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Non Pesticidal Management of Crops in India

Chemical free food in Andhra Pradesh

Centre for Education and Documentation

03 / 2009

Prelude to NPM- Deadly Red Headed Hairy Caterpillar

There are crops, and there are pests. Then there are pesticides and there are farmer suicides. Initially these suicides were thought of as sporadic incidents but in the 1990s these farmer suicides became rampant. For years the southern Indian state of Andhra Pradesh has witnessed these suicides.

Even before that, in late 1980s many farmers in dryland areas of Telangana were assaulted by the Red Hairy Caterpillar that attacked crops including castor, groundnut, sorghum and pigeon pea and caused extensive damage. Many agricultural scientists were witness to this havoc.

M S Chari, Advisor, Centre for World Solidarity (CWS):

“I was surprised to see in the whole Telangana area, the caterpillars were running like anything in the field, one field to the other. It was like an army, one field is finished, go to the other field. Thousands and thousands of acres were finished in 40-45 days alone.”

N K Sanghi who was working in the Telangana region at that time recalls:

“It was quite a peculiar situation in which problem was significant, solution was known to the people and solution in the formal research sector was not there. It was understood that this requires a technical solution, indigenous solution which can be implemented only if community works as a group rather than individually.”

In 1986, a Hyderabad based NGO Centre for World Solidarity was actively involved in promoting rural livelihoods programme. When Sanghi and another agricultural scientist Vitthal Rajan realised that the red hairy caterpillar was devastating red gram crop in several districts of Telangana, they approached Centre for World Solidarity to seek help. With the help of CWS a scientific advisory team was formed. Among 15 other members the team included M S Chari, the then director of the Central Tobacco Research Institute in Rajahmundry and M A Qayum, former joint director of the state agriculture department.

Between 1988 and 1991, the team created a record of sorts by successfully controlling the damage without using any pesticides. The key to the problem was found in the past!

In the olden days just after the first monsoon showers farmers would do a community bonfire, thus attracting several crop-damaging moths to fire and in the process controlling the damage caused by pests- in particular the Red Headed Hairy Caterpillar. This practice was revived and soon in various districts small farmer-groups organised community bonfires. This method along with several other similar practices became popular in small pockets of farming communities.

CWS who pioneered this work soon realized the need for a multi-dimensional programme which could address the problems of other pests on other crops and also to ensure a better livelihood for farmers for whom saving their crops was the sole purpose at that time.

M V Shatri:

“For the farmer to get a reasonable income for his labour is not enough if the pest is managed. Even before that he needs quality seeds also. One of the problems around the time, in 1994, when the WTO regime came into force and there was a problem around seeds, quality seeds were slowly disappearing from the reach of the farmers, particularly the small farmers. Therefore along with the pest problem we also had to handle the question of quality seeds and access to the farmers of quality seeds.”

CWS started experiments with the help of grass root level NGOs, on groundnut and pigeon pea between 1993 and 1996. Several methods for pest management were employed in the absence of pesticide usage. After these experiments also proved successful, CWS needed further validation of its pest management techniques.

In 1990s, farmers cultivating cotton were facing a huge threat from pests, particularly Helicoverpa pest, which devastated several acres of cotton field. In 1996 CWS took this challenge. In 1998 this pest management was given the name of Non Pesticidal Management (NPM) by M S Chari.

The experiments done on cotton in the entire Punukula village in 2004 opened floodgates for NPM. In the same year CWS institutionalised these ideas in the form of Centre for Sustainable Agriculture (CSA), to be headed by G V Ramanjaneyulu, an agricultural scientist who worked with the Directorate of Oilseeds Research before he joined CSA.

G V Ramanjaneyulu:

“I found that there is a problem in the way we understand agriculture in India. The whole agricultural science in the country is based on exotic conditions and situations and science is never adapted to Indian situations. Even after 100 years of agricultural research in India the science is not domesticated, agricultural research is not domesticated. We needed some kind of indigenously developed knowledge about these things and that’s where NPM comes into picture.”

According to Centre for Sustainable Agriculture, NPM is a system that maintains insect populations at levels below those that can potentially damage a crop and cause economic injury, by having healthy crop and managing the population dynamics in the crop ecosystem. This involves understanding pests and predators life cycle. NPM also means shift from plant-pest relationship to pest-ecosystem relationship, from input centric to knowledge and skill centric model, from external inputs to local natural resources and from top down to horizontal spread.

The simplest NPM technique of protecting crop from a pest is a traditional practice which involves shaking of a crop. M S Chari:

“Traditional technology is so powerful. Shaking of plants and removing the caterpillar at the first in star level to remove it and save the crop. It is so simple and is traditionally followed by Telangana farmers for pigeon pea. ICRISAT verified this technology and later it became a national technology. It’s not my knowledge or ICRISAT’s knowledge, it is farmers’ knowledge.”

