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Zero Budget Natural Farming: A robust policy that needs work

The importance given to this form of agriculture has a strong rationale behind it.

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Finance Minister Nirmala Sitaraman first mentioned Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBNF) in the budget of 2019-20. Since then, it has become a buzzword in Indian agriculture. Supporting the government initiative on natural farming, NITI Ayog's Vice Chairman, Rajiv Kumar tweeted in support of the farming practice. This idea was further reiterated in February during the budget speech of 2020. It thus holds relevance for Indian farmers and its citizens as a whole.

ZBNF was originally promoted by agriculturist Subhash Palekar, who developed it in the mid-1990s. It is an environment friendly substitute for the chemical fertilizer driven Green Revolution of the 1907s and 80s. It is basically a form of agriculture that uses natural pesticides instead of chemical pesticides. The farmers will use earthworms, cow dung, plants, excreta, etc. The farmers need not purchase fertilizers and pesticides to ensure healthy and remunerative cultivation of crops. 

Another important element to understand, are the four pillars of organic farming.According to Palekar, they include the following:

Jiwamritais a fermented mixture of cow dung and urine (of desi breeds), jaggery, pulses flour, water, and soil from the farm bund. This is a source of some 500 crore micro-organisms that can convert raw nutrients into plant usable form.

Bijamritais is a mix of desi cow dung , urine, water, bund soil, and lime that will be used as a seed treatment solution before sowing.

Mulching, or covering the plants with a layer of dried straw or fallen leaves, is meant to conserve soil moisture and keep the temperature around the roots at 25-32 degrees Celsius, which allows the microorganisms to do their job.

Waaphasa, or providing water to maintain the required moisture-air balance, also achieves the same objective.

The importance given to this form of agriculture has a strong rationale behind it. For instance, the farmer does not need to invest huge amounts of money, as was the case with fertilizers and other external inputs. Lack of external investment will lower the borrowing from the middlemen. Consequently, the farmer will emerge debt-free, which will lead to a drastic reduction of farmer suicides. Given that he/she will have extra cash to spare, it will also aid the government's program of doubling farmer's income by 2022. ZBNF will have a profound impact on the small farms in India, which will become profit-generating. 86% of Indian farmers own less than 2 hectares of land and are categorized small farmers. They find it difficult to cultivate and generate revenue from their small landholdings given the high input costs. ZBNF will prove to be a viable alternative for them.

Apart from being a sustainable agriculture practice for farmers, there are a multitude of benefits to the environment as well.  Given the nature of products used , the soil will be doubly enriched rather than deprived of organic matter. It is also environmentally sustainable given that it facilitates soil aeration, topsoil mulching, intercropping, and minimal water usage. Further, the practice of Zero Budget Natural Farming is applicable across climate zones, over a multitude of crops and cropping patterns, making it universal in its application.

Looking at the potential for ZBNF, Andhra Pradesh has declared it would transition to this method by 2024.  In fact, Council on Energy, Environment and Water (2018) notes that groundnut production in Andhra Pradesh was up by 23 percent in farms that used ZBNF technique than their non-ZBNF counterparts, while ZBNF paddy farmers had an average of 6 percent higher yield. Recognizing the importance, Prime Minister Narendra Modi mentioned in the United Nations Conference on Desertification (COP-14) that India is focusing on this method and that it is a farming method that offers a resilient food system.

Within the country, the government has taken multiple initiatives to align agriculture policies with natural farming. Dedicated schemes have rolled out over the years, namely Paramparagat Krishi Vikas Yojana (PKVY), where flexibility is given to farmers to adopt whichever model of ZBNF they desire. Another notable initiative is that of Rashtriya Krishi Vikas Yojana (RKVY), whereby the respective project components are considered by the Sanctioning Committee (SLSC) according to their priority/ choice. With the help of these schemes, farming from natural products is already being practiced in Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, and Chhattisgarh. The Economic Survey 2018-19 also reports that about 1.6 lakh farmers follow ZBNF.

Despite significant progress, we are yet to see the novel technique catching up at an all-India level. There could be a multitude of reasons for this. For instance, the farmers using ZBNF will face issues obtaining certification of their produce is a chemical free product unless the supply chain is proactively streamlined. Further, while ZBNF is a cheaper alternative to chemical farming, it is not 100% free of cost. Farmers must bear the cost of labor for field work and cattle rearing. They will also have to invest additional time in the collection of dung and urine, over and above the already labor-intensive farming process.

Further, maintaining cattle for farm produce is also a difficult task, given that their health and fodder require investment and the purchase of new cattle will require additional cash. It is worth noting that between 2012 (April) and 2018 (November), the wholesale price index (WPI) of cattle feed has increased from 106.7 to 159.3. The brunt of additional expenses will primarily be faced by the farmers who are below the poverty line.

However, all is not lost, as the government can take a myriad of steps to improve the existing system. To start with, the Minimum Support Price must be aligned with input cost in ZBNF. Also, Price Deficiency scheme must be implemented for certain crops. Further, Minimum Export Price for agriculture products must be abolished. Lastly, MGNREGS must also be linked with farm work to reduce the cost of cultivation.

Thus, Zero Budget Natural Farming has a lot of scope in India. Subhash Palekar himself suggested that with this technique, one can make an income of ₹6 lakh an acre in irrigated areas and ₹1.5 lakh in non-irrigated areas. All that we must do is align the existing policies with upcoming, eco-friendly farming techniques.

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