In the course of their work, farmers keep trying to make various improvements and some of them can be very creative in this. What farmers inherit and learn is in turn inherited by their children or the next generation of farmers. Farmers also share freely with each other within the same generation. Hence within a century, the wisdom of three generations gets accumulated. In a region where agriculture has been practised for about 5,000 years the wisdom of 150 generations has accumulated. This wisdom is acquired in keeping with the region’s special agro-climatic conditions and nothing else can equal this.
One of the most important weaknesses of India’s research effort has been that the traditional wisdom of India’s farmers did not get adequate attention. Instead our farm research became over-dependent on technology and crop varieties from abroad. This has proved very harmful for our agriculture and therefore it is important to draw attention to the rich heritage of traditional farming wisdom in India.
In this context it is important to recall that even during the days of British rule, several British and European experts who had been called to study traditional Indian agriculture spoke glowingly of rich traditions and scientific basis of the cultivation practices pursued by Indian farmers.
In 1889, Dr. John Augustus Voelcker, of the Royal Agricultural Society of England was deputed by the British government to study Indian agriculture. Voelcker toured the country extensively for over one year. His report was published in 1893, and since then has often been cited as an authoritative work on Indian agriculture of this period.
The essence of what Dr. Voelcker said can be summarized in the following extract from his report:
“To take the ordinary acts of husbandry, no where would one find better instances of keeping land scrupulously clean from weeds, of ingenuity in device of water-raising appliances, of knowledge of soils and their capabilities as well as of the exact time to sow and to reap, as one would in Indian agriculture, and this not at its best only but at its ordinary level. It is wonderful, too, how much is known of rotation, the system of mixed crops and fallowing. Certain it is that I, at least, have never seen a more perfect picture of careful cultivation, combined with hard labour, perseverance and fertility of resource, than I have seen at many of the halting places in my tour. Such are the gardens of Mahi, the fields of Nadiad and many others.”
An important asset of traditional Indian agriculture was the well-developed irrigation system. “Irrigation by wells is at once the most widely distributed system, and also the one productive of the finest examples of careful cultivation…Further as regards wells, one cannot help being struck by the skill with which a supply of water is first found by the native cultivators, then by the construction of the wells, the kinds of wells and their suitability to the surroundings and means of the people; also by the various devices for raising water each of which has a distinct reason for its adoption.”
J.Millison, who later became the first Inspector General of Agriculture in India, published in 1901 a volume entitled “Text Book of Indian Agriculture.” Like Voelcker, Millison stressed the suitability of the implements used traditionally in Indian conditions,“I believe that the implements in ordinary use are entirely suitable for the conditions of Indian agriculture. This statement may be objected to by other authorities, but if such is the case, l am afraid, I cannot change a deliberately expressed opinion. To those who are skeptical I can show in parts of the Presidency cultivation by means of indigenous tillage implement only, which in respect of neatness, thoroughness and profitableness cannot be excelled by the best gardeners or the best farmers in any part of the world. That statement I deliberately make and am quite prepared to substantiate.”
A.O. Hume, writing in “Agricultural Reform in India,” (1878) wrote about weed-control by Indian farmers at that time, “As for weeds, their wheat fields would, in this respect, shame ninety-nine out of hundred of those in Europe. You may stand in some high old barrow-like village site in Upper India and look down on all sides one wide sea of waving wheat broken only by dark green islands of mango groves — many square miles of wheat and not a weed or blade of grass above six inches in height to be found amongst it.”
Hume’s tribute to the grain-storage practices of Indian farmers is no less glowing, “They are great adepts in storing grain, and will turn grain out of rough earthen pits, after 20 years absolutely uninjured. They know the exact state of ripeness to which grain should be allowed to stand in different seasons.”
In the post-independence period some senior farm scientists were aware of the importance of continuing to learn from the accumulated wisdom of our generations. Dr. R.H. Richharia, former Director of Central Rice Research Institute, did extensive and invaluable work in close cooperation with farmers particularly in Madhya Pradesh, Chattisgarh and Odisha. He wrote, “Invariably I found in rice areas some rice growers taking keen interest in their local rice varieties and as they are very much absorbed in them they have all praise for them, so much so that they trace back the history of individual rice varieties to their ancestry with their utility. I also observed that some of them would identify their rice varieties in their own way (not in terms of the modern knowledge of Botany)…”
This inherent and intuitional faculty of farmers in selection and maintenance of thousands of rice cultivars, gradually being accumulated and descended down for unknown centuries, ever since rice first originated, must be preserved and exploited for the advantage of the present generation and to ensure the safety of those still unborn.
“It may be questioned. Will the rice cultivators absorb and follow up these methods – The answer is that during our extensive surveys of the rice regions of India, we observed that the rice farmers have been following more complicated systems to keep their rice culture vigorous and maintaining their thousands of rice varieties from times immemorial.”
Unfortunately, however, pressures from powerful sources resulted in some very harmful policy decisions being taken to link our agricultural development effort with foreign technology and exotic varieties which needed very expensive and ecologically harmful inputs in huge doses. In the process the traditional wisdom inherited from several generations of farmers was badly neglected after being dismissed as backward agriculture. However more recently realisation has begun to dawn on how costly this mistake has proved for our farming and farmers as well as for our environment. One hopes that costly mistakes will be discarded and instead there will be a new willingness to learn from the accumulated wisdom of several generations of farmers which is rapidly being lost in vast areas of our country.
Bharat Dogra is a freelance environmental journalist who has been involved with several social movements and initiatives.