Crop Connect Chronicles

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Zen and the Art of Weeding – farming in Uttarakhand part 2

The afternoon lesson was in using a hoe for weeding. I had to squat, dig the earth between onions and later potatoes and remove the weeds. I had to gradually make my way along the line of onions while squatting. It was important to dig the soil deep and turn it inside out to allow for more oxygen to go to the onions.

I realized this whole process was like pranayama for the soil and vegetables. When we do pranayama well our entire body gets oxygen, promotes blood circulation and health. Similarly when we help the soil do its “pranayama” well sufficient oxygen goes into the soil and roots of the vegetables allowing them to grow well.

The toughest part of the whole thing was squatting and keeping focus. Whoever said you can’t workout and meditate at the same time.

I asked Dayanandji if he gets bored with his job. He has been a farmer ever since he remembers. His reply was a very matter of fact one – “why would I get bored? Just as you folks change jobs, I change my vegetables, grains and fruits. It’s the same thing. I am doing what I love.”

There is a strange mix of languorous zen and inefficiency in rural life. Farmers like Dayanadji are the true zen masters. He sleeps only 4 hours every night, works atleast 6-7 hours a day on the field and wakes up multiple times at night to chase away wild boars that his trusted guard and lieutenant dog – Kaalu alerts him to.

Wild boars and monkeys have been one of the chief reasons why agriculture in Uttarakhand is on a steep decline. The government has recently permitted killing of wild boars but still hasn’t mustered the courage to allow the same for monkeys – after all Uttarakhand is “Dev Bhoomi” or “Land of the Gods” and how can one kill monkeys that resemble Hanuman, the monkey God. Dayanandji had an interesting take on this. He said that Hanuman was a ‘brahmachari’ or a “follower of brahman” which implied he had given up sex and marriage so then how are there so many monkeys!!!

Dayanandji is totally in sync in with the natural rhythms around him – all evolved from his rigorous training on the field in growing vegetables and grains.

He was tending to his potatoes with the same attention and love at 75 as he must have when he was a young farmer of 25. He knows that only by focusing right now on clearing the weeds, mounting the soil around the potatoes and creating a water gulley will he later get big sized potatoes. He has mastered the art of being in the present. At 75 he squatted and deftly worked his way along the line of potatoes. While I kept standing every 10 minutes to flex my “squatting unaccustomed” thighs and kept looking at the pending rows of potatoes that we had to get through.

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Wannabe meets the Real Deal – farming in Uttarkhand part-1

We have a dream at CropConnect to have a farm of our own where we will grow food and make interesting value added products from it. So far all we have done is talk this dream to death without much action. Neither have we bought or leased a plot of land nor have we tried to grow anything in the urban space available to us.

Things they say happen when the time is right. For some reason events so transpired that I find myself currently in Uttarakhand for a farming internship over 5 days with a famous and progressive local farmer, Mr. Dayanand Joshi.

Mr. Dayanand Joshi is a progressive, organic farmer based in Govindpuri village. He has been recognized for the work he has done in farming over the course of his life. So much has been his interest in farming that he cross bred and developed a new variety of radish, each of which can weigh up to 15 kgs. Locals from far and wide line up to get the seed for his radish.

He is 75 years old, a widower and still practices active farming. As is common with most farmers in India today, not one of his 6 sons or 3 daughters is interested in farming. They have all been enticed by better paying big city jobs.

Dayanandji came to pick me up at a pre-decided time at a local tea stall and took me with him to his home which is nestled in the mountains and takes a good 25-30 minute uphill walk to get to. He is fit. And I am not. I was already panting by the time we reached his place and was so happy to hear that we will first sit and have tea.

