About 50 km from Mysore in the southern Indian state of Karnataka is a district called Mandya. It holds the dubious distinction of being the ‘farmer suicide capital’ of Karnataka. A dubious distinction and a sad testimony to the farmer woes that continue to beset India, almost seven decades after Independence. But slowly, there is a change taking place in Mandya. A revolution of sorts – an organic one at that – promises to bring some cheer to Mandya’s beleaguered tillers.
Meet Madhuchandan S.C, the man behind the Mandya Organic Farmers Co-operative Society, which was set up in 2015, and has as members about 1,200 farmers. It’s the first such society in Karnataka, which is open only to farmers adopting organic or natural farming methods. The vision of this society is to make Mandya a chemical-free district by 2020. An ambitious goal, you wonder? “There are 300,000 farmers in Mandya whom we have to convince”, says Madhuchandan, whose own story is in fact similar to the Hindi movie Swades. In Swades, actor Shahrukh Khan’s character, moved by the plight in Indian villages, gives up a successful NASA job in the US to return to serve his country.
Madhuchandan did his Engineering degree in Electronics & Communications from the University of Mysore, and had a successful career in several IT companies abroad. He also founded Verifaya Studio, an automated testing software which is used by many firms across the world. He had worked in several countries like Israel, UK, the Philippines, South Africa and the US for 15 years, before he was struck by an epiphany in 2014. He was deeply affected by news of farmer suicides in his native Mandya and decided to return to his land.
“You need to understand the history. For many centuries, our farmers were true producers, and not consumers. Even till 30-35 years ago, my grandparents never bought anything but salt from outside. They grew everything and sold whatever was surplus when they needed money, during a wedding or any other event. This is how we have lived. But we have turned these very farmers into consumers. For instance, earlier, the farmers used to use neem to clean their teeth. We introduced them to toothpaste, making them a consumer. Eventually, today we have come a full circle, advertising salt and neem toothpastes! The farmers used to multi-crop, and we introduced them to sugarcane and pesticides, we introduced Jersey cows. Today, out of a farmer’s income, 60-80 percent is earmarked for his own consumption needs”, he explains.In Mandya, as mentioned, the lifestyle of the farmers had changed. They grew mostly commercial crops like sugarcane, which takes 14-15 months to harvest. After 14 months they would send the sugarcane to the factories, which would pay them after a year. This meant that it would take about two to three years for them to realise an income, making them fall prey to debts. Since the government didn’t provide free education to the farmers, they enrolled their children in private schools which cost them Rs. 30,000 annually, further fueling their living costs. Also, farmers who grew only paddy, have to buy everything else, except rice. “All in all, we found that they needed an income of at least Rs. 10,000 per month per family”, says Madhuchandan.
So, he founded the Mandya Organic Farmers Co-operative Society (www.organicmandya.com), as a first step. The Society today has 1,200 farmer members grouped into 55 village-level Organic Clubs. These are all farmers who multi-crop and only practice organic farming. Why organic, one may wonder. “Earlier, farmers had all the farming knowledge they needed. But they were misguided into using fertilisers and pesticides, which have destroyed the soil and affected crop yields”, he explains.
“When I started out, there were just a handful of farmers who practiced organic farming in Mandya. And they were disparate and disorganised.” Once the Co-operative Society was formed, one of the main issues that needed to be addressed was of marketing. Thus, ‘Organic Mandya’ was set up as the retail arm to market and sell the organic products produced by the Co-operative Society, both in a supermarket and online. The turnover is currently about Rs. 2 crore, which they hope to scale up soon. “By the end of 2016, we hope to increase the Organic Clubs to 130 clubs”, says Madhuchandan. Currently, the online portal home delivers products listed on the website, in Mandya and Bangalore. The supermarket is part of an ‘integrated organic zone’ which also has a restaurant selling organic food. This zone is on the Mysore-Bangalore highway, and next to organic farmland, making it easy for farmers to sell their produce.
The supermarket offers more than 1,800 organic products. The most popular ones are jaggery, honey and desi cow ghee and varieties of rice like the diabetic rice. A very unique rice also sold here is the Rajamudi rice, which was earlier grown for the consumption of the Mysore royalty. It was the farmer’s offering to them. “It’s a very tasty desi variety of rice and very healthy. But even I had not heard of it earlier. It’s only when I came here that I got to know about it and its uniqueness. Surprisingly, even my daughter loves it! But it had almost ceased to be cultivated. Today, we have re-introduced it and many of our farmers cultivate it”, says Madhuchandan. The supermarket sells about 1500-2000 kg per month of this rice. “We have people coming in wanting to buy 25 kg at a time! It’s almost like a revolution, so many people are addicted to it. Another such unique desi variety is the Gandha sale”, he says. He laments the fact that only rice varieties like the Sona masuri were popular till now. He appreciates the efforts of people like Gani Khan, who has managed to conserve 750 varieties of native rice and is to open a paddy museum soon in Mandya.
The other benefit he is hoping for is to inspire the village women to go back to cultivating kitchen gardens. “I hope that seeing the ‘poison free’ board everyday will psychologically influence them to get back to nurturing kitchen gardens which will bring down their overall food costs.” Madhuchandan says that as per a survey conducted by them, each village today spends about Rs. 20,000 per family per year on medicines. He hopes consuming chemical free food and using herbs from the kitchen garden will bring this cost down.
Another of Madhuchandan’s ideas is ‘sweat donation’. The premise is simple. City folk or anyone else, can volunteer to help a farmer in his field and the rewards are both physical, and an opportunity to learn about how our food is grown. In exchange, farmers, short of manual labour, get farm labour, and they also get to interact with consumers and determine trends.
“This idea occurred to me one day when I was at the gym. I felt what we lack is actual sweating in the field. That’s when the idea came that people from cities will come to villages and work for a month. Your bare feet on the soil, and helping a farmer is the best possible workout for you. We started this about five months back, and till now, about 2,000 people have come from various parts of India and the world. We have conducted about 12-13 sweat donation programmes so far. This is for a cause. The most important thing is, the volunteers understand the value of food, condition of farmers and will connect to farmers and nature. On the other hand, the farmers too benefit. I have found farmers very disconnected from the consumers and the two have grown apart. When they meet their consumers, they get ideas about what kind of rice to grow, for instance. Earlier, we used to import Burma rice (black rice), but now based on consumer demand, we produce them”, explains Madhuchandan.
Such zeal and passion is bound to have a domino effect. Many people have written in asking how they can join this movement. Many have left lucrative jobs to come to Mandya. “A director in a US software firm, earning Rs. 60 lakh per annum has left that job and joined us!” exclaims Madhuchandan.
He has also given a fillip to agro-tourism with programmes like ‘Farm day’ where visitors and tourists can join the farmers at work, eat fresh, organic food, go for bullock cart rides, play native games and in general, take in the village life. If you want to go a step further, you can even lease out land for upto a year and till it, all with help from the Co-operative.
Madhu has his family’s support in all these ventures. “My daughter goes to school in Bangalore, so my wife stays there. I am based out of Mandya and go to Bangalore every week. They understand that this is for a greater cause”, he says. His daughter has learnt to like organic food and even prefers ragi malt to Bournvita or Horlicks, he says appreciatively.
Madhu believes firmly that organic is the only way ahead. He hopes to see more districts in India turning organic and becoming a citizens’ initiative. I bring up Sikkim with him which has become 100% organic. “Yes, that is a good movement. But the government led the movement there, while in Mandya it’s coming from the farmers”. A citizens’ movement is more sustainable, isn’t it? Let’s hope a chemical-free Mandya indeed becomes a reality by 2020.