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Mirage of Zero Budget Farming

Marathi agriculturist Subhash Palekar received Padma Shri for bringing the concept of Zero Budget (Natural) Farming (ZBF) to public notice in 2016.

Which are the features of Zero Budget (Natural) Farming?

1. Zero Budget Natural Farming (ZBF) is a set of farming methods, and also a grassroots peasant movement, which has spread to various states in India.

2. 'Natural farming' means farming with Nature and without chemicals.

3. The word ‘budget’ refers to credit and expenses, thus the phrase 'Zero Budget' means without using any credit, and without spending any money on purchased inputs.

4. It has attained wide success in southern India, especially the southern Indian state of Karnataka where it first evolved.

How unique is the concept of Zero Budget (Natural) Farming?

1. Indian farmers increasingly find themselves in a vicious cycle of debt, because of the high production costs, high interest rates, volatile prices, rising costs of fossil fuel-based inputs.

2. Due to the vulnerability faced by the commercial input-intensive agrarian systems in the country, this naturalistic farming is perceived as a potential breakthrough.

3. By eliminating the use of purchased/commercial seeds, fertilizers, and chemicals, production costs can be drastically cut down.

4. By reducing farmers’ reliance on loans, their entrapment in debts can also be avoided.

What are the contentious issues of this model?

1. No independent, in-depth economic assessments of this farming model are available in the public domain.

2. The aspects of scalability and sustainability are still debatable.

3. Some recent media reports have brought to the fore several instances where farmers using the ZBF methods have returned to the conventional input-intensive farming practices on the grounds of profitability.

Why does this move seem to be more political for the agrarian society?

1. The middle-income peasantry as a political pressure group has played a critical role in determining the electoral fate of political parties in this country, particularly in the Hindi belt in the north.

2. The non-inclusion of the small/marginal farmers and agricultural labourers in this pressure politics has prevented any radicalism in the farmers’ agitation in this country.

3. In such settings, government policies have often been mere pacifiers and not transformers for the agrarian society.

4. ZBF does not mean zero production costs to farmers. It rather means that production costs will be compensated by income from intercrops, thereby making farming close to a zero-budget activity.

5. Pushing a farming technology for intercrops without transforming an incentive structure that currently encourages monoculture puts the political will of the government towards farmers in doubt.

6. Therefore, ZBF must not become a new tool in the hands of the neo-liberal state to serve the dual purpose of incentivizing its corporate benefactors and executing austerity in its spending on priority sectors.