My farming lessons started with an orientation of his farm. While he has a lot of land, increasing age and lack of interest from his children allows him to cultivate only about 1 acre of his land, using step-farming techniques. He is growing mainly vegetables like potatoes, carrots, radish, onions, garlic, pumpkins, spinach, fenugreek amongst others. His farm is also dotted with a variety of other trees and plants like walnuts, pomegranate, big cardamom, bananas and cinnamon. He also has a bunch of bhang (cannabis) plants growing wildly – not an uncommon scene in the Himalayas where the nutritious and non-hallucinating seeds of the plant are widely used to make chutney and other hemp products.

Dayanand Joshi does everything on his farm himself as he doesn’t have help from his family (even though one of his sons and the wife of another son with her 1.5 year old baby boy are living with him right now) and he doesn’t trust outside labour to do go a good job.

“Till there is life in my body and bones, I will keep doing farming”, he said while sipping tea and chewing tobacco.

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Above the clouds – the journey to Tawang

September 2014

As it was my third trip to Arunachal Pradesh with no future trips visible in the near horizon; I had decided that a visit to Tawang the district bordering Bhutan and China must be made. We began our journey from Dirang in West Kameng district at 7 am having been forewarned about the long and treacherous route to Tawang. It was only due to a miracle and our driver Bablu’s car maneuvering skills that our Tata Sumo managed to literally swim through the thick clayey mud road made worse with constant rainfall.

The Road to Tawang

The Road to Tawang

The roads in Arunachal in the border areas are built by Border Roads Organization (BRO), an army managed unit funded by the central government. It seems the road to Tawang has been under construction for the last five years but somehow the road quality has steadily gotten worse. In a state with little revenue from economic activity, income tax exemption and unlimited subsidies over the years, unfinished projects are more the norm than an oddity. Where the funds are disappearing is anyone’s guess…

BRO does try to keep the spirits up by installing inspiring quotes at regular intervals. One can only hope that they will apply these quotes on themselves someday. I am told that BRO has built amazing roads in Ladakh so there is hope!

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In the midst of the depressing state of affairs of BRO roads and corruption, the majestic beauty of the approaching Tawang district started to tease us as we slowly made our way from below the clouds to through and above them. Entire mountains of coniferous forests doing slow dance with moving clouds and fog transported me into a different zone. I felt myself melting into the river in the valley with my stretched out arms and legs blending into the mountains. The feeling of being interconnected with nature had never been stronger.

Just then the car stopped at a Jaswant Singh memorial where the Army was handing out free tea and subsidized samosas. Jaswant Singh was one of the martyrs of the 1962 Indo-China war and had received the ParamVir Chakra for his valor in combat. I clearly hadn’t paid much attention to my history classes in school given how taken in I was by the story of the 1962 war. I later went to another War Memorial in Tawang, where a gracious army jawan gave me a personal tour of the memorial and explained the details of the war.

The 1962 War Memorial

The 1962 War Memorial

I learned that India was totally unprepared for the China incursion and I was quite shocked to learn that the Chinese made their way all the way to Tezpur in Assam. The war ended with the Chinese declaring a unilateral ceasefire. I saw photos of the Chinese with AK 57s while the Indians had much inferior weaponry that too shared between 3 jawans. My army guide recommended I read the war memoir ‘Himalayan Blunder: The angry truth about Indias most crushing military disaster by Brigadier J.P. Dalvi’, a prisoner of the 1962 war to get a deeper understanding of how unequal the war was, the gross miscalculations and lack of leadership from the political and defense establishment and above all, the monumental sacrifice made by 2420 martyrs and numerous injured from the Indian army in defense of our motherland. No wonder the book was banned by the Indian Government after its publication. It is now available. The more important question today is, are we any better prepared should India and China go to war? It took us approximately 4 hours to go from Tawang town to Bumla pass on the India-China border on bumpy roads. There is a Chinese city 40 kms from the border with rail connectivity….Hmmm….moving on.

