Ever since my maiden visit to villages, one scene stands out in my mind. The sight of burnt trees forming hedgerows, the result of a tradition of burning forests before sowing seeds. The sight of those leafless, burnt stumps still standing was a shocking reminder of how we have damaged our planet. Burning pristine forests destroys both countless species as well as their habitat. I discovered later, that the tribals from this area practice a unique system of agriculture called ‘Rabb’ since the 18th century. This practice involves piling up leaf litter, biomass, and forest wood to a height of 2-3 feet and then burning this pile, using up a bio-mass of approximately 750-800 kg. The seeds of paddy are then sown after the first shower. This practice was damaging the environment and putting immense pressure on the forest.
This sparked my interest to dig further and study the merits of this practice. The farmers were quick to respond that Rabb reduces weeds and produces healthy seedlings. During an informal discussion with BAIF staff, the idea of Soil Solarization Treatment (SST) came up for discussion. I discussed the idea with the villagers at a wedding reception that I was invited to.
After several meetings and discussions, some of the farmers in the Molamba village in South Gujarat agreed to try out the SST procedure. Jayanti Bhai a farmer was one such volunteer. He is a small-time farmer, whose livelihood depends on the cultivation of rice and rain fed vegetables. During the peak summer months of April and May, Jayanti Bhai with his wife and ailing mother would go to the jungle to cut trees and collect dry leaves. They would spend 3-4 hours a day for a month or so and would also accumulate cow dung all year-round for biomass. In June, before the first shower he would burn the field containing the pile of biomass. Initially he told us to stop wasting our time and energy because weeds can only be destroyed by burning. When we told him that all that he had to do was to work with us on a piece of land, he finally agreed. The technique worked and the results were out for everyone to see. Jayanti Bhai could not believe that his work could be made so much easier by the improvisation.
Later he presented his views during our exposure visits. He said,“Now is the time to move away from our traditional methods towards new-and-improved techniques. If we don’t, then agriculture will no more be a viable option and we will have to look elsewhere for our livelihood. Using this new method, the quality of seedlings is better, with more leaves and absolutely no weeds. The SST technique requires lesser time and saves us the drudgery of having to go into the jungle in search of biomass.”
The astonishing results took the farmers by surprise. Ironically, fields that had been treated with Rabb, which was supposed to kill weeds, had more weeds than those that had solarized soil.
The results from the SST technique not only attracted farmers from other villages but also forest officers, who were having a tough time dealing with the traditional method, due to which the forests were losing their green cover. The new technique impressed the forest officers to such an extent that it got sponsorship from the Forest Department.
To sum up, during this period there were two experiences which led to De-Motivation and Motivation.
While working in the field with Rakesh Bhai (a progressive farmer) on SST, I always felt tired and de-motivated, as Rakesh Bhai’s son and daughter would sit in front of the field with Engineering and MBBS books in their hands. Here I was, with all my degrees and MNC experience, leaving urban comfort to work in fields with a farmer, while, ironically, his two children are studying to be a doctor and an engineer.
On the other hand, while working on the field with Jayanti Bhai during the experiment, I had always noticed his 7-year-old son, Bittu, working in the fields, lifting water, helping in preparing the bed for sowing, etc., and then getting ready by 10AM for school. Witnessing Bittu’s hard work filled me with energy and motivation to work for longer hours and push myself to the next level.
– SBI Youth for India Fellow, Taher B Sarthalwala. His project was on ‘Integrated Tribal Development’.