It was in early 90s when I was freelancing for a new business magazine. My friend Jayadeva suggested that I feature an ‘organic’ farmer from near Varthur, then a village outside Bangalore (and now a part of the city). I was intrigued enough by what I heard about him and set out to meet this man early one morning. Once I reached Varthur village, it was not difficult to locate him – everybody seemed to know who he was! His name was Narayana Reddy and he was then in his 50s. He spoke passionately about organic farming. He also spoke about his impending trip to Europe on invitation – he was to be reimbursed for air travel but he told me that he would travel by train (second class) from Bangalore to Mumbai and use the money he would save towards a free organic agricultural training facility that he planned to start on his farm.
I returned with enormous respect for the man and also hugely inspired by him. I began to think about organic farming and eventually bought some land to try it myself. The story on Reddy was published a few weeks after our meeting. I lost touch with him until in 1994 while working on a book on Bangalore, I felt Reddy should feature in it. I set out to Varthur once more. This time he was not happy to see me. Well, actually he was furious. He threw me out because the magazine that had carried the last interview had not bothered to send him a copy.
It was 15 years before I met Reddy again. He was in his 70s, without the anger of his earlier years, mellowed considerably but otherwise much the same. He had the same energy and there was no sign of slowing down. “I plan to work for another 30 years,” he said. And looking at him, I didn’t doubt it for a minute!
Reddy was born in 1935 to Lakshmayya Reddy and Yellamma in Varthur village near Bangalore. The 14th child of the couple, he was followed by four more, making up a family of 18 children and parents in addition to several members of the extended family. For an agrarian family such as theirs, nothing could be better than so many hands to work the fields. Narayana Reddy completed his 10 standard; in fact, Reddy was the first boy from his village to go all the way to Bangalore to write his 8th standard examination.
While still a child, Reddy ran away from home after an altercation with his father. He worked at a hotel and later, for a transport company. While there, he was sent to Bombay where he worked hard, steadily rising in the ranks. Here, among his memories are of seeing the infamous underworld don Haji Mastan who would step out at night to distribute blankets to the homeless. Reddy too would join in to help distribute the blankets, realizing only much later who Haji Mastan was. After saving some money in Bombay, Reddy decided to return to Bangalore. He was still estranged from his family until one day his brother came to see him and take him back. Some years later he married a girl of his parents’ choosing and was given his share of the inheritance – an acre and a half of land to cultivate. Reddy became a successful farmer, was adjudged as the best farmer in the state even, and yet there was little by way of profit – fertilizers, pesticides and seeds seemed to be sucking every last bit of any profit. Things reached a point when he wanted to sell his land and give up farming but his wife, Saroja, refused to go with his plans. For farmers, their land is their ‘mother’, and she wanted him to give it some more time.
While visiting the ashram of the Puttaparthy Sai Baba at Whitefield, Reddy met an American astrophysicist, Albert Trucker, also a devotee and significantly, a successful organic farmer or an ‘organic warrior’ as he called himself. This was in the 70s. On hearing Reddy’s woes, he offered him a loan to get him started on organic farming. Reddy agreed to try Trucker’s ideas of organic farming. Two years went by and Reddy wrote to Trucker that not only was organic farming not working out but he was now Rs 5000 in debt. He could not longer continue farming, organic or otherwise, he wrote. Trucker responded with a cheque for Rs 10,000/- urging Reddy not to quit. And so Reddy persisted. He has never had to look back.
It took his land four years to transition to organic farming. This was the time, he says, that it took for the microorganisms to be replenished, for the soil to become fertile once more and for his plants to grow. From an acre and a half, he went on to buy land in various parts of the state, cultivating it in the organic style, resolutely refusing to buy seeds from seed companies, pesticides or chemical fertilisers, or even using a tractor on his farm.
Once, while traveling to address farmers at a village meeting, he stopped to buy some oranges. They were very sweet and Reddy saved the seeds to plant in his farm. According to him, the seeds would sprout and in 7-8 years, start yielding and he could expect to make about Rs 10000/- per year from them. The seeds cost him nothing. Zero investment, 100 per cent profit.
One of my favourite stories from Reddy’s life is this: There was a large tree in front of his house that his father loved. It was about 90 years old when Reddy, in his pre-organic warrior days, decided to sell it to a sawmill. When his father heard about it, he asked his son not to do it. Reddy however went ahead and the tree was felled. His father was devastated and went on an indefinite fast. A week went by without him eating anything and his health began to deteriorate. Reddy realized his mistake and went up to his father to apologize. As a sign of repentance, he promised to plant 1000 saplings to make up for the loss of the tree. He didn’t stop at 1000 and the number stands around 15,000 today.
For me, Reddy is a karma yogi, a man who is so deeply devoted to his work that everything in his life comes down to farming. His life embodies the simplicity he so strongly advocates. Once while traveling in the parched north Karnataka villages, his host gave him a bucket of water in the morning and said, “This is your quota for the day. Please manage with this much.” Reddy found that the one bucket of water sufficed for his bath and his ablutions. Returning home, he decided that if one bucket had been enough in north Karnataka, there was no reason for him to use more in Bangalore. And to date, he uses just one bucket of water a day for his needs.