In the evening I walked from our guesthouse to the Tawang Monastery, one of the biggest Tibetian Buddhist monasteries outside Lhasa, Tibet. It was already late so by the time I reached the Gompa it was shut but a kind lama came and opened it for me. He along with another lama showed me around the Gompa and all the different statues and paintings. After kindly inviting me for a morning ceremony the next day, the lama excused himself and let me out into the alleys of the monastery. It was surreal being the only outsider walking along the narrow alleys with the flickering shadows of young lamas chanting in their rooms playing on the stone walls.  Occasionally a lama would walk past me in a hurry on the way to an errand.

Tawang Monastery

Tawang Monastery

The lamas and the monastery are well connected with the local community. All three lamas I spoke to were from Arunachal Pradesh and had joined the monastery young, received training at Bodh Gaya and Mysore and come back to continue their practice. There is a tradition in Arunachal that if a family has three sons, the middle son joins the monastery. Such is the commitment of the local community to the monastery that in addition to giving their sons, they also give regular contributions to help run the daily affairs of the monastery.

As I reflected on the sorry state of India’s infrastructure, corruption and seemingly unpreparedness to protect our border, their magnitude became smaller as a greater perspective and inspiration emerged from above the clouds at 10,000 feet surrounded by the mighty Himalayas and the wild raw material that we are made of. The lives of the army jawans, the lamas and the locals embodied a deeper understanding of how to live life. The former put their lives on the line for us day in and day out in subhuman conditions and with insufficient infrastructure. The latter two sacrifice their families and a worldly life to spend entire lives following the path of dharma in the quest to achieve enlightenment. Leading a path of devotion and sacrifice to what is in front of us is the only answer regardless of what is happening around us. If not now, then when. If not you, then who?

(Photo credits: Puneet Jhajharia @ Sept 2014)

Edited after correction by BK. Thanks B 🙂

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Living the organic life


The Crop Connect team recently spent a week in Majkhali, near Ranikhet in Uttarakhand working on a report on organic agriculture and financing needs in the value chain. We stayed in a rented holiday home of a family kind enough to let us use their lovely property and were hosted by our key collaborator on the report, Mr. Ajay Rastogi a veteran environmentalist. His house, a few houses away from our temporary residence, was located on a slight elevation nestled in thick foliage making it a few degrees cooler at any time of the day. This is where we spent 6 days working and eating, fully exposed to the joys as well as the trials and tribulations of living a fully organic life.

What then is one might ask an organic life? Imagine eating mooli (radish) parantha for breakfast made of a mooli plucked 15 minutes before cooking. Imagine researching and writing a report in the middle of June on a table in the midst of trees and not feeling the need for even a fan. Imagine having kadi (Indian spicy yogurt soup) for lunch made not of pre-processed besan atta (chickpea flour) but of freshly ground chickpeas. And but of course, the afternoon tea made of ‘just plucked’ lemongrass. Every flavor in every morsel stands out because it has been grown naturally in a happy and healthy soil. You eat only what is freshly made. And what is left over along with skins and seeds is fed to the house cow who fed us back with her milk, curd and ghee.

In the absence of information overload and city life distractions, it was easier to be in the present. This meant that not only could we focus well on our report but also that we could listen to our bodies and its circadian clock. We were sleeping 9 hours, having beautiful conversations, eating healthy food and being productive all while having a great time. Not a bad life!

It is during this week that I understood the true meaning of living an organic life. Accordingly to the Merriam-Webster dictionary the word organic means “of relating to or derived from living organisms”. While living a city life in Delhi, organic is only about buying organic food and produce. We falter even in that as we are totally unaware of the many different ways of labeling organic and near organic produce, something I will address in another post. Coming back to an organic life – it dawned on me that surrounding oneself with life of every form including the realization that we are ourselves fully alive organic creatures, is the true organic life.

When every grain, vegetable and fruit has a story behind them,
When the breeze alerts one of approaching monsoon clouds
And the first beetle the arrival of dusk.

When conversations are simple and uncomplicated
And I feel the air I breathe reach the tip of my toe
And the natural call of melatonin.

A calm voice in me gently murmurs
This indeed is the organic life.