How caste interfered with Organic Farming

The Indian government, more precisely the NMSA, is very gung-ho at the moment to ensure that every farmer (well everyone who is willing to listen and experiment at least) takes to organic farming methods. Right now, most smallholder farmers are organic by default (lack of money and/or access to resources). The grand plan is to make them organic by design.  We, the loyal foot soldiers, are leaving no stone un-turned to get all the prescribed techniques across to our target beneficiaries or as the WhyDev guys will like it, people we work with. We are out to enhance food production and every Collector worth his/her salt is after agriculture departments and NGOs working in agricultural development to ensure that line sowing is done in as many fields as possible. Furthermore, the most repelling (not always) and complicated concoctions have been formulated to enhance soil fertility and slay pesky bugs. The way one is supposed to go about preparing them might convince on-lookers that we are out to give the grand old Getafix a run for his money. See Nimastra, Ghanajeevamrutam and Beejamrutam via DigitalGreen. Nonetheless, we are determined to ensure that our agricultural GHG emissions do not help accelerate the drowning of Venice, Tuvalu, Bangladesh and of course save our own bums. Hence our target is that every smallholder farmer in the country is taught the tricks and that he/she starts implementing it in their fields. After all, our land area is not to increase but the productivity can.

Potions for work: Chilli Garlic potion as an insecticide

Potions for work: Chilli Garlic potion as an insecticide

Me being a lover of organic agriculture since the age of 10 (thanks to a certain Mr. Captain Planet and his Planeteers) took to all the prescribed ideas with mucho gusto, thank you very much and decided to go about it in an even more thorough fashion in order to educate farmers about various options for organic manures. I revised my beloved Bible, the Handbook of Agriculture and came to the conclusion that apart from the various seemingly magical potions that we expect our farmers to cook up, there are many other locally available thingamajigs that they ought to be adding to their land but are unfortunately (more like due to the lethargy of agriculture departments?) not aware of the uses. So what are these seemingly in our face but notoriously mysterious crop yield enhancing goodies? Well there are many. I zeroed down on several of them but I chose to concern myself with two soil fertility enhancers keeping in mind my work area – Mahua oil cakes and bone meal. More about mahua and its multiple uses in another post. Farmers, especially elderly farmers (men and women) often express their displeasure with urea (they call it ‘ooria’) and SSP. They report that urea kills the land or that urea brings down the land (quality). The complaint is that if they happen to add 7 bags of urea this year, they are bound to obtain increased yields. However, the following year they need to add almost 14 bags of urea to obtain the same level of yield. Hence, many have stopped using urea, di-ammonium phosphate (DAP) and single super phosphate (SSP) altogether.

To resolve their problem in a sustainable fashion, this recently graduated enthusiast stuck to a textbook prescribed method. I made it a point to inform every group of farmers I interacted with about the uses of concentrated organic manures like bone meal, hoof meal and horn meal. These are abundantly available, especially near the periphery of the forest (as per the villagers themselves), are very cheap and being slow release fertilizers, provide benefits to the soil for up to 3 years (residual effects included). Bone meal is rich in calcium and phosphorus and has low but decent amounts of nitrogen and potassium.  After having given this lecture about half a dozen times, I became accustomed to the reactions it evoked and learned to be cautious as the last manner in which I would want to die is being lynched. Talk about security concerns in the field. Here is why. Everywhere, people looked offended by the very mention of bone meal and point blank refused to use it. They throw a look that kind of suggests that they were looking at a blasted, little louse that is out to contaminate them with leprosy and in turn make them social outcasts. I risked my neck a little more and probed into the root of the problem. It turned out that our beneficiaries do not care two hoots for Article 17 of the India Constitution that abolishes untouchability and are very positively ‘My Foot!’ about the Protection of Civil Rights Act, 1955. This is the scence. A certain caste whose name I shall not mention since it is possible that my respected readers might happen to know someone by that surname and then tag them as untouchables in their heads (I am such a Miss. Goody-Two-Shoes!). I shall instead call them  the dead body cleaners (DBCs). They are responsible for cleaning up the carcasses of cattle. People simply throw away their dead animals in open fields and the DBCs then come to take away the hide. The animal is allowed to rot and then the DBCs descend upon the plot again to collect the bones. Problem is that DBCs are considered untouchables. The DBCs make their living by selling animal hide and animal bones. Traders send trucks to villages where DBCs have their collected stock. Entire trucks filled to the brim with animal bones leave our area. The bones are later taken to factories where they are crushed and sent for further processing. Now I was of the opinion that people could simple buy these bones by the quintal, crush them themselves and use it in their farms. You see this is optimal utilization of local resources without relying on fertilizers of an industrial origin. Besides providing good amounts of phosphorus, the bone meal will also provide micronutrients (I don’t know which) that Indian soils are notoriously deficient in. I tried to feed all the scientific facts I had mugged up about bone, horn and hoof meal to our farmers and also the economic logic of obtaining it withing the village. But alas! All in vain! They staunchly told  me that if they start handling bones, they will be ostracized and get declared ‘untouchables’ themselves. Tribals, merchant castes, oil extracting castes, fisher folks, Brahmins all in the same boat! Make no bones about that. They are fine with handling bulls***, i.e. cowdung but no bones. Thank you very much. I tried to reason with them that by this logic all doctors (human and vets) can be termed untouchables. No use.

Our soil science professor had very clearly and concisely taught us how to use various concentrated organic manures . What the man forgot was that all that is permissible in science is not permissible in society.  Just because one has their heart and head in the right places does not imply that everyone else does. I learned a lesson again. There is little use picking up a bone with that sacred cow called the Great Indian Caste System.


10 thoughts on “How caste interfered with Organic Farming

  1. Hi Natalia. Thanks for sending this link to my network at Sociology at Work. I think you’re saying something important here about caste. It seems you’re saying that caste ideals affect the type of farm work that people are willing to accept as appropriate. Certain work carried out by Untouchables is stigmatised. In this case, handling animal remains carries stigma, so farmers are unwilling to consider how scientific techniques drawing on animal remains may have benefits. I see your frustration as a scientist.

    Sociology shows that development projects must take culture into consideration. The caste system is problematic which is why I recently tweeted the link to the new book, Sociology of Education in India: Changing Contours and Emerging Concerns.” Caste relationships influence how people in India understand the world. This is not ideal as the caste system perpetuates inequality.

    Nevertheless, successful development projects involve consultation with locals on why they see the world a particular way. We then use this local perspective to configure programs so that new technologies may be better adopted or adapted to local environments. Have a look at my post on small scale farming in South Africa. It would be ideal for farmers to adopt new technologies but culture and material conditions stop farmers from taking up certain technologies. Developing programs that take into consideration caste, class, gender economics and traditions are more helpful than simply dismissing the perspectives of locals. Here’s my post.

    • Thank you for such a detailed response and for the link to your post. The bonemeal was totally my idea and was not a part of our programme. I shared my experience with some seniors and they asked me to not bring up the subject of bonemeal again. Caste barriers are breaking in India but the process is slow. Urbanization is causing the walls to come down faster because public transport isn’t conducive for the practice of untouchability. I had to ‘put up’ with the local perspective in order to avoid sparking an outrage. Caste is an abomination. We shall overcome. Someday!

    • That won’t work because:
      1. It does not solve the problem of untouchability associated with the work.
      2. A colleague had later explained to me that it is difficult for humans to grind bones. Large pieces can later get stuck in the plough.
      3. Funding Dead Body Cleaners to just spread bonemeal will be a waste of funds over cruel beliefs.

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