A right platform for farmers

Wendell Berry — farmer, cultural critic, and environment activist — wrote The Unsettling of America in 1977, and declared that there is a connection between agriculture and spiritual health. He said farming and culture go hand in hand. He propagated permaculture, which is to observe and learn from nature. In India our ancestors followed that for thousands of years.

Permaculture also means no waste, which again is the foundation of our agriculture system. Farmers lived happily producing the required quantity and people had sufficient food to eat.

Then when did all this change?
Earlier to 1960, frequent famine in India was credited to faulty distribution of food. Malnutrition and starvation was a common occurrence. To fight that, the Green Revolution was introduced in the 1960s, and new terminologies like agronomic technology, high-yield crop varieties of seeds, chemical fertilisers etc were heard.
Fifty years on, what is the status of agriculture? Scary. Especially the frequent cases of suicide by farmers who are helpless to face the many serious problems of farming. The 'other' world is totally oblivious to the problems of farmers. What is strange is that in the last 50 years agriculture and culture have been separated by such a wide gap that the culture gurus no longer talk about agriculture. And if one does, it is considered queer!
It's time to reverse that.
There is good news too. Raj Kancham, founder director of BigHaat.com, says "It is an e-commerce platform built to connect the farming community directly with the suppliers in a transparent manner. It has developed a unique customer-focused strategy exploiting the current e-commerce ecosystem that differentiates us from the competitors."
As of now, it has offices in Karnataka and Rajasthan, and aims at expanding it nationwide.
After completing engineering from JNTU, Ananthapur and an executive course on Innovation and Triz computing from IIT Mumbai, Kancham worked for companies like GE, Honeywell and Nokia for 17 years and then decided to relocate to India. He came to India in May 2015 and started working full time on the BigHaat.com project.
"We first aimed at reducing the widening gap between sellers and buyers in the agriculture domain and benefit the suppliers and sellers to improve their operational efficiency and productivity. We had a press meet one day ago and received more than 800 calls from all over Karnataka. Talking to them all, I realised the magnitude of the problem. A major problem is unavailability of quality seeds on time. In cities one may get quality seeds but in interior villages, availability of seeds is a major problem. You see, seeds are living objects and have a validity of nine months. After nine months, they cannot be used for agriculture purpose. There are some good brand seed suppliers but lack of postal service is a major concern. The online company has to support the farmer in case of any problem with seeds. I had done a market survey in 2014 and found that quality seeds and postal service was majorly lacking. I have been attending agri-shows since 2011 and in one GKVK show, Prof Joshi told us about how a product called WaterBee — that could be imported from Ireland — could accurately tell the water requirement of crop. It helps the farmer to know how much water is necessary, as some crops die if there is excess or less water. We wanted to market that but found that it was very expensive. Then we realised the timely availability of quality seeds was a bigger problem. We conducted a market survey and the response was enormous and that is how we came to establish this platform."
But why was this problem not sorted out earlier by the established institutions or the department?
Kancham says: "There is a seed distribution system but it is in fragments. If you study the seed market of India, say for chilli, there are some 192 companies fighting for market shares across India. But there are hardly about 15 to 20 good branded companies that provide quality seeds. The rest of them don't provide the required support to farmers. That is why there is a dire need for farmers to buy from the right platform. We provide it. We print the lot number on the pouch and the exact photo. If there is a problem with one farmer, we check the lot number and not only replace the seeds but also check with all other farmers who have bought that particular lot. We track our sales by giving one copy of the receipt to the farmer and filing the copy with his signature in our system. We can immediately track all seed sales this way. We also get the supplier to the field in case of problems to rectify. We will replace the seeds and help resow. The companies will hand-hold the farmers and it is the responsibility of the company to support the farmer." Kancham also stresses on the need for opting for companies that have their R&D in India. "We need to supply seeds that have been tested for Indian soil. Seeds coming from outside may not suit our soil."
Coming to Wendell Berry's saying, it is a well known fact that farmers have the knowledge. They know how to take care of the plant. Crop failure can happen at two stages: one during germination, which is within 20 days of sowing. Reputed companies do print on the seed pouches the percentage of germination which can be 70% or 60%. Farmers are ok with even 60% germination success. The second failure is during yield. In between, the crop needs to be protected and nurtured with nutrients. Supporting the farmers in these stages will benefit everybody.
Just when I finished talking to Kacham, I read a news item that 21 new varieties of genetically modified crops have been approved for field trial by the Centre. First the land was taken away by the farmers, now the desi breeds are in danger. If this does not affect our culture what else can?

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