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Agriculture in India – Ancient evolution

Most days in a child’s life are ordinary, what sets extraordinary days from ordinary ones are the days of learning and lessons that one carries throughout his life. Most education that one carries through his life is the education attained through realization unlike through textbooks. Like a milestone in one’s life journey, they stick out so that you could trace your way back. One such education through realization was when my father asked me when I was little. He asked me “The fish could swim in the water, birds could fly and some of them could even swim.. what quality do humans have?” The question was very poignant and even triggered an ignorant rage in me directed at Nature for having deprived humans of one extra-ordinary quality that gave us wings or fins to enjoy the joy of flight or swim! Almost immediately, my father said – “Humans have their amazing brains! Humans with their intelligence, figured out a way to fly, swim and travel at sea and land alike! They even breached the depths of space!” And suddenly there was a sense of solace! Thanked the almighty nature for saving the day!

The reason for narrating the experience above was to highlight the human, although limited by his physical abilities, there was a time in history that set him completely apart from the rest of the living beings. That point in time was when he figured that he could grow his food. Consequently, he settled down on the banks of the rivers as he needed water to irrigate his crops, thus began great civilizations and settlements on the banks of mighty rivers such as Nile, Indus, Yellow River, Euphrates & Tigris, Amazon etc. Once he attained food security he had time to think about other aspects that bothered him. That journey has taken us from humble carts to rockets that breach space today. Culture, Language, Cuisines, Clothes and Native traditions evolved too!

By the time Indian civilizations thrived on the banks of the river Indus, they had already figured out the art and science of growing food, domesticating animals. Dating as far as 9000BCE, archeological evidences point out to the southern states of Karnataka and Andhra for having advanced agricultural practices. The Neolithic era in the region was marked with extensive cultivation of grass based grains such as Millets, Paddy and rearing of goats, sheep and cows. By 8000BCE, the local population had already developed the techniques of threshing, ploughing, fallowing, planting crops in rows and storing food grains in granaries.  By 5000BCE, horticultural crops had become major constituent of agro-ecology. Cotton had already been cultivated, followed by the knowledge to harvest, process and manufacture fabric for clothing. Various fruits such as Mango, Jackfruit, Sugarcane, Coconut, Musk melon, Plantain, Beans etc., were grown abundantly. Thanks to the practice of mixed cropping, increasing the biodiversity as well as food diversity. Diversity in produce laid a formidable foundation for economy and future civilization’s expansion and prosperity.

By 3000BCE Indian agriculture attained its prime; India had become a global hub for its vegetables, fruits, spices, fabric and artifacts, with great amount of it being traded through its well developed sea ports. The well regarded “Spice Route” was established way back in 3000BC connecting the erstwhile Roman empire with India.

When Alexander (356BCE to 323BCE) was on world conquering spree and touched the borders of India marked by Indus river, his soldiers were enticed to find the “reeds that produced honey without bees”, which they carried back home to be cultivated in Macedonia. Those reeds today are known as Sugar Cane, carrying the scientific name of “Saccharum Barberi”, “Saccharam” taken straight out of Sanskrit word called “Sakhar”.

As per Megasthenes, the Greek diplomat (300BC),

“India has many huge mountains which abound in fruit trees of every kind and many vast plains of great fertility. The great part of the soil is under irrigation consequently bears 2 crops in a growing season. The Indian warriors regard those engaged in agriculture and animal husbandry as sacred. Unlike the warriors in other countries, they do not ravage farms during war conquests. Moreover, the warring sides never destroy the enemy land with fire or cut down its trees.”

It goes without saying that Indian agricultural community commanded great respect within and without.

The prosperity of India was not just limited to its diversity and its ability to grow a variety of foods, but a good amount of credit also goes to its population of practicing subsistence farming. Every home up-until the “modernization” grew its food in the backyard, from vegetables to fruits to cereals to lentils to dairy to poultry to spices! It is often noted that in the ancient times, a typical household only bought 2 products for itself from the market, namely, salt and matchbox, because these were the only two products that an Indian household wasn’t able to produce internally. Every household dedicated a piece of land for growing its own food round the year, thus, agriculture came naturally to every member of the family. Thanks to the culture of subsistence farming, Indian household bought very little from the market for day-to-day survival and having taken care of their basic needs, everything spent beyond was for luxury. The excess food grown was sold in the local village markets, local populace ate locally grown food, the income earned circulated within the village and thus the prosperity too.

Sighting this as an example, Karl Marx wrote a couple of articles for New York Herald, the present day International Herald Tribune magazine in 1853 that every Indian village exhibited the innate characteristic of being a republic in itself that was self reliant and self fulfilling, which produced and consumed within, and thus he adjudged that it was extremely difficult to impose any one modern economic ideology (Capitalism or Communism) in India. And thus a revolution was very hard to come-by in India. Unfortunately, Karl Marx in the same articles went on to defend British Colonialism and the “Good Job” they were doing in meticulously destroying this traditional system that hadn’t witnessed change in the past 2000 years.

As a result, India went on to shun its formidable, rich traditional way of agriculture and embraced modernization. In the process, India lost most of its indigenous knowledge, food-systems, varieties and the practice of subsistence farming. Like paddy that had a rich spectrum of variety, close to 110,000, now has just over 6000 varieties, most indigenous food crops were the first to experience this onslaught of modernization and mono-cropping. Today, Indian agriculture is experiencing a massive crisis wherein the farmers remain poor (over 68% of the population), the provider of over 70% of the population as the land continues to be exploited through chemical farming, as are the other natural resources. The average landholding capacity of an Indian farmer has come down to 1.15 hectare and with the growing input cost and worsening soil health, the farmers fail to make an honest living. The rural agrarian population is fast reducing as more farmers are abandoning their land and are migrating to shimmering urban localities as daily wagers. And to make matters worse, a very negligible amount of youth are taking up farming, thanks to the popular belief that farming is not a viable career option.

One saving grace in the recent times has been the growing awareness and social movement in the direction of sustainable agriculture practices, organic way of growing food, salvaging the traditional knowledge and varieties. The organic food is gaining a great traction in the modern markets of cities. The organic and sustainability movement is picking up steam through cooperative societies and community based agriculture that is more focused and objective while conserving the environment and nature. Taking serious note of the challenges Indian agrarian sector is facing, many states have started adopting natural farming and sustainable agriculture as the foundation for its agriculture policies. The cooperative societies such as our own WSSS in Kerala, is a classic example of how a unit owned and run by the members of the society can attain great, collective prosperity driven by the common goal of sustainable organic agriculture, while conserving the natural resources. Their efforts are world known and produce some of the finest.

So, the wheels have started turning but a great ground needs to be covered and time shall be revealing all the answers as we march ahead, as always.

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