By Aparna Misra
The end of the 20th century brought home to humans the perils of modern agriculture. The looming crisis forced many to look to the wisdom of traditional farming. Answers lay in looking to nature, but direction was lacking. Organic farming was espoused, afforestation was taken up yet this was not enough.
And then came Vanya.
Vanya at Khalghat on the banks of R Narmada was a balm to a ravished land. This devastation was even more poignant as it was taking place in Narmada valley, a massive watershed that charges the major river systems of Gangetic plains and in the south, the Godavari and its tributaries. Sadly, this nurturer of the major river systems was fed on pollutants. The MP government woke up finally and went in crisis control mode. Narmada Sewa Yatra was launched and schemes were offered to farmers to take up planting of fruit bearing trees. Yet this would not address the systemic damage.
A revolution was needed. A silent revolution was brewing at Khalghat. Was it a revolution or a kind of new age sartorial farming, undertaken to patch together the various elements of organic farming?
Reading about Vanya and after talking to Patanjai Jha one realizes that a silent revolution was indeed simmering at Khalghat - a revolution that would light up many more just like the proverbial straw of the One Straw Revolution - the book that lit the spark at Vanya!
In his second stint at Bangalore as Director General of I.T. (Karnataka and Goa), he has put new life into revival of lake at Puttenahalli. Along with the forest department he supervised an afforestation drive by planting saplings.
A 1986 batch IRS officer Jha says he had an epiphany in food forestry which resulted in Vanya. A farm nay a forest that he developed initially on 10 acres of barren land at Khalghat in Madhya Pradesh. His project which he named Eureka Food Forest has the potential to provide solutions for ecological, economic and physiological ills.
Jha says that it was Fukuoka’s One Straw Revolution which inspired him to take up work on the banks of Narmada.
Jha was inspired by Swami Vivekananda to convert his thoughts into action – converting 10,000 hectares into food forests in a few years.
Once he got interested in natural farming, he devoured the classic literature ranging from Albert Howard to Bill Mollison’s permaculture. Mr Jha figured out that organic farming was the solution for a country so rich in sun energy, arable land, young population and rains. He credits the Japanese no-till farming visionary Masanobu Fukuoka and the Gujarati natural farming pioneer Bhaskar Save for his inspiration. Although the implementation of this vision is clearly his own.
Vanya Organic Farms is located near Khal Bujurg, on the banks of the Narmada. The lush a tropical forest looks like a fantasy land in an area which is semi degraded and rocky where the summer temperatures touch 49 degrees, Vanya remains at cool 36 degrees! The sounds and sights of a true forest are truly overwhelming. Vanya owes everything to Jha’s parents. His father provided the capital for the land, handing over his pensionary benefits. Parvati Jha and Baldeo Jha lived on the farm and did all the hard work. So did his elder brother and nephew Meghatithi Kabeer ;a young documentary film maker whose film – Voyage For Change got a special Jury mention at Cannes 2019. This dream would not have materialsed without the support of his friend and partner Sunil Kothari. This was a journey undertaken for a common good the intention was right many joined hands, family, friends and support came from different sections.
Vanya- Philosophy and structure
Vanya looks like a high rise of multi layered canopy of trees. On the periphery are Neem trees planted entwined with the vine of Guduchi (Tinosporacordifolia). Inside the farm the highest canopy is that of Moringa (Drumstick tree) which has tiny leaves and allows the sunlight to filter through it to the next layer which is citrus trees. Kafir lime, sweet lime, rangpur (Gondoraj) lime are the second layer. The third layer consists of cowpeas and vetiver grass. Each layer of tree filters and traps the sunlight for the layer below. At the lowest level of the layer are turmeric and Aloe Vera, largely turmeric which can be grown with very little sunlight.
Every bit of sun energy which falls on the farm is harvested completely. It falls first on Neem on the periphery, tiny leaves of Moringa filters through and falls on Citrus, filters through falls on next layer of vetiver and cowpeas or Tuar plant, filters through and the last bit of sun energy falls feeble rays falls on turmeric leaves, sweet potatao and yam.
The fifth layer is of bees! Jha is a firm believer in the power of bees. On the farm there are many trees and plants which have blossoms and flowers. Plenty of ber (Indian jujube), guava, papaya, Indian gooseberry and flowering plants like pink pepper provide a veritable banquet to the bees year round! The productivity all around the farm goes up by 30% and the Indian farmer can sure make more money!