Pheromone traps are also effective in trapping adult male spodoptera moths. Four to 5 such traps with female pheromone lures per acre can reduce damage to a crop significantly. Putting bird perches encourages birds in a field. Several pests serve as feed for these birds. The most common non-insect predators such as spiders, birds and certain types of insects are also effective in biological pest control.

Some parasites prune the life cycles of certain pests, before they reach damage causing stage. Trichogramaa is one such important parasite. While the adult lives off feeding on flower nectare, all other stages are parasitic in nature. Female adult which has a life of about 14-15 days can lay up to 300 eggs. These eggs are laid inside other moths eggs. As these eggs develop into larvae, they feed on their host’s egg contents.

While scientific agricultural research being carried out in our laboratories is indispensable, farmers’ knowledge, the knowledge that exists with the farming community is essential too. NPM uses this concept extensively in the form of Farmers’ Field School (FFS). These are the field schools where farmers study all the elements in and around their fields including soil moisture, various kinds of pests, their life cycles, their natural enemies either parasites or predators like birds, spiders, certain pests so on and so forth.

This enables the farmers to have a good understanding of their field, crop and other physiological conditions and then develop very specific modules to troubleshoot problems varying from pest attack to low yield. All in all NPM provides a holistic approach that empowers farmers.

Up scaling NPM

By the beginning of the millennium, NPM had found a good footing but only in a small area. Extending the NPM techniques to larger farms and to cover larger area was the next step. This required certain groundwork for this could not be done without institutional support and social mobilisation.

G V Ramanjaneyulu:

“So this we were calling it as a paradigm shift, the entire shift, not only about how you can improve the farmers livelihood, it’s about how institutions can be created, what kind of support the government can be provided, then how you link up farmers, how do you generate knowledge, how do you shape knowledge and all these things. That’s one thing we were pushing and we were going through Department of Agriculture, like we used WASSAN platform to get into Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty which is an NGO set up by Government and Chief Minister as the chairperson to work with the woman self help federations in Andhra Pradesh.”

Initially it was difficult to convince the authorities to take NPM at a larger scale. Despite of several talks, field visits and showcasing successful case studies, it was not until Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) intervened that the up scaling of NPM took off, slowly but steadily. SERP along with WASSAN was running a rural development programme in Mehboobnagar in Andhra Pradesh.

A massive awareness campaign was carried out to promote sustainable agriculture, NPM being the cynosure of the theme. Slowly the Zilla Samakhyas, Mandal Mahila Samakhyas and Gramaikya Sanghama (village level organisations) were roped in.

After a long wait, in 2004, CSA in partnership with WASSAN, through the Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty implemented NPM in 450 villages covering about 2500 acres in 10 districts of Andhra Pradesh. By 2008 this number had increased to 18 districts. The number of acres under NPM coverage has sky-rocketed ever since.

In an interview with Centre for Education and Documentation, T Vijay Kumar, CEO of SERP said that the scaling up process has been phenomenal.

“The first year we started in one Mandal with some 400 odd acres of land. The next year, we spread to about 25,000 acres in partnership with 20-30 NGOs. The next year we went up to 2, 00,000 acres - the scaling up happened to about eight times. Then we did 7, 00,000 acres last year. This year, we will do Kharif and Rabi on about 14, 00,000 acres of land.

The scaling up has two dimensions. One part is covering more farmers in the same village so that the whole village practices NPM and is pesticide free. The second part of scaling up is going to new villages, new Mandals, and new districts. So the village organizations, Mandal Samakhyas manage this process of consolidation - horizontal spread within their own existing villages, monitoring the work of village level activists, functioning of Farmers Field Schools (FFS) and working of the trust activists and NGOs.”

G V Ramanjaneyulu, CSA:

“SERP realises that for rural development, livelihoods approach in important. And unlike the university department they do not have any fixation to technology and therefore we could work with them. The farmers could save a lot on investments in pesticides and earn up to thirty thousand rupees per acre”

D. Chandra Bhaskar Rao wrote in his article (1)

“With the State-run Society for Elimination of Rural Poverty (SERP) deciding to scale up the non-pesticidal methods in farming, some 1.10 lakh acres of land under kharif has been proposed to be brought under the sustainable agriculture programme in the district this year. Some 27,898 acres of area under kharif was covered under the sustainable agriculture programme during 2007-2008 and it could result in savings to the tune of Rs 5.57 crore- all by cutting on the use of pesticides.”

(1) D. Chandra Bhaskar Rao, « Pesticide-free farming spreading to more villages », The Hindu, 8 April 2008.

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