Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Roots of the Grass

There is a lot of fanfare and hoopla about 'grassroots' work or movements, but what often gets missed in the messaging is what the concept actually means. Small, painstaking, slow, hard work. I got a taste of it couple days ago when I visited a farm outside Nadiad with Kapilbhai.

A bunch of farmers from the surrounding area had gathered on the farm, which belonged to a farmer named Saborbhai. His three-year-old organic green chilli plot was the only organic farm in the locality. Kapilbhai and other organic farmers in the area had called the meeting to educate the neighboring conventional farmers on what organic farming is, why it's important, how to get involved, etc. Employing the same approach as the organic farming festival last month in Anand, the meeting was held in a location where the evidence of success was right before their eyes. Growing green chili in that area using chemicals typically costs a farmer around Rs.4 Lakhs per bhigha. Saborbhai grows it at Rs.5000 per bhigha, which is 80 times less money.

The format of the meeting was farmers sat in a circle and Saborbhai and a couple experienced organic farmers from the region took turns standing up and making the case for farming organically. There is the financial argument of saving costs of imported fertilizer, then the argument of a more effective way to deal with pests and diseases than pesticide sprays, then the promise of better quality and better tasting crops, and of course the appeal to do right by Mother Earth. After all of the farmers spoke Kapilbhai got up and gave a final appeal. He was in his smooth, humorous, pragmatic, compelling, farmer-friendly delivery mode. He reminded the farmers about DDT; when they were kids DDT was all the craze, and any farmer who refused to spray it was considered backward. And now? No one sprays DDT because it is recognized as a toxic chemical. The same situation applies to chemical agriculture. It was considered progressive farming 50 years ago, but no longer. He urged the farmers to take a small but deliberate first step towards a better way. Start with one or two bhigha, make it chemical-free and see what happens. Try the easiest crops first, it doesn't matter. You can still carry on with chemicals everywhere else, but see the difference. And if you are satisfied, bring one bit more land under organic cultivation. And so on. No need to jump all in right away; be sensible, work step-wise. But you have to take the first step yourself, we won't push and tug and kick you. And to help we will come to you, burning our own petrol, and even bringing our own rotlo. You just provide the otlo. The earlier you wake up, the better you will be.

At the end Kapilbhai asked for a show of hands for how many farmers will take a step. Nearly all did. And of course later on we were discussing the possibility of one, maybe two actually forging ahead. I told Kapilbhai that you have laid all of the evidence out, it is as clear as day; there couldn't be anything more clear than Saborbhai's farm. And yet seemingly illogically people won't make a change. But the logic is that it's hard to change, even if you know you should. It's why most New Years' resolutions fail. Or why people eat fast food even though they know it's better for their health to eat fresh vegetables. We don't always do the right thing, or rather the 'right' thing is relative.

Kapilbhai has been working in the grassroots movement for organic farming for 15+ years. And this is the roots of the grass. Sit with farmers, talk things through, help people understand a different lens, and support them in taking the first step of making a change. And through this work the movement inches forward one or two farmers at a time. Reminds me of Nipun who sits in circles around the world talking about service and stillness. Once he shared with a few CharityFocus coordinators how during a fiercely busy point last year he turned down bunch of top notch speaking invites to attend one small, informal, unglamorous event. Because it's an opportunity to "cultivate in the trenches", develop strength to step it up when called for. Real grassroots work.

We did our own bit of grassroots work after the meeting, holding an orientation for Sajiv Samvaad, the new organic farming phone line we are launching. Kapilbhai and I have had such meetings in Kutch, Baroda, and Nadiad, explaining the concept to room-fulls of farmers, having them try the number out, getting their feedback, and asking for their participation as responders for questions that will be posted. We've been getting positive feedback, and learning a lot about how to make the system better. That's the thing about working in the trenches; it usually has a way of paying off.

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