Reddy is such a strong believer in organic farming and one of its greatest proponents. He travels the world over to speak at conferences and events to which he is invited. Within the city, he accepts invitations on condition that a car will not be sent to pick him up. On days when he has to go and speak, he will wake up earlier than usual, finish his work and take a bus to get into the city. And he is always on time. Reddy speaks only about agriculture, whether he is addressing an audience of farmers or engineers or IT professionals. Everything in life finds an analogy in farming. Dressed in his dhoti, white khadi kurta and a pair of sandals, all costing about a 100 rupees, he laughs lightly when he begins a speech with, “I am worth 50 crores.” But people invariably stop to listen…
“I am worth 50 crores, I am told. Does that make me a rich man? Is that relevant? My goal is a honourable life. Wealth follows when you work. I am an example. As a child of about 9 or 10 years, I had a falling out with my father and walked out of the house. From Varthur village, I walked to Bangalore city wearing only my a vest and shorts. Within three days, I found work in a restaurant – as a cleaner. My first promotion came within three hours. I’ll tell you how that came about: when I went in to clean I saw that the tumblers were dirty; they were never washed, just rinsed in water. I had been offered a monthly salary of 7 rupees and meals and that was not a small thing for me. I cleaned and scrubbed the vessels and was promoted to the kitchen. In my life, it was a turning point and I stand by it – honesty always pays.
In the west, farmers are proud to say they are farmers. And yet, here, we seem to feel inferior. The city dwellers seem to think we are stupid. Why is that? If you ask me, the best profession is farming – there is no subordination; we work independently, we are at nobody’s mercy, we are our own masters. We are ‘sons’ of the soil, not land ‘lords’.
In my view, farming is the best profession – we can make profits of 24 percent. I can prove that to you. I didn’t spend on tractors. Tractors disturb the structure and the efforts of the microorganisms is lost. The earthworms, the termites and the ants enrich the soil for us and rehabilitate the topsoil in 1 week. I use bullocks and a yoke which cannot go beyond 3-4 inches and hence don’t disturb the work going on below the topsoil. In 1g of topsoil there are over a million microorganisms. Today, in one acre of conventionally farmed land, there is less than 1 percent, thanks to chemical use. Healthy fertile topsoil is rich in minerals and contributes to good health. I don’t use pesticides or weedicides. There are 150 pests but the pesticides don’t target them alone. We have lost 15 species of valuable greens that grew among the weeds; they were full of medicinal value. Frogs can eat thousands of insects and are effective pest control. But we export them to Europe where they are a delicacy. I don’t buy seeds; the seed has to come from your own farm. For fertiliser, I use manure from my animals. If you have a few chicken and pigs, there will be enough manure. Use the agricultural waste – there are no leftovers, only agricultural waste.
There isn’t any real shortage food in our country. How can there be? A single bird at a poultry farm consumes 6 kgs of corn per kilogram of meat. Likewise it takes 10 kgs of corn and pulses to produce 2 kgs pork. These animals are perfectly capable of eating agricultural waste for a healthy life. The food that is being spent on farm animals being reared for meat can instead be given to starving poor children of India.
A family of three wastes 20 per cent of their food. Seventy per cent of the food is wasted at weddings, 50 per cent in large hotels and 20 per cent in small restaurants. Rodents eat up 11.5 per cent of the food grains lying in the Food Corporation of India’s godowns. What a tragedy these figures are when you see how much money and energy is spent to produce it by our farmers.
About 130 varieties of tubers grow naturally in India without any fertilizers or pesticides. Yet our government and multinational companies have pushed only potatoes into our diet. These need a lot of fertilizers and pesticides to grow and energy-intensive cold storage facilities. And yet, instead of encouraging farmers to grow indigenous tubers, the government, fed by the lobby of transnational seed companies, pushes farmers to grow potatoes. When this crop fails Rs. 500 -1000 million is siphoned of from the exchequer as compensation.
- We used to grow 16-17 types of millets. Over time, farmers were persuaded to grow corn extensively. Corn needs a lot of water, pesticides and chemical fertilizers whereas ragi grows well with as low as 100mm of rainfall. Today the farmer who used to grow ragi has to buy it even for his own consumption since 95 per cent of farmland in parts of India grow only corn. Most of this corn is exported to feed animals being reared for meat or purchased by makers of chips and wafers.
There have been 2.5 lakh cases of farmer suicides in the last 10-15 years. Incidentally none of them have been organic farmers. I can tell you that 98 per cent of these suicides have been due to debt, and debt because of the modern agricultural system. Food security doesn’t come from agricultural science. It is agricultural science that has driven farmers into a trap to purchase everything from the industries – seeds, fertilisers, equipment, and transportation materials, even preservatives. What’s left to the farmer? Debt, debt, debt. The solution is organic farming.
We are on the edge of a disaster, of destruction. But even the most damaged of lands can be regenerated within six months at a negligible cost. My humble request is: Give up chemical farming, and become an organic farmer.”
Narayana Reddy, organic farmer.
Photographs © Mahesh Bhat