Jha believes bees make farming sustainable. These are nature’s best free pollinators and in return enrich the forest with honey, honey that is now being sourced to treat cancer patients.
Vanya does not use any chemicals or pesticides. The perennials trees and plant are carefully selected locally adapted or ‘desi’ (local) species. This bio-diverse tree growth forms the biomass that enriches the soil and feeds the thousands of kinds of microorganisms and animal life (a world of bacteria, fungi, Protozoa, nematodes and larger animals and birds as well) that thrive on decaying plant matter. The soft sunlight that percolates through the canopy of trees and reaches the soil caresses the living organisms feeding on the mulch from trees. Vanya does not use cattle manure, as their vast quantities of varied biomass from the trees are sufficient food for the soil. Neither does Vanya use any organic or natural pest repellant sprays recently made popular as he believes healthy soil creates healthy plant life – and if there are insects that eat some fruits or leaves, let them too live. One couldn’t agree more. These creatures are pests for man, not for nature. Interestingly Vanya does not use cow manure or any organic or natural pest repellants, it has firm faith in Nature.
Farming the Jina Way
Jha says that this kind of farming is very simple. It is based on mimicking nature. Basically, leaving nature free to take care of growing and decaying. Healthy soil healthy plant life- if there are insects that eat some fruits or leaves let them live, is what he says emphatically!
Personally, one thinks of this as farming the Jina way, an enlightened way of farming that involves no tilling. The lives of microorganisms is saved. As there is no tilling all the energy is trapped inside the soil, this also encourages microbes, earthworms and other small animals including white ants.
Jha has grasped the fundamental principle governing the universe; the cycle of nature which has two sides i.e. of growth and decay. Modern agriculture has accelerated growth by putting chemical fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide etc. and completely forgotten to take care of the process of decay. This created a great imbalance. Looking at the farm and dynamics of the linkages between one element with the other - the microbes tending the soil, the soil nurturing the plants, the trees protecting the delicate plants, man playing his role by not tilling the land or disturbing inherent rhythm of the eco system , the chickpeas thus giving back to by fixing the nitrogen as food to the soil.
Jha has joined hands with like-minded across the country. One such crusader has been Sant Seechawal who revived an almost dead river Kali ben – the river in which Guru Nanak had bathed. Like Sant Seechawal believes that rivers are a boon and we must maintain the purity of our holy rivers; be it Narmada or Kaliben or Ganga. To avoid erosion on the banks of the river vetiver grass and ayurvedic plants were planted.
Many have been inspired and have taken food farming on similar lines. One such success story is to be witnessed at Samar Shail Farm in Purnea district of Bihar.
Four slips of vetiver do the work of one single mature tree. They stabilise in two months and start working their magic. The vetiver plant is highly drought resistant and protects soil against sheet erosion. The roots of the plant go deep hence it conserves ground water and takes care off surface runoff. Jha has made a mission to grow 10,000 acres of food forest and the ground cover will be of vetiver.
Every movement needs its committed warriors and Eco Task Force has been the driving force behind Vanya’s Mission. The success of the Vanya model would not have been possible without the support the dedicated Eco Task Force, which has converted hundreds of kilometers of degraded land as food forest along banks of River Ganga, Samba, Marathwada, Assam by planting vetiver saplings gifted by Vanya.
Vanya has gifted 1.25 crores of vetiver slips to Eco Task Force for revival of ancient river system and rejuvenation of Himalayas. Jha firmly believes that with the help seed ball machines, vetiver and the commitment of Eco Task Force the prevalent ecocide will soon become a thing of past.
Soil at Vanya not only grows food but it also consumes carbon! The soil at Vanya helps in carbon sequestration. Difficult to understand? Well, to put it simply it gulps down carbon from the air! The biologically active soil (soil that has not been tilled) acts like a sponge (for water) and a magnet (for nutrients). Once water is held in the soil, it acts as a sink for atmospheric CO2 thereby drawing down the excess greenhouse gases. The single most invincible threat staring us in our face today is Global Warming and solution has been found. Jha says, leave no inch of soil uncovered, plant vetiver! In no time the ground water will get charged, soil erosion will end and to top it green-houses gases will lose their potency!
Through Vanya which means of forest /nature, we can totally align ourselves with our true nature and become Poorna - whole again! One can humbly say that being with nature in the elemental way is being close to our own true self, everything is connected everything is complete and pure.