be grown in a number of different colours, which have been eliminated from cotton growing over years of selective breeding. Industrial dyeing is a highly polluting process, and Gupta holds that a return to coloured cotton bolls would have a beneficial effect.

Disconnect

It is hard not to be swept up by the enthusiasm of Gupta and those around him. But somehow, after seeing the devastation of the Vidarbha cotton belt, I felt a disconnect. When I gave Gupta the figures I had heard cited on the number of farmer suicides, he was shocked. It turned out that a team from Ahmedabad has actually travelled to Vidarbha and tried to get the farmers there interested in organic products and methods. But for some reason things had not worked out. They vowed to try again. It may be that the situation in Gujarat - where most cotton production is irrigated and the various BT hybrid seeds have been developed locally and are not too expensive - is just too different from the situation in the rest of India.

The Kutch (also a part of Gujarat) is a dry hilly area of northwestern India flat up against the Pakistani border. This is a region greatly affected by a tragic earthquake in 2001 that killed over 20,000 people in the ancient capital Bhuj and surrounding villages. …

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